The Shuk, Jerusalem
Though I had liked him from the start, Daniel never ceased growing on me. He was just so - normal. I had always thought of ‘normal’ as something negative and, like everyone else, had spent the recent years of my life trying very hard not to be. But now I felt differently. These last four months had instilled in me an appreciation for normality, for I had learned to regard it as an admirable virtue that was hard to come by in a person. Daniel was steady. He was extreme in nothing and very difficult to offend. He was my first and favorite friend on this maddening journey, and I had to see him again before my time here was through. He sat across from me now, enjoying a tall beer and the happy buzz of the marketplace. The narrow, covered street was lined with hip, shallow bars and food stands, and we had spent the evening partaking in many of their goods. About two months ago, I had passed another night similarly with him and Tyrone in his native Tel Aviv. It had been a good time, as it always was with him.
“Jewish and Italian mothers are exactly the same - except for one thing.” He had been complaining good-naturedly about his overbearing, yet well-meaning, mother, though I couldn’t remember how we arrived at this comparison. I was enjoying it nonetheless. “Italian mothers want you to stay forever, but Jewish mothers want you married and gone.” I thought about my Italian grandmother and nodded in agreement.
“My grandma did get all her sons to come home.”
“Exactly,” said Daniel. “And my mom wants to find me a nice wife to take over her job.” We laughed.
“You don’t say ‘interesting’ all the time anymore,” he observed a while later as we snacked on some fries.
“No, I guess I don’t.”
“It looks like Israel has toughened you up after all,” he winked. I paused to reflect on all that had happened since we met, and how we had returned to this moment.
“Oh, it definitely has,” I agreed, a little sad. “You were right.”
“Always am,” he grinned broadly.
We pulled up to the Student Village and hugged briefly before I got out of the car. Neither of us were big huggers. “Don’t get into trouble,” he called through the window, and drove away.
I will miss him, I thought. Honestly and truly, I will.
The Temple Mount, Jerusalem
It had taken me almost four months, but I was finally here. It couldn’t help but feel a tad anticlimactic in the winter rain, with only a few other tourists meandering the expansive square and a dreary grey hue cast upon everything. Even the giant gold dome seemed rather dull and opaque – not anything like the eternal glint that I could see from my window on sunny days. It was hard to believe that I was standing alone at ground zero of all the madness. Indeed, there was still a tension that lingered in the chilly air, but, then again, there was always that tension in Jerusalem, no matter where you went.
I circled around the hexagonal Dome of the Rock, admiring the deep blues, greens, and yellows of the tilework. Every so often, the sun would peek out and strike them momentarily, enhancing their vividness and lighting the great dome aglow. It was truly magnificent, and when it was over, everything seemed melancholy in comparison. It began to rain harder and I ducked under a gazebo that was modeled after the Dome. There was an old man praying that paid me no mind as I took in the ornately-tiled ceiling. When the rain let up, I stepped back out to take in the full view of the complex. Regardless of the weather, it was easy to see that this was by far the most iconic site in Jerusalem, as had been intended. This place represented Jerusalem and had been built to be seen from every vantage point in the city. Regardless of what it represented spiritually to whomever worshipped here, the structure itself was worth fighting for.
I opened up my umbrella and started back the way I’d come, towards Al-Aqsa. As I passed under the archway and down the steps from the square, there was a sharp popping sound like gunfire. I quickly identified the source to be two young boys throwing firework poppers under a breezeway at Al-Aqsa, but not before jumping out of my skin. I continued onward, shaking my head at the boys’ mischievous laughter. I thought there was currently a ban on Muslim males under the age of forty at Al-Aqsa, but apparently, a few slipped through….
The Old City, Jerusalem
It was my last day in Jerusalem. I chose to spend it wandering the Old City as I had countless times before, visiting my favorite places like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but also seeking out new ones that were lesser known. I would miss this city, I realized with a pang as I walked down the familiar alleyways and through the markets. The shopkeepers recognized me now and didn’t hound me anymore. In fact, I had grown quite friendly with a couple of them - like the jolly old man with blue eyes who sold suitcases. I stopped to say goodbye to him and bought a duffle bag, as I had promised I would the first time we met. He wished me all the best back in Hollywood.
Everything was rouged with the tint of sentimentality. I encountered a mounted policeman in riot garb who was not friendly in the least, but allowed me to pet his giant black steed. Even this was beautiful, I thought, something to be cherished.
I wandered until I was a little lost, and came upon a tucked-away church that I had never seen before. I ventured inside to find that it was fairly typical (although the standard was high in Jerusalem). On my way out, a middle-aged man who I presumed to be a tour guide handed me a pamphlet and explained the history of the church. He spoke English very well and was very knowledgeable; moreover, he seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing his knowledge. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing here. When he discovered it was my last day, he shifted into high gear. “Come with me,” he ordered, and started across the street. My answer must have been clear on my face. “Don’t worry, I don’t want your money. I don’t need it, trust me!” He strode rapidly away, paying no mind to the tourists and pilgrims in his path. I stayed put for a moment, scanning situation and wondering if I had completely lost my mind, because I knew that I wanted to follow him, and that I probably would. And I did.
I scurried across the street, ducking into a hole-in-the-wall church behind him. He paid the nun the entrance fee for both of us, and seemed to know her personally. I was wary of having him pay for me, thinking that there had to be a catch, but I was also intrigued. I decided to proceed with caution, remaining behind him at all times and within the safety of the public gaze.
It was hard to keep up as he led me down a series of steps to a mound of fairly ordinary stone protruding from the floor. “This, right here,” he exclaimed, stopping abruptly to point at the rock, “this is where many believe Christ was actually crucified.” I looked at the rock and back at him, nodding. He was a rapid talker. “Most think it’s the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - but they’re wrong. That’s not possible. That location would have been inside of the city walls at the time, and Christ was crucified outside the city. The only reason they believe this is because the empress Helena picked it as the place.” He shook his head excitedly. “This location would have been outside of the city and was actually a hill during the time of Christ. The Romans performed many crucifixions here. We can never know for sure, but this was probably the place.” He gave me a moment of silence to take in the rock. There were only a few other tourists quietly wandering about, not really sure what they were looking at. It was nothing like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with its scores of pushy pilgrims. “You see,” he began again, looking me dead in the eye and slowing his words, “it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter where Christ was actually crucified. This whole city has been built over many times. The streets that we walk on today were once the roofs of another Jerusalem. The places are not what make this city holy. It is in here.” He placed his hand over my heart. “It’s the spirit of this city and that of the people who have lived here for ages. They have found peace amongst each other, even though they have different beliefs. We are all neighbors in this little city.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked him.
“I own half this city,” he said, matter-of-factly. I cocked my head in confusion. “Told you I didn’t need your money.” He winked and dashed away. I took a moment to reconsider before scampering off behind him.
I spent the next two hours chasing this strange man all over (and under) the Old City. He took me places I’d been before (the Wailing Wall, the rooftop where I’d first seen the Dome of the Rock with Stav), but his wealth of information made everything shine anew. He also took me to places no average tourist would know about or even have access to - like an underground cistern from biblical times and a boarded-up restaurant that was extremely popular during the Ottoman period. Some of these places, he had to get special permission from the clergymen who protected them to enter (he knew them all).
It was an unparalleled whirlwind of a day tour, but I was equally interested in learning more about this curious man. I couldn’t believe that he -or anyone - could own a good portion of this eternal city, just as I couldn’t believe that there would not be some kind of price to pay at the end of this tour. It was simply too good to be true, and I was ready to make a run for it at any point. But, until that time came, I was enjoying myself tremendously. Over the course of the tour, I learned that this man, Aram, was an Armenian Christian whose family had lived here for centuries. He owned a genealogy business, but also taught at Hebrew University and enjoyed volunteering at his church on the side. He lived in a giant white mansion overlooking the city, which he pointed out to me from the rooftops, and he was full of stories that bordered on the ridiculous. I had resolved to believe that he was a crazy, albeit intelligent man. However, he did seem be good friends with just about every shopkeeper, local, or holy man we encountered. “You see?” he turned to me after a jovial exchange with a gang of Arab shopkeepers. “This is the part of Jerusalem you don’t hear about. I am Christian, but I am friends with all of my neighbors here, whether Christian or Muslim or Jew. Name any other place where you can find so many holy places, and so many different kinds of people sharing them in peace.”
The final place he took me was the Christ Church Guesthouse, a compound of Ottoman era buildings that was just across the street from the Tower of David Museum. I had come here before to explore the courtyard and the tranquil gardens, and it was one of my favorite havens in the city to get away from it all. As we passed under the gated archway, we were greeted warmly by a caretaker, but with a noticeably heightened level of respect. “This is one of my properties,” Aram said. “I rent it out to the church.” I was finally starting to believe him. He showed me the Crusader church within the compound and the priest paused his speech to say hello. We went back outside and he pointed at the parking lot. “This, though, this is the real gem. Do you know how much money I make in a year off of parking?” I shook my head. He told me, and the figure almost tipped me over.
We emerged back into the bustling street near Jaffa Gate, and he asked me if I wanted to visit a few more places. I told him I had to pack, which I did, and I waited for him to reveal the “catch”. Honestly, I would have been more than happy to pay him, as he actually deserved it, but to my great surprise, he was already speeding away, unceremoniously yelling over his shoulder to get home safely and contact him if I ever wanted genealogy work done. And, just like that, he was gone.
I took one last look at the city I had explored so hungrily many times over, feeling at last that I knew it and could carry it with me for a long time to come. When I was finished, I made my way out under the grand arches of Jaffa Gate, denying the urge to look back as an unforeseen tear slid down my face.