Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter

Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
Trip End Oct 18, 2008

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Friday, October 3, 2008

I should start by saying that the Muslim Quarter was perhaps the most fascinating quarter of all. It is alive--loud, busy, seething with people until the wee hours of the morning. Intense. It's dark in the day, lit by light of the shopping stalls and the sliver of daylight sneaking into the narrow streets between the awnings.

Shops spill into the tiny ancient streets, a sampling of everything out in view. There are the shops selling clothes--jeans on racks in the center, undergarments and socks on tables around the fringes and shirts, blouses, blazers hanging like wallpaper up the walls. There are shops selling food--small grocery stores, fruit/veggie stalls, butchers, candy shops with tubs of shiny wrapped bites, sweets shops where giant trays of pistachio and honey drizzled baklava sit uncovered in the street. Women wrapped in scarves browse the shops with kids and packages in tow, their modern clothes peeping out at their ankles.

There are the tourist shops selling scarves, crosses, menorahs, prayer beads and rosaries, belly-dancing outfits, luggage, leather bags and postcards. There was the shoe repair man--the hardest working man in Jerusalem we called him...he was always there at the lip of his 5 foot wide by 10 foot deep stall, at his machine, repairing shoes while 1-5 people sat at his side, in the street, waiting.

On the day we entered Jerusalem, we walked past the bird shop--hundreds of parakeets, chipping and singing in a breezy high street. Those birds went on to live in cages hung in shops through-out Jerusalem. Singing so much that it almost didn't sound real.

Another day, near Stephen's Gate, we saw a family of 5 stop, the man putting the veil on his little girl before going any further into the old city.

And there are thousands of feet walking these old stone streets. Muslims, Christians, Jews--shoulder to shoulder. Packages knock into knees. Kids run between legs. Men come through with trays of tea. Carts rattle through bringing in supplies. Men carry in packages on their heads. Women shepherd tiny children past the candies and toys. Traffic jams of people when anyone stops to talk, to shop, to take a photo, to pray at a station.

Damascus Gate was a circus--a hoard of stuff, of people--cotton candy machines, popcorn stands, bread carts, money changers, kids running amongst it all shooting plastic pellets from toy machine guns, soldiers with real machine guns watching, priests, monks, rabbis, holy folks in all manner of costume, people coming, people going, people waiting.

The Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows, Stations of the Cross) runs right through the Muslim Quarter. Our hotel was near the 7th station (where it is believed Jesus fell for the 2nd time--and at what used to be a gate exiting the Old City). We were surprised that many of the stations of the cross were amongst the market stalls. I guess that's what happens in a crowded little town where history never stops. It surprised me too that there always seemed to be a crowd around the stations--from early in the morning until night when the tourists buses pulled away from the Old City. I saw tour groups praying, singing, crying, on their knees, talking, reading aloud from their bibles.

The streets at night were another proof of life. Trash along the streets. Cats picking through the garbage, marking it. Street cleaners were out at nights. Bryan decided that Jerusalem could stand a good power-washing to shed some of the hundreds of years of grime.

There were security cameras everywhere--in all of the quarters, at all the corners, every nook and cranny of the old city, back-to-back in places. Who watches all the goings-on? Where is the command center? Israeli soldiers with machine guns stood in groups at strategic points throughout the Old City...watching.

We stayed in the Muslim Quarter at the Hashimi Hotel. It was not expensive, small rooms and adequate breakfast. Fine for us. The best thing about it was the rooftop. The people running the place are Muslims and have strict rules about no alcohol and males/females must be married to stay together in one room. Because we have separate surnames...I took the marriage certificate, just in case. They never asked.

Breakfast was served starting around 7am--even during Ramadan for those non-Muslims eating after daylight. Hummus, hard-boiled eggs, pita bread, olives (green, pitted and the sweetest, most delicious I've ever eaten), cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and Sanka coffee....all while overlooking the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives and the rooftops of Jerusalem.

At night, the sounds of life in the Muslim Quarter went on until the wee hours of the morning. Our room (#305) faced the street and we had trouble sleeping. In the afternoons, it sounded like a quiet murmur below. But somehow, at night, it was much louder--cat fights, kids playing and yelling, their moms quietly pleading with them to come in--or men/dads yelling, cell phones ringing, loud voices talking about god knows what, arguing. Was that a rooster? Clangs of rolling carts and closing metal gates. Fireworks, music, heels running on the stones. The noise made us restless. We'd turn on the tv in the middle of the night--watching Al Jazeera, CNN or BBC--getting disturbing snippets of the sinking Dow, the Somalia pirates, the U.S. presidential campaign, a bomb in Bogota. We'd hear other guests-- their babies crying, their TVs turned loud in their rooms to movies in foreign languages (dramas, war movies). We had strange dreams in Jerusalem. It seemed that the hours just before dawn were when the city finally slept...before the first tourists arrived to make their way by the stations of the cross in the pre-dawn mornings.

We liked to get up and walk the city in the early morning--great light peeping into the narrow city streets. I enjoyed seeing the city wake up. Moms opening the doors to see the kids out to school, men stretching and sipping tea as they pull open their shop gates. Early one morning--I heard the muezzins calling...but this time it was two muezzins working together in a duet that was simply beautiful echoing through the streets.
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