I was in Jerusalem, Israel. It was my last day in the city, and I had an afternoon to myself to spend as I pleased. It was inevitable that I would be drawn back to the old city, which had so captivated me on my first visit a few days earlier.
The old city is a place of contrasts, with 4 distinct styles. It is divided into quarters: Jewish, Arab, Christian and Armenian, and all of them sit in stark contrast to one other and provide a fascinating reflection of life in this complicated country. I longed to spend some time alone, getting lost in the alleyways as I meandered from one quarter to another, discovering what I could never find in the company of the rest of my group.
Through the Arab quarter I wandered, fascinated by the sights and sounds of the bustling market and the biblical landmarks of the Via Dolorosa which runs through the souk. I turned a corner and I was in the Jewish quarter, quiet, neat, with upmarket shops selling kippa skullcaps and art galleries on every side.
I spotted a staircase leading to a roof, and was about to make my way up it when a voice called to me. It came from an older gentlemen sitting on a chair outside his jewellery shop; he called me over and gently warned me about the unexpected dangers in these alleyways. The orthodox Jewish community guards its territory jealously, and it is not unknown for unsuspecting tourists to be the subject of verbal abuse or even the occasional pelting with tomatoes, as I had been warned before. He told me that it was safe to go up to the roof terrace, but to take care as I wandered around the Jewish quarter in general. I thanked him and headed up the stairs, heeding his second piece of advice and taking care on the slippery surface as I went.
The views of Jerusalem from the roof were beautiful; the sun was shining and I did indeed see orthodox Jews hurrying past in their black coats and ringlets, although nobody seemed to pay me any attention. On returning to street level, my new protector invited me into his shop. Expecting a hard sell, I was instead sat down and given a cup of mint tea and the benefit of the gentleman’s lifetime of wisdom. A Bedouin from the south of Israel, he had a spiritual outlook on life which made absolute sense to me at the time, although the details of what he said have long since escaped my memory. But the overwhelming message was one of seizing happiness when you get the chance, and living the life that is right for you, not the one that is expected. I was touched by the words, which rang extremely true for me.
I did buy a pair of earrings from the shop, but not because I felt unable to say no, but because I wanted a souvenir of the encounter to carry with me in the future. As we said goodbye, I wandered off into the Armenian quarter of the city in a daze, knowing I would carry the memory of the old man in the corner shop for many years to come.