Allix Denham is a journalist and author, whose novel Hotel Jerusalem was inspired by a month-long visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The shared taxi driver got us to Jerusalem before realising he’d misheard the name of the our hotel. ‘I can’t go to Arab places,’ he announced as our fellow passengers fell silent. It was almost 3 a.m., but I was secretly pleased. I’d been pretty sure our hotel was Palestinian-run, but this was the confirmation I needed. He called out to an Arab taxi driver across the street, told us the fare to pay and handed over our luggage.
I’d chosen our first hotel, the Jerusalem Panorama, largely for budgetary reasons and the fact it has 24 hour reception for our 3am arrival. I had no idea how symbolic a place it was. Built in 1966 just down the valley from the Mount of the Olives with probably the best view of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, the land around it, including its car park, was ‘appropriated’ after 1967 and turned into a Jewish cemetery.
East Jerusalem Troubles
Another thing I hadn’t realised was that its location in Silwan placed it at the heart of the November troubles. Friday prayers at the Ras El-Amoud mosque saw dozens of worshippers being closely guarded by around a hundred soldiers and police. Like polite Glastonbury attendees without the wellies, we picked our way through them before hurrying off as the news vans started to arrive.
On our return hours later, the air was filled with the sewage-like stench of dirty water, or ‘skunk’, the Israeli weapon of choice for crowd control.
The area was no problem for us, however. We found a terrific greengrocers, and stocked up on fresh fruit. A boy sitting at his shop entrance asked “which country” and proceeded to reel off the names of the England squad on my reply.
At night, we fell asleep to the sound of tear gas and firecrackers going off, which wasn’t as scary as it sounds. I actually felt very safe in this hotel. I loved the breakfast buffet, and the spectacular views from its panoramic windows. There was a handful of other travellers to talk to over the spread of boiled eggs, hummus, cucumber, white cheese, olives, cereals and bread, which you could toast using a haphazard toaster that spat the toasted pieces out so unexpectedly you were lucky to catch them.
We talked a lot with one member of staff – to my regret we didn’t get his name – about the political situation. He'd once played in goal for one of the Arab football teams, and now helped with coaching. There’s a small Palestinian league, but for the teams located in the West Bank, their away fixtures are limited.
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In the Old City
We moved on to the heart of the Old City, and I loved it so much it inspired my novel, Hotel Jerusalem. Here, we had no views from our room, only skylights, but we felt cocooned in a warm and safe spot, despite the continual sounds of firecrackers throughout the night.
Just north of Damascus Gate we'd visit a bustling fruit and vegetable market where there were several falafel stands, and this became a regular treat. We’d sit and people-watch: the kiosk workers who’d casually interrupt their larking about to step aside and pray, before returning to their banter and jokes; the Orthodox Jews who’d hurry past on the far side of the road, largely ignored by the noisy Arab stall holders. The nuns, men in traditional robes, school children – all kinds of people, just getting on with their lives.
Far from being threatening, the Palestinians are charmers, calling out 'welcome' and 'which country?' wherever we passed. 'England? Wayne Rooney,' said one young shopkeeper. ‘England? Long live the Queen,’ said another.
We took a look inside a large bakery, and as we were leaving someone called out 'brave tourists.' But the Palestinians are a friendly lot, and we didn’t feel brave at all. Nor did we need to.
Buying stamps at the post office in East Jerusalem, we’d been given a ticket with a number on it that didn't correspond to any of the numbers on the booths. How long a wait were we in for? We sat down opposite a father and son who told us they’d been there for two hours. What did we want, they asked. ‘Stamps?’ The father repeated incredulously. ‘You’ve come here for stamps?’ ‘It is the post office,’ I said, and we roared with laughter.
At a café just opposite Damascus Gate, my boyfriend asked if they would be showing the Tottenham v Stoke match. The surly cashier with the huge beard, who wouldn’t look out of place issuing fatwas from a north London mosque, repeated, stonily, ‘Tottenham Stoke?,’ before barking out instructions to a waiter, who set to work locating the channel. He turned back to us, his face still gruff. ‘Where you from, Australia?’ ‘He’s from Tottenham!’ I blurted out. ‘You from Tottenham?’ His face broke into the widest, warmest of smiles.
We watched the match over our generously-stuffed falafel wraps, and our friend looked suitably saddened when Spurs lost.
Oh yes, and Religion too...
There are a great many churches and religious sites to visit in Jerusalem, and we pretty much did the lot, and I'm sure you can read about them in many other hubs. As an atheist, I was pretty much numb to them all, but found the devotion of others fascinating. I saw people weeping, processions carrying the crucifix, and some queuing up to prostrate themselves on the place where Jesus was washed. I was completely untouched, but that didn't stop me from loving Jerusalem's Old City – its spirit, its vitality, its narrow lanes and its bustle.
For obvious reasons, there is nowhere else in the world like it.