A postcard from Jerusalem

Mass tourism is pretty horrible. But to see a city where tourism has died off is ghastly. Of course, it looks absurd to come to Jerusalem and see the city’s problems as primarily touristic, but I’m not sure that the absurdity is more than superficial. This is a place which has no intrinsic economic value. It survives, as cities always have, because people come in from the hinterland bringing food and money and for trade. But no one now wants to come to Jerusalem from anywhere, except for people whom the army would rather keep out.

The modern city is almost surreally boring, except that people keep getting murdered here. To meet Benny Morris in his favourite café, I walked down a quiet, residential street where a bus blew up less than a month ago: a flower shop owner saw two human heads fall to the ground in front of him “like chickens’ heads”. The cafe where I ate supper had been the victim of another suicide bomber earlier.

None of it is architecturally distinguished. There is a very funny YMCA with an enormous phallic tower, erected by the British in the Thirties. Presumably that’s the one they wrote the song about. But all the really interesting bits are in the old walled city, half a mile’s walk from here, and that’s there the devastation is most notable.

In the old city there are parts where you’re afraid to have a pocket open, still less walk with a freely dangling camera; in the parts where cameras won’t be grabbed, people look down twice, fast, inconspicuously, at any shiny metal object in your hand. And I really wouldn’t want to fumble with a backpack here in front of an army patrol. So the shops, are empty; the Jaffa Gate has a few listlessly begging tour guides. I know I ought to hire one, but I hate that. I like to see and feel and drift and smell things on my own. You can’t, though, drift. Anyone who seems to be considering anything, whether a view, an artefact, or even an idea, is immediately pestered. Walk briskly, watch from the sides of your eyes. Watch the way the Arabs watch the Jews after they walk past. Watch two skull-capped swaggering students in the middle of the street; watch the patrols with their drawn, excited faces.

This is the second pilgrimage town that I have wandered when it has been emptied by a war. I was incongruously reminded of the main street in Medjugorje, where barns full of unsold rosaries and statuettes of the Virgin lined the way to the church and the Croat kids had icons of the BVM on their gun butts. Here not all the tat was religious. Lots was politically touristical. There was one “Visit Palestine” banner that I saw, lots of assorted Christian souvenirs — icons, crosses, and olivewood statuettes, and, on corner stalls, Israeli souvenirs — T shirts and so forth. The demon of bad taste who works overtime when I am stressed thought suddenly of a T shirt — “My sister went to Israel and all that came back was this bloody T shirt”.

Damian Thompson had told me to look into the Messianic bookshop by the Jaffa Gate. It was not nearly as crazy as I had hoped, but there was one blonde Brasilian Messianic Jewish woman giving her testimony in French to the luminously thin and bearded guy behind the counter. His French was fairly poor — she seemed to think the details of her story mattered — so I ended up translating for them. I suppose the details must have mattered, since they are the only thing that changes in these testimonies. Someone, somewhere, was going to get saved. The only question was who, and where. This happened n Brazil, where her grandmother had been spared to live to 94. She had been very ill, aged 80: the mystified doctors had given up on her, but the blonde, then eleven, had persuaded her to accept Jesus (in writing, both for solemnity and not to shock the family) and she had been spared. Later, when she was seventeen, Jesus had told her to announce to her family that she was a Christian, and now he had told her to come here. They thanked her with real warmth when I stumbled to the end.

The covered markets of the Arab quarter smelled of cumin, nuts, grilled meat, and the dust of carpets which had hung unsold for years; old women sat on the ground with bunches of spring onions and coriander to sell; whole carcasses of sheep or goat hung in the butchers’, their pink haunches webbed with white fat. I don’t know quite where I was there. I had bought a map, but didn’t stop to read it; here, and here only, there was a constant traffic of people, walking both ways, quiet, politely jostling. I had a moment of fear when I spotted three burly youths walking tight behind me, and when the alley opened into a crowded, rising square, I turned around and walked back the way I had come before cutting up the _via dolorosa,_ which was narrow and empty where you would expect pilgrims to throng. On a historical note, I have always been puzzled by the crusader boast that the blood ran above their ankles when they took the city. But it’s all built on intersecting hillsides. There’d have been a current in the gutters running down from the Jewish quarter.

Ah, the Jewish quarter of the Old City — this morning it smelt of soap running down the gutter in the sunlight. The streets seemed wider, and the buildings, though built of the same dull pale beige stone as the rest of Jerusalem, seemed lighter and brighter. There was even one group of tourists, being lectured in an underground museum in English.

Up the hill, I came on the Armenian quarter, marked with posters commemorating the genocide of 1915; someone had written a phone number and a message across Cilicia, in a script I couldn’t read.

Outside the Arab quarter the whole place was extraordinarily quiet. Even the soldiers wore rubber-soled boots, and no one seemed to talk at all, except the hawkers. But on the sunlit walls, suddenly trilling like car alarms, small brightly coloured birds were hung in cages outside shops. In the shop where I bought my map, the owner had two small cages on the counter. One of them had been partitioned with a sheet of corrugated plastic separating two caged birds into even smaller cages. The symbolism was so obvious as to be irresistible, and I asked his permission to photograph them, but when I looked at the photo back in my room, it was the owner’s expression as he leant against the wall in the background which dominated the photo, and the only way to make sense of it was to crop so that only one bird was in the picture.

So, here is a man waiting for the tourists to return. It’s been four years since they went away.

Waiting for the tourists, the old city, Jerusalem

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3 Responses to A postcard from Jerusalem

  1. Simon says:

    Yes, we saw Jerusalem once before looking like that, just before the First Gulf war. The Old City was like a morgue and we were just about the only tourists around. Spooky.

  2. Hanan Cohen says:

    The cab drivers of Jerusalem.

    On the one hand, work is very slow because there are no tourists. On the other hand, people who can still afford it, take the taxi instead of the bus, for apparent reasons.

  3. el Patron says:

    One later point: that post describes the atmosphere on a Friday, when, as I didn’t realise, the place was winding up for a small riot at the Temple Mount. I did walk up to the police post where this would happen, and was turned away in an atmosphere of extreme tension.

    On Saturday, the place was less tense, though still almost deserted outside the Muslim market.

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