Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tea time in Jerusalem

My heart feels at home in Jerusalem, as it has in many places -- but uniquely in each place. The church bells from the Greek Orthodox church next door ring faithfully each morning at 7 a.m., and continue by quarter hour throughout the day. I can hear the rain falling outside as I type, and when the wind picks up, the roof sounds like it's going to either fly away or collapse on us (they assured us from the start that it will not. So far, things are good). This morning, shortly before 7:00, I awoke to a loud crash of thunder -- an occurrence my professor tells us is actually fairly unusual, despite the 24 inches of rain that Jerusalem receives annually. From our classroom, we can hear the incessant honking of traffic on Hebron Road, a sound which would seem to be an annoyance but is actually a familiarity that I have become affectionate toward.

In the Old City, the streets are narrow -- fit for foot traffic only, except at the perimeters -- and constantly descending by limestone steps and ascending once again, and again, and again (the number of steps I have already covered in less than a week here -- in streets, buildings, and wherever else Jerusalem can fit them in -- is baffling)... Shops and shops line both sides, advertising colorful merchandise, candy, spices, bags, and clothing from hooks or in barrels. Young boys weave in and out of the crowds with platters of tea to deliver, and men with wooden carts transporting goods or produce -- hundreds of ripe strawberries filled one, miraculously without spilling over -- make their way up and down the streets. The transition from narrow street to open space is abrupt, and I am often surprised at how quickly I come to the end of a street and find myself face to face with an enormous church or synagogue that was blocked from view by the tall buildings enclosing the streets. 

Yesterday my two roommates and a friend visited a shopowner in the Old City named Shaaban who has long been friends with the faculty and students of JUC. Upon our arrival, Shaaban quickly instructed a young boy in the shop in Arabic, and the boy vanished and returned momentarily with small cups of tea for each of us. The black tea here is sweet, and mint leaves were added for extra flavor. We sat down on stools in the shop while Shaaban disappeared behind his counter and then emerged with pita bread spread with a mixture of hummus, chic peas, and brown beans for us to try. When we asked him where the handbags hanging  overhead in the store were made, he smiled and said, "Do you want the truth or do you want the shopkeeper's answer?" We all laughed. The bags were made in India. Shaaban is one of the few shopkeepers from whom we know we can expect honesty. He pointed out other bags, however, that were made by the Druze, a northern Israeli community whose roots lie in a break with mainstream Islam in the 11th century. More expensive, but more authentic. At the end of our stay, we exchanged our American dollars for Israeli shekels (Shaaban is also a money exchanger and provides a fair rate, another reason JUC appreciates him), thanked him, and left to explore the streets some more.

To conclude, I should note: this is only a slice of the big picture. The romantic version, you might say. It's not any less real because it's romantic, but it is true that it is only a slice of reality. In that experience, I felt some of the charm of the Old City, but it is also true that the Old City is a center of tension, cultural divides and misunderstandings, and painful historical realities. It is also true that the new city -- the more modern and developed expanse of Jerusalem -- is quite different, even quite Western feeling sometimes. But those are stories for another day...


  1. I love this. Thanks for sharing with us! You are so smart & wise!

    If you have an address ... I'd love it :)

    1. Kara! Thanks, and I miss you bunches. Wish you could be here with me to explore...
      My address is

      Jerusalem University College
      3 Aravnah HaYevusi
      Hebron Road
      P.O. Box 1276 Mt. Zion
      91012 Jerusalem, Israel

      Hope you are well, friend <3

  2. Hi Chelsea, thank you for the "romantic" picturesque view of the old city. That was so well journaled that I felt I was with you watching your morning unfold! Love, hugs and special thoughts, Mrs.T

  3. Thanks, Mrs. T... That's what I hope for most with my words. Love from Jerusalem! <3 Chelsea