"Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do"
Subtitle courtesy of Matisyahu, the Pennsylvanian Hasidic reggae singer famous for beat boxing by the Wailing Wall. Regarding any sexual connotations, you'll have to ask him.
So we arrived in Jerusalem feeling chronic. BJ was on top form as he opted to stay at the beach, and so suggested we walked from the bus station to a hostel using the old ask-around-and-perhaps-use-map method so favoured in Syria. Through majority opposition the motion was dropped and sat in comfort in a private minibus which drove us straight to the Bullshit Planet pick of my 2004 edition. It was right outside the Damascus Gate and had a convenient shwarma joint right next door - our enthusiasm literally ground to a halt at about the same time as our digestive systems as we ate some: the main issue of contention was whether the meat was ferret or dog. Even the smell of it was repugnant; so much for Israel having the best food in the Middle East. We squeezed past a row of fruit stalls which lined the alley leading towards the stairs to the hostel, found some beds and after a short discussion, Dylan and I just went straight to bed. "But, what about the Dome of the Rock?" Aah, it's not going anywhere. That is, unless Ed somehow had his way during the afternoon..
After our false start of the first day we were raring to go and so set off into the Old City. Never before have I been to such a surreal and strange place - such a cramped and busy place teeming and swarming with surrealism that one just becomes desensitised to - IDF soldiers parading up and down the streets armed to the teeth, next to shop owners who all sell a mixture Palestinian flags and keffiyehs alongside kippahs and t-shirts with slogans such as "Guns n' Moses" or "Don't Worry, Be Jewish", whether the owner was Israeli or Palestinian. It was really strange to see how political views go out of the window in favour of making a quick profit, I wonder whether in times of war the Israelis will still be selling keffiyehs and the Palestinians selling flags and menorahs?
The smells that we were bombarded with were all so sporadic and so enticing, huge spikes of different coloured spices next to some frying chicken, and then cages full of live chickens and lumps of fly-covered red meat, shwarma joints and offal joints and buckets of pick-n-mix sweets and huge rows of baklava - we'd by now been long accustomed to souks but this was the lord of all, and especially when lost you round a corner to be presented with a golden dome not a hundred yards away and remember where you actually are. We wandered up and down getting lost and re-lost in the maze of the old city, coming out now in the Jewish quarter with hats and jackets and curled hair everywhere, now in the Armenian quarter with their hideous clashing flag, and then standing aside to allow a long procession of candle-holding people chanting and following the person in the front who was carrying the full-size rentable crucifixion cross and following the stations on the path of Jesus' walk on Via Dolorosa (which was decided to be the actual path walked by Jesus at some point in the 18th Century, replacing older versions..). They'd follow the road and do what was done at each of the stations - here was where Jesus fell over, here was where he put his hand, here was where he sneezed, here was where he did his shoelaces up. We were all quite entertained by this show of piety so we decided to try and visit each of the Big Three, starting with the Church of the Holy Spatula. We followed a crowd of people all wearing matching Bible caps with an inkling they'd take us there and lo and behold we arrived in no time. The outside was quite understated, with a relatively small yard and slightly engraved walls over a small door which we took to be the front entrance. So we went in and were presented grandly with the Stone of Anointing on which Jesus was lain as he was taken off the cross (added in 1810) so we immediately followed suit with all of the pilgrims and bent down to touch the miraculous pebble, but not receiving any celestial visions or sizzling blisters we left to check the rest of the place out. Throughout the time inside I kept wishing I was one of these ultra-religious types because of the grandeur and obvious reverence that these priests and pilgrims held for the place, seeing the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, and the Actual Stone In Which The Cross Was Placed, and An Actual Piece Of The Stone That Sealed Jesus' Grave. Because there are so many different Christian sects, and this being the holiest spot for all of them, the church is split-owned by each sect depending on its size, and as a result each of them gets 15-minute slots in which to hold mass or a ceremony or whatever until they have to hand over to the next in line, so we arrived and caught the end of the Catholic monks in brown-and-white garb swinging their incense and chanting in Latin before they all shuffled away and were replaced by the Eastern Orthodox with a bloke dressed in robes and a big green hat and more singing, this time in another language. Surrealism not lost on us, we decided to queue up with everybody else for our 10-second slot inside the old Jesus tomb - he wasn't in there, though, of course - so we touched that too and said some quiet blasphemy to see what would happen ("I think this is Santa's actual grotto") but God must have been punishing someone else at the time as we got off scot-free. The decorations inside were glorious though, a real mixture of all of the different Christian cultures, with gold mosaics on the walls in the Greek chapel and old Romanesque mosaics on the floor depicting Mary and friends and a great symmetrical design on the inside of the ceiling dome. At some point we saw the Coptic Christians which I think are my favourite sect, for the sole reason that because they were initially Egyptians (and still generally are) they use the word Allah to name the Christian god, for the reason that that is just the word for God in Arabic. Culture-overlap, excellent.
We thought we'd try and get to the Wailing Fence and the Dome of the Sock, got to the first one and then spent ages trying to work out how to get over the wall to the Dome but by the time we managed it, it was closed to visitors. In fact, we didn't end up getting to see it until James turned up a couple of weeks later because of the draconian non-Muslim visiting hours. You're not allowed inside the actual buildings unless you're a Muslim, and apparently if you don't look 'Muslim enough' then upon entry they give you a quick test of your knowledge of the Qur'an. We heard of a couple of Islamic Studies students managing to sneak their way inside the Al Aqsa mosque and the actual Dome itself - which is a shrine rather than a mosque - and it's absolutely stunning, but we didn't think we were quite up to it.. "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful... ummm.." But we managed to find our way to the Wall and frankly, it was quite a disappointment, that is to say that it was literally just a wall. Ignorant as this may sound, hear me out: the Dome of the Sock has a gold roof and amazing tiling throughout the inside and outside of the hexagonal building in the centre of this stunning complex; the Holy Sepulchre has mosaics and tombs of sons of Gods and stones of anointings and so on; the Western Wall was literally just a wall. If we judge the holy politics by aesthetics - and why not? - then Allah wins, hands down. Anyway, so we decided to go up and check the wall out closlier - the section for men about five times the size as the equivalent for women - and so donning the free skullcaps we went up and were approached by a rabble of Rabbis:
Him: "Are you Jewish?"
H: "Is your mother?"
H: "Is your grandmother?"
K: "..... Yes"
H: "Then you're Jewish! Come this way!"
At which I got dragged over and dressed up with leather straps and boxes full of verses from the Dead Sea Scrolls called Tefillin, and made to recite a prayer in Hebrew. They then told me that I had to marry a Jewish girl to keep the great race going, and so that my children didn't end up like them, indicating BJ and Dylan who were right next to us. We then got into a 'theological' debate with one of the old and apparently fantastic Rabbis who was there, and old guy from America. He asked us if the Christian god could be found in the heart of Satan, and so confusedly we said well, probably not. A ha! That's because he's not almighty! But the Jewish god is EVERYWHERE! Even in the heart of Satan! Ah, sorry God, Yahweh's got you there, 1-0. We decided that this was all a little weird so after a quick loo stop we'd head out - flanked in the urinals on one side by an IDF with his gun bashing me a little too regularly, and on the other by a hardcore Hasidic; stagefright got the better of me.
The hostel was excellent. Ran by a particularly shady guy who never seemed to be around and wasn't really bothered with this whole 'checking in' malarkey, it was kept clean by a legitimately crazy American guy named Louis. Now, I assume he was American and that his name was Louis but literally nobody could understand a word that he said so it's all just guesswork. I can't explain why he was difficult to understand except that he pretty much just couldn't speak. We could understand snippets though; one of his favourite things to say was when he gave us daily plates of pastries which had gone semi-stale from being out all day in the next door bakery - "Either eat it all or don't take it" or "Don't complain when I give something to you out of the kindness of my heart", and then he'd carry on shuffling around in his slippers clearing up things into his bin bag. It was a good few days before I realised that he actually worked there, and apparently he was pretty much homeless and just spent his days sleeping in the park and his nights clearing the hotel. He was a big fan of telling jokes, and assumed that people were just too stupid to get it rather than either a) not understanding a word or b) not understanding why that combination of words was funny. He called James 'Hot Pants' because he once wore a t-shirt with an 'H' on it... But that's jumping the gun. On the corner of our street was a guy with a barbecue, some blobs of meat on skewers and a bit of bread, and it was pretty damn tasty - he kept us well fed and we kept him well paid, and it was a symbiotic relationship through and through. Nothing could beat the chicken inside the Old City though - impossible to describe except "that guy down a bit and to the left", he fried up a celestial sandwich of peace and joy. He flurried on some red mixture of spices which I asked after: he said he didn't know what they were called in English, and at that point I'd never know true culinary goodness again.
Whilst before I mentioned how expensive it was - don't think I'm about to take that back - I didn't quite realise the political edge to the cost. Of course, the basic level was that of expense but depending on the area the cost varied; often this was just a matter of 100 yards from one street onto its perpendicular. In the Old City, coke in the Arab turf as standard was 3 shekels; when you were in the Jewish Quarter it was about 8. The only realistic reason we could figure out for this blatant absurdity was that it was an attempt from the two 'sides' to further segregate and distance themselves from each other - an average Arab probably wouldn't go into a Jewish store on principle, especially in Jerusalem, and especially if the cost was going to be several times more; the same applies vice versa. Of course, though, most of the Arab shops were unable to fulfil our alcohol quota - except for the occasional Taybeh beer, brewed in Ramallah, which was definitely not sold in the Jewish shops (Taybeh means 'tasty' and as we learned in Beirut, can also be used as pertaining to the attractiveness of girls..) so we regularly saw proof of this crazed pricing. Even the same products, a tub of one brand of standard hummus, could alter price by double or more. This notion of self-segregation was so common that it didn't even strike us as strange to have a wholly Jewish area immediately change into a wholly Arab one within two minutes of walking, or the fact that the buses seem to be pretty separate; of course this is also to do with where the bus was going. In Jerusalem for example, there was a station near to our hostel which housed loads of white buses which headed towards Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities, ran and used pretty much exclusively by Arabs, whereas in the Central Bus Station which was deep in the new city, all of the buses were run by the company Egged and went to Tel Aviv, Eilat, Haifa and so on - it went without saying that Egged didn't serve Ramallah. In fact, this level of mutually assumed separation emphasises how strange it was that in the Old City you would get Arabs and Jews alike selling t-shirts saying "Peace for Palestine" next to one stamped with an IDF badge.