The Streets of Flying Carpets
I couldn’t resist it. Walking to the Old City walls at noon on a shabbat, half an hour down the shadeless road in the merciless sun (that being said – and so melodramatically – the dry Jerusalem breeze saves the day; this is definitely the city to be in Israel in summer). It’s market day outside Damascus gate in East Jerusalem. The streets are crowded, narrower that usual, anyone with anything to sell has lined up along the sidewalks, risking people stepping on their meagre goods – and sometimes little treasures.
I breathe in the smell of roast meet and fresh bread. Coffee. Cheap tobacco. The ubiquitous sesame seeds. Za’atar by the kilo, ka’ak and begele (traditional ring-shaped bread), falafel, flatbread, tchina (basically, it’s just ground sesame seeds), salads, meats, everything is covered in sesame – it’s as if the magic sesame doors from the Arabian nights have unleashed their treasure onto the dusty streets.
I missed the dusty streets. Garbage everywhere, flying up at the gusts of wind. Paper and cardboard boxes, and food wrappers. The Arab chaos. Jilbab-clad women. In truth, this is my Jerusalem.
I don’t think Jerusalem would have left a mark on my heart so deep without these side streets, off the tourist track, prayer mat on the floor, and the three movements while the TV shows an endless broadcast on Egypt and the radio angrily denounces something. Little girls staring at my shoes or scarf or pulling at my skirt to feel the fabric, women busily sliding past, and the quiet old shopkeepers who carefully weigh your rice and za’atar and beans with withered shaking hands. In these shops, they don’t use much English. Mostly the locals come here. Eighteen shekels, he says to me in Hebrew. It is at the very least clear for both of us that my Hebrew is better than my Arabic. Hebrew is the only thing we have in common. This, and our humanity.
Back on Salah El Din street, the smell of coffee, that strong smell of freshly ground Arab coffee with cardamom, startles me, as I freeze in my tracks and look around. There it is, a neat coffee shop with busy counters, aromas to die for and efficient service. It is packed, but I somehow get to the counter in a second and just breathe out like a woman in love: “coffee… with cardamom… it is perfect”. “Two hundred and fifty grams, thirteen shekels,” smiles the assistant and hands me a hot bag of freshly ground coffee. It is indeed perfect.
I can barely believe my luck. That’s 52 shekels a kilo, whereas just a couple of days ago I bought coffee in a small shop on Jaffa street for some 110 per kilo. Not only is this one better, to my standards, it is what I actually need – Arab coffee with cardamom, in a perfect proportion. The shop, Sadek Sandouka and Sons, opened in 1943, still has a thriving business and is on Salah El Din street, 3. It also claims to have been the first to grind and sell coffee in the Old City area.
What is it that touches my heart in the Arab world? With my ashkenazi looks, and a somewhat cold demeanour, I surprise my mizrachi friends (the Jews from the Middle East region) by passionately dancing to their music, and equally passionately appreciating their passion (now, that’s a lot of passion in one sentence!). The Arab streets are often subdued and quiet, mostly quite the opposite of the Israeli joie de vivre, people don’t run around or shout or dance on tables. And the garbage, indeed, flies. It’s a different world. But it has become my world, too.
- Tahini dip – a tasty calcium boost (karunadetox.wordpress.com)
- A love song to Jerusalem (paradoxplaces.wordpress.com)
- What the Heck Is a Sesame? (thekitchn.com)
- Za’atar spiced lamb chops (thejc.com)
- Stocks, shekel skid amid fears of U.S. attack on Syria (haaretz.com)