02 March 2011

An Old City (Dispatches from Jerusalem)

We’ll start at the entrance to Ben Gurion Airport where my Palestinian taxi driver is pulled over and told to get my things and get out of the car. I’m worried. I tell the young man with the machine gun who pulled us over that my flight leaves soon. I don’t want to be late.

He takes my passport and mobile phone. “This is not JFK,” he says tapping his gun. “I am not your friend.”

The taxi driver and I wait outside in the cold dark for 45 minutes while the young men with their machine guns stroll around us, talking to each other and staring. The taxi driver takes twitchy drags on three cigarettes, and tells me quietly, carefully, with sideways glances, that a few weeks ago his company had sent him to Tel Aviv to fetch someone from the airport, but security had detained him for so long that the customer decided to take another cab and the whole trip had been for nothing.

Once inside the airport, my passport now flagged, I’m stopped four times, my bags thoroughly searched each time. Why did you come here, I’m asked? Who did you visit? What does he do? Did you meet his friends? Where did you eat? Did you take their email addresses? Where do you work and why and for how long? And when I show signs of irritation, they say: maybe if you are nice, we will help you.

Back outside, waiting to get into the airport, I talk to one of the guys detaining us. Where were you born, I ask? Here, he says. How old are you? Twenty eight. I tell him I travel to countries all over the world and nothing like this has ever happened.

—Other countries are not Israel, he says.


His name is Sandrouni and he owns the Armenian Ceramic Center, a cheerful shop of brightly painted pottery near the New Gate in the Old City in East Jerusalem. On the morning I stop in, it’s sunny and warm and he has the doors open to the street where some boys are kicking a soccer ball.

Sandrouni has dark hair, small dark eyes and looks like a large unmade bed in a slightly tattered sweater and pants. He offers me a cup of Nescafe and tells me about his business: the split from his brothers years ago after a disagreement, his new shop outside the Armenian Quarter. When I tell him I’m part Armenian, he gives me a discount on the pottery and insists on taking me on a tour of the Armenian quarter of the Old City, specifically the Armenian convent, which is closed to the public and is where the majority of the Armenians in the quarter live.

We see the school, the library, the priests’ quarters. And on our way out, he points down an alleyway to his home.

—That’s my house, he says. My brother lives next door and my other brother lives next door to him.

—But I thought you didn’t speak, I say.

He seems confused: Of course we don’t.


The Old City is a labyrinth of winding alleys and staircases and darkly lit passageways. In a residential quarter, lights are strung overhead between two apartments, and thin metal piping frames an ancient wooden door, while electrical wire crawls up the side of walls and over archways.

The bazaar near Damascus Gate is always bustling with tourists and locals crowded around carts of fresh bread and falafel. Old ladies sit on the sidewalk with baskets of herbs while children dart between then, running up the steps, past three Israeli soldiers sitting in the shade with enormous guns on their shoulders.


The land is beautiful here, though. Outside the walls of the old city are wave after wave of rocky hills dotted with olive trees and cypruses. The air smells of chamomile and thyme and orange, and the cathedral bells ring out against a skyline dotted with minarets, steeples, domes.

I’m walking up Hebron road in the midafternoon, taking in the tranquility, when I see it suddenly in the distance: the wall. Massive. Towering. Totally out of proportion with everything else, it cuts across those lovely hills like a malicious knife.

And then there are the checkpoints, the watchtowers, the identity cards.

It’s reminiscent of another time, another place.


I know people who have come to Jerusalem on spiritual pilgrimages, and having grown up in the church, I waited to see if some revelation would touch me in this holy city. But in my short visit, holiness was not the dominate feeling.

Jerusalem could be a place where, side by side, the three faiths express what they have it in them at their best to be, which is a message of peace and redemption and love. Jerusalem could be an expression of that. But in so many ways it is not. Instead, these communities are like the Sandrouni brothers: side by side but not speaking. Walled off from each other, separated.

The city could be about peace, but mostly it is about guns and intimidation and humiliation.


It’s early evening and I’m heading back to my hotel. The sky is a fading pinkish purple, and two old men are sitting on the side of wall, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. I pause to look across the road, to the Mount of Olives—which is actually just a big white graveyard that overlooks another graveyard on the side of the street where I’m standing.

Then in through the old city, down a stoney street, past a church where the last few tourists are filtering out; they smile as I pass. Then I bump into an old Palestinian man closing up the shop of his I’d visited a few days before—he’d made me lemon juice and we had tried to talk, which was difficult since he had no teeth and knew little English, and I, little Arabic. He says he’s going home so we walk together a while.

Then we part ways and I make my way up a dark, narrow staircase, which leads to the gate where I will exit the city. There’s no one around—it’s quiet as a cathedral. Then I hear footsteps coming up quickly behind me, and I turn a little, keen not to seem nervous. It’s just two kids, though, who brush easily past me.

Keep walking, when the older one looks back at me, and that’s when I notice he has a machine gun over his shoulder. He keeps eyeing me and suddenly the air is filled with menace. These confined spaces, that big black gun. And so when he turns around and isn’t looking I dart down a narrow alleyway, out of sight.

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