Sunday, November 4, 2012

Eid Break Part 2: القدس القديمة/Old Jerusalem

The next installment, once again by our guest blogger, Amy Brown:
My second day in Amman we rose early—catching the sunrise—for the bus that would take us to the border crossing to Israel at the Allenby Bridge (in Hebrew, Gesher Alenbi, also known as the King Hussein Bridge, in Arabic: جسر الملك حسين‎, Jisr al-Malek Hussein), the bridge that crosses the Jordan River and connects the West Bank with Jordan. Other than through the West Bank, the bridge is currently the sole designated exit/entry point for Palestinians living in the West Bank to travel in and out of the West Bank. On this day, these Palestinians were laden with bulging suitcases and bags, no doubt full of special-occasion clothes and gifts for the Eid holiday to bring to their relatives on the West Bank. We were told the border crossing could take anywhere from four to seven hours—a lot of waiting in various lines, to pay entry and exit fees and have passports checked and stamped—so we were glad that it took only three hours. Entering into Israel, the young woman checking my passport asked if I was going to Ramallah or had any family on the West Bank (No, and no. The first question, I was told later by an Israeli, intended to weed out activists who might be going to Ramallah to “stir up trouble.”). Then she wanted to know my father’s first name before my passport was stamped and I was free to go.

Arriving by a mini bus to the Damascus Gate, we headed straight for the colors and scents and hustle and bustle of the outdoor market in the Muslim Quarter. The tables were brimming with chocolates in gold and silver foil, fruits and vegetables, scarves and souvenirs, the sellers trying to outshout each other to catch the shoppers’ attention and here Arab Muslims, Jews, Christians and tourists mingled as they shopped and bargained for the best price. We stopped for fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice before finding ourselves in front of the Austrian Hospice, an oasis of peace and relaxation after the cacophony of the market. We headed up to the roof for amazing views over the old city but didn’t linger for the famed pastries at the café (their hostel apparently offer some of the best cheap beds in Jerusalem).

We got in touch with our host in Jerusalem—the lovely Adi who had responded so warmly to our couch surfing request—and she recommended that we make our way by light rail and bus to her apartment in the German Colony, a neighborhood in Jerusalem established in the 19th century by members of the German Temple Society. Today it’s known as the Moshava and is an upscale neighborhood bisected by Emek Refaim Street, an avenue lined with trendy shops, restaurants and cafes. As we rode the bus, very young Israeli soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force boarded in uniform, with their guns, and seeing so many young soldiers around the city carrying weapons takes some getting used to. Israel is unique in the world in that military service is compulsory for both females and males. It is the only country in the world that maintains obligatory military service for women. This continues the tradition of female fighters during Israel's War of Independence. Males serve for three years and females for just less than two years. Israel also has one of the highest recruitment rates in the world - some 80% of those who receive summons serve. Those who are exempt from service include most minority groups, those who are not physically or psychologically fit, married women or women with children, religious males who are studying in an accredited Jewish Law institution and religious females who choose to pursue 'national service' - community work.

As we rode the bus, I was also struck by the contrast of old and modern Jerusalem—in the old quarters, steeped in history, in religion and tradition, and in the rest of the city, as modern and efficient and as full of the amenities one would enjoy in any affluent European city. Arriving to Adi’s apartment, she and her dog greeted us, showed us our couch for the night, told us to make ourselves at home, handed us a key and went back to her classes at the university while we gratefully left our bags behind to explore the old city further. *Marielle writing now* Before we did so, however, we grabbed lunch at the little vegan gem called the Village Green, right off of Emek Refaim Street, recommended by our couchsurfing host. Over fresh juice combinations such as pomegranate, apple, and pear, and gorgeous salads, we read the Jerusalem Post and watched the diverse Israelis of all ages that were also dining in the sunny verdant outside area of this popular local eatery. I found this quote in an op-ed piece, which I recorded as it seemed relevant at the time:

Ideological and personal conflicts compete with the desire for unity; fission with fusion. Behind all these attempts at unity lies a serious question: Is the knitted yarmulke a political common denominator? Is a head covering more relevant or powerful than the social and political ideas in the head wearing it?

After lunch we strolled down Emek Refaim Street until we came to a beautiful park sprinkled with various monuments honoring Jewish values and history. Finally we reached the quaint homes and cascading gardens of the Artists' colony leading to the Old City. As beautiful as this colony is, it has a sad story, as our host explained. From the 1948 war when Jerusalem was split between Israel and Jordan until the Six-Day War when Israel reclaimed East Jerusalem from Jordan, this part of the city was the no-mans-land between the old city and new city. Nowadays wealthy Israelis buy the sought-after properties and world-renowned artists show off their crafts in the renovated Islamic stables but there isn't the same sense of life in the colony as we saw in other parts of the city. However we only needed to step within the gates of the Old City to find the hustle and bustle we experienced upon our arrival.*Marielle out, back to Amy*

A visit to Jerusalem is not complete without seeing the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. The area in front of the Wall is divided for males and female sections, and I was struck by how little space the women had compared to the men—and there were far more women at the Wall than men, at least on this day. It was a powerful experience to put my hands on the Wall; it pulsated beneath my hands, like a beating heart, warm and alive. You could feel the fervor of all those prayers captured in the stone, as women—Jews and Christians alike—closed their eyes and placed their foreheads against the stone and prayed, silently or softly, sometimes with their babies in their arms. You must never have your back to the Wall, so we walked backwards once we were ready to leave.

We went to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park to find out more about the history of the Temple Mount but the film they showed was so poorly made it was funny and the audio practically put us to sleep, so don’t bother renting it. Much better to just do your own exploring and imagine how life must have been during the many centuries—from the Temple Period to the Roman to the Byzantine to the Islamic Periods—when so many people occupied this holy place. There are great views all around Jerusalem by clambering up the excavations and walking the remaining walls.

We ended our day in Old Jerusalem by taking a long walk around the Old City (hoping to see the Al-Asqa Mosque, the holiest site in Islam, but not able to enter) and instead outside the entrance to the Mosque, a boy on a bicycle motioned us to follow him and lead us to a church, the Church of St Anne, an excellent example of Romanesque architecture, very plain and unadorned. In the south aisle is a flight of steps leading down to the crypt, in a grotto believed by the Crusaders to be Mary's birthplace. An altar dedicated to Mary is located there. As we entered 15 minutes before closing, we had the church all to ourselves (aside from the cats milling about outside) and could admire the pure lines of the Roman arches and other architectural features. Weary by now from all our walking, we headed back to Adi’s apartment and to an evening with her friends, which Marielle will describe in the next installment: Modern Jerusalem!

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