Jerusalem by night is a magical place if you know where to go. On Thursday nights, Jaffa street is full of drunk revellers including – and this is the most fascinating for me as, until I came here, my experience with religious folk had been limited to the Muslim community – orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish youth. However, it isn’t Jaffa street that is magical but the surrounding small, quiet streets housing small bars and where you might stumble upon the occasional fountain. Even more magical, however, and a place I didn’t get to experience by night until recently, is the Old City.
This past Thursday, four friends and I attended the Jerusalem Knights in the Old City festival. What a trip! We arrived to people in costume above the Mamilla and, upon entering Jaffa Gate, two acrobats dressed in medieval armor staging a mock climb up the city walls. We weren’t allowed, for five minutes, to get into the Old City because an area in front of the performance had been cordoned off while police held people at bay and thoroughly checked a bag that had been left alone there. First time I’d ever seen anything like that!
After dinner at my friend’s house in the Old City, we headed back out for the festival and followed a route set out for revelers. There were actors playing roles from all stratas of medieval society – from witches to royals to peasants – making us laugh; there was a smokey alleyway with a scary cackling witch holding a skull; there was a re-enactment of Romeo and Juliette in Hebrew where, true to form, Juliette was performed by a man; there was an acrobat performing on ropes over a fountain not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; there was a sword fight we just missed and – what I wanted to see most but missed – there was jousting!
Following the festival, me and two other friends caught a taxi to an area near Talpiot and proceeded to raid a construction dump for wood. The two boys carried the wood while I carried vodka and ice and we climbed up a hill to reach an empty lot between a church and an abandoned pagoda where two other acquaintances were waiting. The boys set about building a fire – it took a while to get the wet wood to burn – and once it was roaring the view and the atmosphere was spectacular. There we were, nearing midnight, sitting on a mountain warming our chilly feet by a fire, having drinks and looking out onto a view of the Old City lit up by night and – the most magical building in the Old City – the Dome of the Rock.
I was lucky enough to be invited to sleep in the Old City that night (and the following) so I woke up in the afternoon in a house in the Old City right by a church in which some remains of John the Baptist are kept. As I wanted to go to Bethlehem and the city apparently shuts down on Friday, we spent a lazy day Jerusalem with lots of food, sporadic naps and chit-chat. Wiped out from the night before – for we didn’t get back to the Old City until 6:30am and then made an elaborate breakfast, so I didn’t get to sleep until around 10am – I fell asleep early and got in a good night’s rest for my journey to Bethlehem.
At noon, my friend and I caught a bus to Bethlehem where we visited his previous workplace and I was given a number of great maps of Palestine and of Arab villages depopulated in 1948 during the Nakba. We then visited a university specializing in fine arts before heading, by shared taxi (and these really are shared taxis, not like the Israeli mini-buses that have been called the same) to the nearby town of Beit Jala for lunch because there’s a place that serves what is apparently the best barbecue chicken for miles around (I wasn’t a huge fan, I think I’ve been spoiled by delicious Montreal Portugese chicken). Our whole journey back and forth cost less than $5 for both of us.
Pleasantly stuffed, my friend led me to the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born. It was during service, so the door leading into the actual grotto in which Jesus was born was closed. However, I was able to see the beautiful 4th century mosaic floor in the center of the church and my friend, charming as he can be, led me to another door where he talked to the security and we were able to – after watching some beautiful Armenian singing and the lighting and spreading of incense in that part of the church – bypass the line and get into the grotto. I had to be very quick, but I bent down and touched the star marking the supposed location where Jesus was born while one of the priests shouted at everyone to hurry up. I swear, I have never witnessed less Christian behaviour than that of the priests in the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity. “Hurry up!” the priest said. “Just one minute,” an Italian couple responded, clearly touched by where they were. “NOT ONE MINUTE. THIS IS SERVICE. HURRY UP!” the priest roared back. I scampered.
We then visited the Catholic Church attached to the Church of the Nativity and some underground caves. However, my Lonely Planet was sorely lacking in information on this very important and very touristic location so I am unfortunately not aware of the significance of what I was seeing. It did, however, describe in fascinating detail how, after being plagued by management conflicts between the Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian clergy in the Church of the Nativity, a Muslim body was called in to arbitrate and still does to this day.
I then asked to see the Milk Grotto Chapel not far from the Church of the Nativity. The chapel is less well known and tradition states that during King Herod’s slaughter of male newborns Mary and Joseph hid in the cave to protect the baby Jesus. While Mary was feeding her newborn, a drop of milk fell on some stone, turning the stone in the cave milky white. Today, the faithful believe that ingestion of some of the stone can boost fertility and enhance their breast milk. The chapel itself was serene and lovely and we exited right above a small, very pretty, cemetery.
We caught a bus back to Jerusalem and this time I remembered my passport! The bus stopped at the checkpoint and everyone had to get out (though a few people – some foreigners and some Muslims from I-don’t-know-where – remained on the bus, they must have had special permission) and we had to line up in the cold and wait while all the cars before us were thoroughly checked. Finally, the soldiers got to us and everyone’s ID was checked. When it was my turn, I apprehensively handed the soldier my ID. She wasn’t satisfied with the photo proving that I am, in fact, who I claim to be, and wanted to see my visa. Now, my visa expired in September but I have had an application underway for an extension since then and when I visited the Ministry of the Interior asking for proof so I could enter and leave the West Bank with ease I was told that because I am in the system I would have no problems. I recounted this to the soldier, but she remained unconvinced. However, the male soldier beside her muttered “biseder” (okay) and they let me back on the bus.
My friend joined me without a problem, but without his ID. It turned out that the soldiers withhold all IDs of young men to check in the system, so we had to wait for them to get the IDs back before the bus could start moving. While waiting, my nose was stuck to the glass watching the differential treatment of Palestinian and Israeli cars driving through – with the latter being waved through without problem while the former wait in line and their cars are thoroughly searched from top to bottom. Interestingly, this has never happened to me when I’m in a car – whether the driver is Palestinian or not – so I’m still curious as to their selection method which, I have been told by coworkers, is random.
My wonderful weekend ended with a home-cooked meal in the Old City followed by a short stroll through downtown Jerusalem waking up from Shabbat. I noticed, while walking, an advertisement featuring a woman’s face was defaced and it brought to mind the ongoing issue that has been exposed recently about the gradual elimination of women from public space in Jerusalem. Haaretz has done a really good job talking about the different issues surrounding it and making it explicit that this is not the result of discriminatory laws against women, but rather the result of companies caving in to ultra-orthodox demands out of fear. I hadn’t noticed, until the Haaretz editorials began, the lack of women featured in ads through the city, though now it’s blatantly obvious. Similarly, I hadn’t realized that the defacing of women in ads was more than just youthful graffiti, something else Haaretz pointed out. It is interesting to be able to see the battle over space myself.