Thursday, May 25, 2017

I make it to the Western Wall along with several thousand young Jewish folk celebrating their country’s survival. As for becoming a master at bartering, I’m not even off the starting block, but at least my stepmother gets her crucifix (made of olive wood with just a dash of ‘holy sand’)

Israel – Day 3: Jerusalem

Well, actually that was yesterday, and I am confusing myself. If I arrived at 19.30 on Monday and got to my hotel an hour or so later, that would be, by this reckoning, Day 0, but I had that only to keep myself on the straight and narrow. ‘Cos although the title says ‘Jerusalem’, that was yesterday. With me? Does it matter? No, not really.

I picked an interesting day to visit what I shall diplomatically call the capital of Israel and the capital of Palestine (although, as yet, no Palestinian state exists. And I’ve decided - well, realised - that pretty much always the best course to take is not to take sides. I admire both sides, but support neither in their conflict).

Even though I had hired a car (and eventually got to pick it up courtesy of a photocopy of my driving licence), I realised it would be far simpler and easier to take the advice of the Jewish accountant I met in Luton airport and take the bus. Easier and simpler? You bet. It’s just a ten-minute walk from my hotel to the bus station next to Tel Aviv rail station and once aboard the 480, you are in Jerusalem central bus station 50 minutes later for just 16 shekels (£3.45/$4.48), which is value in anyone’s currency, and the buses run every 20 minutes throughout the day. But that’s enough trivial detail.

Once in Jerusalem, I then had to get to the Old City. So: how do I get to the Old City? I asked a burly security guard next to the light railway (i.e. tram - who calls a tram a light railway? Well, the Israelis do. Oh, and sadly, though understandably, burly and not so burly security guards are thick on the ground in Jerusalem). He told me, so I jumped on the tram and within minutes found myself in conversation with Albery/Albury - don’t know the spelling - who now an Israeli, was born and raised in Glasgow before moving to Israel once he graduated.

I told him I was heading to the Old City. and he said ‘come with me, I’m going there, too, so I’ll show you.’ It turns out that although he was a teacher, he was also a volunteer guide to the Old City, and he gave me a lot if good info on the way. We entered through the Jaffa Gate, and he
passed on all kinds of information along the way. I was on my way to the Western Wall and we parted company just before. The day was interesting to visit because, as my new Scottish/Israeli friend told me: the Old City will be jam-packed with people, especially young people, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Six Day War in 1967 which was a stunning success for Israel. And I should point out that on that occasion Israel was attacked on all sides by its hostile Arab neighbours, an attack it thwarted quite superbly.

There were young folk everywhere, all wearing white T-shirts and in a hell of a good mood. And given that the country’s very existence was at stake in 1967 and they were celebrating the thwarting of the threat to their country’s existence, who can blame them? There is far more that might be said about the ongoing Israel/Palestinian conflict, and I must add that I am not completely ignorant to its complexities, but I shan’t pontificate about it here. I shall only add that ‘not taking sides’ ever, but being open to hearing what both sides have to say is, for me at least, pretty important.

. . .

The Western Wall is, well, the Western Wall, the holy of holies of Judaism, and although this idiot is now that curious sort, a man who believes in God, but nothing at all beyond that, I do respect those who have another faith, unless, of course, they subscribe to any creed - or rather and better the bastardisation of any creed - that involves the misery, death or destruction of non-adherents. It’s notable that pretty much every faith in its purest form has as one of its central tenets goodwill to all mankind, irrespective of race, colour or creed, and that only the nutters - of whom there are far too many - take a minority view.

So there were many devout and I should think even not quite so devout Jews at the Wall milling around and praying. I myself went up and touched it, but I have to say I didn’t say a prayer of any sort.

After that it was off through one of the exits and then I found myself in the warren of very narrow alleyways with ‘shops’ selling pretty much anything and everything. And it was here that my bartering skills show themselves to be not just in their infancy but pretty much stillborn.

. . .

Just before I left Cornwall, my stepmother, an Irish Roman Catholic who still takes communion and all the rest, rang me to ask me to bring her back a crucifix made of olive wood. Well, why not? So sauntering along past row upon row of shops selling all kinds of what I have to describe as - sorry - Christian kitsch I spotted crosses and crucifixes. (The difference is a
crucifix has the added figure of Jesus nailed to the cross). ‘Interested?’ asked the seller while I was looking at his array of crucifixes in all kind of different sizes.

How much is this one?’ I asked, pointing to a medium-sized crucifix. 200 shekels, he told me, and pointing to a small window at is base added ‘real olive wood, it has holy sand’. Well, that was too steep. 100, I replied. 150, he came back. OK, I said, do you have any without holy sand? Ah, well, he said, in that case you will want just a cross, and he picked one up.

How much? I asked. 80 shekels (£17.27/$22.38). Still a bit steep, I thought (and I must admit that the ‘80’ still rather frightened me, although it was shekels. (NB Charged 16 shekels that morning in a cafe in Tel Aviv for a large cappuccino, I remember thinking ‘well, that’s a bit steep. Maybe they have price and tourist prices. Well, no they don’t - 16 shekels is actually a not at all exorbitant £3.45/$4.48 in Western money and pretty much what you will pay in Old Blighty.) ‘I’ll pay 40 shekels,’ I said. ‘Done,’ he said, and there my duty to my stepmother seemed fulfilled.

Here, just to conclude this account of my pitifully poor battering skills, I must jump forward a little. Later, after I had visited the American Colony Hotel and negotiated my way back from East Jerusalem jam-packed with huge numbers of heavily armed Israeli and Palestinian soldiers, I found myself back in the warren of dimly-lit alleyway and walked past more ‘shops’ selling everything and anything. And there I saw some more crucifixes (the ones with the figure of Jesus).

These were just as big as the ones I had seen and even had the, I suppose obligatory window of ‘holy sand’. I was approached by the shop owner. 'You Interested?’ he asked. How much? I asked. 50 shekels, he said. 2o, I replied. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are (I must now paraphrase) cutting my throat! 25 shekels and I’ll give you a small gift.’ I agreed. I paid up my 25 shekels and received my small gift - a tiny cross, about 3cm tall by 2cm across. Bargain!

So let us here reflect on the economics of such a difference in price: 200 shekels in one shop, but just 25 shekels in another barely a quarter of a mile away, and, furthermore, one which is identical and which was most likely manufactured in the same sweatshop in Nablus, and one, I should imagine, of 2,000 produced in any given working day? What factor is at play here? Simple: the stupidity - call it gullibility if you want to be charitable - of the punter/tourist. Oh, well.

. . .

I jumped forward, of course, so here I’ll jump back again. Once I had reached the Damascus Gate which leads into East Jerusalem, I consulted Google Maps and headed for the American Colony Hotel. Although I had long realised that staying there was way out of my price league, I decided I could still visit it, have a beer or two and ring my stepmother from its interior restaurant courtyard. And this I did. And there I also treated myself to my second plate of hummus and pitta bread (pretty much all I have eaten so far in the past few days, but I’m not complaining).

An hour or three later, I decided to visit the Al Aqsa mosque and was persuaded by the front desk that taking a taxi rather than walking was the best way to get there. There was a taxi waiting outside, which I assumed had been ordered, but which, in fact, was waiting for custom. Yet there was no sign of the driver. He was eventually discovered (I hadn’t actually spotted him) dozing on the back seat. But before you conclude - and as I was about to write - that cliches abound in real life as well as fiction, I should point out that the taxi wasn’t parked on some dusty street in downtown East Jerusalem but outside the exceptionally plush American Colony Hotel. As for the dozing, well, he explained that he was cleaning the back of the cab. Why not? It’s what I would do, too.

We took off for the Al Aqsa mosque, but didn’t get very far. The roads were blocked off by armed Israeli soldiers - the women rather fiercer than the men, but, I have to say, twice as attractive (what is it with women in uniforms?) - so it was out of the taxi and onto the street. Again consulting Mr Google I slowly made my way back to where I had come from (and then came across the ‘shop’ selling crucifixes while again negotiating the warren of shops) trying to find my way back to the Jaffa Gate, although only because that was where I thought I should be able to catch the tram back to the bus station.

On my way I came across the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and dutifully - I am, after all, a tourist - stopped off there. The name of the church was known to me and might be to you, too, just as we are all dimly aware of other global landmarks such as Robben Island, Buckingham Palace, Greenland, Ayers Rock and I don’t know what else. But I had to consult Google to remind myself - oh, all right, to read up on its significance. Well!

Apparently the church was built in the 4th century on the spot where, it is said and believed by many, Jesus was not only crucified but, quite nearby, buried. Well, dear reader, I find that just a little hard to believe. Sorry, but I do. I really can’t imagine that the Romans crucified convicted men quite so close to everything else, and it also rather stretches credulity to accept that the corpse was then entombed about 2oft away. But as I have pointed out, I am at pains not to step on too many toes in these here blog entries, so if that is your conviction, good luck to you. And I have to say there were a good many who do have that conviction, notably many faithful of Indian heritage.

Then it was a slow schlepp back home. Slow, because by now, towards the end of the afternoon the crows of celebrating the glorious anniversary had grown substantially and there were No Trams. None. Not one. Google insisted it was just an 18-minute walk from the Jaffa Gate to the central bus station, but...

I later consulted my iPhone health app and was assured I had walked 11.9km overall. You might be accustomed to walking far further (and, please, no bragging emails telling me and implying just what a sodding wuss I am) but I am not.

Oh, one last thing. Just as two or three years ago in Mallorca I became thoroughly fed up carrying about with me all kinds of shite - my cigars, my mobile phone, my iPad (which I am now using to write this outside the Bell Cafe in Jaffa - a power pack, a novel to read (why for God’s sake, I never read it), reading glasses, sunglasses and I don’t know what else) I bought a ‘man bag’ in a street market (which was stolen from my car just months later, along with my brother’s ashes, though that is another tale), I spotted a bag shop in the warren of underground shops I was walking through and bought another - fake leather, natch and cheap, but who cares. It’s a lot easier than juggling all kinds of crap.

So there you have it: one idiot’s guide to Jerusalem. Today I took the bus downtown to Jaffa and tomorrow I shall, I think, head off to the Sea of Gallilee and try out my water-walking skills. Well, you have to don’t you, just as many Brit tourists have lost their lives in Spain trying their hand at bullfighting.
. . .

But bugger all that. Best news yesterday: Manchester United beat Ajax 2-0 to win the Europa Cup but, more important, qualified for next year’s Champions League. Yes, even for this convoluted, confused semi-atheist there is a God!

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