Tuesday afternoon. Here I am in a smoke-filled Internet cafe, with a BIG sign that says, "No Smoking! And that means YOU!" But I will persevere! It feels VERY good to be sitting down as we walked for about 5 hours today. And today we successfully visited the third most holy site in Old Jerusalem -- the Dome of the Rock. We went back and forth between Israeli guards who gave us different information each time, different gates to pass through, and different times for access. But today, we went early and just persevered. A clump of determined tourists gathered at the entry point as well so I felt relatively safe. Once past yet another checkpoint with armed guards we entered the beautiful open courtyard to see the golden glowing dome of the Dome of the Rock mosque. This is the place Moslems believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven, thus making it very holy. Jews also believe this same place is where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. Intensely blue colored Persian style tiles covered everywhere, and although we were not allowed to go inside, we could walk all the way around this magnificant mosque and see the surrounding buildings and arches in the Mamluk style. The hour alloted for nonbelievers was soon over but the sense of tranquility remains when I think of that spot.
We walked back to our hotel, the New Jerusalem Inn (where we have heat, a fridge, a tv, and all the comforts of home nearly), but the walk through the souq (pronounced shook) is still very sad. So few tourists pass by that the shopkeepers are not only bored but they are desperate for customers. Every imaginable object for sale is on display -- holy relics for all three religions, including glow-in-the-dark madonnas, Russian icons, beautifully embroidered floor-length robes for men and women, silver jewelry, the famous Israeli pottery with the Islamic style blue flowers, bags, carpets, red (rose water) and dark yellow candy (home-made rolled in coconut and sprinkled with green pistachio nuts), and the smell of spices, felafel stands, everywhere the cry, "Mister, come look in my shop, just look." Or, "I have a bargain for you, everything free today!"
Yesterday we walked the Via Dolorosa, supposedly the route that Christ took on his way to crucifixion (which historians have long debated which is THE correct route). Churches or little sanctuaries dot each station of the cross to give pilgrims a moment to pray. We visited them all, empty streets, no pilgrims. In fact we entered Old Jerusalem (the walled city) by Damascus Gate right into the Arabic section to find a heavy police presence. We walked slowly along, enjoying the sounds of a busy market, the melodious flow of Arabic around us, when suddenly just ahead of us, three Israeli police (not to be confused with Israeli soldiers) simply tossed over an entire box of undergarments in an open stall. I was shocked! The old woman, wrapped from head to foot in her robes, just sat there, looking after them. Her husband (?) just looked after them? He shrugged in response to my query as if to say, "Who can understand why?". Allen helped them pick everything up, but we were both saddened by this tension for it suggests that peace will be difficult in the West Bank and Jerusalem. We're both reading books (Yes, we found a bookstore) about contemporary Israel to understand the history -- mine by Amos Oz. Strong feelings are based on a brutal history of war and betrayals on both sides. I am at least more comfortable in the Arabic quarter of Jerusalem, but we decided not to visit the West Bank. A travel agent said that Masada, Bethlehem and Jerico are ok, but nothing else. We plan a day trip down to Masada then in another week, we'll hit the road again.
More about food? Our best lunches are from street stands -- fresh grilled fish, eggplant "chips" and very fresh (just baked) bread. That was my favorite experience in the Arabian Quarter by the Damascus Gate. We went into a little bakery where the baker was baking the bread (pita style bread) in an open pit oven. We bought just one piece of bread for roughly a quarter and he handed it to me, then apologized and handed me a piece of paper to hold it with for it was way too hot to handle! His smile and courtesy were memorable.
While in Be'ersheva we finally were able to visit our friends Fani and Avi. Already 12 years have passed since they were in Corvallis. Fani had a little cold, so she made a small Shabbat dinner for us -- so much wonderful food -- many different salads, home-made olives, chicken schnitzel, something called Jerusalem grill (all the organs of the chicken cooked with garlic, my favorite!), rice with carrots, beets, and another green meat patty, and two desserts -- chocolate mousse and apple strudel. Strudel, by the way, is what Israeli's call the @ sign for e-mail. It was very, very good to visit friends and we hope to see Oshi in the Golan Heights when we go there.
Just now the trees are starting to turn from bud to leaf; cherry trees are in blossom. Today I went without a coat and Allen got sunburned. Israel is a beautiful country, its cities building new spaces even as I write. In the towns we see much energy, and we hope to visit a kibbutz before leaving. Meanwhile, all is well. Morning begins with fruit, bread and tea, and then adventure!