The Old City of Jerusalem is always a hive of activity. As the sun gently rises over the distant hills, shopkeepers begin their commutes towards the city centre. Long days lie ahead, setting up shop in the empty streets.
It does not take long for the crowds to appear -in their hundreds. Tourism in Jerusalem is very seansonal, depending on the events. As a holy city to three of the main monotheistic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism – Jerusalem welcomes over 3.5 million tourists a year.
One particular afternoon three friends and I were making our way back home after a drink sage tea in the sunshine under a palm tree. It was a Friday, one of the busiest days in the week. We weaved our way through the crowded streets of Muristan, up towards Christian Quarter Road and as we turned onto the road we heard a voice call to us.
“Hello, lovely family!”
I have to confess that when we arrived in Jerusalem, we were instructed to avoid conversation with shopkeepers and to just continue walking. The four of us were used to ignoring this instruction.
“We are in spirit, mate” Mal replied.
“How lovely!” The friendly shopkeeper said smiling as he laid out his coloured scarves for display.
I started to smile to myself as we continued walking. When I arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem all those years ago, I was told to keep my head down and walk straight from place to place, I remember being warned that I should not talk to anyone and that I certainly shouldn’t entertain the idea of conversation.
Time passed and our friendship with this particular shopkeeper had grown. The shopkeeper and his shop became a safe haven for some of us when we were walking home. I should stress that it is very unusual to not feel safe in Jerusalem, however, if we ever felt intimidated or at risk of being followed we would calmly walk to the shop and wait there whilst the shopkeeper would send some of his relatives to investigate.
One afternoon, we discovered that the shopkeeper’s birthday was in the following week and we decided to bake him a birthday cake: this soon became quite problematic as we remembered that we did not have any oven.
So, we set to work on preparing a toffee cheesecake and to our surprise, it was a big success. After hours of searching online we found the perfect recipie.
Navigating the Old City thta busy Friday morning turned into more of a challenge than we had anticipated. We tried our best to make the occasion a surprise. As we turned off the bustling David Street onto Christian quarter road we stopped at the first shop and asked if we could borrow a lighter.
The shopkeeper looked at us quizzically and cautioned us not to smoke as it was not good for our health: we continued to explain the plan. The poor shopkeeper only seemed to be more confused by our explanation as we uncovered the cake and began to light some candles.
However much we had planned for this event to be a surprise, our shopkeeper friend had seen us coming from a distance. Unbeknown to us we had gained a following of roughly twelve shopkeepers who slowly followed behind: I am sure they were following us for a piece of cheesecake.
The best moment was seeing a smiling face emerge from the shop and stare in utter shock at the crowd of people who were singing happy birthday. Even some tourists joined in to sing with us. We sang together in Arabic and English and then we all sat down and began to eat. The street was filled with laughter, fun and of course – thousands of tourists.
I am so grateful for that one conversation with a shopkeeper in the Old City, as it led to our hilarious friendship which still exists to this day.
I understand an appreciate the caution of the organisation that I worked for, and I would advise you to walk around the Old city in groups or pairs if you have any concerns. I really do believe that the Old City of Jerusalem is safe, however I would not advise single girls to walk around the city alone at night. Please, exercise caution; there are always exceptions to every rule and although the characters in the story are lovely (and real) there will always be people who sadly wish to take advantage of others.