Friday April, 3 - Jerusalem

Friday 1 January 2010
popularity : 27%

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Jerusalem !...

We are still a bit dozy when we discover the hostel terrace and the great view it offers of the roofs, towers and minarets of the old town, on the Dome of the Rock and that of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and many more buildings we can’t identify yet...

But we have got no time for day-dreaming : back on dry land, we have a quick breakfast-snack (coffee and date rolls bought at a local hawker’s) while climbing up the stairs through the souks to Jaffa Gate. There we’ll get the coach that is taking us to Michel Warschawski’ s office. !... Well, should be taking us : we get a first taste of what "Palestinian organisation" is : the hired coach never shows up ! We cram into 2 taxis (one of them a 7-door limo...!), and head to Michel’s office...

But another bad surprise awaits us there : Michel has gone sick and won’t be able to show us round the settlements as promised... We are disappointed of course but no fools with our hands : we hire the two taxi-drivers (both Palestinians like most taxi-drivers in Jerusalem) and ask them to drive us to a place from which we could have an open view of the Old Town...

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There are already other tourists there and we feel a bit out of line : we haven’t come to walk on Jesus’ s path, nor to go for a camel-ride, nor to buy trinkets... Tanguy who has already been here before gives us some information about what we can see : the towers, domes, steeples and minarets in the different districts of the Old Town, the Gates in the town wall, the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries that are lying at our feet, the Mount of Olives, the university buildings … and the development of the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem.

On the roof of a building on our right, there is an Israeli flag flapping in the wind. As we get a closer look at the surroundings we notice many others. Our taxi-drivers tell us that this is what Israeli people do to show they have taken up houses and that, day by day, their territory in and around Jerusalem is expanding...

They take us now to the separating wall, along which we walk for a while. At first we can’t help making comments on how ugly it is (plain cement sections put together), how horribly high (more than 8 meters), and long (endless), as well as on the graffiti and scribbled slogans covering it. All kinds of feelings are expressed there : anger, shock, fright, hope, calls for more intelligence and more humanity in the relationships. There is humour too but the sheer scale of the catastrophe grips us by the throat and in the face of it we simply end up keeping silent...

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That wall is indeed a great strain on our nerves, especially when our taxis stop a few meters from a checkpoint... Our first checkpoint : a mere wire fencing, all of a sudden there across our way, watched over by young helmeted, booted and armed soldiers in their twenties who glance at us with distrust and palpable tension... We watch them from a distance, coming and going, exchanging brief words and smoking, having obviously not much to do but wait... "On the other side", the guide tells us, "it’s Palestine..."

Honestly, there is not much to see apart from the wall, the wire fencing and a cat we have frightened and that is now slipping between the soldiers ’legs up to "the other side". But we stay glued to the spot, trying to understand, to take in what we are standing in front of...

After a while, a dusty car stops on the other side of the fence with two elderly Palestinians on board. They are obviously accustomed to waiting patiently... The young soldiers ignore them for a long moment. Then one of them goes towards the wire fencing and, with an infinite nonchalance, pushes it open with one hand, the other one still firm on his M16 gun, that way clearing the road to the Palestinians who get their car started smoothly... An uncanny scene that reminds us of Avi Mograbi ’s film and leaves us disconcerted... We get back into the taxis, turn round and drive down the hill alongside demolished buildings that should have been home for Palestinian leaders’ offices.

We are now heading to Bethany. On either sides of the road we catch sight of Israeli settlements, all illegal, all set high up in the hills, dominating the valleys and surrounded by empty lands to ensure distance and safety to the settlers... "It looks like Lego-land...", Bénédicte says thoughtfully...

Bethany is just the opposite of all this "perfection". It is one of those Palestinian villages that are now trapped between the separating wall and the Old Town. Unlike many others, it still exists, but under awful conditions : it is dirty, cluttered, overcrowded. Its buildings and roads are dilapidated, most shops have gone bankrupt : the inhabitants survive in a place that has become little more than an open-air prison that neither they nor their goods can leave.

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"No export is allowed, the taxi-driver tells us, so the people here have no choice but sell their products half-price to their own neighbours. In the same way, they are not allowed to buy goods but from Israeli salesmen who blow up the prices : one litre of oil is four time more expensive for a Palestinian than it is for an Israeli"...

We spontaneously decide on a first political act to show our solidarity to the villagers and buy all we need for lunch at a local stallholder’s, strawberries, oranges, apples and falafel…

Back in Jerusalem, we thank our taxi-guide-drivers and go back into the old town through Damascus Gate from where we try to make our way through the souks... It’s exactly the end of prayer-time for the Muslims and a crowd of bearded men, all dressed in white, floods from the mosque and surges into the streets already filled with the shouts, laughter and calls of the stallholders... And, of course, we are going against the tide ! Crazy !...

Porte de Damas 1
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Porte de Damas 2
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We take a side-street as soon as we can and land safe and well in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which some of us decide to visit while the rest sunbathe on the stairs in front and philosophise on God’s existence. A woman comes near and warns them : "Jesus is a God of forgiveness", she tells them. "Repent and you’ll go to Heaven ! The devil controls your soul and your brain. Free yourselves from him!"...

As soon as we are all together again, we go down the narrow streets of the old town to the Wailing Wall. Yet before being allowed on the esplanade that opens onto it, we have to go through an electronic portal, empty our pockets, show the contents of our bags for checking... We have the feeling all this is a bit much but, alright. If safety requires it so... As for the Israeli soldiers, they see absolutely nothing to laugh about ...

As non-Jews, we can’t have access to the Wailing Wall itself, but we have a fine view of it from the esplanade we entered. We attend some surprising scenes there too : orthodox Jews, all in black and white (black hats or fur-hats, black trousers and white shawls with fringes, caftans or long black coats) stride up and down around us, as stiff as pokers, some probably still young, some older (it’s impossible to know with the long beards), all definitely serious between their traditional curled hair-locks. They are followed by their wives - all dark-clad as well : calf-length skirts, black stockings, heavy shoes and wigs that can be nothing but wigs (once married, female orthodox Jews are shaven) - and several kids (5 seems to be the average number), the little boys neatly head-shaven too, except for the locks that dangle under their kippa...

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From where we stand, we can see Jews from everywhere who are praying face turned to the Wall, muttering and swaying back and forth... A lighter touch to the whole picture : for the (Jewish) tourists who have forgotten to bring a hat, there is a box from which to take white cardboard kippas... (the kind you buy berries in), which they have to keep holding on top of their head because of the wind : this means they have to pray with one hand and keep the hat in position with the other one... The Jewish women pray at the Wall too, but behind a partition that separates them from the men. When they have finished, they move away from the wall backwards...

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Down the stone-barrier that keeps the non-Jews away from the holy place, about 15 Jewish men and teenagers are sitting in circle and discussing extracts of the Torah. They look totally caught in their argumentation and explanations... This habit of debating religious matters in public amazes us : we are not in the slightest accustomed to it.

Rabbin au Mur des Lamentations - The rabbin
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So there we are, just letting ourselves be filled with everything we hear and see... All of a sudden, a Jewish woman (non-orthodox) calls out to us : "Do you know the 7 Laws of Noah?". Noticing our stupefied look she starts a lecture on those laws, hammering out how Different the Jewish People is, being the Chosen One. "One day", she assures us, "all the other people on earth will beg the Jews to accept them as their servants"... Both taken aback (is she completely crazy or just fanatic?) and kind of outraged by what she is saying, not at all certain either to see the point in it all, we stealthily creep away until there is nobody left with her but Tanguy and Anne-Claire who ask her if she would mind repeating what she has just said while they would record her. She accepts immediately because "Everybody should hear what I say about God and the Jewish people !"

Now, the learned attitude and tone she then puts on as well as the fact she phrases her sentences exactly the same way as before make us understand that she is in fact reciting a well-learned lesson. Again, we can’t help thinking of Avi Mograbi’ s film : Jewish schoolboys and girls are "drilled" to "their history" : "There will never be peace with the Palestinians. There will always be different (Jewish) groups and all of them say that if one group said it wanted to make peace, the other groups are not obliged to follow... The Jewish people is the Chosen People and the only one loved by God, and God will resuscitate all the bad people and will punish them for the bad things they did against the Jews... We are all waiting for God’s punishment : He will punish all those who, by attacking the Jews, touched the Eye of God. Long live our Messiah !…"

"Even the Non-Jews understand we have to protect ourselves. The (Muslim) fundamentalists are not dangerous only for the Jews, they are a danger to everybody : people have so quickly forgotten September, 11 ! These criminals wanted to bomb America ! They didn’t want to harm the Jews only!… We need the help of all the countries, of everybody. You can help the Jewish people with your propaganda, with your money or physically. God will reward you for helping us. Because all the crimes that are committed here… God will never forgive anybody who just sat there, watching what is happening without reacting, saying : I can’t interfere !…. We are calling for your help, OK? Thank you!…."

She has only just left us when she addresses three (absolutely cute) hippies (a woman with long loose hair and two bearded fair-haired men, one of them a Jew, the other one the exact double of Jesus Christ !) who are sitting cross-legged on the ground and letting themselves be filled with the energy of the place. Watching them discuss with the lady, we come near them as soon as she has gone and ask them how they feel about what she has told them. "It doesn’t really help with peace" , they answer.

"This kind of speech doesn’t bring us closer to a solution nor to peace or anything of the kind… And it isn’t even her fault. She belongs to a generation that believes in that… And this happens with all religions, creating separation : we went to the Muslim district, and we wanted to go into the Golden Mosque, but we couldn’t. And then, I wanted to take a Koran in their library but they said to me : « No, you can’t touch it, you are not a Muslim»… Religion, it begins with a great person, Mohamed, Jesus, Moses… and then people start interpreting it and it becomes something totally different. After several hundreds of years, it becomes something crazy, like this…"

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But there she is again, urging us to force the one of the 3 hippies who is a Jew (not "Jesus", the other one) to be "a good Jew, respect the commands and celebrate Pessoah as it is required. Because he is a Jew, she repeats, "he is different !"... And there, the best winky moment ever : "Jesus" answers to her: "Inch’allah !..." with such angelic sweetness...

We leave the esplanade : Tanguy has heard about a Lebanese restaurant in the Old Town where we order a delicious Jerusalem mezze... Then we go back to the youth hostel for our second night in Jerusalem. Diane wants to spend it on the terrace : she will make the most of the bells, the muezzin’s calls and Jerusalem’s bird songs from 4 a.m. on...

Cloches du Saint-Sépulcre - The bells
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Ambiance Vieille Ville - Old Town’s atmosphere
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Read the continuation of the trip