We must have looked absolutely ridiculous. Four Americans, dripping with sweat, faces tinged with wonder and confusion, racing through the labyrinth of the old market…we were certainly a sight to behold.
The Arabs sitting outside their shops watched us dumbstruck. I didn’t blame them. I was somewhat chagrined myself, conscious that this was not the usual behavior of tourists.
Concerned about our waning time, I pushed back my tousled hair and checked my watch. We had fifteen minutes before the bus was due to leave. “Are we even going the right way?” I yelled to the boys. “Let’s stop and ask,” one suggested. Slowing to a halt, we addressed two teens seated at a cafe. Their eyes were glued to the silver screen of an iPhone, but when we asked the direction of the Jaffa Gate, one of them motioned right.
As we set off again, a wide grin spread across my face. It didn’t matter that we were running in 95 degree heat. It didn’t matter that we’d be late. I wouldn’t have changed that afternoon’s experience for the world.
You see, two hours earlier, I had set off for Jerusalem’s old markets with my friends Xander, Alex and Gerald. Our plan was to explore the jungle of variegated shops that lined the city streets, hopefully locating some souvenirs and gifts for our families. It was a very touristy agenda. But what we experienced was the dream that each of us had not expected to realize – true local connection.
When we had reached the very bowels of the marketplace earlier that afternoon, Xander noticed a “Visit Palestine” poster and we stopped to examine it. Observing our interest, the shop’s owner, Ibrahim, stepped out onto the landing and engaged us in conversation, quickly uncovering our penchant for politics.
With a smile on his face, he ushered us inside his jewelry shop where we were delighted to see scads of business cards from U.S. State Department employees, congressmen, journalists and government professionals framing the glass countertops. Ibrahim pointed with obvious pride to personal letters from Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lisa Jackson and Dana Perino.
Noting our confusion, he explained that his wares were specially recommended by the U.S. consulate. Thus, when American officials toured the Old City markets, they would often stop to purchase items from him, leaving their business cards behind.
Ibrahim then proceeded to regale us with stories of his many renowned visitors. His quiet sense of humor was infectious. One amusing anecdote he related involved former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice. When she visited his shop many years ago, he presented her with a string of pearls, convinced that he knew her style. Aware of the customary bargaining practices of the area, Rice tried to reduce the price from $800 to $700. However, with a grin, Ibrahim declared that he had bargained up, giving her a special price of $900.
Upon learning that our friend was a Palestinian Muslim, we soon proceeded to discuss the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Ibrahim’s candor opened the floodgates, and what ensued was an eager avalanche of questions from me and my friends. His perspective–so different from the ones we had heard on our trip so far–satisfied in us the desire to hear from Israeli residents on every side of the issue.
After about twenty minutes of riveting conversation, the jewelry shop owner phoned his friend next store to bring refreshment, and we continued our discussion over steaming cups of sweetened sage tea.
It was really a dream come true for each of us, and we were loathe to break ourselves away as the hour of our intended departure drew near. After we had purchased several pieces of jewelry, Ibrahim extended an invitation to us and the whole Passages group to visit his brother’s home in Jericho the following day. It was an extraordinary act of graciousness and a beautiful symbol of the desire to bridge cultures and religions that characterized our friend.
Deep down, we knew this would not be possible as Jericho is in the West Bank, but we were thoroughly heartened by the invitation. With a promise to be in touch, we gathered our things and raced out the door, quite late to meet our group for another amazing activity–Shabbat dinner at the home of a local Jewish family. And that’s when we began our ridiculous run. Although we arrived at the hotel quite breathless and rather drenched, we made it on time. And as I said earlier, none of us would have changed a minute of how we spent that afternoon.
Although we were unable to take Ibrahim up on his offer the following day, we did meet him and his son for dinner at a Palestinian fish restaurant. Sixteen-year-old Orayb was remarkably similar to any high school boy in America. He discussed his favorite bands, connected with us on Instagram and Facebook and whispered that he had a girlfriend — a reality his father chose not to hear. There’s nothing like meeting a family from another culture and realizing that the similarities to yours far outweigh their differences.
Reflecting on the experience, I feel honored and blessed to have met Ibrahim. He really made me think about the stereotypes I had held and the “solutions” I had thought up. When he stated that we could only understand the conflict if we actually lived in his culture, I was struck by the true beauty of travel. It opens your mind, yes. But it really teaches you how much you don’t know and will never understand. There’s a special kind of humbling beauty in realizing that you can never be an expert on some issues. My job was simply to listen and learn.