Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stones and Strays

"Jerusalem is one of the few places of which the first impression is not the best."
-Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, 1853.

Yeah. No joke.

After running the odds and ends errands of the day - getting a dictionary, a phone card, some snacks for my room - I set out for the Old City around midday. I strolled down Nablus Road the way I came the night before, past the American Consulate and the Jerusalem Hotel, and headed for the Damascus Gate in the Wall. The streets are lively with what I can only describe as total insanity. The drivers are nuts, the pedestrians are nuts... As someone said yesterday, "people here drive with their horns." Pedestrians also walk without thinking or looking straight out into traffic, though the cars all seem to stop. After realizing this I just made sure I followed close in a local's footsteps when trying to navigate the perpetual traffic jam of Jerusalem.

I entered the Old City via the Damascus Gate (left), and landed headfirst in a bustling (and slightly overwhelming) suq, or market. I walked through, trying not to look too interested in anything in the stands and shops, knowing full well that I would never escape without eight kefiayah or three pounds of sweets. I took a right on Via Dolorosa, ignoring the catcalls of what felt like every man I passed, and wandered up the road.

Because there was nowhere to sit and try to look at a map without being beset by shopkeepers, I kept wandering down Via Dolorosa (which by the way was the route Christ took to his crucifixion, and is marked at various points with what the Church refers to as Stations of the Cross). I reached the end of the Via and took a right into a chaotic street of hollering merchants and stray cats and children. Not realizing where I was, I was stopped by an angry looking 19 year old with a submachine gun (police). He was immediately distracted by another man so I turned on my heel and went back the way I came.

Walking back up the street I saw a sign saying "This way to Ramparts Walk." The Ramparts walk takes you around the Old City along the original wall. I figured this sounded like a good, easy walk where I could see the town without getting horribly lost in one of the many tiny back alleys.

I continued up the road, but saw no sign of an entrance to the Ramparts. I ended up a few blocks up the hill at the wall in which the Damascus Gate is set. I turned around to go back down the hill and decided to stop in the shade (away from the shopkeepers) to check out my map. As I was sitting there a gang of five teenaged boys approached me. One of them walked right up to me and circled around to my right side, so close to me I could feel him breathe on my neck as he looked over my shoulder at my map. They all began to speak to each other in Arabic. Feeling pretty uncomfortable with the proximity of all these guys, I laughed. One of them mimicked the sound I made, and they started talking angrily to each other. They began to walk away, and as they did I folded my map and got up to continue down the hill. As I began to walk away one of them yelled something at me and then I was hit in the back of the head with a rock. Feeling shocked I turned around and just looked at them, finished putting my scarf back around my shoulders and turned to retreat.

Apparently being the only 5'10" redhead in Jerusalem, all the men who had harassed me on my way up the Via Dolorosa recognized me on the way back down. I tried to just walk quickly because I just wanted to get out of the Old City. There was no getting rid of these people though. In my dazed state, one of them somehow managed to get me into his shop, then asked me to drink some tea with him, saying that I would greatly insult him if I refused. Trapped by my own awkward politeness and general confusion I stayed, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an elaborate chair in an antiques store. Some more people came and sat around me in a circle, speaking in Hebrew and generally keeping me feeling trapped and not sure how to extricate myself from the situation without ending up with a $400 rug or something. I finally lied and said I had to meet someone in a few minutes back at the Cathedral, then fled back into the street with the counsel from the shopkeeper that "he does not need my money or my body." Um, okay.

It was much busier as I headed back towards the Damascus Gate, and I was able to pretend I was with other groups and just walk beside the people I saw who were obviously tourists but in the safety of a group. I felt like one of the stray cats on the Via Dolorosa.

In any case, I've never been so glad to leave somewhere as I was today to get out of the Old City.


JonSayer said...

What a welcoming commitee. Was this the side of Jerusalem controlled by the Israelis, or the side in the territories?

Maggie said...

Technically all of Jerusalem is controlled by the Israelis (they remind you by building their courthouses and stuff and walking around with machine guns in East Jerusalem, the "Palestinian" half), but I was in the Muslim quarter near the Dome of the Rock. But really these were just some angry kids, everyone else was really nice. It was just a rough day.

linea said...

you are a very brave and independent girl. i think i might have lost my nerve a little sooner