On the Streets of Old Jerusalem

By Marvin K. Gardner

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    Old Jerusalem.

    Narrow streets—barely wider than alleys—are crowded with people from all over the world: tourists in shorts and sunglasses, priests wearing vestments of various religious orders, young soldiers carrying machine guns, Jewish men and boys wearing skullcaps, and Arabs in flowing robes and shepherd headwear. Some women are dressed in shawls and veils; others are wearing business suits. Little children are darting through the crowd.

    As we make our way through the souk (marketplace), the sound of bargaining is everywhere. And the choices are overwhelming. Shopkeepers advertise their goods by lining them out in the street in front of their stores. Wicker baskets are filled with nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Long embroidered dresses hang from overhead. Shelves are filled with religious statues carved from olive wood. There are rows and rows of brass cookware, copper and silver trays, glazed Armenian ceramics, and Persian jugs. And there is an endless array of gold and silver jewelry, sheepskin and leather coats, and exotic oriental rugs.

    Someone is making falafel (a fried mixture of spicy ground vegetables); someone else is roasting shish kebab; the smell of fresh bread mingles with the aroma of strange spices. Merchants stand at their doors and invite us inside. Music from various cultures blares from radios.

    My wife, Mary, and I stop in a small shop that sells religious items significant to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As we browse, the shopkeeper—a short, thin Arab man—explains the meaning and use of several items. And he tells us about the Koran.

    We decide on our purchase and begin the expected ritual of bargaining on the price. Hoping we’ve settled on a fair amount, we hand the man several crisp, new bills.

    He counts them out and surprises us by handing one back.

    “You gave me too much,” he explains. The new bills had stuck together. We had overpaid him.

    “Thank you,” Mary says. “We appreciate your honesty.”

    “Oh, I’m not being honest for you,” the man replies. “I’m being honest for me and my household. I will not buy food for my family with dishonest money!”

    As we return to the noisy, crowded street, we realize that we got more than we bargained for—the memory of an Arab friend who wouldn’t sell himself for a crisp, new dollar bill.

    Photography by Timothy Taggart