I don’t know how fond I am of this work, but this little commentary on Jerusalem was published recently.
It’s late on Friday afternoon and a siren pierces the relative calm resting over Jerusalem. The wail that brings the week to an end is still ringing in my ears as the Islamic call to prayer trickles over the dry, tired air from the centre of the city.
I’m at the eastern Damascus gate as the failing sun sends a signal to orthodox Haredi Jews to begin their weekly pilgrimage through the tight alleys of the Arab quarter. The steady trickle of men move nervously, like a herd starting a great migration as they descend the gate’s golden stairs past the usual loitering hawkers and vendors.
The throng navigate the complicated maze of small butchers, tailors and bakers skilfully and in near silence, as the crowd of bearded men in the uniforms of the Rabbinic schools thicken.
Strong looking men of the border guard’s are posted lazily at every intersection, their long rubber truncheons slung on their belts, dragging slowly on cigarettes as they carelessly monitor the crowds in their faded olive fatigues. They stonily ignore me as I follow the growing crowd descending deeper into the labyrinth of alleys.
The crowds pace is suffocating and I’m quick to side step the tide into a shabby little café no bigger than a chest of drawers. The cubbyhole is set back from the thoroughfare by a matter of inches, so that my shoulders are still being brushed by the white stocking clad legs of the Haredi tide. A weather beaten man, who is wrapped proudly in a red chequered Arab keffiyeh, serves me sickly sweet tea whilst I perch on a battered wooden stool. The proprietor and his biblical teahouse don’t seem to have noticed the sudden torrent of feet stamping through his quiet alley. The crowd flood past him, into the souq’s deepening tunnels, without so much as making eye contact, as he boils yet another cup of tea and they move increasingly desperately to make their rendezvous.
This quiet, anxious army is carrying about the smells of the old city as they disturb the stale air. The street is alive with the aromas of freshly roasted Turkish coffee, burning frankincense but also the stench of rotting vegetables, ground into the floor by the marching feet who finally slip through large metal detectors erected at a the gates of a dark tunnel.
Beyond the barrier the herd have assembled in front of the Western Wall. It’s dark, and the enclosure is packed with a powerful energy. Men are hypnotically dancing with their arms so tightly linked, that their knuckles are a deathly white. The intoxicating movement of the crowd makes it impossible not to be sucked into the emotion. It’s Shabbat and the circular dizzying dances lure me in as I join the spinning round and round, singing prayers as old as the walls themselves. In the corner of the modern marble enclosure an Ethiopian dressed in the uniform of the Israeli Army has his head pressed firmly against one of the enormous blocks of smooth stone, while an assault rifle rests peacefully on his back. The crowd chant in a hoarse, electric unison ‘David Melach Yisroel!’ David king of Israel lives!
I break from the crowd in a religious frenzy and in a state of virtue start my way back through the city of gods. Psalms are dancing round my newly pious head, but my devotion evaporates as I trudge my way back up the steep Via Del Rosa towards the Jaffa Gate. A group of Korean tourists are dragging themselves round the last route of Jesus Christ for a final time. They clutch armfuls of tacky amulets and wooden crucifixes purchased in huge numbers, freshly blessed at the place of crucifixion of their lord. Emerging from the old city I am hit by a beautiful front of cold air. I amble round the fortress like walls as a small red glow loiters somewhere near Tel Aviv’s metropolis in the west.
The lawns, which frame the madness of the old city, are green, well manicured and luscious. They feel fresh and new, containing its medieval fervour and chaos. Small sprinklers are gently spraying the perfect grass and I use them to cleanse myself, removing the yet another day’s ingrained dust from my face.
I walk in silence, feeling drained, the streets closed and devoid of cars or noise back towards the Arab quarter. I enter a small green door in a dim passageway. Abu-Ali is stood in a pit shovelling monasha (Arabic pizza) into a blackened oven. He has been in this cavernous spot for as long as anyone can remember. He greets me warmly while throwing scrap wood into his furnace, chucks my few shekels in a battered box. ‘hadi, hadi’ relax relax.