East Jerusalem – A week ago, on my first evening here, I walked to a nearby coffee shop at the Hebrew University. It was 6:30 PM, and I wanted to drink tea outside and stay awake a couple more hours. With Shabbat fast approaching, the campus was almost entirely deserted. A dark haired student in a tight black shirt waited for a ride in front of the (closed) Aroma Café. It seemed like she’d been forgotten, sadly waiting to be picked up for Shabbat dinner with her family. A shorter dark haired student came around the corner and called out in Arabic, “What are you doing? How long are you going to sit there waiting?” They laughed and began a rapid conversation.
The next day, I went to the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Descending into the Old City through Damascus Gate, I passed toy, vegetable, and shoe vendors who had lined the staircases with goods; child touts hollered prices.
At the Central Café, a spot along the way to the Al Aqsa Mosque, I drank a Turkish coffee. Like at any café in Egypt, men sat inside smoking hookahs and playing cards. Outside, however, Hasidic Jews with curled sidelocks and black hats passed Muslim fundamentalists coming from the al-Aqsa compound. The Fundys wore flaming beards, similar to their Jewish counterparts, but instead of black coats, they wore gray thobes that just brushed their ankles. Short thobes are a sign of modesty before God; men would have to stoop for their thobes’ edges to touch the ground, not show their ankles, and avoid looking silly. These men walked with regal posture, though, seemingly showing off their black socks and lace tied shoes. Between the Hasidim and the Fundys, tourists streamed by my perch. They wore shorts, fanny packs and sunglasses, and spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Russian, or English.
At the café and throughout the Old City, I tried to speak with locals in Arabic. To my frustration, they mostly replied in Hebrew, mistaking me for an Israeli. I’ve practiced my poker face in return, pretending not to understand. The language issue is interesting. With the same assuredness that Americans approach the world in English, Israelis walk around the Old City speaking Hebrew. On Saturday, I listened to an Israeli tourist ask a shopkeeper how much a ceramic bowl cost, and the shopkeeper responded in Hebrew. The tourist moved on and the shopkeeper sat down on a stool and continued his conversation, in Arabic, with his friend in the stall next door. The other night, I took a taxi home from work (downtown and in West Jerusalem) and negotiated the price, in advance, in Hebrew with the driver. On the ride home, the young, dark driver spoke on his phone, in Arabic, to a friend. Like the girls outside of the University, I had no idea that his native language wasn’t Hebrew until he started speaking Arabic.
Despite the overlay of Hebrew and other things Jewish (like the Hasidim), East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter feel like an Arab place. Just a few blocks away from Jaffa Gate, though, in West Jerusalem, there is a different world. Last night, walking home from work, I jaywalked across Jaffa Road. Immediately, a policeman, who looked like Moshe Dayan but without the eyepatch, approached me and demanded, in Hebrew, to see my ID. I showed him my passport, and he said, in English, “You crossed the street when the light was red.”
“Yes, I did. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t believe that this was an issue and was wondering why I was being hassled.
“Why did you do that?” he replied, his “th” sounding like a “z.”
“Well I looked both ways and didn’t see anything coming, so I crossed.” I said with a smile, amazed that this was really about jaywalking and not a “random” security check.
“You crossed and the light was red,” he said again, with a frown, not amused. He thumbed through my passport, stopping on the page with a UAE stamp.
“I didn’t look at the light, I’m sorry,” I said, wanting the interview to end.
“Don’t do that again.” He ordered me, handing back my passport and searing me with his pale blue eyes.
Except for the speeding between green traffic lights, West Jerusalem is orderly. They have the rule of law here, meaning there are laws and people follow them, whether it is out of a sense conviction or a fear of consequences. There are cameras at intersections, and they send you a ticket, I understand, if you speed through a red light. So, ironically, in a city known for its tension and pressure, people come to a stop in their cars when they see a flashing green or yellow light. Or if they are walking, they wait patiently for the little green man to appear before crossing the street. A few blocks away, in front of Damascus Gate, you can cross the street whenever you want - it is just at your own risk.
A block away from my interview with the traffic police, security guards and metal fences surrounded a big square. Inside the fences, nine or ten 3-3 basketball courts with portable backboards had been set up. It was “Streetball, 2007,” and roughly a hundred kids, ages 8-18, in different colored jerseys battled it out, Hoop-It-Up style.
I joined fans and family after passing through security and answering the guard in Hebrew that I didn’t have a weapon. With tip-off, the speakers blared “Eye of the Tiger” and Israeli streetballers of all shapes and sizes -- wearing kipot and tzi-tzit, sporting dreadlocks, and wearing Michael Jordan armbands and baggy shorts – pounded on each other, in Hebrew, under the watchful eyes of referees who seemed to be playing hard to get. It was hockey meets basketball, and the phrase “no blood, no foul” was never more appropriate. It looked like fun, though, and I missed playing ball for the first time in two years.
After watching a couple of games, I continued home, past a crafts store filled with orthodox Jewish women and through an arched gateway that framed Jerusalem’s walls and Mt. Zion. I walked down the hill and a black man in a habit, perhaps a Coptic priest, stepped out of the New Gate on my right. I proceeded through the gate and then made a left into the heart of the Christian quarter. Above me, an old couple sat on a balcony drinking tea. I wondered for how many years, or perhaps how many generations their family had lived in the Old City. Winding my way through the Christian Quarter, I passed ceramics and wood sculpture shops that were still open, but not expecting business. There was still another hour of light, and maybe there would be one last sale for the day, but it seemed more like a time for an evening sit with neighbors.
I’m going to my cousin’s up north for Shabbat tomorrow and I wanted to bring him some pastries. As I wrote about in Live from Jordan, I faced a similar task four years earlier – searching for Kosher pastries in the Muslim Quarter. Having crossed into the Muslim section of the Old City, I first stopped at a bakery where a middle-aged man with a warm face asked if he could help. I said to him in Arabic, “With all respect, I’m looking for Kosher sweets, I’m going to a Kosher home tomorrow. Do you have any?”
He gently shook his head, and welcomed me to come back another time. I stopped at a second place several stalls down and asked the same question to another baker. Surrounded by homemade baklava, he told me in Arabic that everything he made was hand made, and that his boxes did not say “Kosher.”
As I wondered whether I should buy some nuts instead, I felt a measure of satisfaction with my failure. Not only was I being answered in Arabic, but strangers were respecting my cousin’s religious redlines and not trying to sell me a false bill of goods. I came upon a third store, and it might have been the same store where I bought the pastries four years earlier. A young friendly man in glasses proudly showed me a box of chocolate ruggelach that had come from Tel Aviv and that was marked Kosher. I bought a kilo of Kosher pastries from him, and we traded small talk in Arabic about our favorite spots in Amman.
This roughly stitched seam that I cross everyday, which is filled with tourists, pilgrims, believers, and everyday people doing their thing, is fascinating. You can literally see and hear where two worlds separate, or perhaps come together. As I hail a cab in my neighborhood, study the car’s dangling windshield ornaments, and try to guess whether I should say “Merhaba” or “Shalom,” I’ll keep you posted.