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Valleys and gates

Returning to the Old City for coffee with cardamom, pita, and prayer at the Wall, despite the shadow of terror

It has been two months since I’ve been to the Old City, kept away by the “Intifada of Knives.” But on this particular morning, I am nearby, and I badly need a pick-me-up, something that will stir my soul. So, with some trepidation, I make my way to Jaffa Gate.

The market is more empty than I can remember, but no less colourful. I wonder whether, perhaps, it is not so wise to speak Hebrew in the market right now. Maybe I should just use my bit of Arabic and English. I hate these thoughts. I order, in Hebrew, a bowl of humus, served with onion and pickles and warm, puffy pitot, at the intersection of the main markets. This was once the intersection of the cardo and the decumanos, when the city was Roman, one of its myriad incarnations in the long succession of conquerors and cultures that inhabited this holy and awe-full place.

I debate the next stop. I want to go for my regular coffee in the Suq el Qatanin, the cotton-pickers market, that leads to the Temple Mount, but it feels a bit too testy. I am unsure, uneasy. I have never debated with myself this way about Jerusalem, have never been frightened in the Old City. And I don’t want to start now. I walk down the stairs, in the direction of the Temple Mount, smiling at children playing ball and girls in their uniforms, returning from school. And, suddenly, an image of a thirteen-year-old terrorist stabbing a boy on a bicycle, and another, of two school girls stabbing an old man, with scissors, flash through my mind. And I realize that children are no longer “safe,” that they can also be a threat, that one of those uniformed girls or big-eyed boys could have a knife in their pocket. And pull it on me. It is a thought that unsettles me completely, that is entirely unbearable. How can we have come to this, to be frightened of children? To suspect them, even momentarily, as a passing glimpse of a thought?

I proceed to the Western Wall. I cannot be in the Old City without going there, without a prayer for peace and for some sort of life inspiration. Without singing Psalm 23 to myself, softly, my lips grazing those ancient stones that burst with tears and hopes and faith. גם כי אלך בגיא צלמוות לא אירא רע. Even if I walk through the valley of death’s shadow, I WILL NOT FEAR evil.

Through the tunnel, and another few steps down Valley Street (the Hebrew street name is the same word as in the Psalm) bring me to Suq el Qatanin. It is bustling with activity and the gate to the Temple Mount is open. The glinting gold of the Dome of the Rock the end point of the dark market, like the focal point in Renaissance paintings, where all parallels meet, but much more ancient. One-point perspective is the official name of that painting technique. I laugh, thinking that “one-point perspective” is a suitable term to describe the current conflict over the Temple Mount.

Today the coffee seller’s son, Musa, is manning the stall. His dad, Abu Musa (literally “Father of Musa”) has a day off. I tell him about the last time I was there, when everything was closed and just his father and I sat together in the dark corridor. I sit on my wicker stool sipping the strong coffee and looking through the gate. Trees and sunlight and the blue and turquoise tiles of the Dome of the Rock, its golden dome. It is a perfect building, so incredibly beautiful that its use as a political symbol seems absolutely immoral. Shameful. But also inevitable. My feet cannot go through that gate, but my eyes can. I walk up to it, gaze through it, through the leafy branches of olive trees, at the earliest Islamic building still standing on its original foundations, built over 1300 years ago, during the Ummayad Empire (another of the city’s incarnations), and still utterly magnificent. Standing where the Jewish Temple once stood, likely right over the Holy of Holies. Another, even more ancient incarnation, of Jerusalem.

The policemen at the gate, about the right age to be my children, flirt with me. They are surprised that I drank that strong coffee, rather than tea with mint, perhaps more fitting for an over-middle-aged woman. I remark that they are immensely privileged to be stationed at the entrance to the Temple Mount. “It doesn’t add anything to our salaries,” they reply glibly. I tell them that it adds a great deal to their spiritual salaries, but they are not impressed. When I Ieave, Musa, like his father, refuses to let me pay.

I want to buy ground coffee with cardamom, and eat knafe (my autocorrect, ironically, wants to replace “knafe” with “knife”) and get some of those thin thin pancake-like pitot that crisp up so deliciously in the toaster oven. I want to continue to taste and smell the Old City in my home. But all of these longed-for culinary pleasures are sold near Damascus Gate, my favorite gate to the Old City, and scene of numerous knifing attacks in recent months.

Even if I walk through the valley of death’s shadow, I will not fear.

I buy my coffee and pitot in Arabic, reverting to Hebrew when my requests exceed my vocabulary. I am given a discount on the coffee. I may be way off course with this, but I interpret these as small gestures of peace, indicating that these merchants are still happy that some intrepid (or, perhaps, insane) Jewish Israeli still comes to buy at their shop, and I am encouraged.

I buy my knafe in Hebrew. They all know me there anyhow. And as I sit and savour the mixed salty and sweet flavour, I admire the patterned headscarf and painted eyebrows of the young woman eating knafe on her own, at the table across from mine, eyeing me. She, too, could be carrying a knife, I think, and am immediately disgusted with myself.

I do not linger. I walk back quickly, past shops selling kitchenwares and clothes, colourfully patterned brassieres and tights, fragrant spices piled high, crispy oval buns covered with sesame seeds, women in headscarves sitting on the paving stones, encircled by an array of greens for sale, cow carcasses hanging from hooks in butchers’ windows, candies and baclawa. I pass the turn-off to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the one to the Muristan, climbing the market steps to arrive back at Jaffa Gate. When I return home, my friends look at me wide-eyed. “What? You went to the Old City? Are you crazy?” I smile. After all, I had a nice visit. And I am proud of myself for not having succumbed to fear.

The next day, as I sit down to eat a salad and one of the thin, Damascus-Gate pitot for lunch, a breaking news item in my inbox informs me that three Israelis have been wounded, one critically, in a knife attack, at Jaffa Gate. Two of them subsequently died. It could easily have been me. It could easily have been so many of us.

עומדות היו רגלינו בשערייך ירושלים. Our feet stood at your gates, Jerusalem. Our feet stand at your gates, beloved, raped Jerusalem. Our hearts are stabbed at your gates, oh Jerusalem. Our ears hear your weeping. These stones, these sounds, these smells. This grief. Jerusalem, fragmented City of Wholeness, terror-torn City of Peace. When will my feet next stand at your gates?

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)