Monday, September 06, 2004

The Twilight Zone in Jerusalem

I have always said I will write at least three books before I die. The first will be titled "Breaking the Rules: How to Lead an Unconventional Life." My memiors, also coming to a theatre near you someday, will be called "And the First Runner Up Is..."

After much deliberating I decided to add to my works a collection of strange "small world stories." Those of you out there in computer land who know we well can testify that my life IS a combination of strange, almost "Twilight Zone" esque experiences.

I had a few experiences like these while in Palestine. Minor ones, maybe last-chapter or appendix-quality stories, but they nonetheless brought me that feeing of joy and a little shiver of awe at just how dang small my world is.

Cosmic Shift #1:

It was after 12:00 noon and the doors to Dominus Flevit, the church atop the Mt of Olives commemorating Jesus's tears there, were closed. Neverminding that small detail, I pushed the great iron doors open, wanting my mother to see a church I frequented with my fellow JC (Jersualem Center) buddies. The man we found inside, cleaning the floor, was a little on the grouchy side, but fairly accomodating, considering we were barging in during his midday break.

I explained my connection to the church and he immedietely asked me if I remembed the JC cook, Hussein. Remember him? I honor him each time I make pita bread (and hummus, for that matter!), as it is his recipe. Truth! I wrote him a belated note of appreciation and give it to the now more cordial neighbor/Dominus Flevit employee.

Cosmic Shift #2:

Our agenda included, of course, the Garden Tomb, but due to this distraction and that, we ended up arriving RIGHT before it closed...and about three hours after we planned to get there. We jumped into the last tour of the garden, joining up with two very pleasant-looking American couples and one British guy.We chatted with them intermittantly throughout the tour, and finally my mother says to one of the two American men--"I see your name tag and I believe I have read some of your work." I look at him and ask..."well,what is your name?" He tells me. It was difficult to contain my surprise. Although I had never met him before, I had certainly heard of him. Not only IS he a distinguished scholar from my university (Brigham Young University), he also happens to be the father of one of my favorite professors with whom I am still in touch.

I casually mentioned something about his family...something not just any random stranger would know....and after their initial shock they had a good laugh when I revaled that I knew their son.

Cosmic Shift #3 (and possibly my favorite):

Anyone who has studied at the Jerusalem Center knows and loves Aladdin...the money changer in East Jerusalem that the JC students have been patronizing since the beginning. He had his shop set up somewhat like a trading post from the Old West---you could write and leave a message on the wall for someone you knew/hoped was coming on a subsequent study abroad, creating a unique connection between past, present, and future students. Aladdin was friendly and affectionate and a tease, and beloved by us all. Beloved by ME, especically, was one of his sons, Feras. I intially met him at his father's shop where he was working during his month long winter bring from Amman University in Jordan. Since every single foray into the Old City involved a stop at Aladdin's, I had plenty of opportunity to chat/flirt with him. Quite enjoyable. So when our JC group was preparing for our trip to Jordan and Aladdin asked me to deliver a book to a friend of his in Amman, I was more than willing to so...on the condition that he put me in touch with Feras, now back in Jordan.

The trip to Amman was memorable enough by itself, but the whole experience was enhanced by my night out on the town with Feras and his friend. I brought two JC friends with me...Rochelle Banks and Adam Flake. Feras and his friend took us to this famous Jordanian restaurant with a strong cultural ambience and GREAT food. A big draw was an opportunity to put on traditional bedouin attire and take a picture. I still have this picture--Rochelle and I are covered with bangles and fake hena, and the guys all have tunics and weapons. Its great...

Well. Five years later I take my mom to try to find Aladdin's shop. I wasn't QUITE sure which street to take, but I seem to remember it being on the corner of Jaffa Street and the Police Station. So we headed up the street. I actually didn't have much hope but suddenly there it was--Aladdin's. I was in shock--poked my head in and felt like I was in a time warp. There was Aladdin and his three sons sitting behind the desk--like no time had passed all. The only thing different were the notes on the wall--taken down since the Jersualem Center is closed. He quickly pulled out one of the guest books he has organized by year and find OUR JC group (the best one ever) and yes--your names were ALL THERE. I could bearly see the names for the tears that blurred my vision. What a memory! And there he was, Aladdin, and you guessed it--Feras right next to it. Of course he remembered our crazy night out on the time in Amman and we had a fabulous time catching up. I asked "so, how's college?" before I remembered--hello! That was five years ago. Of couse he's long since graduated. Girls, for those of you that remember him, he is JUST has darling as always.

So there you have it, folks! Nothing too out of the ordinary...I suppose these things happen to many people....but somehow I get the idea that my life IS like a twilight zone. Randomonium.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Martha Stewart of the Middle East

My roommates in New York City used to tease me for my carefully constructed hummus "masterpieces" I would create for every dinner party we threw. Putting aside the extreme care to the actual making of the yummilicious hummus, I would fret for at least a half an hour over the symetrical texurization, the balance and placement of paprika and thyme (za'atar) spinkles, and the final addition of whole chickpeas and a sprig of parsley for "visual effect." I worried over each platter of hummus like a hen with her chicks, I tell you, and was saddened as it met its eventual gastronomical demise.

My love affair with hummus began with my semester abroad in Jerusalem, January-April 1999. I was known as "The Pita Princess" by my roommates (I guess they found it amusing that I horded bags of pita in my underwear drawer) but the truth is this: the pita was just a means to the true end of hummus. Simply a tool in order to consume as much of the divine stuff as humanly possible.

Tears fild my eyes, then, when this morning....for the first time in five years...I had true Jersualem hummus. That's right, I have returned--I am in Jersualem AS WE SPEAK. As many of you know (you--you know who YOU are), I have been living in Cairo for the last two months. My Mother is visiting and I couldn't let this opportunity pass to visit The Place Where It All Began with the woman who, incidentally, is ALSO the place where it all began (for me, that is). Our original plan to make the 14 hour trek from Cairo to Jerusalem overland was frustrated by the simple fact that the only route we could find does indeed cross through a war zone (Gaza). I love my mother, and fear the wrath of my father, so we boycotted that idea and decided to fly. No easy task, I tell you, purchasing a ticket on an Israel airline for a flight leaving within 24 hours. The experience involved going out to the airport to the CORRECT terminal (don't worry about trying to find out which terminal is won't be the right one) and asking atleast 10 people the same question. After I received THREE similar answers I followed their advice...and eventually found the airline office down stairs, down a hall, up more stairs, down another hall, past a partially flooded part of the hallway, and near the offices for Air Hungry. Interesting.

The very accomodating Arab women running the show at El Al, Israeli Airlines, made my reservation on a computer dating back to the Pharonic Era, and off I went back through the lookinglass to my mother waiting outside the airport with Jamel, a Palistinian man with whom we'd hitchiked a ride to the airport (yes, I have thoroughly corrupted my mother). We shared a celebratory coca cola with Jamel at his office and returned back to the city center for more adventures. A very delicious shuwarma, a visit to my sudanese friend Manal, a guava juice on a houseboat, AND two weddings later, we headed back out to the airport. For reasons unknown to me, we had to purchase the tickets at 11:00pm, although the flight didn't leave till the perfectly logical hour of 3:00am. I was internally grumbling about this, but now see the wisdom in it: it only took an hour to get the paper ticket processed and paid for, and another mere TWO HOURS to go through the Israeli airline security precedures. I know they have to be careful, but they acted like they thought I was an accomplice to Hitler because I actually WANT to study Arabic. I didn't help matters when I rather rudely brushed off a man who approached me who later turned out to be an Israeli security and intelligence officer. It was a little dicey for a while there...but EVENTUALLY we were let through and made our flight.

The exausting effects of no sleep were entirely overcome by the joy of seeing My City again. We caught a shuttle from the airport to as far as East Jerusalem as our driver would go ("Do you think I am crazy? I am JEWISH!" he said) and found our way to Damascus Gate. It was 6:00am AND a Friday (Muslim day off) and the Old City was silent. We walked across and out of Lion's Gate across Kidron Valley, doubled back and around to a hotel directly inside Jaffa Gate recommended by my trusty old LP. After a not-so-quick nap we set out again and explored the Jewish Quarter and the neighborhoods bordering the Old City on the West and South West sides (for those of you that know my political orientation and are surprised by this, don't be alarmed: I have not turned Zionist on was a choice based on necessity, not on priority).

We intended to end our night with a visit to the Western Wall. Politics and religion aside, the goings on at the Western Wall are fascinating for any student of culture. There was an eyeful: the Hassidic Jews recited parts of scripture, rocking back and forth. The more secular Jews quietly tucknig a slip of prayer into the ancient wall. And impossible to miss were the obviously European/American Jews on pilgrimage. This group turned out to be the most entertaining to watch, as they frequently burst into song (aiy yai yai yai, yai yai yai yai yai yai) and dance (the Jewish conga).

It was after about thirty minutes of close-up observation and my mother and I were sitting at the far end of the plaza that borders the wall. We were reflecting on what we had seen when we were approached by two female Morman missionaries. Ha! No, the white shirts and name tags aren't to be found in Palestine, but these two girls fit the description to a "tee." Tights, skirts, sensible shoes, and books under their arms, these two students at the Jewish Seminary for Girls INVITED us gentiles to join them for Shabbat dinner...and what the heck....we did! And that is what I have been up to all evening....supping on chala bread, MORE HUMMUS, and something called Kagl or Kogl (strange!) in the home of a rabbi tucked deep within the Jewish Quarter. So maybe I don't identify with Israeli politics...but I am grateful for the opporunity to peel back a layer from a culture very mysterious to me and deepen my understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,