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A Sense of Time and Place

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1994-95

Few cities have such a strong sense of both time and place as Jerusalem. This is not only because of its religious importance, it's also because it has been continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered since the iron age.

More than three thousand years ago Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. King David conquered the city in about 1000BC and made it his capital. Since then it has been conquered and lost by Babylonians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Marmelukes, Ottomans, British, Jordanians; and since 1967 by the Israelis. It is of course the City where Jesus was crucified and Mohammed flew off to the skies. No other city has such a continuous history of settlement, faith, and conflict. Ironically its Hebrew name means 'city of peace'; but Jerusalem has almost never been peaceful.

I've been there twice. My second visit was in the spring of 1995, when Marilyn and I and our two only just teenage children went as tourists. We saw all the famous sights - the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - as well as the Church of the Nativity in occupied Bethlehem. I'll never forget the sights of the Dome of the Rock and the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalen as we stepped out of the coach. These are the buildings that gives Jerusalem its soubriquet " The Golden City".

My first visit, was almost exactly a year earlier. It was more memorable even though I didn't see any of these iconic sites. I was working for a software company and was part of a team that responded to an enquiry for one of our products from an Israeli bank. I was accompanied on this visit by Murali, a colleague from our New York Office, and Murali and I met at Heathrow for our flight to Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Murali is an American who was born in Bombay, and like me, he had never visited Israel before.

Both of us expected that the security on our BA flight would be intense, but both the departure and the arrival security was just like any other flight. When we reached our hotel at about seven pm there was a message from Ari, our client - who we had never met - that he and five others would like to meet us for breakfast at the hotel the following morning at 7.30.

The Street names of Tel Aviv - King George Avenue, Balfour Street and Allenby Street - remind you that Palestine, as it then was, was once part of the British Empire. Breakfast over, the eight of us walked a short distance along Allenby Street to the bank's art deco offices for discussions that carried on until well after ten o'clock that evening. When the bank closed its doors at about six thirty we continued the discussion at the home of one of the participants. Somebody ordered a Chinese takeaway. Murali works in New York, and I work in London; and in both these cities high value business meetings can be very intense and pressured, but this is the only time that either of us had been in a fifteen hour meeting. We retired to bed exhausted. The following day was a Thursday and the meetings only went on for six hours. That evening Murali had to return to New York. My flight was the following evening and Friday is not a working day in Israel. Ari asked me what I would be doing tomorrow. When I said I would just write up my notes and when finished I would just stroll around Tel Aviv he replied "But you can't come all this way and not visit Jerusalem".

I asked him about buses. "Ach!, I'll take you" he replied. "Meet me outside your hotel at seven." I had hoped for a lie-in.

The following morning Ari and I had breakfast in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv - a kind of Camden Lock/ Borough Market-like labyrinth started in the 1920s by Yemeni and Russian Jewish immigrants. Ari mentioned that his father had walked to Tel Aviv from the Yemen at about the same time. We then set out on the ninety minute drive through the desert to the gates of Jerusalem. On the way he asked me what sights I wanted to see. This phased me, as I had not given it any thought, so I replied with the first place that came into my head "What about the Dome of The Rock?

Ari winced."It's the Muslim day of prayer, there may be violence. Not a good idea, my wife would never forgive me if anything happened to you."

After a pause. "I know what we'll do. We'll go the Mea Sharim". He explained that the Mea Sharim was the ultra orthodox quarter and asked If I knew Stamford Hill. I said I did, and he told that it would be like Stamford Hill on a much larger scale.

The Oslo accord, which was supposed to end fifty years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been signed a few months earlier. As we drove into occupied East Jerusalem we saw the black white and green Palestinian tricolor flying. Ari was clearly shocked. He said that he never thought he would live to see that sight. He was fifty, and was still a reservist inthe Israeli Army. He didn't want his children to still be serving soldiers when they were his age. This was a short-lived time of optimism in the region, which is why we went as tourists the following year. I don't know whether I would want to go now.

The Mea Sharim is one of Israel's most deprived communities. The poverty is visible when you look at the food on sale. Like most Mediterranean countries the rest of Israel has wonderful, colourful food markets - the most famous being the Carmel Market. But the fruit and vegetables on sale here were poor in quality, sparse in quantity. According to Ari the reasons for the deprivation include large families, lack of women in the workforce, the fact that most men prefer to devote their time to studying the Talmud rather than earning money, as well as strict adherence to purchasing food from growers who observe Jewish dietary laws to an extent that makes it difficult to provide modern wholesome food.

Ari 's opinion of the ultra-orthodox residents was scathing. He openly detested these men in their frock coats and fur hats, and the women with shaven heads, wigs and headscarves. He was still a serving soldier prepared to die for his country, but these "ants" as he called them were exempt from military service. They didn't recongnise the state of Israel which gave them security. This was not his Israel, it was just as alien to him as the Arab West Bank.

He took me into one of the many shops that sold nothing but objects of devotion, or as Ari put it "They don't sell anything that's been invented inthe last three hundred years". Inside, an elderly man, who was in a state of some distress, was complaining to the shopkeeper about something they were looking hard at. Ari was listening intently to a language he didn't know well, because Hassidic Jews speak Yiddish, not Hebrew - which is reserved for religious observance. He made me buy something for one shekel, the cheapest thing the shop sold. Once outside he told me what he had understood. The man had bought a mezuzah from the shop. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific verses from the Torah which is fixed to the doorpost of Hassidic homes. The complaint was that there was an error in the calligraphy, which had brought pestilence to the family, fulfilling a biblical prophecy. The two of them were searching for the error. "Superstitious garbage!" in Ari's opinion.

I looked at my watch. I had a plane to catch. We decided it was time to drive to the airport. I thanked Ari for his hospitality; I had had a once in a lifetime experience on so many levels. Then I encountered Israeli security. Before I could board I was questioned by an extremely polite, extremely insistent security officer. The interview took forty five minutes. Quite simply he asked me to account for every second that I had spent in Israel, to give him the name and job title of every bank employee who I had met, and to explain where my hold luggage was when it was not with me for the whole three days. Had I intended to deceive, I would have failed, he would have picked up any inconsistency.

But I had it easy. The following Monday I was at my desk when Murali rang. He asked whether I was questioned at the airport and I told him what had happened.

"Hmm." he said. "

Was that all?" I could hear the indignation in his voice.

"Yes, what did they ask you?"

" He asked 'Where were you born?' I answered Bombay. His next question was 'What happened next?' "


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