The driver’s name was Muhammad – according to the sign on the side of the taxi next to his licence number. He was playing Om Khaltoum on the radio while he bobbed and weaved down the traffic on Salahadin street, toward the northern walls of the Old City.
My friend and I had spent the day together in the Old City and were on the way back from drinking Taybeh at the American Colony.
He’s leaving Israel soon — maybe for a year, maybe for good… Back from small cups of black coffee and cardamon to Coffee Bean vanilla lattes, from baklava and rosewater candies to Skittles at Rite Aid, from a crusader fortress’s latest incarnation as a Kabab restaurant, to PF Changs.
…. Muhammad made a turn on a side street — “too much traffic,” he said.
But still, on the third day of unrest in Jerusalem, my friend and I turned to look at each other — because sometimes, a quick turn on a side street in a place where calm dances on the head of a pin turns out to be a very wrong turn.
“Are you from Jerusalem? I asked.
Yes, Shuafat. A place where most Israeli Jews would never go, a place where riots start and spread throughout the city, where tires are set on fire and rolled down the streets, where the family of a young boy — also named Muhammad — grieved for their son who was set on fire by Jewish extremists and killed the summer before, where the people will never forgive Israel for what happened to their baby. Shuafat, the tinderbox — drop a match and BOOM.
And it felt like that could happen right now — I really felt it, in the churlish silences of the Old City… much to quiet there, the sullen stares on Salahadin Street…. also much too quiet… And in the taxi, the three of us were much to quiet, too, while the radio played Um Khaltoum.
Muhammad made another turn, and we were on a side street, skirting old buildings carved from Jerusalem stone.
A family walked by – The father with a black hat and side curls, his young wife with her hair covered in a scarf that matched her husband. Five, no, wait, SIX stepping stone children with them. The littliest was in a stroller, a sweet-faced baby with a black yarmulke. And the oldest child’s curly hair barely grazed her mama’s wrist.
“Isn’t that the Har Nof synagogue?” my friend asked me — he was remembering — as I was — the cool morning when gunmen stormed a synagogue in Jerusalem, and butchered fathers and sons in the middle of morning prayer.
“It looks just like the pictures from the news. So scary.”
“That isn’t Har Nof,” Muhammad answered. “That’s Mea Sharim.”
Mea Sharim, the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood outside of the Old City — a neighborhood where women like me often get called “shiksa!” and “Whore!” for showing our wrists, or too much collarbone. A neighbourhood where children will pick up stones and throw them at cars on Sabath. A neighborhood that measures time in holiday cycles and Sabbath candles, where the men wear black hats and streimels and speak Yiddish, where a family of six children is considered still a starter family.
“Oh, I’ve heard of Mea Sharim,” my friend said. “Can we drive through?”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!” Muhammad from Shuafat asked. “Do you want us to get killed?!?!?”