Jerusalem

by Rixa Ann Freeze

The first day in the city we stumble through a swirl of markets and Arabic and veiled women. We swallow our guide’s words like an antidote: don’t walk through this gate; buy from this vender; never make eye contact; remember that all the men are sex maniacs and they especially like blonde Americans. I think, So we’re supposed to live in a convent and spend our eight thousand dollars inside the BYU Jerusalem Center learning how privileged we are and how beautiful the city is and only see the right things. The girl next to me chews her perfectly outlined lips and asks, “Is that really true, about the men?”

“Don’t worry. You have dull brown hair. I’ll fling mine around to distract any maniacs nearby,” I say.

Her heavily made-up eyes fix on my blonde hair and turn back to the guide, unsure whether to relax or to harden at the possible insult. “I’m Jacqueline,” she says.

Our guide is complacent, has the city figured out. He’s one of the Center’s rich administrators. He shows us where to enter the city—through a north-facing gate lined with bright holiday lights. Neon tubing spells out the gate’s name in Arabic. It’s Ramadan this month, thirty days of fasting and thirty nights of feasting along with fireworks and noise bombs that shatter my sleep and make me imagine I’m under siege—a Holy War outside my bedroom. An amphitheater of steps leads down to the entrance blocked by apple tea vendors and Israeli Defense Force soldiers.

They wear camouflage and huge guns. “They’re there for security reasons,” Jacqueline tells me; “you know how violent people are here.”

She runs over to the soldiers and tells me to take a picture of her. I wince when she starts flirting with one of them and asks to hold his gun. I take the picture before she can pose and then I try to look occupied with something else. Cameras are like tourists: annoying and intrusive.

A male student behind me whistles at one of the female soldiers, tells me he’s always liked girls with guns. “Be careful what you say around here,” I say. He laughs and I try to look annoyed. Jacqueline says, “Yeah, I hear they shoot first and ask later here.”

Old men in white robes and red checkered kafias shuffle down the stairs, wearing their allegiance to Arafat around their foreheads. One answers his cell phone, reminding me that Jesus’ time was thousands of years ago. We strain through the gate and step over the basil and mint spread on cloths. Shriveled women chant their prices like the call to prayer I hear five times a day.

“Strangling chickens. Don’t they sound as if they’re strangling chickens over a loudspeaker?”

Although the path is paved in crushed limestone that skitters like dropped marbles, I do not know Jacqueline is there until she speaks. I’m perched on the wide limestone wall surrounding the Center, scribbling down the loudest call to prayer. I think it’s from the man we met last week, the one who prays in the neon-lit tower overlooking the Dome of the Rock. He stays on one drone then spills melismas over and under his pitch. She says, “You really don’t notice things, do you?”

“Not when I have something important on my mind.” I hope I don’t sound too rude. His call is over now, and I still only have figured out a few notes of the first words, Allah, ho-akhbar allah, ho-akhbar. The evening carries smells of sage and sour yogurt that turn up the edges of the notebook I’ve filled with minutia only a foreigner would care about. It’s my rebellion from cameras. I can’t stand poking my lens into someone’s life, stealing their soul so I can prove I’ve experienced something.

“I think you really need to get out,” Jacqueline says. “Why don’t you come with us?”

“What’s the plan?”

“I found this great place where you can buy non-kosher hamburgers and pizza. I’ve finally been able to eat now.”

“Don’t you like falafel and shawarmas? There’s a little stand down the street, and they’ll even show you how to make the falafel paste if you ask. I wrote it down here somewhere.”

Jacqueline grimaces and says, “Falafel smells like those horrid fluorescent pink pickles they sell in the Old City. I tried it once and about died. Serious, I haven’t eaten normal food in ages.”

“I don’t know. I’d rather try something authentic. Maybe Jordanian food.”

The red light picks through her hair and turns it into a glowing bush—Moses’ miracle encasing a painted fence. Jerusalem stands in silhouette, black domes and spires against a bloody sky. I straighten the edges of my notebook against the chiseled stone and try to look occupied. She hesitates, scatters limestone chips with her platform shoes, says, “Too bad you don’t want to come.” I nod thanks and she leaves. A minute later I hear her accost another student and chatter about the awful dirty men who always look at her chest, she’s sure of it, and how she can’t wait to go home and see her friends again.

I see Jacqueline the next morning on her balcony crying over a crown of thorns she bought along with two authentic Jerusalem candles with the “made in Taiwan” stickers only half ripped away. “It’s so beautiful,” she says, “I mean the pure white pain He must have felt and these thorns ripping down and the laughing stinking crowd. So awful and beautiful.”

Awful like the smell of sweat and open sewers, like the sewer we cross descending the Kidron valley. The stream rolls over old couch springs and dead cats. When we enter the Kidron on our way to the city we breathe through our mouths to bypass the smell until we emerge through the vegetable stands on the other side of the valley, always sour from over-aged lemons and turnips. The air swirls away the muggy smell of sewer with a blast of exhaust fumes and dust. My lungs constrict and I must slow my steps to clear my asthma before ascending the hairpin turns up to Jerusalem.

Jacqueline and another friend invite themselves along when I say I want to see the Armenian quarter. Jacqueline is in an expansive mood today, gushing over the “quaint” hovels at the stinking heart of the Kidron, smiling to the gap-toothed Arab children waving at us and saying the only English they know: how are you? oh my heck! hello Americans. She yells back shalom, giggles when she realizes it is Hebrew, not Arabic, and tries again: marhabba.

Once inside the city we try to locate the Armenian quarter but find ourselves pushed along the narrow alleys lined with meat cuts and pirated music. We merge with a stream of Europeans and meander through the Christian quarter. I like the surprising courtyards buried between churches and shops and how a submerged road suddenly turns into a rooftop, little epiphanies in this writhing city.

“The real thing is never as dramatic as the pictures,” Jacqueline says when she sees the Holy Sepulcher. She buys a cheap book of photographs called “The Christian Quarter Uncovered” with bad religious poetry next to each picture. We walk down the Via Dolorosa, the road of Jesus’ last journey encased under two centuries of granite and limestone. She stops at one of the Stations of the Cross, listening to an Italian tour group and pretending she understands the guide droning through the loudspeaker. “It’s where He cried,” she says, “and His tears stained the rocks here. See, all the gouges running down the wall?”

I say, “The guy was probably showing one of the ladies where the bathroom is. These walls were built only four hundred years ago. Come on.”

Jacqueline takes two pictures, asking if I think her flash caught the small vertical rivers and shouldn’t she have used her telephoto lens instead? I adopt a vague look and hope no one sees me next to an American with a camera. I’m getting a headache.

We return to the Center carrying dark plastic sacks full of the day’s treasures. I regret buying the flimsy Gaza dress that will shrink seven inches on its first washing. I’m tired from being a tourist and want to erase my identity, to blend in with the tall Palestinian girls wearing business suits, five inch heels, and white silk veils. I sit on the bathroom counter and wash the dust from my feet. Jacqueline comes from her room across the hall and asks me which skirt I like better and if her shoes are too loud. I lean against the mirror and watch the steam from the sink send puffs of fog against the glass. She’s going to a concert with some friends and “promise you won’t tell anyone that some IDF soldiers are going to meet us there.”

“It’s your life,” I say.

She selects a pale purple cotton skirt with tied fringes around the bottom—her newest find for only twenty shekels, about six dollars. Probably made by the same person as that dress I bought. “I really had to bargain with the man,” she says, “and you know how stubborn Arabs are. But you know you can never cheat an Arab—they’ll only sell you something if they can get a profit.” The Arab who ripped her off probably doesn’t have indoor plumbing or two pairs of shoes, lives off less than half of what we paid to come here.

I towel off my feet and walk out onto my balcony, the limestone cool against my bare feet. Across the valley lies the city; the walls buckle and heave through folds of air. Jacqueline follows me.

With a turn of her head she sums up the city and defines her experience—a lark she can always leave for her stale world of photos and cliches and acrylic prayer rugs. She is a voyeur gazing at the rabble around her.

My notebook lies on the balcony wall, open to a sketch of Hasidic Jews dancing in private ecstasy at the Western Hall. I pick it up and wonder if I’m any better than the crowds of pale, rich tourists hovering over rocks or shrines, trying to capture Jerusalem and bring it home in a near package. My hair falls in front of my eyes and catches the sun, turns a blinding gold like Solomon’s temple, gold marking me as alien.

I look at Jacqueline. Any of the people I am trying so hard to blend in with would see no difference between the two of us—both spoiled tourists intruding into their city and stealing away bits of their lives, pieces of their souls. Camera or not.