It’s not a long ride from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem, especially if it’s 4 AM and there’s little, in terms of traffic, to slow down our yellow-and-white sherut van.
We weave in and out of the most conservative neighbourhoods of the city, our Haredim travel companions leaving one by one in the same order they’ve come on board. “Those who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” doesn’t work on the sherut and, besides, it’s the New Testament. No one reads the sequel ’round here. Soon it’s my turn: the walls, the moat still littered by the stone blocks tossed there by Vespasian’s marauding legions, can only mean Damascus Gate.
It’s quiet at this time on a Friday. But for a few cops all muffled up against the cold, I’m alone. It’s way too early for even the first bus. I walk uphill to get some blood flowing in the legs numbed by the flight and the Lilliputian sherut
seats and chance upon New Gate.
Jerusalem sleeps. Religious nutjobs of all denominations are all in bed, dreaming of being right, and I share the street with the odd passer-by and cats. Drops of rain constellate the ageless stones as if the marble is sweating. Frankincense burns from a tin plate left on the steps of a building decorated with the insignia of the Franciscan order.
I fumble my way past the Ethiopian monastery, slingshot beyond the Holy Sepulchre and somehow land at the end of the road leading up to Damascus Gate. Day has broken whilst I ambled in the rabbit warren that is the Old City and now the sky is battleship grey.
Damascus gate has, for time immemorial, rhymed with Arabia. Its smells and perfumes are, through and through, those of Cairo, of Beirut: inebriating coffee, fresh bread with sesame seeds, the sweet decay of waste left behind from yesterday’s trades. Past the road are a motley crew of white-and-blue buses, those that don’t feature on the municipality’s luminous panels at bus stops. Some are Chinese Yutongs, barely six months old and already falling to bits; others are Israeli knock-offs. I board one specimen of this latter variant.
I hand my five shekels to the driver and I’m asleep before we make it out of the car park. A siren – loud, fast, angry – shakes me awake. I’m the only one left on board and the driver’s been calling out to me to get off; he’s still in the middle of the road, holding some significant traffic. A military jeep, insectoid in its beefed-up armour and metal grilles. I pirouette out of the bus and onto the tarmac, backpack in hand, disoriented and alone. Everyone else has either left or knows what they’re doing. As for me, I haven’t a clue. I’ve never walked through Checkpoint 300.
Posted in Israel, Middle East
Tagged Bethlehem, Bread, Bus, Checkpoint 300, Christianity, Church, Coffee, Damascus Gate, Dawn, Ethiopian, Ethiopian monastery, Franciscan order, Frankincense, Haredim, Holy Sepulchre, Islam, Israel, Jerusalem, Middle East, New Gate, Old city, Palestine, Sepulchre, Sherut, stone