Encounters in the Old City

October 25, 2013  |  By Amelie Phillipson, France

Encounters in the Old City

Photo : Amelie Phillipson

Discovering the Armenian Quarter

One afternoon, I decided to go to the Old City of Jerusalem to take some pictures in the Church of the Holy Sepulture, as I have been in Israel for a few days now. I took a large detour through the Armenian quarter, as I hadn’t explored it yet. I found it very residential, completely empty of tourists. Houses are hidden behind walls and occasionally, if you peek through a gate, you’ll notice a little front garden. I only stayed on the main streets, because when walking in the Armenian quarter, I felt like I had to be very discreet. I crossed a few locals, and kept my head down when I did, so as to blend in with the scenery. I didn’t even feel like taking my camera out quite yet. That’ll be for next time, perhaps. The streets are empty, no shops, no kids running around, all is very calm. You wouldn’t think there’s a busy Souq minutes, almost seconds away. Coming down Saint Mark’s street I couldn’t hear a thing, and suddenly, I came down a few steps and found myself in the very busyDavid Street, which comes down from Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances to theOldCity.

First encounter with Malek

I went straight ahead in Christian Quarter Road, and now, here comes the little story. On my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulture, I was stopped by a young man who runs one of the shops on that street, as tourists always are when walking along Christian Quarter Road. Sometimes, it can get annoying and you can feel harassed even if people aren’t really aggressive. Especially when you walk through it almost every day.  But he seemed nice and honest when he said he didn’t want to talk for business, so I stopped and started talking to him. What’s your name? Where are you from, what are you doing…? And so on, the usual start. I always find it very interesting asking these random questions, because unlike anywhere else in the world, two people who come from the same country might define themselves in two very different ways. For example, this guy, Malek, answered “Jerusalem”, saying “I’m a Palestinian fromJerusalem, a Bedouin”. Okay, so I’d say he’s a “Palestinian-Bedouin-Jerusalemite”. I thanked Malek for the little talk, we shook hands and I promised I’d return to his store.

Second encounter with Sami

Now for the actual story I wanted to tell when I started writing: a couple of shops away, yet another shop keeper called out to me. Sami was his name and he wanted to know about my necklace. Well, that was the first time I had someone asking me that question. Nobody has ever wondered about that. So obviously, we started talking, and Malek came running up to us with a smile, saying, “Yes, yes, I want you to meet my friend Sami; in case you need something when I am not around, you can ask him.”

What to believe in…

As you can notice, if you ever plan to go toJerusalem, have no worries in theOldCityas you’ll be well looked after. Sami asked where I wanted to go and offered me a map to get to the Holy Sepulture. I’ve already been there, but a map is a precious thing in theOldCityand hence I accepted it. He struck a conversation with me and here’s what he said: “You’re going to the Church, so, you believe in God?” Instead of swiftly switching the topic, I gave him a direct answer, “No”. He looked very confused, and quietly asked me, “What do you mean by saying no? But you must believe in something?”  He just didn’t understand. I answered, “Yes, sure, I believe what I see, I believe in people”. He then asked, “So do you pray for people?” I explained that I don’t. After that, the conversation continued with him saying that people should seek the truth. He agreed with me when I said I thought that all beliefs should be respected, even if not understood. Applying my usual logic, I said, “But some people on the planet believe there are several gods”. As you would expect, the conversation froze at that point. We politely shook hands and exchanged phone numbers.

Go out to fetch a story in the OldCity, and you’re bound to return with another one, even more likely, you’ll return with several. Go out to take pictures of something, and you’ll end up writing over a thousand words about something else. And even if it’s an unfinished story, or if it’s not a big story, you’ll still remember it. The possibilities of discovery, of discussion, of opening your mind are infinite, so grab them!

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