I stood in the Jaffa Gate and played harmonica for tips. A cluster of men in Arab dress surrounded me, bewildered, smiling. They had never heard a harmonica before, nor could they see, behind my hands, this sound I held to my lips.
The long cry of the muezzin, undulating among corbelled roofs, towers, calling the souls to prayer.
Never coffee so bitter, halvah so sweet. And two kinds of currency: pounds and shekels. The old and the new. Or, the old and the older.
I had the intention to buy a wedding present for friends back home. A carpet, I thought, as I wandered the stone streets, stone alleyways, stone-covered galleries. Dead ends. Corners, shadows…. Black portals, cats. I kept arriving at the sign: Street of Chains.
Throughout the New City, sirens wailed. Everyone stopped. Crowds of shoppers stopped. Pedestrians crossing the street stopped in the traffic lanes. Traffic stopped. Persons on stairs stood still, one foot lifted to the next step. A man holding a door open held the door open; the old woman in the doorway stopped. For the duration of the sirens, no one moved, no one spoke. An orange dropped from a shopper’s bag, rolled down the curb….
In a turn of a stone stairway, in its dry half-light, a man offered to buy my blood. He accosted me there, told me his brother is in the hospital, in dire need of blood. Of course it was insane; of course the intention, whatever it could be, was criminal. Yet I could not get away from him—had to stand there, find a way to explain why I would not give, or even sell, my blood to him.
Two Bedouin women, seated on paving stones old as Herod, only their eyes and hands appearing from robes and veils. For sale on a blanket before them, cheeses wrapped in palm leaves. White as bone, dry as sand, tasting mainly of salt.
Sirocco—sandy grit in the teeth. A sunbird hovering in a shaft of light by the tumbling springs of Ein Gedi. And in the desert, by the border with Jordan, the Indian silverbill nests in the razor wire.
The men could only hear the sounds escaping from behind my hands, thin reeds echoing in stones of the vaulted gate.
I asked someone, what just happened? He said the sirens are to remember the Holocaust.
Inside the shrine, a man of indeterminate age polishes marble. Rapid and constant he’s swirling the soft brown cloth. On his knees, bent like a supplicant, polishing, polishing. Eyes fixed on the marble floor—no, on something further—polishing.
A parade passed before us in celebration of Israeli independence. She said she could not wait to begin her military service. She was seventeen, an antelope, her eyes like doves.
In the Muslim quarter, I bought a slice of halvah, handing the merchant a ten-pound note for one pound’s worth of halvah. The merchant refused to give me change until I could tell him when the conflict had begun. 1967, I said. He said come back when you know. I came back the next day—1948. No, he said. Come back when you know. I dug around in a book, and returned the next day. About 1200 BC the Israelites conquered Palestine.
See? he said. We were here first!
Then he gave me my change, as if I had earned it.
As if everything, no matter how routine, must be taken by a form of struggle. The everyday work of it, the sheer prose of it, the Street of Chains of it. The first time I heard the question, as the uniformed guard pointed to my bag: Did you pack this yourself? The most ordinary gesture attended by generations of enmity; the only assumption—a condition of war, for what looked like, to my eyes, riding the taxi from the airport, a land of rocks. Who was I, but a kid from the leafy suburbs? But I knew that. And that was why I had come.
Here is the place where Christ died. And here is the other place where Christ died.
At any moment, unplanned, the sirens. All that noise, and the weight of silence.
I went to the site of the pool where Christ healed the sick. Peering down the rectangular stonewalled pit at the mossy water far below, I could not configure how people had managed to bathe in it. Clearly some dramatic change had occurred over the centuries. Then a dazzling flash of electric blue—a kingfisher—flew up from the water.
I played harmonica till my lips were sore. Scottish airs, blues, a little Gershwin. Only tourists gave me any tips. Could it be they thought I was part of the city, what they had come to see?
Noting the camera around my neck, an old man brandished his cane. He’ll strike if I shoot.
I found a merchant whose rugs I admired, but they were all too expensive. Come with me, he said, I have more in my house. I followed him through narrow stone lanes, up a stone stairway. We entered his house; I nodded to his family, and he led me to a larger room, layered with carpets. He showed me the rug I wanted, but still too expensive. I am a poor person, I said; I saved for a year to visit this land; I have spent almost all my money; I am leaving in two days. He said I am offering you a deal; my profit is very low to begin with; I am making no money on this. And he turned to praising the quality of the rug—the wool, the dyes, the loomwork. I praised its virtue as a wedding gift, extolled the motive of love—that this piece will warm the sparse apartment of newlyweds was a kind of value beyond money. But: I am driving a poor merchant into bankruptcy, stealing food from the mouths of his children, depriving his wife of clothes, denying his mother a decent funeral. But: he is robbing me, he is cheating a man far away from home, a traveler, a wandering guest here; he is insulting my friend, he is stealing the food I would eat tomorrow. After half an hour we agreed on a price: ninety shekels. We exchanged money and carpet; we fought to see who could thank each other the more profusely.
The next day I saw the same carpet on the wall of a different shop, the list price: ninety shekels. I considered what a bargain I’d made: for the same price, not only the carpet but the food from his children’s mouths, his wife’s clothing, and an old woman’s funeral.
Nobody told me about the airport tax. Even if you already have your ticket in hand, you have to lay out cash to leave this place. I had wired to send the rest of my savings to Athens—a lot of good that does me here. I have no money. I have twenty-four hours. I have a tiny instrument with trembling reeds.