As if we were in a romantic movie, the three of us strolled up the metal staircase late in the evening to the four corners rooftop, an intersection point between the four quarters of the old city of Jerusalem: Armenian, Christian, Arab, and Jewish. Thanks to Becca’s impeccable sense of direction, we had just wandered from the Western Wall, through the Arab quarter, and around the entire city wall back to our hostel in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Just before turning in for the night, we turned a few more corners and ended up here on the roof, looking out over the city of Jerusalem. It is beautiful at night. Which is no surprise. In the yellow light of the street lamps and the green glow of Al Aqsa mosque, even the cats feel the comforting mood, rubbing up next to you to cuddle.
We came to Jerusalem that morning with our professors and a list of academic sites to visit on our first trip to the holy city. Our 10 am welcome was the sound of sirens. They went off as we were passing through security to get into Yad Vashem, the destination of a memorial service on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It took nearly 30 minutes to pass from one post to the next, from metal detectors, palm swipes, and brief questioning. The siren sounded for 2 minutes, the beeps and alarms of the security falling silent as everyone stood in place, perfectly still. No words and no motion. The moment is meant to commemorate the Holocaust, and is one of many traditions meant to remember the tragic events in history that played such a huge role in the creation of Israel.
Moments like these also reminded us of the unique city we were visiting: nowhere else in the world were the crowds and even street cars frozen. A few of us decided to spend the night in the city instead of returning home in order to witness the city in the nighttime. We were lucky enough to be introduced into a wonderfully homey women’s hostel in the Jewish quarter. In addition, it was alarmingly well kept for the nightly rate of 20 Shekels, or $5, per night.
Jerusalem is world-renowned. Everyone knows it for its holiness in three separate faiths, but this does not tell you much about what it is actually like on the inside. With each step on the pavement of the old city you transcend through countless, endless boundaries between faiths and cultures, always ending up where you didn’t intend and constantly walking in circles. A step to the left in some areas brings you under Armenian territory, while a step to the right puts you on Coptic soil. It isn’t until nightfall, while we wander the corridors, passing from one quarter to the next, our eyes and ears adjusting to different languages every few minutes, that we start to unravel the tangle of contestation that we had learned and encountered all day. There is no one city, no one Jerusalem. There are a dozen Jerusalems, each belonging to a different culture, language, dress. Only at night, with some mental digestion, was I able to feel the layers of the city settle into quiet, and be enveloped by the countless cultures without feeling suffocated and yanked in various contradictory directions. By the time I leave Israel, I want my brain to be able to adjust to the these layers: to hear Arabic, see Jewish Orthodox outfits, and stand below towering churches and feel as though the layers of this country are not chaos, but a melting pot that brings more richness than it does cruelty and conflict.