Following the Map in My Feet

How a return trip to Jerusalem reifies the complexities of the Middle East

By / December 2019

As the new staff of a study-abroad program in Amman—just 45 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies—my husband and I find ourselves transporting four American college students to the Holy City. At the northern border crossing between Jordan and Israel, a bus carries us across the muddy, bamboo clogged Jordan River, and suddenly the cultural atmosphere changes.

Instead of women in headscarves, we see women carrying semi-automatic rifles, checking our bus with mirrors, radioing their male coworkers with authority. As we move through security, we realize it might be okay to look men in the eyes, to smile even. Suddenly our students seem less conspicuous: the tall blonde in flowered canvas high-tops, the red head in an oversized canvas jacket, the tall skinny boy with the curly ponytail, and the guy who’s been trying to grow a mustache all semester. As we eat falafel in Beit Shean, surrounded by tourists speaking a variety of languages, I relax. They don’t stick out anymore, I think with relief. They could be anyone here.

I can tell the students feel the same way. By the time we reach Jerusalem, a two-hour bus ride through the West Bank to the Central Bus Station, their voices have gotten louder. Their public displays of affection, laughter, and joking skyrocket as we walk down Jaffa Street. “It’s like Europe!” they exclaim. Following the bike lane engraved in the gray flagstone sidewalk, we feel lighter. Milling through the chaos of the Machane Yehuda market, they whisper about men drinking beer and women wearing tank tops as if they’ve never seen such things.

Like the U.S., Israel is a melting pot, a country of immigrants, not at all homogenous. And although Jordan is diverse as well, until you can recognize differences in accent and dress, it’s tempting to describe everyone living there as “Arabs.” Here you can see the blond hair and high cheekbones of Eastern Europe and Russia. You can hear New York-accented English spoken by Jews who’ve made aliyah from the U.S. You can get swallowed up by groups of Asian tourists in broad sunhats, Africans wearing colorful turbans, Europeans dressed in water-wicking zip-off hiking pants.

We duck into a bakery and select two braided challah breads. “Take three,” the girl says. “It’s three for 20.” Shabbat is about to begin; everything must go. I miss Shabbat—the nation-wide forced rest we had every Saturday when Austin was a university student here. But even on Shabbat, tourists don’t stop, and that is what we are this weekend. The closer we get to the Old City, the thicker they become, some wearing matching neon-colored kerchiefs or caps and led by guides carrying little flags.

On Christian Quarter Road, passing neat pyramids of spices, glittering souvenir boxes, leather sandals, bars of sesame seed and coconut candy, painted plates and candlesticks, memories bombard me. Once I was introduced to this section of paving stones left from Roman times, rutted by chariot wheels. Once I walked down this road carrying 10,000 USD in shekels, the cash to sustain a study-abroad program for a time. Once the Arabic language sounded angry and harsh and I could not understand the shopkeepers shouting at each other; now I smile at their greetings and jokes.

As a student in 2006 and later in my two-year stint volunteering with a study-abroad program, I spent hours wandering Jerusalem’s streets and alleys, finding new shortcuts and dead-ends, faster ways to get to the falafel stand near Damascus Gate, quieter ways to cross the Old City’s four quarters. I never really feared getting lost, relying my basic knowledge of these four sections: Jewish (bagel shops, kippas, and mezuzahs); Christian (tourists on the Via Dolorosa, bundles of incense and candles and olive wood trinkets); Muslim (the meat market and covered women); Armenian (always quiet, as if still haunted by genocide).

I have dreamed of these alleyways so many times. Alleyways paved with stones slippery in the rain, alleyways stacked with produce boxes piled with grocery bags of trash, and lined with doors to homes like hobbit holes. Somehow, though years have passed and I have no map, I know that reconstructed synagogue is going to appear around the next corner, that Hezekiah’s Broad Wall is this way. I lead our group on a hunch, an instinct, my brain on autopilot, surrendered to the map in my feet.

Our second day in country, we meet some Israeli friends at a park just outside the Old City. The students kick off their shoes and frolic in the grass and crunch fall leaves like we’re in Central Park. Our friends bring several pizzas with them, and a slew of pizza spice packets, a distinctly Israeli custom I’d forgotten about. Eventually, our conversation drifts to the U.S. embassy move earlier in 2018.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” one friend tells us. “They didn’t even make a new building, just changed the sign on one of the consulates.” But I remember what this move meant in Amman, how it sparked what I heard was the biggest protest in the country’s history, and how Muslims worldwide condemned the decision.

In the midst of an otherwise happy-go-lucky weekend, I’m reminded of the Middle East’s complexities. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not black and white. It’s very, very gray, and requires hours of listening to both sides to understand the deeply inbred factors driving it. Being here and seeing all nations represented, I like to think Jerusalem is an international city, one that ought to belong to the world. How this could happen practically, politically, I have no idea, though I have lived on both sides.

On our way back to Amman, I ask the students what they thought of Jerusalem. They enjoyed it, of course. “But,” one girl says, “Jordan is just always a little sketch.”

How to interpret a college student’s slang? She obviously has positive intent, but what does she mean? Does she delight in the element of surprise that comes with life in the Arab world? Does she like how one never quite knows what to expect? Does she recognize that although life in Israel is more free, individual, and efficient, that individualism and efficiency often come at the price of community and relationship?

“The first thing you notice, coming to Israel from the Arab world,” Tony Horwitz once wrote, “is that you have left the most courteous region of the globe and entered the rudest. The difference is so profound that you’re left wondering when the mutation in Semitic blood occurred, as though God parted the Red Sea and said: “Okay, you rude ones, keep wandering toward the Promised Land. The rest of you can stay here and rot in the desert, saying ‘welcome, most welcome’ and drowning each other in tea until the end of time.”

I think the student, like me, appreciates this land. But, if given the choice, I’m guessing she’d stay on the far side of the river with the Arabs, saying “welcome, most welcome” and drowning in tea in the desert.


Heather M. Surls is a writer in Amman.