The Jerusalem That Forces Choices

I cross into Jerusalem by way of the King Hussein Bridge, a corrugated contraption that spans a sliver of brown muddy water, the River Jordan. I'm afraid the once-mighty Jordan lives only in very distant memories and holy script.

``What is it about this city?'' I ask myself again and again. ``Why is it such a bittersweet experience to come here?''

I travel for professional reasons. I'm a writer, a journalist, and over the years I have reported from Mexico, Morocco, Denmark, Syria, and other places. I'm also a searcher of things: of sounds, smiles, and of what matters to people.

When I come home, usually I can happily answer the inevitable. ``Well, what was it like? Tell me.'' But describing Jerusalem is a different experience, and difficult.

``It was hot,'' I say. But that's only the beginning. Hot and haunting.

As I entered the Old City through the fabled Damascus Gate, on every side of me, someone was selling something. Fruit sellers jostled with vegetable vendors, whose cries mingled with the cacophonous calls of the costumed water seller and the hoarse exhortations of the bread sellers, whose piles of warm loaves filled the air with their fresh-baked smells.

Bright red pomegranates snuggled next to deep purple eggplants and bags of spices. A brilliant photograph from nature's casual arrangement.

``Salaamu allaykum,'' I called out. ``Wa allaykum as salaam,'' came the reply. The irony of the greeting, ``Peace be upon you,'' and the response, ``And upon you, peace,'' was not lost on me here where peace is a commodity in short supply and frequently bargained for.

``Adaish?'' I asked, holding up a sprig of dates and a handful of fresh apricots. ``How much?''

Because I spoke Arabic with an American accent, people hesitated. Who was I? Where was I from? How did I know Arabic? There were questions in people's eyes. This is an insecure, divided city, one not at peace with itself. ``Anna usli Arabi'' I explained. That did it! Smiles everywhere, warm greetings. I was more than welcome. I had said that my roots were Arab.

This tension and suspicion that turns so quickly to love and generosity keeps one constantly in turmoil and off balance. Often you lie awake at night sleeplessly reliving the sounds and revisualizing the transformations from doubt and suspicion to love and vulnerability.

Walking alone, far from the crowd, I allowed myself to get lost. Taking whatever turn presented itself, I wanted the solitude to listen to the stones. I wanted to hear the murmurs from inside the homes. What were the people talking about? What could the stones remember?

WHEN East Jerusalem calls you, I explain to friends and family, you respond. You ignore the heat and the din because you want to absorb it all.

I moved farther away, leaving the sounds more and more behind me. The heat was oppressive; I was tired. I turned a corner and there was a shower of bright, heartbreakingly vivid flowers cascading down a dun- colored ancient wall. I thought they were there for me! And just when I was about to give up.

Like everyone else, I was eventually drawn toward the Temple Mount, the focal point of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The embrace of Jerusalem is strongest here, because this is where the faithful embrace their faiths.

One of Islam's holiest places, the Dome of the Rock, is magnificent in its simplicity. The elegant gold dome seems to reflect the heavens and the prayers of the Muslim faithful. In the mosque, blocked off by masking tape, are bullet holes made by Israeli troops in their pursuit of Palestinian youths. This should be a more peaceful place.

Next door, a short distance away, devout Jews gather to pray and chant at the Western Wall, a sight deeply symbolic of Judaism's faith and longing.

Two men with pistols shoved into their waistbands keep an eye on the observers, while below the prayers and affirmations faintly reach the ears. This should be a safer place.

Not far away is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is believed that this is where Jesus's body was carefully taken down from the cross and anointed with oil. A stone slab marks the spot.

But beyond this hallowed place, elsewhere in the church, there is discord. Each of the Christian faiths has its own altar and conducts its own service, often in deliberate competition with the others. This ``duel of the services'' confused me. Why so much distraction and competition? This should be a simpler place.

ON the streets, outside of the Old City, the atmosphere is also charged. Soldiers with machine guns stand ready. Military trucks bristle with antennae and rifle barrels as they prowl the streets.

I wondered if I should stare back at the soldiers staring at me. I felt like a troublemaker, even though I was not. I didn't dare stare back for long. Jerusalem is a city occupied by an army. Again ... and still. It seems there were always armies occupying this city.

``Why do you want to go there, to the Damascus Gate?'' a young handsome Israeli taxi driver asked me.

It was night; the sky was pebbled with stars. I had taken the cab in front of the elegant King David Hotel in West Jerusalem. The hotel is the home of visiting dignitaries, presidents of nations, and well-heeled visitors.

``They are all primitive there,'' the taxi driver continued. ``Dangerous, too!'' He was talking about the Arabs.

I remained quiet.

The drive from the King David to the Old City takes about five minutes and crosses the psychological fault line that divides this eternal city.

West Jerusalem, you see, is plush. Indeed, the Israelis make the desert bloom beautifully - with considerable help from the United States and Arab water won in the 1967 war.

Here, rose gardens blossom, wide tree-lined streets beckon, and attractive homes house stylishly dressed residents. Chatter fills the air, and the Israeli men and women move with a sense of confidence known only to the victorious.

Young lovers display their affection openly, far from the more hesitant residents on the other side of ``the line.'' Here, in West Jerusalem, people laugh, play, and enjoy the good life.

But what shall we say about the other Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of darker eyes that laugh more privately? What shall we do with her crowded, hapless streets where life is hard and joy is measured?

``The other day, two of those Arabs stabbed a Hebrew student,'' the taxi driver continued. ``Forget about the Damascus Gate into the Old City! Go to the Jewish Gate instead. By the way, where are you from, New York? I lived there.''

I said nothing. Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I tell him that without the Damascus Gate, without the Old City, without East Jerusalem, there would be only style without substance, laughter without tears.

But I can say it now. ``You must go the Damascus Gate, into the Old City!'' Neither the coldest drink at the King David nor the Palm Springs ambiance of West Jerusalem can quiet the longing, the necessity of walking the walkways of the Old City.

It's not the beautiful garden at the Church of the Flagellation. It's not the call to prayer echoing through the alleyways. It's the spirit of the people eking out a living a few blocks from the elegant watering holes of the Israeli centers.

The power of Old Jerusalem comes from the history and culture. What I've come to realize is that it's also reflected in the eyes of the people!

I love the comfort and excitement of the New City. But the Old City is an ancient blessing that won't be worn down. It clings stubbornly to all who visit here. It forces choices and makes demands.

When I left, I kept looking back through the window of the taxi - another taxi, this one with Palestinian plates. I'll go back, of course, even though I know I'll toss and turn at night. One reason is to have a cup of coffee with the Israeli taxi driver. We have to have a talk.

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