When we lived in Ramallah, the West Bank, where my spouse worked on a USA foreign aid project, I loved going into the Old City of Jerusalem on occasion and wander around, especially in the Muslim Quarter. Lots of people live there, and the narrow cobble stone alleys are lined with shops and form a busy souk like you can see on this wonderful picture. My friends at home often asked how dangerous it was for me, a foreign western woman, to walk around in the Old City. What about . . . Well, never mind, you can fill it in yourself. I always told them I felt perfectly safe. I did. And I was. But one day I did get abducted – sort of.
Abducted in the Old City
All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. – Martin Buber
Usually I enter the Old City through the Damascus Gate into the Muslim Quarter, but one morning I’m dropped off at the Jaffa Gate. I wander around through a quieter area, nice for a change, see a Catholic priest in a black robe hurry past me. I hear the ring of church bells: the Christian Quarter. Few people are here and even fewer shops. I go on, turn corners, not knowing where I am exactly, not caring. I end up in the Armenian Quarter. I’m walking down a quiet street without shops, only doors or narrow stone staircases leading to people’s houses. I hear birds rejoicing the morning and all is peaceful. Somewhere not far away is the crowded souk of the Muslim Quarter, but here all is silent.
I am alone in the street until a little ahead of me a door opens and a tiny old woman comes out, carefully stepping onto the uneven pavement and holding onto the wall with one hand for support. She’s all in black, including a head scarf and she looks like one of these old widowed grannies you used to see in poor Spanish or Italian villages, bent over with sorrow and osteoporosis.
Very carefully, tiny step by tiny step, she continues down the street, holding on to the wall. She looks at me as I pass by on the other side and stops walking. Still looking at me, she waves her hand, beckoning me over, saying something I do not understand. However, her meaning is clear. She needs help and she wants me to provide it. Now. She beckons again.
I move over to her without thought. She reaches out to me and hooks her thin arm through mine. Steadying herself, she takes a step forward. What can I do but go forward as well?
Onward we go, arms linked, step by careful step, to where I have no idea.
She looks at me with sharp black eyes and says something in her old quavering voice, but I don’t understand her, and I tell her so in Arabic.
“Vous parlez Français?” she inquires.
“Un petit peu,” I say, indicating a centimeter space between the thumb and index finger of my free hand.
She wants to know if I am a tourist and I tell her no, I live in Ramallah. This does not seem to disturb her because she keeps a tight grip on my arm and makes no comment. I ask her where we are going, but I do not understand the answer. Her voice is old and my French not very good, but we struggle along for a bit and then fall silent as we carefully negotiate the narrow streets, turning corners here and there.
I didn’t know where I was to start with, and now I really don’t know where I am. I look around for something familiar but see nothing. I am well and truly lost and may never find my way out of this maze again. This fragile old grandma has hijacked me and I don’t know where she’s taking me.
It seems we are walking for ages, but of course it may only seem so because it goes so slowly, which gives me the chance to come up with all kinds of wild scenarios involving intrigue, robbery, schemery and worse. I can’t help having a fertile imagination, and what better decoy than a feeble old granny? Who would distrust her?
After a while it appears we are moving closer to the Muslim Quarter. There are more people now and more shops and a general noisy busy-ness fills the alleys.
We turn another corner and she points a spindly finger. In front of us I see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site believed by many to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. However, there is no agreement on this, as there is no agreement on much in the Holy Land. Others believe that Jesus was crucified and buried in a place called the Garden Tomb located in East Jerusalem, a beautiful, peaceful garden with an ancient tomb carved into the solid rock face.
The old woman smiles a toothless smile at me and I nod in recognition. I am no longer lost. I know where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is. The church is shared by a number of Christian factions and denominations, each claiming a certain section of the building. You’ve got the Roman and Greek Orthodox Catholics, the Armenian, Coptic, Syrian and Abyssinian Christians all fighting for space. Each has its own rituals and vestments and when several are going at it at the same time, chanting, waving incense, it is, well, spiritually confusing to a marginal protestant such as I.
When we’re closer to the entrance, the old woman lets go of my arm. “Merci,” she says. “Merci beaucoup.” She smiles some more and I smile back.
“De rien,” I say. “You are welcome.”
I watch her as she shuffles over to an Eastern Orthodox priest with a long white beard and a big black hat who sits on a chair near the entrance. She bends over and kisses his hand. For a moment I hold my breath, afraid she’s going to topple right into he man’s lap, but no, she lifts her head and totters into the church.
I move on and wonder how she will make it home. Grab the arm of another unsuspecting person? Such bravery to venture out of the house being so old and weak. I hope God answers her prayers. If they’re good ones.