written by Hillevi Helm
Today, I happened to find myself in an armchair, doing nothing, not because I had nothing to do. In reality, I have plenty of things awaiting my attention, but today I simply didn’t have the energy for them. I sat there daydreaming about the trips I want to take. Such moments can take time.
When it comes to travel, I’m somewhat of a returner. My loved one claims to be an explorer; he keeps track of how many countries he’s visited, far more than I have, and I also want to explore new places. But there’s something special about returning to a place, a favorite café, or a bar. You walk in and notice that everything is just as it was, or perhaps not. Maybe someone has put up new wallpaper, maybe there are new owners. You can say somewhat surprised to the person working there, “You’ve certainly got new walls since the last time,” and it makes you feel a bit special.
One of many such places is tucked away in the shadows in Jerusalem. You enter through the Damascus Gate and follow the road down; it slopes with long, long flights of steps, crowded with vendors, mostly selling vegetables. But over the years, I’ve noticed that more and more clothing stalls have appeared, the kind that makes you wonder, who buys this? The neighborhood is predominantly Muslim, but right at the beginning of the steps into the bazaars, there’s a small bar. Here, you can sit and sip wine from the Golan Heights. The bar straddles the border between a Christian and a Muslim area, and the fact that its back end is free from religious restrictions allows them to serve wine.
Here, you sit in the front row for observing everyday life, with food shopping. For many, it’s part of their daily religious life on their way to and from holy places, of which there are many nearby. The Jews hurry downwards, down the stairs. On Fridays, they are dressed in silk, hats that look like they’re made of beaver fur, who knows. High white knee socks and patent leather shoes. They stare at the ground; if I don’t see anyone, no one sees me either, is that how they think?
The Christians are heading in the opposite direction, with the holiest of holy churches right behind us, and an anglo-Saxon congregation comes in blue mantles with golden embroidery; it’s fascinating.
The everyday, tense life of armed individuals is also richly represented in blue, green, and gray uniforms, heavy weapons, and vacant stares. I’m not sure if it makes me feel safe or concerned.
I, at least, can’t get enough of looking. I feel like I’m in the middle of a Star Wars movie, on Tatooine, where Jabba the Hutt rules. I don’t think anyone would react much if Darth Vader passed by; there are many look-alikes circulating here. Orthodox priests, Catholic priests, Franciscan monks, these might resemble Yoda’s more, but they all fit in.
It’s easy for another glass to be poured.
One of the brothers from the bar comes and sits down, and we start to talk. Guess he recognises us from the days before.
“How’s life here? Are you getting along?”
He laughs a little and tells me that the family originally came from Armenia, but that was a few generations ago. He himself was raised in this house, still lives here with his wife, his brother and his family, as well as their parents.
“We here on the shelf,” he says, nodding towards the two neighboring coffee bars, “we’ve known each other for ages and keep an eye on each other’s businesses, helping out. We tolerate each other, we’re not enemies, but we don’t invite each other over for dinner either. It goes its own way.”
It seems worse in the house itself. Two brothers with wives and families, so at odds that they can’t speak to each other. We take care of the bar every other year; it works best that way. Then we’re not in each other’s way. Jerusalem seems to have its conflicts around every corner, I think, while two soldiers slip into a cafe next door, while we are still sipping wine.
It is going to be one of those long nights before we slip out of Damascus Gate.