Coffee of Sanity and Sadness

Once again, Jerusalem screams. Scarred by stabbing and stones, fear and hatred. The city’s wounds, usually so thinly scabbed over, open and ooze blood.

This is my city. I refuse to abandon love for fear. And yet, I think twice before boarding a train or bus, or going to a large public gathering. Jerusalem weeps, her sleep is disturbed and fragmented. Like ours.

It is my custom to visit the Kotel on each of the three regalim, and visiting the Kotel means visiting my other beloved old-city destinations. So, during Succot, I start my pilgrimage with the hole in the wall where I eat hummus, pickle and onion for lunch. And then, on to the coffee stall in Suq el Qattanin (the Cotton Merchants’ Market).

Suq el Qattanin, in the Muslim Quarter, is a long, dark, vaulted corridor leading to the Temple Mount, lined by shops selling candies, condiments, head scarves, toys and trinkets, usually colourful and noisy. And at its end, through an open gate and beyond the barrier of soldiers, the Temple Mount, the colours of the Dome of the Rock blending with those of the hawkers’ wares. In the midst of it all is a small stand selling Arabic coffee, tea with mint and juices. For many years, this has been a predetermined, eagerly anticipated stop in any of my visits to the old city. I sit on a raffia stool and am brought a round, metal tray with a glass of strong coffee and a bigger glass of water, placed on a plastic stool, which doubles as a table, in front of me. Usually I am surrounded by men drinking coffee or tea, smoking nargila, sharing their latest news in animated speech and expression. And sometimes, on a Friday morning, streams of the faithful heading for or back from prayer on the Haram el Sharif, the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims cannot enter here, but at least we can glimpse that place, holy to two religions, site of the most difficult and violent contention, bitterness and longing,

On this particular day, I arrive at the entrance to the suq and it is dark, all the shops are shuttered, the gate to the Temple Mount is closed, and a row of soldiers stands at each end of the dark, mysterious, Moorish corridor. “What, everything is closed?” I ask them, “even the coffee seller?” They let me pass. I enter the darkness, an absolute, eerie closedness, and proceed toward the gate, thinking about the extremeness and sadness of closing the Temple Mount, about the absurdity of the concept of closing the Temple Mount. And part way along, a light, and I can see the stools and the big brass container of boiling water and, yes, my coffee stall is the only thing open in the suq.

There are a couple of men there, and the owner. The men leave, and I sit down on a raffia stool beside the owner and order my coffee. While it cools, perched on the plastic stool in front of me, we talk. About the situation, about other, better times, about the enforced loss of business with no compensation (I tell him that this also happened to all the Jewish businesses on Jaffa street while the light rail was being built, as if that would make him feel any better). I tell him that, whenever I make Arabic coffee at home, I ruin the delicate froth on the top, and he explains, step by step, how to do it properly. And as I drink, the coffee fragrant and frothy and perfectly sweetened, we sit together, in silence. A Palestinian coffee merchant and a semi-religious Jew who has chosen to live in Israel, each and together wordlessly mourning with Jerusalem.

I take out my wallet to pay. He refuses to accept my money. “This one’s on me,” he says. “You come here all the time, you bring people here, and on a day like this you won’t drink coffee?” I know that I will not convince him otherwise, and anyhow, five shekels is not worth an argument. I thank him. I am moved. And I move, back through the darkness, walking slowly, towards the entrance to the suq. And onward, to the Kotel, with its bright sunlight and swarms of praying people. And I pray, plead, for the peace of Jerusalem. For the peace of the world. For the time when the Temple Mount will be a place of prayer for all nations. For the day when all the gates will be open.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic. (Profile picture by Shira Aboulafia)
Related Topics
Related Posts