A divided city's singular hospitality

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For my first visit to Jerusalem, I chose my hotel at random. Its location, plus two cab drivers I casually waved down once there, did more to guide my conclusions about the Holy Land than any guidebook. Travel can have that quality, when the inadvertent takes charge. My hotel, a former pasha's palace, was lovely. Its real impact on me, however, was its location. It sits in East Jerusalem. Where's that? No one could tell me with certainty. You find out by walking around. West Jerusalem is predominantly Jewish. These days, it divides itself as well between a small but active conservative religious minority and the secular majority. East Jerusalem is Palestinian. It is the equally ancient Arab world of Israel, something you note the moment you enter it. Both Jerusalems have been around a long time. Each population feels that theirs is the true city. The life of Jerusalem itself, flowing around a tourist in its vibrant, normal manner, felt undivided to me. 'Do you sell Kleenex?" I asked a shop girl in a tiny convenience store near my hotel. "Not here," she said. "Go to Arab town." Arab town? Translation: Walk one block to the new Hilton, turn right, and when you see the Old City and its looming walls on the Damascus Gate side of this historic inner town, you're in East Jerusalem. Once inside the Old City, I didn't see Arab Town or Jewish Town. I saw adherents of about a dozen religions rushing to get to their own services on time. I was caught up in a pulse of life 4,000 years old. It was unthreatening, busy, surprisingly harmonious. "Excuse me, where is the bank with an ATM machine?" I asked a young Israeli soldier the next day. I was four blocks from my hotel. He was headed there, too. We talked easily. I mentioned how nice my hotel is. He nodded carefully. "That's in East Jerusalem. I've never been there." "Never been there?" I replied. "You've lived in Jerusalem all your life and have never been there? It's four blocks from here!" "It's too dangerous," he explained shyly. Danger? I don't see any danger. Palestinian residents treated me with great courtesy and no little charm as I walked about East Jerusalem. Similarly, Jewish residents on the West side were warm, witty, and moving fast even when standing still. It hit me again on Christmas Eve when I walked one block from my hotel to see who was singing the Christmas carols I'd heard at dinner. I arrived at a large mansion in the Turkish style. Arab guests went in and out, smiling, singing. I was invited in. Seven old men sat in carved high-backed chairs. One stood up, shook my hand, and waved me toward the buffet. He with no English, I with no Arabic, but the smiles were quick, the welcome warm. "Excuse me," I asked one man, as I looked edgewise at army jeeps parked at the curb. "Where am I?" "This is the headquarters of the PLO in Jerusalem," he replied easily, watching me for reaction. "Uh, singing Christmas carols?" "We sing them with the Christian community at your Christmas. On our Muslim holidays, they come over to sing with us." Soli, a Palestinian taxi driver (he's dated his Jewish girl friend for seven years), nodded OK. He drove me to the Damascus Gate. We parked and started walking around. Young Palestinian boys commanded pushcarts that carried melons, T-shirts, shoes, and vegetables. The carts lined both sides of the tiny streets. Another boy hurried by, carrying hundreds of loaves of fragrant, fresh bread on what could only have been somebody's front door. (Bread and door were balanced perfectly atop the boy's head.) Not far away is the Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple. Hundreds were at prayer. History and humanity are packed together, living out traditions and a lifestyle that seems always to have been. Soli took me to the Islamic Industrial Orphanage. "I grew up here," he said. We entered. The president had Soli's file. There he was, a little boy 30 years ago, smiling out of his photo. Soli, now silent, had to sit down. We stayed for refreshments. The next day Rafi, another taxi driver, took me to see Jericho. Then he took me to his home in Bethany. As we drove by a church, he pointed to a door. Down there, he said. Down there? I said. Yes, you know - Lazarus' tomb. We stopped and I crawled down the steps to the traditional location of the tomb. At Soli's home, seven children emerged, four girls and three boys. The girls said they wanted to be a lawyer, doctor, architect, and decorator, respectively. The young boy sitting next to me, thrilled to meet an American, stated that he wanted to join the CIA. I looked around, at Bethany and the hills beyond. The Holy Land. The impact of a large, loving family welcoming a stranger hit me. I felt a great sense of peace. It was Saturday night, well past midnight. I walked to a famous mall in West Jerusalem. My dining choices included McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. I pondered this, while mingling with laughing, talking families pushing strollers filled with wide-awake kids, all out for the Saturday-night aftermath of sabbath observances. An outdoor pizza restaurant featured a quintet playing Bach. Nearby a disco belted out Mick Jagger on CD. No one seemed in any hurry to go home. A young Israeli solder, rifle slung around his neck, chatted up a stack of teen girls giggling at a street corner. I settled down to a serious bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, munching happily as I strolled back to my hotel through peaceful, quiet streets. The Old City, still alight, guided me home.

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