I arrived at the central bus station of Jerusalem at mid-day in the sticky heat.
I had no map, no real plan and no clue where to go. I naively thought that I would get off the bus at the bottom of the Wailing Wall. But Jerusalem is also a city like any other. In Hebrew, it is ‘Ye-ru-sha-la-yim’.
I decided to follow the Orthodox Jews dressed in traditional outfit, thinking they would end up going to the Wall for their prayers. That’s how I lost myself in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. I hadn’t seen so many Orthodox Jews since walking Macy Avenue in Brooklyn on Shabbat. The women were mostly young and pushing strollers. They were all wearing skirts, dark colours and tights despite the heat. A lot of them were also wearing a wig, according to the tradition, which was easy to spot as they were all wearing the same one: mid-length straight brown hair with bangs. Only the shade of brown was slightly different from one to the other.
The streets of the old city are small and picturesque. The walls were covered with a bright green poster entitled “Are you aware?” both in English and Hebrew. I stopped to read. It was propaganda for women to measure the length of their skirt and for men being responsible for the modesty of their household. According to the holy texts, exposed limbs should be chopped off and boiled. It also stipulated that women shouldn’t speak too loud and should change sidewalk when men are coming their way. I started feeling seriously self-conscious and readjusted the scarf around my head and shoulders. Thank God I was wearing my longest dress, but the buttons on the chest pop up because my boobs are expressive. I’m a girl with volumes, what can I do? I was afraid they would stone me, though. In certain streets, I was the only girl. I wasn’t comfortable to ask my way and there was still no Western Wall in sight. I ended up hailing a taxi. The driver made me sit at the front, because there was a man at the back and I’m a threat to male integrity.
When the other passenger got off, the cab driver became super friendly. He touched my veil and was like “What is that? What is that? It’s hot! Why are you wearing this?” And he laughed to tears. He couldn’t stop. I laughed too. I told him that everyone was covered from neck to toes and I didn’t want to offend anyone. He was still laughing as if I was the funniest thing he had ever seen. He told me: “Don’t worry, these people are Talibans, they are Daesh!” I relaxed a little.
The driver asked where to drop me off. I said I just wanted to see the Wall. He asked: “What wall?” Best joke ever. I thought asking for the Wall in Jerusalem would be as easy as asking for the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I mimed a wall with my hands and people praying. I don’t think I did a very good job because the guy was laughing but still had no clue. He opened his window and shouted at another taxi driver something in Hebrew punctuated with the word “wall” multiple times. The other driver had no clue either. My dude told me plenty of names in Hebrew which didn’t ring any bell. I attempted to repeat the names but he started laughing to tears again. I think I won funniest client of the week. (I learned afterwards that the Wall is called the ‘Kotel’ in original version). I wrapped it up by asking “OK, just take me to the old stuff“. We passed the tunnel to Jerusalem-East and he literally stopped me in the middle of the road close to a fortress. I had to find my way from there.
I climbed the stairs of the ramparts and got into a different world. I tried to figure out the geography of the place but it was confusing so I walked straight ahead into tiny paved streets where all the “Merchants of the Temple” were selling cheap bibelots for people of all confessions: “Scents of the Bible” perfume set, and my absolute favorite, the glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary in every size. I burst into laugh. The shop owner didn’t like it. “What’s so funny?” he asked me.
My steps finally took me to the security gate of the Western Wall. Hurray!!!! I must say that I felt something standing there, at the top of the massive stairs that were leading to the Holy place among the Holy places. Men are praying on the left side and women on the right side, but as in any hot spots of the planet, the interesting action was on the men’s side. There is a separation in the middle, but you can peep through a gate to see what’s going on, so I stood there for a while with tons of other idiot tourists like me, observing with one eye the strange dances of the men in costume bending over again and again all in the same way. It was hypnotic and fascinating. The militarists come and pray there as well, and my fav part was that they don’t even take off their weapons. The call for prayer from the mosque emanated as I was leaving. I loved that image. In the same perimeter, there are tons of churches – I lost count – the mosques with their enchanting melody and the Jewish repeating the same choreography since centuries. You just wonder why the three monotheisms are against each other since they all come from that spot of earth? I left with many question marks in my head on the absurdity of the Human kind.
The afternoon was nearing its end when I spotted the sign of the Mount of Olives. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to go because the name had resonated in my imagination since childhood. I was raised super Catholic. My mother has the name of Jesus tattooed on her forearm. I went to religious classes, Bible study and all that between 6 and 11, so I had all the names of the sacred places of Jerusalem somewhere in my memory.
From the Western Wall, it is a fifteen minute walk on an isolated road to get to the Mount of Olives. From distance, my sight couldn’t distinguish what the white stains on the slope of the hill were. I realised afterwards that they are graves and that hundreds of people are buried there. The hill is naked but covered in graves (which cost $100,000 but you go straight to heaven so the rich people of the diaspora book their space.)
The Mount of Olives is a wonder of beauty, peace and mystery. As I was approaching it in the burning sun, I was feeling a highly spiritual wind blowing at me. It is an absolutely captivating place. All the legendary spots of the Bible are a few meters away from each other. I entered the Church of All Nations, at the bottom of the hill, which became my favorite church in the world (as soon as the bunch of Japanese tourists who were taking selfies emptied the premises. Grrrrr.) The stain glasses are all different shades of purple so the inside is bathed in a magical light. There is a place to kneel down under the mosaic of Jesus resisting temptation over the last night of his life. I almost believed all of it for a moment. I believed in God and Jesus an all the Saints while inside the Church of All Nations. (On the outside, I hate religion – or to be accurate, let’s say that religion hates me.) I kneeled down for a while, just to see what it feels like to be humble, and it was a revelation to love it. I totally surrendered, I gave my inner Warrior a break in Faith.
Outside the Church of All Nations is the Garden of the Olive trees where Jesus enjoyed hanging out – the Israeli olive trees are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – as well as the Grotto of Gethsemane, where Jesus got arrested. And a couple of steps away is the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, which is one of the most special places I’ve seen in my life.
When you get in, it is dark and the smell of incense hits your nose. You go down very big stone stairs. A million oriental lamps are hanging from the high ceiling. There is an autel on your right with tons of icons and a tiny door – even I had to bend over to get in – and there She is resting. Actually, there is an empty sarcophage with an irregular-surfaced stone in it full of hand-written messages. I left one too. The ambiance of this place is something else, I won’t even try to describe it. At every step, my breath was suspended in fascination and I was just thinking that everyone must stand there once in their life to be impregnated with magic.
I climbed the Mount of Olives on foot as the sun started going on. I passed the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene with its camp shiny golden domes. Mary Magdalene is my middle name so I was really keen to visit the place, but it is only open four hours a week to visitors who are not Russian. I felt an overwhelming urge to get inside that building, like a call. I will come back.
I reached the top of the Mount at sunset. Jerusalem was lying in all its beauty under my feet. The last rays of sun were bouncing on the Dome of the Rock. There was a random camel nearby who tried to give me a kiss.
I took a taxi to the station so I’d get in Tel Aviv right in time for the beginning of the Drag Show at the Evita bar.
Photo from Wikipedia – Tomb of the Virgin Mary