I felt like I was living in someone else’s dream as I boarded the dusty green bus headed for Jerusalem. Jerusalem: one of the world’s most ancient cities; the most sacred city for the world’s three most powerful religions; a city steeped in contention and controversy. To be honest, I didn’t feel worthy of such an ancient and important place, especially because I know many people long to make that pilgrimage while my own visit was not religiously motivated.
Still, what a place. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this city that had kept its walls under constant turmoil for most of its existence. I had hopped on that bus with little expectation, aside from a couple of starred locations on Google Maps.
The Jerusalem I first saw was a far cry from the picture I had in my mind. Upon exiting the bus station, I walked into a rather modern, four-story mall. Continuing along the road into the old city revealed residential streets reminiscent of downtown Kansas City. None of it was adding up in my head, but I kept walking.
Once I caught my first glimpse of the Old City, the Jerusalem of my imagination and the one in front of me bore more resemblance to one another. I entered the maze-like alleys, winding unintuitively in every direction, avoiding eye contact with the pushy shopkeepers whose stalls line every inch of every street. Turkey has jaded me in this way.
I stepped out of the tunnels and finally reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world filed in and out of the church with surprising consistency. Just down the street, a group of well-dressed Jewish men, followed by a crowd of Jewish schoolboys struggling to maintain their best behavior, filed down the steps to pray at the Western Wall. The Muslim call to prayer filled the cloudy sky. My head was spinning.
My husband and I stopped for a quick snack of hummus and pita bread at a nearby cafe, and as luck would have it, a woman with a camera crew showed up to film an interview with one of the restaurant owners. He was Palestinian and was sharing his thoughts on Trump and the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We chewed our bread a little harder, trying not to be too obvious about our eavesdropping while trying to grasp every word of the man’s valuable perspective. In a nutshell: the conflict rages on and little ever changes. No one will go anywhere without a fight.
My head spins even faster at that point. My husband suggests that we grab a coffee at another cafe with a great rooftop overlooking the city. For the first time, the city feels quiet and calm. We are the only ones up there, looking around at the beautiful, ancient rooftops – a skyline unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.
On the bus back to Tel Aviv, only two seats remain and they are not together. I sit next to a sleeping woman with earbuds in and my husband sits next to a man who turned out to be a Zionist and a former American. His take on the conflict? Anyone who isn’t Jewish should have left a long time ago.
I step off of the dusty green bus and walk back to our hotel, feeling like I understand more and less than ever.