27 July, 2008

Salaam min al-Quds

I arrived in al-Quds this afternoon from Bayt Lahem, where I'd spent the night at Ibdaa to see a friend before he returns to America to complete work on his graduate degree. I took the 21 bus through the tunnel straight to the Damascus Gate. Unfortunately, one Palestinian passenger with a Canadian passport was held at the checkpoint and not allowed back on the bus for what seemed like weak reasons.

It's quite a great deal to take in and process, really, this place. It's sacred, profane, mystifying, maddening, joyful and kitsch all at once. You stride over stones worn to a sheen by six thousand years of steps, pass covered women, Muslim and Jewish, and half-naked women, tourists in everything from gold stilettos to micro-shorts and bikini tops, and plenty of grumpy Israeli soldiers and police with guns, in and out of uniform but all with their radios at their shoulders. Nuns, priests, hustlers, pilgrims, posers, tour groups, muftis, rabbis, shopkeepers, beggers, ebb and flow the way it's always been. It is a spiritual place, but that brushes up against the costs in the city. The second coming may be canceled due to insufficient funds. I don't think the carpenter's kid can afford this place anymore.

I've made friends with just about every kid who speaks Arabic in the Old City. It helps dodge the requests for shekels and yields some surprising results - one boy insisted I fire off a round of his pellet gun and I got to sit in on a rather intense game of marbles.

I just spent the afternoon wandering around the streets. I expected the Old City would be larger; that new Jerusalem would be like the Jerusalem of old. I've seen most of it, at least the exteriors, in one afternoon. Not to say I won't be retracing my steps in coming days. I've been turned away at almost every entrance to the Temple Mount by Israeli security, who told me it's closed. However, a shop keeper told me otherwise and his young grandson told me to try early in the morning. The dome and al-Aqsa are a powerful sight, even at a distance.

I visited the Western Wall this evening, God's Inbox. Women are again marginalized here; their share of the prayer area is far smaller than the men's. There were hordes of young, conservative girls squealing and schooling around the square. One tiny boy stood in rapt wonder at the pigeons milling about him. A bride and groom arrived in their white bests to offer prayers, the bride having a hard time keeping the bobbing hoop skirt of her dress from revealing to much to the eyes of God and the rest. Another couple had their photo taken kissing in front of the barrier to the prayer section. I offered to take a photo of a young Jewish family, who gratefully accepted, so dad might make it into at least one picture.

The soundtrack to the day has been the adhan and church bells, a heady combination of wake-up calls. The mosque across the street from where I'm staying has a fantastic muezzin, whose adhan is a joy to hear: melodic, a touch mournful, but not overwrought. We're surrounded by at least ten mosques, given my quick initial count of minarets, which produces a remarkable, if not unified, stereo effect.

The Old City is dark and quiet now, it's after eleven. The whole places begins shutting down around 8, security prowling the streets, metal doors slamming shut, dangling racks of goods fished down from their perches. I'm staying at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, which is lovely and highly recommended, at least the dormitory where I'm sleeping is. I'll be here through my birthday, a little spiritual retreat on my own, before returning home. I want to be up early tomorrow to see the city wake up. I have a few new photos posted on Flickr, by the way.


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