A crowded narrow street leads from the Jaffa Gate to deep inside the Old City of Jerusalem, a cobblestone divider between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish Quarters. It descends the gentle slope of the hill toward the Via Dolorosa, the painful path and last walk of Jesus of Nazareth as he carried the cross to his own crucifixion some 2000 years ago. Two narrow stone inclines bridge the steps in the center of the street, spaced just right for the wheels of the handcarts the merchants use to deliver their wares up and down the pitch.
The street is lined with shops, hundreds of shops, none more than a few meters wide. The smells of exotic spices and fresh-baked pitas, the sounds of an oud playing somewhere in the distance, and the calls of the vendors assault the senses. The merchants stand in their doorways or sit on the stoop, smoking a cigarette and inviting passers-by to come in and “Look, please, would you like to look in my shop? It will only take a moment. You don’t have to pay anything to look.” But you can see the lack of enthusiasm and interest in their eyes. Business is not what it was before the latest Intifada. Three years ago, the streets were so crowded it was at times impossible to move without turning sideways and pushing yourself along with or against the flow of people. Today, you can walk side-by-side through empty streets. Where merchants were once busy showing their carpets, hand-dyed scarfs, and olive-wood figures, today they sip tea and hope someone will buy something and pay their rent for the day.
In the doorway of one unnamed shop stands Bedui, the importer and collector of handmade metalwork from all over the Middle East. As we enter he smiles politely and offers to help us. It’s a few moments before he looks at us more intently and says, “I remember you, you were here before, you’re the one with the camera.”
Indeed, I was. Lorelle is amused, because she’s the one who’s always recognized, but this time it’s me, although my camera is buried deep in my pack, nowhere to be seen. We had spent at least an hour in his shop more than a year ago, and he allowed me to photograph his endless array of handmade silver and brass teapots and necklaces and spoons and jewelry boxes and thousands of other objects I don’t even know the names for. We had bought a few things from him, too, but not a lot. He remembers us and wants to know how we have been, and what we are doing in Jerusalem, where are the pictures, and how he can help us today.
I tell him I’m looking for something small and lightweight, something nice, and not too fancy, that I want to send to a friend of mine in Oregon. I want something handmade. Of course, he has several ideas, and runs around the shop, moving urns out of the way so he can climb on a footstool to reach one of the top shelves somewhere. He brings three or four things out for our examination, dusting them off as he winds through the tangle of clutter, a couple of small teapots, an ornamented box, and an intricate silver plate. When I tell him that I like one of them very much, he mentions that he has a similar one in brass, if I would like to see it. Yes, I thought I would. He calls softly to his partner to find the teapot, and they search around and finally find it in the window. But it is only visible through the window from the street. We decide we like it, and ask to see it up close. With not a break in expression, he coos and oos, waddles back inside the shop and he and his partner begin the laborious process of clearing a path through the eclectic clutter of vases, tea pots, tea cups, metal plates, pots and pans, all once sparkling with brass, copper, and silver, now tarnished and dull with layers of oily dust. They struggle to move the things aside without tipping anything over, a great domino possibility in the making, but nothing falls. Within a few minutes, he brings out the small item and I find that it is poorly made, a cheap imitation of what I want. We regret, especially after all the work, that this is not what we want, but is there something else like it, better made? Again, with only smiles of appreciation for us passing his threshold, he hunts around for more treasures from which we can choose.
In the end, our hands dusty and dark from touching all the interesting pieces he digs out from the collage of brass, silver, tin and trash, Lorelle helped me choose a small sugar bowl from his vast selection. Handmade in Iran and brought to Israel by one of the many immigrant families who come here to escape persecution or to find income over the years. It’s a beautiful piece, part of a set, although the other pieces have been lost or hidden over time, the tragedy of so many things. Lives and pieces of lives scattered across time and space.