Jerusalem

I go to Jerusalem, the first time I've been there for five years, with Shimon. The bus, a Mercedes, is clean, comfortable, and fast, and as new as the motorway we travel on. The journey, around thirty miles, takes quite a lot less than an hour and costs £4, or so.

When we arrive the sky is clear and an intense blue and it is seven or eight degrees cooler than Tel Aviv. This is February, so that is quite cold. Jerusalem is elevated, built on hilltops. There is snow in some winters, and there will be a queue of cars with people wanting to see it from here to Tel Aviv.

I like walking, Shimon says, but he always says this. I'm not sorry that, mostly, he likes walking downhill. We wander through the busy Mehane Yehuda market, stop for a coffee and a pastry. I try to buy a small bag of mixed, dried fruit, but they ask a stupid tourist price, nearly £20 for around 250 grms. I'm not a stupid tourist these days, and I pass.

We amble through the area of Nachalot, an arty kind of district. It is charmingly ramshackle, like Neve Tzedek, an expensive part of Tel Aviv popular with the French, but less primped. Shimon has brought a joint. I haven't smoked for many years, but it seems priggish to refuse, so we smoke and walk, passing it between us, while he tests me on nouns. After only two days at the ulpan I don't know many. Kelev, which means dog, is one of the few that has stuck.

The Old City is a mix of a medieval life and shops selling trinkets for tourists. The passages are dark and narrow, and it's easy to get lost in them. The last time I was here I turned a corner and an Arabic man standing, on guard, maybe, I don't know, wagged his finger and said, menacingly, Don't. So I didn't.

It is a place of some of the most sacred sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians. I've eaten hummus on the Via Dolorosa, left a message in a crack of the Western Wall, and once, long ago, visited the Dome of the Rock.

Shimon and I cut across the Catholic section of the Old City. He was born in Iran and has the face as evidence; big, dark-ringed eyes, dark skin, handsome. Not European looks, anyway, whatever that means. He is nervous of going any deeper, into the Arabic quarter. I may not be a tourist, but I still look like one, so we would be safe, I’m sure. But we listen to the voice inside him that says not to.

The last time I was here I stayed in East Jerusalem, the Arabic part of the city. Even then, Jewish taxi drivers were nervous of taking me to my hotel. Today, tension is so great between Jews and Arabs it is unthinkable. Jerusalem is where most of the stabbings and car ramming by Palestinians on people standing at bus stops, going about their day, have occurred in the last few years.

There are places in the city from which you can see the wall Israel built between the West Bank and itself. It is an eyesore, at least, and hated by the Palestinians, hated by many Israelis, too. The first section was finished in 2003, in response to the intifada, and reduced, dramatically, the number of people, often children, with explosives strapped to their chests, doing what people with explosives strapped to their chests do, that is exploding themselves, in busy streets or on buses.

On the tram back up the hill, back to the bus station, a young, slim, soldier rides with us. She isn't much bigger than the rifle she's carrying. I ask Shimon about a patch on her uniform with an illustration of a cedar tree on it. He decodes her fluently, and in seconds. He can tell from badges and patches that she’s from a conservative Jewish background, that she is based in the north, and from the colour of her boots, red, not black, she is what he calls a 'real soldier'. I think he means she is part of the infantry. 

She gossips with her friend while a handsome man next to her checks Atraf, Israel's Grindr, on his phone. Jerusalem, though, as anyone will tell you, is not gay in the way Tel Aviv is gay. The capital is the home of parliament and a place of work. Tel Aviv, for all its shiny tower blocks and tech start-ups, is a party city. Jerusalem is Washington to Tel Aviv's New York.

Buses don't run on the Sabbath, from Friday afternoon to an hour after dusk, on Saturday. The bus station is chaotic and noisy, similar to how I imagine the last days of Saigon. Forty five minutes after taking the last seats on the bus I was back in Tel Aviv.

Today's word: shelegsnowשלג

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