And then there was Jerusalem


All text and images copyright © Alison Toon.

"Why did you come to Israel?" asked the young security officer at Ben Gurion airport as she was emptying my carefully-sardined backpack and travel bag onto a search table out-of-sight of all the passengers waiting for their early-morning flights. Everything had been tightly rolled, folded and forced into the backpack before it would fit: each time I travel I promise myself to travel light next time, but it never seems to work: and now after two weeks of moving around Israel all my unwashed T-shirts and underwear, sweaty karate kit and unposted postcards were being intimately examined by two young women and a man. I sat and watched and waited: they opened and undid and unfolded everything, checking the seams, running a metal detector over my newspaper-wrapped ceramics, opening the exposed-film containers and checking inside, giggling when they found my black belt ("Are you carrying any weapons?" they'd asked. "No, only my hands ")

Why did I come to Israel? Easy question: to visit my sister in Tel Aviv and my karate friends in Haifa... Oh, and then there was Jerusalem, of course.

Two weeks: my third visit in 18 months. Hot days in Tel Aviv, lounging and reading on a beach still recovering from a recent sewage attack, roaming the heat-filled streets, buying fruit and vegetables and bread and biscuits from the Carmel market in twos and fives and sixes (because I haven't learned Hebrew for four or ten), tracking down another frozen yogurt seller (last year's had disappeared), walking with an English Bull Terrier and waiting for the inevitable question, "Is it a dog or a pig?".

Five days further north, in the hillside town of Haifa, training at Effi's dojo (thank you Effi, you're wonderful). Israeli-style training rooms with rock-hard concrete and tile floors: we are all soft in Europe, my poor feet are used to padded judo mats: walking in the Carmel Mountains, the night-scented honey-heavy gardens, my happy friends. Then buses, sheruts, traffic jams and noise; back to Tel Aviv, learning the Yemini Quarter like a hand-drawn map, like the work-worn back of my father's carpenter hand... waking and sleeping with the sun.

Two weeks in Israel. Not enough time: there's never enough time.

Oh yes. And then there was Jerusalem. Of course. How could I forget.

We follow the same routine, my sister and I, each time I come to stay. Take the bus up from Tel Aviv among the weekending soldiers who kiss and hold hands and loudly joke or sit silently staring out of the window. Out of the hot humid city and up through the hills. We look at the wrecked paintless war-machines laying as reminders, remembering that this steep winding road to Jerusalem was once cut like a bleeding vein, leaving the city beseiged and starving.

Arriving in Jerusalem's New city, we immediately leave for the Old City: take a bus to Jaffa Gate, walk through the entrance to the city, and carefully shrug off all offers of help, "Do you want a hostel?", "Do you want to change money?", "Do you want to go shopping?", "Hello, welcome!"

We go up a staircase next to a money-changer's tiny glass-walled office at the entrance to the souk, and check in at the Petra Hostel, its balconies leaning over the road where the taxis turn to go to the Armenian quarter and where you can buy hot corncobs and long loops of fresh bread and zatar to dip into, looking up towards the Post Office and Police Station and to the Tower of David.

I swear the guy at the reception desk hadn't moved since we checked out last time, and the same music was still playing. And the assortment of young, old and middle-aged visitors from Germany, Denmark, Mexico, France, the USA, hadn't changed although most of the faces had. They were still staying in the dormitories and using the kitchen and sleeping on the star-ceilinged flat roof with its views of the old city's domed sky, where the moon rises over Mount Scopus and glows on the dusty golden roof of the great mosque. The Petra: oldest hotel in Jerusalem where (according to publicity) Moby Dick was conceived. I still wonder how Melville managed to pack a whale or two in his suitcase and make it up those steep narrow stairs.

Our room was a shared-room-with-bathroom-en-suite (that is, a toilet, a washbasin and a shower fitting, a hole in the tiled floor for the drain, nowhere to hang your clothes or towel, a generous supply of blue toilet paper which gets splashed wet every time you wash). There were no rooms with balconies free, but by straining our necks we could see the bustle of Jaffa Gate from our bedroom window. (We could also hear all the goings-on in the next-door communal bathroom, but that's hostel life.) We asked about the see-the-sunrise trip to Masada, already knowing that once-again we wouldn't get up at two-thirty in the morning, maybe next time, but would want to spend all day in the old city streets and passageways and open spaces, watching the world go by, haggling in the souvenir shops, not-making-eye-contact with the black-clad Jewish men, flirting with adolescent Arabs and just sitting quietly before the Western Wall.

There were many soldiers at the Wall on this Friday: not praying, but walking around and joking amongst themselves, coming and going. Many police, too; an elderly Hassid yelled "Nazis!!!" at the police officers. A passing man, wearing a red T-shirt and a kippot, hearing this, yelled at the Hassid and spat on the floor. The struggle for peace is not just between Jew and Arab, it is inter-Jew and inter-Arab, too. Like any other races living together in the same land. We just live under less pressure.

People hurrying to the wall before the start of Shabbat. Beautifully-dressed families with five, six, seven, eight small children. Tourists from everywhere. Men in European clothes wearing paper kippots to approach the wall. Pushing folded paper prayers into the gaps between the big-as-buildings stones.

We stayed until the sun started to fall from the sky, then walked out to the new city.

New Jerusalem, Jewish Jerusalem, is quieter at seven o'clock on a Friday evening than most big European cities at three in the morning. Hardly a car passes. All the shops are shut. Everyone is at home keeping the Sabbath. It's calm and it's peaceful and it feels like a day of rest. We wandered back to the old city, still hungry, still looking for food... and found the best, on a rooftop in the Christian quarter.

The moon was rising big and slow. We ordered a mezza of Mediterranean salads, and tried to fool ourselves that we weren't being greedy when seventeen different dishes arrived on our table. Hoummous; tomato, cucumber and onion salad; aubergines, white cheese, hot pitta, peas and mushrooms and everything growing under the sun. And potatoes, too. Pureed with garlic. Hot. All followed by cardamom-scented Turkish coffee and a rosebud taste of Turkish delight.

Dining in the moonlight, tranquil, calm: if only the guy in that building over there somewhere in the market hadn't been playing middle-eastern disco full-blast, it would have been just perfect... Oh where was the white-clad sun-scorched man with his oud?

We spotted a walkway over the roofs of the market. Several people strode across, moonlit, while we were eating. The waiter showed us how to get there, taking us from the restaurant and pointing the way. Down a dark passage, up a rusty metal staircase and out onto the sky between the white domes, television aerials and rooftop water tanks. An abandoned kitten cried in a corner. The path led to a rooftop school of some sort, complete with childrens' playground, abandoned for the Jewish weekend.

We watched the moon as it rose and shone framed through an arched, glassless window.

Early on Saturday morning I was sitting at Damascus gate. My usual spot, on the steps that go down to the bridge that leads to the gate. Just looking, watching, and drinking a strange liquid from a paper beaker. I'd bought it from a man who was carrying a huge golden teapot on his back. (I thought the drink would be hot: it was cold, and tasted like old tea mixed with liquorice. The guy himself was drinking a small cup of coffee, which he'd hauled up in a bucket on a rope from the café below.)

Watching the Bedouin women carrying boxes and bags to their places in the market, where they sit all day, their patient and beautiful faces framed in black and blue and red and white, selling fresh figs and grapes and okra, shading their heads from the heat of the midday sun by placing cardboard boxes on their heads.

Seeing the cliché Israeli soldier perched in the hole-in-the-wall above the immense city doors.

The Roman paving stones cluttered and slick with market rubbish. Pulling faces with young schoolboys on their way to their Saturday-morning classes, a uniform of green T-shirts: the schoolgirls wearing blue blouses, knee-length navy pinafores and blue jeans. Eating the fresh squashy figs and tracking down the scent of hot coffee rapidly boiling over a Bunsen-burner, and poured, sugary, into small welcoming beakers.

Sheik-dressed men, immaculately white, or men in workaday clothes with Palestinian black-and-white or Jordanian red-and-white on their heads, all passing through Damascus Gate to work, to sit and play cards or backgammon, to say to passing tourists, "Where do you come from?",


"Come into my shop, it costs nothing to look",


"Are your eyes real? Are they really yours? So blue!", ("No", I replied, "They're not mine, I take them out at night". He grinned.)

"You promised to come back!", (Did he mean today, or last year? I don't know.)

"I just want to tell you one thing ", (This one followed us on Friday evening, slightly drunk, very young and sweet: just wanted to say one thing, "goodnight", ten, fifteen times: Saturday we bump into him again.)

"Do you come from New Zealand? Australia?", ("Keep guessing, we'll be back down this street again before the day is out"),

"I just want to tell you one more thing ",

"Everything in my shop one shekel. I want to break the bad luck",
"The pottery over there are very poor quality. Mine are the best quality. You must choose the cream pot not the white, the white ones are only chalk",

"50 shekels",

"I just want to tell you one more thing ", ("Oh no, not again! Bye-bye!"),

"Hello, welcome!",


"Voulez-vous un cafeé?",

"This shirt, it's beautiful, 70 shekels", ("But five minutes ago it was only 50!"),

"Do you come from England?" ("Yes! You remembered us from four hours ago!"),

"Please look inside my shop",

"Thank you for the smile, it makes me happy!"

The old city market. You can buy anything: Jerusalem blue-and-white ceramics, halva, spices, wooden camels, glow-in-the-dark Fatimas, your own personal crown-of-thorns...

The Dome of the Rock, the magnificent mosque, the awe-inspiring, beautiful building. Mosaic of sky on earth. The sun is a roof. Plump tourists wearing blue cotton skirts to hide their hairy, beshorted knees. Open space and shade trees. Many shoes outside and long lines of people queuing to get in. We peeked at the golden magnificence through an open door.

Apart from the space around the Mosque and the Western Wall, the old city is a tangle of stairs and stone streets and tunnel-like passages. Children play, children are children everywhere: we wondered what it must be like, growing up within these walls, so many places to hide-and-seek, so many adventures, so many secrets but the grown-up Armenian photographer told us, "we just took it for granted".

Two small boys offered to show us the way from a street in the Moslem quarter to Jaffa Gate. We said, no thank you, we know where we are going. But they walked beside us anyway, arms around each other, laughing, as we strolled through the passages, through teenage boys playing football, mothers carrying their babies and their shopping, the sun shining from the stone steps and the slopes for barrows and for the small tractors that feed and empty the shops and stalls.

We came to one of the direct paths to Jaffa Gate and they ran over to us, the two small boys, their tiny hands outstretched, big hope shining in their four-year-old brown eyes: "Give me money!".

"What for?"

"Jaffa Gate."

"We didn't ask you to take us to Jaffa Gate. We know where it is."

"Give me money!"

"No... why don't YOU give ME me money instead?", we were smiling, putting out our hands too.

"Jaffa Gate this way, give me money!", louder.

"No it's not, it's not this way, it's that way, you give me money", we laughed, pointing in every direction but towards Jaffa, including up towards the sky.

They weren't going to give up easily. "Give me money now! Money! Now!"

Two men, sitting outside their souvenir shops, yelled at the boys who dropped their hands and scooted quickly away, arm in arm again.

I guess it was worth trying: their street playground is constantly invaded by streams of nervous tourists afraid of taking a wrong turn, afraid of losing their way, afraid of losing their friends, of losing a dollar, of talking or bartering or eating. Afraid of playing games with little children.

My sister and I, we wandered the old city, all quarters, from dawn to dusk and after: our feet as our tour guides, our eyes as our guidebooks, our hands and eyes and voices our interpreters. We couldn't help but overhear what was being said.

"I came in here with two strong bodyguards, they're waiting right over there." "Is it safe to walk down here?" "Keep with the tour guide! Follow the flag!" "Where's Marjorie? Where's Richard?" "Don't trust any of them, they're all here just to rip you off". "Don't go down there by yourself, it isn't safe".

A woman glided by, enclosed in black like a midnight pillarbox, a netted slot for her eyes, holding a small child by the hand as they threaded their way through the crowds. The child had blonde hair and blue eyes.

There is an exhibition of cinematography at the Tower of David museum. Films of a hundred, fifty, thirty years ago. Showing an old city whose face has not changed, but which has worn the cosmetics of clothing, ruler, religion and satellite dish as fashion dictated. The final exhibit was a television showing "Jaffa Gate right now!". It was pointing directly at the Petra, at our bedroom window, at the woman sitting in the sun on one of the balconies. In the old city, someone always knows what you are doing.

Writing on a wall in the Christian Quarter said, "God Is Love". I wish I could read the Hebrew or Arabic graffiti.

So back to the original question... Why did I come to Israel? More to the point, more important, why did I come to Jerusalem? Why do I come back to Jerusalem again and again?

But why does anyone?

Ask the centuries of pilgrims, the milleniae of armies and conquerors and defeated.

Ask those who have been cast out, and those who have been invited inside.

Ask everyone praying at the Wall, kneeling at the Holy Sepulchre, leaving their shoes outside the Dome of the Rock.

Ask the long-time travel-worn residents of the Petra and other old-city hostels.

Ask the beautiful man with the sun-and-moon in his eyes, making music on Ben Yehuda.

Perhaps they can tell you more than I can.

Perhaps we all come looking for a saviour or a prophet, eager to throw ourselves at his feet and beg forgiveness. We see his footprint on the gold-stone floors, his shadow fleeting down the stairs, his smile on every face, his fight in every so-young soldier, his compassion in every soldier's smile, his hope in every small child running through the ancient passages.

There again, perhaps we simply just love the place.

©Alison, September 1998

And also...
India...Electrical landscape, Grenoble... "Tour de France" ... Music music music ... More writing

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