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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Once Upon A Dream...

Every Saturday was essentially the same. Once inside the gate, she would walk straight through the throngs of tourists and down the old stone stairs into the craziness that was the Old City. After winding her way through the cramped streets watching tourists haggle and vendors snicker as they sold a $1 trinket for six times its price, she would turn off the main street and leave all the shouting and stench of sweat behind her. She was now away from the vendors that dealt with the everyday tourists to those who knew her by name. The street was still a well traveled path through the Old City, but not one that just anyone took. You had to be brave to find this street (or the hopelessly lost), only the worthy made it this far. She was now in the "Christian Quarter." The gateway of Christian Quarter Road reeked of stale urine. Maybe the city always smelled that way. Maybe the vendors were just keeping ancient traditions alive. She loved the shopkeepers here though; if it was lunch time, she would eat 5 times before she had even walked the corridor. If she was too full to eat then it was baklava and mint tea.
The corridor was dark, and the large paving stones were smooth from millions of feet passing over them. During the dry months, this corridor wasn't difficult to walk, but during the winter, when it rained, it wasn't unusual to see a shop keeper, child, exchange student, or tourist slip and come within millimeters of kissing these smooth old stones.

Thankfully, she was relatively sure on her feet, and a very slow walker, so she never had the unfortunate meeting with one of the Old City's first inhabitants.

Near the end of the dark corridor was Zack's shop. Painted bright blue, it was so bright inside that it illuminated the stones almost the whole way across the corridor. He was always standing there with a goofy grin, waiting for her to show up.

“Good morning! Come, come ha'bib'ti!” (It's a pet name- my love- in Arabic.)

Zack knew when she would arrive, about 25 minutes after the boy. Warm tea was always waiting, steam pouring out of the little white ceramic cups. They would sit and chat until they'd had their fill of tea, then she and the boy would say their goodbyes to Zack and venture back out into the dark corridor in search of the closest toilet. The boy was an old friend that she had met on her first trip to Israel when she was 17. Although they lived on opposite ends of the city, they hung out every Saturday, Sunday, and various other times during the week. It seemed they had no other friends than each other, but they thoroughly enjoyed the others company, and never really got tired of being together. It was an added bonus that the boy knew a large majority of the vendors in both the Old City and parts of the new city in Jerusalem- they never got lost.

Once out of Zack's shop, they would make their way to the end of Christian Quarter Road and turn right, heading towards the Muslim and Jewish quarters of the city. To the left was a convent and the shop where she got her hair cut; further up past the convent and around the winding old path was the New Gate, spitting you out somewhere between East and West Jerusalem. Turning right led to houses hidden in alleys; it was less safe here as no tourists ever came this far unless they were very familiar with the city (or again hopelessly lost). Being only ¼ mile in diameter it would take them close to 8 hours to walk from one end of the city to the other (in a circular and often winding path), and they knew their way. Imagine being lost. Shopkeepers would give you bad directions or send you to a family members shop. It could take days to find your way out-- unless you ran into the boy and the girl. They were a sight for sore eyes to those unfortunate enough to have taken a shopkeepers directions.

The street they were on was pretty boring. Near the end of it, before entering the Muslim Quarter was the cheapest Internet café in Jerusalem; you really had to know where it was though. Ten (10) NIS (shekels- new Israeli shekelim) for 30 minutes, that was $2.50 back then. Just past the Internet café and down the stairs was part of the Via Dolorosa. What most people don't know is the real Via Dolorosa is about 50 feet under ground, but you can still get down there.

Once you descend a bunch of steep tiny stairs, you see the path to King David's Gihon Spring that was dug under the city walls when Jerusalem was under siege. The inhabitants of King David's Jerusalem could still get water even though the springs on the surface were poisoned. Walk past these ancient underground steps and, if you're quiet enough, you can hear the ancient women talking as they gather water. The old stone and water give off an eerie, musty aroma. As you pass over the stream covered in glass, you walk through a large crack in the rock. You are standing on a street that is over 2,000 years old. The houses still line the small street, but there is a huge boulder in the way, keeping you from exploring this underground city.

“When Herod died, construction ceased. The workers left this boulder here...” echoes off the walls. There are little windows and doorways in the houses and suddenly the true Old City comes alive in my mind. It is Friday afternoon in my imagination, there are women standing in the doorways shouting to the children playing in the street. Carts wobble by in the ruts on the street made over time from chariots or other carts following the same path day after day. The smell of fresh baked bread and the scream of the chicken being made into tonight's dinner echoes thorough the street, but no one stops to notice. They are all in a hurry to get home before the sun dips below their beautiful temple and the city falls dark.

Someone behind her gives a little shove and she keep walking, the scene before her disappearing into the darkness. Those poor tourists trapped by those crazy vendors, they are missing down there.

The road they are on above the ancient Jerusalem skirts the border of the Muslim Quarter before entering the safe and clean Jewish Quarter. The stones here are no longer the worn, large paving stones of the other quarters, they are neatly cut and look much newer (by at least a few hundred years). The Old City is silent today, no one in the Jewish Quarter is out on Saturday. They make their way through the silent corridors and window shop the beautiful jewelry and paintings. They walk past the ruins of the old market places from the same time period as the underground street. These look much worse off, the rocks are crumbling and it's hard to tell what you're looking at. The only noticeable features are the Roman arches above each doorway.

Children walk by and whisper in hushed tones as she and the boy stand close to each other, staring at the old rocks. This was the only place their friendship made sense- they loved those old stones. They finally peel their eyes away from the scenes in their imagination and walk to the stairs leading down to the Wailing Wall. It was the same routine with the soldiers at the check point every time they went.

“Why are you here?”

“To pray at the Wall.”

“Ok. Please place your bag on the belt, remove your shoes, hat and sunglasses, cover your shoulders ma'am and walk through the metal detector.”


They always set it off; it was the CD player every time. You would have thought they'd learn. The soldiers would turn it on and listen for a minute before returning it to her purse or his bag without turning it off.

“Batteries aren't cheap y'know! Can't you ever turn it off?”

“Sorry ma'am.”

“Miss! I am not a ma'am!”

You can't help but feel a sense of awe upon entering the plaza where the Western Wall stands. Hundreds of men and women are always praying diligently at the old stone wall. They say, if you write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it in the Wall, God will answer it. What an odd superstition. It was rare they actually went to the Wall to pray. Men and women had separate areas to pray, and they liked being in each others company too much. They would sit for what seemed like hours watching people before realizing their stomachs were growling in protest.

They would exit the plaza the same way they entered. The soldiers didn't care to search their bags going out. The boy and girl would walk the outside perimeter of the city this time, skirting the Armenian Quarter and parts of the Jewish Quarter rather than winding back through the Muslim and Christian quarters. Lunch time was normally around 4pm, and if you walked by some of the houses in the Jewish Quarter, you could hear families begin stirring as the end of the Sabbath approached.

One of their favorite places to eat was a small pizza place down an alleyway just inside Jaffa Gate. It was the second alley actually, and just before you walked under an arch that would lead you out the New Gate. It was called Abu Shanabs, and the owner knew them by name. After their pizza, they would grab some ice cream from a vendor just before he closed for the evening, then walk across the street to the park, sit on the hill, and watch the sun set around the Old City. They never spoke- it would have ruined the moment. They both sat, pen in hand, paper on their laps, and wrote. Some days it was stories, other days it was just a journal of what they'd seen. Sometimes it was a letter to a friend. Once the sun set, their day was over. She was expected back at the bed and breakfast to help prepare food for the next morning and clean the dishes from the day; her work never seemed finished. The boy would walk her home. It wasn't always the safest thing for a young American girl to be walking alone at night. They would smile and wave goodbye, planning to meet again tomorrow. A long backwards glance would end the day- and she would always wonder.... what if?

Her fondest memories are hidden in those old stones. It was where she found out who she was, where she grew up, and where pieces of her heart still reside. She will never be able to face the eighteen year old child she once was on those streets again, she'll never say goodbye to her ghosts that reside in the dark corridors of the Old City. She will never feel those smooth stones under her feet again, nor remember exactly how smooth they were to the touch. 
Jerusalem will forever remain a perfect memory in her mind... untainted by reality. What's terrible is she isn't remembering it better than it really was. It really was that perfect.

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