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Six Hours in Jerusalem

An old Arab man read my fortune today. I wandered into his shop – a metal jungle of souvenir gems, trinkets, oil lamps, and kiddush cups. He said he could see my soul in my eyes, and that it was as light as air. He assured me he meant light in a pure way, not in an empty way.

“Light as air.” He rubbed his leathery fingers together and I looked for his soul in his crystal blue eyes briefly before returning my attention to the tarnished silver kiddush cups in a ceramic bowl by my feet.

“I can see you,” he explained. “I can see that you are very sensitive, which is a good thing because you are open to everyone. But it is also a bad thing because it means people can hurt you. I see you are a big dreamer. You imagine great things. But sometimes you dream too big.”

I was dubious as I think any traveler would be at the proposition of having his or her fortune read, but I wanted to know more: How many children will I bear? (2 boys, said the man who read my fortune in my palm in Delhi last June). How do I become less sensitive? Is it bad to be a big dreamer??

Trinkets in Jerusalem
Instead of further engaging him in talk about my soul, I made a purchase (a miniature engraved silver kiddush cup) and told the shopkeeper I must be on my way since I had plans to see the Dome of the Rock.

That enchanting golden summit, it’s been calling to me for ten years now.

When we visited Israel on our eighth grade trip in 2004, we drove straight from the airport on our first day to the Mount of Olives to look out at the whole east side of Jerusalem.

I remember being all-at-once swept up by the disorientation of jet lag and the thrill of adrenaline, and there in a sea of white, angular stone buildings in the hills, the golden dome demanded my attention. It seemed, at least from that distance, to be a much more impressive sight than it’s neighbor, the Western Wall, and I remember wishing it had been a Jewish holy site as opposed to a Muslim one because it was so beautiful and I wanted to be permitted to visit it.

Jerusalem graffiti

A guard in head-to-toe black with a machine gun slung over his shoulder stepped directly in front of me today, abruptly blocking my path.

“You can’t go this way. Muslims only.”

I feigned confusion and ignorance. “Oooh! I have to go in another way, don’t I?” Of course I already knew the answer; I had tried to enter through the non-Muslim gate just beforehand but was denied because I had arrived after the designated visiting hours.

“Yes. It’s closed now. Opens 7:30 tomorrow.”

“Ah okay. Thank you.”

Part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t pass as Muslim. How did he know?? I guess the pigtails aren’t helping my case. I briefly considered buying a head scarf and trying again but quickly realized how silly that idea was. Ridiculous, really.

By my fourth hour of wandering, I was drained. I bought bottled water from another Arab shopkeeper. I think he, too, read my fortune in my tired eyes and could see that I was exhausted. He offered me a seat in his store and a generous shot of Arabic coffee, “not the Turkish, weak stuff.”

I told him about my thwarted efforts to get closer to the Dome of the Rock and he asked if I was Jewish or Christian. For the first time in my life I lied and said I was Christian, not because I was afraid or embarrassed – surely this man is friends with plenty of Jews, he lives in Jerusalem after all – but because I was curious about what it would feel like to play the part for a moment, no head scarf required.

Church in Jerusalem

Pretending to not be able to read the Hebrew label on the package of snacks I bought to complement my water and coffee (“Bamba”, it said, the name of the acclaimed peanut butter-flavored corn puff snack) was about as exciting as it got to masquerade as a Christian, by the way.

Despite not actually being Christian, I found it quite easy to feel spiritual in my next stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Once I finally found the place after an hour of searching and stubbornly refusing to ask for help because I didn’t want to mispronounce the name, I finally succumbed to the hallowed dimness of it’s cavernous interior.

Church in Jerusalem

Hushed, dark and dripping.

I brushed my fingers over the crosses that  had been etched into the walls. Many people bent over a stone in the entryway to whisper prayers and cry and kiss the slab while others lit their blessings in skinny candles held erect in a bed of sand. Oxidized silver chandeliers hung in every room and throughout the arched, stone tunnels. Sacred, sacred place.

Church wall in Jerusalem

I was overcome with the urge to invest in a proper rosary (for what purpose I couldn’t tell you) upon emerging back into the daylight,  but I suppressed that desire and instead descended yet again into the darkness, this time clear underground into the tunnels that run parallel to the Western Wall. My last stop.

It was surprisingly warm down there.

I tried to picture the sky above me instead of the ceiling of stone that exists today. My feet were planted on the original 2,000-year-old street lined by extremely well-preserved columns and I got caught up imagining myself walking along the temple mount with throngs of ancient pilgrims on my way to the top. Perhaps I would have been bringing an animal sacrifice.

And when I was standing there today imagining myself as an ancient pilgrim in 15 CE or something like that – I mean really embodying that unknown memory- I thought, maybe it’s not so bad to be a big dreamer.


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