24 Hours in East Jerusalem
AUGUST 11 - 12, 2000
It's not exactly everyone's notion of an ideal getaway. But as I was pondering an easy escape from the sweltering heat of the city, I realized that money, time and distance had to be the deciding factors -- in other words, the less of each the better.
Twenty-four hours in Jerusalem: as a resident of cosmopolitan, decadent Tel Aviv, a mere hour's drive eastbound would end up taking me a world away. I would trade the heavy, humid air of the Mediterranean coast for the ponderous weight of history borne by Jerusalem. One-stop shopping for the world's three best known monotheistic faiths can be mighty overwhelming, not to say frustrating. I had to somehow make this short trip with my travel companion Heather rewarding and different from the myriad times we had walked past the Wailing Wall, through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and around the Dome of the Rock.
At 6:50 p.m., a siren wailed throughout Jerusalem. Friday evening, the Jewish sabbath was about to fall on the city. Stores in West Jerusalem were closed and the streets had emptied out. But we had chosen to pass the next twenty-four hours in Arab East Jerusalem. There, the Muslim day of rest was coming to a close. Hopefully, there would be more action here than in the Jewish neighborhoods. And the hotels were cheaper on this more rundown, less modernized end of town.
From this off-the-beaten path vantage point, it was hard not to reflect on the recent failure of the Camp David peace talks over the fate of Jerusalem. We were on the fault line of ground zero in the Middle East peace process. It's a place hotly disputed by Israelis who claim it as their "eternal and undivided capital" and Palestinians who have only recently come to terms with the fact that they aren't going to get the run of the entire city, so they should just settle on what they were given in the first place in 1948 but lost very quickly in 1967 -- East Jerusalem. Rest assured, this is no East and West Berlin. There's no wall, no checkpoint, no indication that you have crossed from one side to the other. Few Israelis venture into the Arab parts of East Jerusalem, and when you walk the streets outside of Damascus Gate you feel as if you've entered an Arab country.
Anyone who makes the journey from one world to an another must accept the inevitable transition phase. That's when you scratch your head and ask yourself, "why did I leave home for this?" As I studied the garbage strewn along the uneven pavement of Salahdin Street (named after the Muslim conqueror who reclaimed the city from the Crusaders and allowed Muslims and Jews alike to resettle it), I understood that I was going through my own transition period. Shouldn't we be on the beach or in some swanky cafe in Sabbath-defying Tel Aviv?
But the sun quickly left Jerusalem and headed westwards and a gentle breeze swept through the city and I knew that my unusual retreat was a well-chosen one. The air was sweet and nearly cool, unlike anything I had experienced in Tel Aviv in months.
The calm was broken by a smattering of violent explosions. A new Palestinian Intifada? A gunfight on some nearby street corner? No, happily it was more like a calvacade of honking cars garnished with pink streamers with happy young Arab men firing firecrackers out of the vehicles' windows. August was wedding month in this part of the world.
As the clock struck 8:00, we found ourselves sitting on broad steps hewn from rock that led down to the Tombs of the Kings. To set the record straight, there's only one tomb here, and it's a Queen's final resting place, not that of any king. Queen Helena of northern Mesopotamia (today's Syria) came to Jerusalem in the first century as a Jewish convert and ended up being buried in this majestic tomb.
The hundreds of people we had joined there weren't awaiting some macabre nighttime ritual however. It was the second night of Yabous Productions' Jerusalem Festival for Arabic Music and Jazz. For two hours, Issa Hassan, a young Kurd, played his buzuq (a long-necked lute) with passion befitting a hard rock guitarist. Facial gestures of pain and joy accompanied his lightning fast picking as this enchanting music filtered up from the open air venue into the Jerusalem night. Three quarters of the audience was Arab, the rest foreigners like us. But for all of us, it was a delightful experience.
"It's a cultural event," Raed Saadeh, the President of Yabous said after the concert. He added that Arab Jerusalem was starved of cultural activity because of the dominant Israeli presence. "It's also an exercise of our right to live in this city as a people."
Indeed "Yabous," derives from "Jebus" -- the name of the Canaanite people who are said to have founded Jerusalem. It's a subtle Palestinian way of saying that they were there first. Whether the Palestinians are in any way related to the original Canaanites is debatable. But it just goes to show that in a city laden with prior claims, even a musical festival can also serve as a political statement. If that's what it takes to liven up the Arab part of Jerusalem - which pales in comparison to the carnival-like atmosphere of the West Bank city of Ramallah at night - so be it. It's a wonderful and open-minded music festival.
Saturday morning was business as usual on the first day of the work week in the Arab world. Shopkeepers sat expectantly outside of their pharmacies and grocery stores, on the prowl for customers. The sun beat down hard, so we decided to keep sightseeing to a strategic minimum.
A five minute stroll brought us to the entrance of the Garden Tomb, traditionally venerated by Protestants as the tomb of Christ. Archeologists have since proven that there was no possible way that Christ could have been buried there, and the Anglican Church has withdrawn its support of this site's authenticity, but as notable biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor so insightfully points out in his excellent guide "The Holy Land," "in Jerusalem the prudence of reason has little chance against the certitude of piety."
Knowing all of this in advance, we both decided that it would still be a nice place to visit. And it was. Greeted by friendly staff members with British accents, we were admitted freely into the compound. A lush forest-like garden enveloped us, sweeping us away from grime and bustle of the street. This peaceful oasis may not be what it pretends to be, but it is still worth the visit, if only for a few minutes of unhindered reflection.
By 11 a.m., our morning sightseeing already completed, we walked a couple hundred meters up to my favorite source of gifts: the Palestinian Pottery Shop. Originally Christians from Turkey, the Balian family came to Jerusalem in the 1920's to restore the ceramic tiles of the magnificent Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock. They ended up staying, and now sell their hand painted ceramics to savvy tourists and foreign expatriates stocking up on colorful dishware before their move back home.
We returned to our room at the Holyland Hotel with our acquisitions, and ran into Basel Amad, the manager. He had just returned from a blissful month of escape in Norway with his family, where he said he realized how easy life can be compared to this part of the world. For a limited time, he said that he never had to use his horn when he drove, never had to haggle over a price, and never had to endure a security check.
"But I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," this lifetime Jerusalem native hastened to add.
I could not help but take advantage of being in Jerusalem to renew contact with some of my sources. Noon found us at the elegant enclave of a hotel, the five-star American Colony -- renowned haven for journalists, spies, diplomats and actors (both Lawrence of Arabia, and Peter O'Toole who played Lawrence in the movie stayed here). I was meeting Father Peter Vasko in the courtyard restaurant. A Franciscan priest, and spokesman for the Holy Land Foundation -- an organization trying to strengthen the Christian presence here -- this American cleric was always good for a pithy soundbite about Jerusalem, as well as good conversation.
I appealed to Father Peter for an afternoon sightseeing recommendation ("something I haven't seen."). An experienced Jerusalem tour guide for Christian pilgrims and U.S. Marines, he suggested the city of David.
I had always assumed that the Old City of Jerusalem was the original location established by King David of biblical fame. But amazingly, even the Old City is not old enough to merit that title.
Away from the double parked tour buses and flocks of tour groups, a concealed gravel road led us towards an excavation. This was truly "off the beaten path." One hundred meters down the hill from the Temple Mount and the walls of the city, the Jebusites make their presence for the second time this trip.
Long yellowed grass grows around boulders that make up the original walls of the original Jerusalem built by the Jebusites four thousand years ago. They were later reinforced by David after he established a capital for his Israelite subjects here in 997 BC. Here the Jewish city thrived until the Babylonians invaded in 586 BC.
The Old City that we know today was actually started by David's son Solomon, as an extension of the city of David. It was King Solomon who built the first Jewish temple (which now lies behind the Old City walls) to house the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Ten Commandments. By consequence, Jerusalem expanded up the hill.
The city of David seems almost forgotten in comparison. As I stood quietly on this forgotten ridge bereft of tourists, I felt for a moment as if I was on the verge of grasping some historical truth. It was a fitting end to twenty-four hours of exploration and peeling back the many layers of a city that continues to confound and captivate the world.