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Jerusalem a city of many worlds

The two young girls stood inside the gate, awaiting my arrival. I had promised to meet Chloe, who my cousin Margot, who lives in America, had told me would be in Jerusalem on a vacation study mission. She was with Grace, her roommate. Etti sat behind the wheel of our Prius. The smiling girls said “Hi” and we were off on a little excursion of the tourist highlights of the holy city.

Chloe had shiny pitch black hair that reached to her shoulders. She wore a relaxed black and white polka dot skirt, Grace was dark blond and wore khaki shorts. They were dressed modestly by the standards of any western country.

It’s not big news, of course, that tourists delighted in visiting places with wildly different cultures from their own. Tourists come deliberately to see something strange and unique.

As a tour guide I stand in the middle, a kind of protecting shield from the strange and weird on the one hand and as its interpreter, on the other. I also have a job of cooling the ardour of the curiosity of the locals when they are confronted by westerners.

I fall into a trap, however, into thinking that the constant flow of western tourists causes western culture to rub off onto the locals, who stop seeing the tourists like peculiar phenomena. I learnt that I was mistaken.

These two young ladies complied with my specifications for ideal tourists, they were intelligent and attractive. But clearly my skills as an intermediary might be called upon.

I asked Etti not to begin driving until I’d explained the significance of the place they were staying. Their hostel, I explained, is located at the highest point of Mt.Scopus. From there one went down hill in every direction. To the East, the Judean Desert and the West to the Mediteranean Sea.

Etti drove us to our first vantage point, next to the Mt.Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, overlooking the desert and the two Arab villages on the eastern slopes. Immediately below us, Isawiya, and on the horizon to the North, Shuafat and squeezed between the two, French Hill, the neighborhood of the girls’ accomodation and where Etti and I happen to live.

The inhabitants of the Arab villages don’t exactly put out a sign “welcome to our village” in fact they might as well put up a sign “Jews keep out”. The desert by nature isn’t a hospitable place either, so one could say that we were between the devil and deep blue sea..

I suggested the girls visit the grounds of the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus to see the famous sculpture by Jacques Lischitz, known as the tree of life.

My next suggestion as we drove past, was to visit the Augusta Victoria hospital and to climb the 300 or so steps of the bell tower, for a spectacular view of Jerusalem,

By this time we’d reached the Makassad hospital on the top of Mt. of Olives, in the middle of the scruffy Arab village of E Tur. “There is the entrance to the Russian church and monastery” I said pointing to a dark passageway, between some dismal stores, selling groceries and mobile telephones. One can see some beautiful Byzantine mosaics in one of the churches there.

The time had come to leave Etti and the car, to walk down the mountain by the palm Sunday Walk. It took us about half an hour and we stood, waiting for Etti to pick us up, on the corner opposite the Church of All Nations, overlooking the Kidron Valley. Without the tourists and pilgrims, who crowded this place until Covid struck, this has become a lonely place, even though heavy traffic passed by to Abu Dis, the big Arab village further up the road.

Before the Covid days, nobody would have taken any notice of one more tour guide accompanying two elegant lady tourists.

But the deserted condition of the place made us stand out like curious spectacles. Cars hooted, men and boys leaned out the windows of cars, some even stopped for a closer look like one would do when coming across an alien phenomenon.

Only one year has passed since westerners were here and locals have already forgotten what elegantly dressed ladies.looked like. I shook my head in despair. “When will they learn that there is such a thing as another sort of culture in the world, not only their insular society?”.

Jerusalem is indeed a city of worlds within worlds. People living here, like Etti and myself, take this situation for granted. We travel swiftly, from one side of the city to another, without noticing that each moment we are passing through another world.

Etti drove us to Rehavya, for coffee in Cafe Rachel in ben Maimon Street. Sipping our tea under the shade of a neat row of pine trees, we chat about what the girls are studying, how they find conditions here, and what are their plans for the future.

The historic sites we’ve just come from are forgotten. Here in Rehavia we’re in another world, a world of open minded people. An Arab in a galabiya, or a woman in a hijab walking past would not warrant a second glance.

The people around us don’t stare, we are part of them and they are part of us. Not like the area of the Church of all nations and the village of Abu Dis where we are aliens.

I make a decision to take the girls to one more of Jerusalem’s worlds. The world of the ultra orthodox Jews. There we don’t even dare to get out of the car because that society is so seclusionist that we would be in danger of being asked to leave by the locals, hopefully politely.

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