A day in Jerusalem

I set off rather later than intended this morning. Then it took longer than usual to get through the checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem. The bus that I caught from Ramallah only went as far as the checkpoint at Qalandia. We all had to walk through, instead of going through on the bus. There was then a hold-up, because the Israeli soldiers refused to allow a teenage girl to go through. Presumably she didn’t have the right papers.

So it was past eleven o’clock by the time I reached the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in East Jerusalem. I found Bridget, a British volunteer, folding hymn sheets to go inside orders of service for the worship on the last full day of next week’s international conference. I set to work inserting the folded hymn sheets into the orders of service which we had folded and stapled yesterday.

I was able to do one other task before I left the office: numbering sticky spots to go on conference participants’ name badges, so that they will know which table to sit at either during meal times or during group discussion sessions.

As I was about to leave, I was invited to stay for lunch. I was tempted. Lunch had been good on both the previous two days. But I had to get away in order to find my way to Karmon Street in West Jerusalem in good time for Meeting for Worship at two o’clock.

There’s a tram line which runs all the way from a settlement in East Jerusalem to Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem. I’m told that Palestinians are discouraged from using it. They use the buses which run from the Qalandia checkpoint to a bus station near Damascus Gate.

I took the tram, which is, of course, much quicker and more comfortable. It would also have taken me all the way to my destination, if I hadn’t got off one stop too soon. I studied the local map at the tram stop and my own less detailed map of Jerusalem and decided that I would do better to wait for the next tram to take me to the next stop. The trams run every seven minutes or so. It would have taken me a lot longer to walk.

The Quaker Meeting for Worship was held in the ground floor flat of one of the two Quakers who live in/near Jerusalem. Maureen is still in the process of moving from Oxford to join her husband, who is Israeli. Linda, whom I had met at the Garden Tomb at the start of the Quaker Voluntary Action “pilgrimage” that I joined last month, works for the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority and lives, with about twenty cats, in a settlement just outside Jerusalem.

After meeting in silent worship for half-an-hour, we had a fascinating discussion about the archaeology and ancient history of the Middle East. Actually, I basically listened to Maureen and Linda’s discussion, perhaps throwing in the odd question. Both of them are far more learned than I am about these subjects. Linda, who is a botanist, told us of her plans to take part in an archaeological excavation in Jordan. She will be trying to sort out and study organic matter: seeds, pollen, and maybe textiles and rope.

I forget whether it was Maureen or Linda who pointed out that studies of people’s DNA in the Middle East show that Palestinians and Israelis have much the same DNA. It seems that both are descended from the Canaanites.

There was some discussion of the story of the Exodus, which is central to both Jewish faith and Christian liberation theology. It seems that only a small group of people left Egypt and crossed the River Jordan into Samaria, which now forms the northern part of the West Bank. It seems likely that the walls of Jericho were brought down several times by earthquakes rather than by a trumpet blast.

The conversation wasn’t only about ancient history. Linda told me about the Hope School for Palestinian children with special needs, which is situated in Area C between Bethlehem and the settlement where she lives. Quakers from Sunderland in the northeast of England have provided funds to furnish the newly-built school dining room.

At the end of the afternoon Linda kindly gave me a lift from Maureen’s flat to the Old City. The trams and buses stop running before sundown on Fridays at the start of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. As we drove towards the Old City, Linda pointed out the President’s house and other notable buildings, such as the YMCA, which seems to me to be an upmarket hotel from what she was saying.

Linda dropped me off at the Jaffa Gate, so I was able to enjoy an amble through the Old City to the Damascus Gate. The main streets and alleyways are lined with shops selling all sorts of souvenirs, jewellery, T-shirts, scarves, dresses, footwear, etc. There are a few food shops as well, and restaurants and barber shops. I wandered down through the Christian Quarter and then along to the Damascus Gate, so all the shopkeepers were Palestinian. It was getting near to closing time, but there were still quite a few tourists wandering through the streets. One or two groups of Orthodox Jews passed by. A group of tourists gathered round their guide at one point. I couldn’t really hear what he was saying, but it sounded like Russian or Polish to me. There were also Palestinians going about their business. It was dark by the time I emerged from the Old City through the Damascus Gate.

The buses to Ramallah are quite frequent. And they are fast as far as the checkpoint at Qalandia. So I was back “home” at the Friends International Centre around 6.30 p.m. I cooked myself a simple meal (and ate it) and then sat down to work through my e-mails.

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