I want to tell you about the time I got stoned at Damascus Gate.
(And I don’t mean in the way most people get stoned — with some really dank weed and Bob Marley on the stereo)
I was 18 — the summer before my last year of high school. I had spent the previous eight weeks volunteering on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon in central Israel. It was a great time to be there: Ehud Barak had just been elected prime minister — and his parents lived on the very kibbutz where I was living, so it was awesome.
I remember wherever we went, our kibbutz host mother would suck deep on her Noblesse light cigarette and shout, “WE ARE FROM KIBBUTZ MISHMAR HASHARON! IT IS THE BEST KIBBUTZ! IT IS THE KIBBUTZ OF EHUD BARAK! AND HE WILL BRING PEACE!”
Yes, it was a good time to be in Israel.
People in the region were still optimistic that peace between Jews and Palestinians was just around the corner — any minute we would get our act together and reach an agreement. Israel was still reeling in the aftershock of Rabin’s assassination, and yet still hopeful that the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn really meant something.
So yes, it was a good time to be in Israel. It felt so good that I didn’t think twice about strolling down Jaffa Street at 8 p.m., hooking a left around the ancient walls of the Old City, and toward Damascus Gate with an American guy I had met earlier that day.
“It’s called Damascus Gate because back in the day, when you’d walk out of it from the Old City with your camels or donkeys and head straight, you would reach Damascus.” Brian explained as we walked along the walls. “It’s really cool — have you been in the Muslim Quarter?”
“No, not yet.” I said.
Not yet. Not no, full stop. But, “no, but someday.”
And some day would be that evening, just three shades past sunset, when the sky was a dusky rose, and the stars had started to appear.
I had been to the Old City many times that summer and the summer before and the summer before that — but only in through Jaffa Gate (guess where THAT road leads when you walk out of the Old City?), and down David Street, past the floating silk scarves and rows of candlesticks and yarmulkes and shirts that read, “Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you!” toward the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray in the world.
And also, only during the day time.
But it had never occurred to me that going at night could be unsafe.
So there I was in my long flowing skirt (purple) and my tank top (black) my hair lose and hanging down my bare shoulders. I wore the Jewish star necklace my grandmother had given me for my bat mitzvah, hewn from silver.
Brian and I turned toward the gate. The moon was rising and the gate gleamed softly in the moonlight. And then we….
I don’t remember. Really, I don’t remember much after we turned to walk toward the gate, because my body lurched forward, and I nearly fell across the stones. My shoulder throbbed — the left one, and then searing pain spread down my neck from the back of my head.
I could smell my own blood.
I don’t remember much — except there were so many people — mostly men — they seemed so grownup to me, but I’m remembering this through a terrified 18-year-old’s eyes. Maybe if it happened now, I’d see they were just young boys — same age as I was.
I do remember that instead of running away from the gate, I ran toward it, and into the Muslim Quarter. There was Arabic written all over the walls. Music throbbed. There were so many people. I ran — my legs tangled in my skirt — until I found two soldiers and said in English, “Help me,” and they walked me out of the gate, and up toward Jaffa Street.
I wouldn’t go back to the Muslim Quarter after that.
When I came back to Israel on different visits I stuck to the route I knew — through Jaffa Gate, down David Street, past the glittering necklaces and mosaic signs, past the mirrors and IDF t-shirts, toward the Western Wall.
I knew the way by heart, and so it was for nearly 15 years, I stayed away.
“Have been to the Muslim Quarter?”
“Because it’s dangerous.”
A hard no. Full stop.
And 15 years passed like this — Negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians stalled and failed — felled by an onslaught of terror attacks against Israeli civilians on buses and cafes and even a discotheque, and a Jewish assassin’s bullet. Innocent people on both sides were killed. Israel built a wall high and mighty to stop the Palestinian suicide bombers, cutting into large swathes of Palestinian land, and expanded the settlements
In the winter of 2013, I was already working at The Times of Israel as the new media editor, and I became friends with a journalist who covered Jerusalem, and one day he called and asked: “Want to come with me to meet the Sheikh of the Waqf? “
He said it so casually, like it ain’t no thang to be a Jewish Israeli journalist and go sit with the man who oversaw Al Aqsa — another flashpoint of contention, the very place that seethes, and that many argue was ground zero for the Second Intifada, when Ariel Sharon ascended the Temple Mount in the middle of a very tense period between Jews and Palestinians.
Today, it is the epicenter of the tensions that reverberate throughout the region, and in 2013, there were already rumblings and riots between Jews and Palestinians over the holy site.
I didn’t realize that saying yes would mean we would walk through Damascus Gate, but it did.
He didn’t notice while I trembled, while i clutched my pearly scarf around my shoulders, my eyes darting left and right, my body tense and ready to run.
“Yalla, let’s go eat kenafe,” he said as he led me to this little place that sells fried cheese and semolina. He walked in, and spoke Arabic and Hebrew to the guys behind the counter, and we sat down and ate the sweet cheese.
I waited for someone to hiss at me. I waited for a rock to graze my temple. Instead, I had dessert.
We continued through the shuk, and toward the perfume market — “This is the best place to get spices,” he said. “Smell!”
It smelled amazing.
“They make the best siniyeh” he said, pointing to a small place tucked behind crates and boxes, where three men bent over large bowls of stew.
It smelled amazing, too.
I started breathing more slowly, and my eyes stopped darting, and instead of looking for danger, I started looking at people
I watched a woman in hijab soothe a crying child just as I would soothe my own crying babies.
I watched these two grizzled men play backgammon outside a shop just like the old timers on the kibbutz where I had lived that summer in 1999.
I watched old women lean on canes, their bodies bundled and cozy beneath their long robes, and then a boy run past carrying a bird cage, I saw pilgrims dressed in white float by singing in Latin, their breath in little clouds in the chilly air. I saw girls in gauzy hijabs and designer sunglasses point to a young guy and giggle. Really, I just saw people being people. People just like the people in my little town outside Rehovot. People just like my friends. People just like my kids. People just like me.
After my colleague took me that day, I started going back the same way we had walked. At first, I was afraid to walk inside any of the places we had passed that first time. At first, Iwas afraid to talk to people. But then one day, one of the guys at the kenafe place called to me in Hebrew: “Hi, I’ve seen you pass this way a lot. Come have kenafe.”
So I did.
We didn’t talk about politics. But we talked about his kids.
We didn’t talk about God. But we talked about rosemary his wife had planted in their little rooftop garden.
“How do you say, “Thank you” in Arabic?” I asked.
“Ok, Shukran!.” I said.
“Bevakasha — you’re welcome!” he answered in Hebrew.
And I’ve kept going back — not just there, but to other places all up and down that street, and on others too. And I’ve stopped being afraid.
Even during the war in 2014 — especially during the war — I went back. I would spend the night in bomb shelters with my kids, but when they were safe in school, I would go see my friends in the Old City. I would look them in the eye, and they would look me in the eye, and we would talk about the heat. And the fear.
And how God Damn TIRED we were of the whole entire situation.
And then again, in October, 2015, when the stabbings began — when two fathers were butchered on Al Wad Street, just down the road from my favorite coffee place, I kept going back.
I would look them in the eye, and they would look me in the eye, and we would talk again.
They would tell me about being strip searched by the soldiers.
I would tell them about the peace activist shot on the bus.
“He’s in bad shape,” I told Ahmed.
“I’m sorry to hear it,” he said.
We would talk about our kids, and how we wish they were inheriting something different.
And through it all — through disagreement and through understanding — there was one constant: I was not afraid of them, nor were they of me.
I didn’t always like what some would say, and I’m sure they didn’t always like what I would say, but we could look at each other in the face and listen.
“What happened to the peace activist?” Ahmed asked.
“He died.” I said.
“To God we belong and to Him we return,” he replied. “But when will it all end.”
Some say the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is an intractable conflict. Some say that the hatred between both sides is too entrenched, and that it’ll never be better.
“We can’t trust them,” both sides say of the other.
“Stay away from them,” both sides say of the other.
And that’s one way to look at it, but living in fear will keep us behind walls, isolated, where fear continues to breed and grow stronger. It’ll keep us away from those who are different in some ways, but really, just people, in more ways that matter.
We have a wall now that separates two sides — that wall has kept out terrorists, but it’s also kept people from getting to know one another.
And in the Old City, in the close quarters of the the place holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, there are invisible walls between the communities that reach all the way to the heavens.
Because fear is taller and mightier than any wall we might build. And yes, there are reasons to be afraid. My muscles carry the memory of those stones thrown at me in 1999. But by working through that fear step by step — literally, step by step, over ancient stone through the alleyways that both Jews and Palestinians hold sacred — I’ve come out the other side no longer afraid.
And more than that, I want to learn so much about the different people who live in this place. Which is why I’ve decided to take this year and move to the Old City — to live three months in each of the four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter.
And I’ll write a book about it — about each quarter, and the people living there. I’ll teach English for free to whoever wants, and be as much a part of each community as possible.
Because it’s one thing to talk about trusting people. It’s quite another to go there and live there and rely on the different people in these different quarters behind these ancient walls.
And yes, I know there’s risk involved — but it’s important to me to show that when we cross borders and break down walls we can discover that the Other is a person just like us. And when we stop being afraid, then we can listen to the other side and maybe they’ll listen to us.
The summer of 1999 when peace still seemed like it could happen in the next breath seems like lifetimes ago — for in between then and now, thousands of people on both sides of the wall have been killed. While a recent survey shows that Israelis and Palestinians would be willing to compromise for a two-state solution with the right incentives, it’ll take courageous leadership on both sides to make that happen. And that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.
So it’s up to us. The people who live separately from one another, to reach out and build that bridge by getting to know one another over coffee or kenafe, until we can look the other in the eye and see our hopes reflected back before we can no longer see each other at all.
So let me know if I can take you with me sometime.
You might see things differently, too.