East end

The two merchants discussed the situation of tourism in the city and complained about high prices, cheap tourists and clueless authorities.

tourists 88 (photo credit: )
tourists 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, as I was passing through one of the narrow alleyways of the Old City, I accidentally overheard a conversation between two merchants. (Yes, of course I know that eavesdropping is wrong - my mother told me so. But, at least now, being a journalist, I have an excuse and claim it is a job requirement.) Unaware that anyone was listening, the two merchants discussed the situation of tourism in the city and complained about high prices, cheap tourists and clueless authorities. "But at least there is tourism, praise the Lord, and mind you, not only aganib (foreigners). The Jews are coming back to Jerusalem," said one of them, perhaps the more optimistic of the two. After more than five years of the intifada, it does seem that tourism in Jerusalem has begun to recover. Official statistics published by the Tourism Ministry show that in October 2005 there was a 27 percent increase in tourist arrivals in comparison with the previous year. My random polling of tourists near the Jaffa Gate one sunny Saturday afternoon encountered visitors from USA, Australia, Chile, Russia, Germany, Sweden and Japan - together with a few dozen Israelis who came to enjoy what the city has to offer. While the foreigners were heading for the Kotel, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Israelis preferred to wander around the busy markets of the Old City, shopping for aromatic hel coffee and exotic spices. And afterwards, they go to dip into humous at "Abu-Shukri" and finish off the day with sweets at "Jaafar." The Zaks family from Rishon le-Zion have done the route dozens of times, and so have the Shlomos from Kfar-Saba. They say that they are not afraid to visit the Old City - yet they are willing only to go "so far," and the Damascus Gate serves as an invisible border between the safe and the threatening east city. "The eastern part of Jerusalem is quite ordinary anyway, there is nothing much beyond the walls for the tourist, Israeli or foreign", says Ofer Cohen, a 65-year old Tel-Avivian who made his first trip to east Jerusalem just after the Six Day War in 1967. Ordinary? Nothing to show? Not according to Jawad Boulus, renowned Jerusalemite lawyer who says that the eastern part of the town could be just as attractive to the visitor as the western: "Besides the market, which is always lovely and fun to visit during the daytime, there are also quite a lot of splendid spots, which can be true tourist magnets. There are quite a few remarkable restaurants, cozy bars and stylish hotels when one can spend a pleasant evening and have dinner." "We didn't even know that there were some good restaurants in the eastern part", says Shannon, a tourist from Australia, in response to my queries. Israelis may know more, but they, of course, are concerned about security. If they visit east Jerusalem at all, it is to the Old City. Yet George Horesh, a travel guide from Tel Aviv, says that in reality, even during the worst days of the intifada, east Jerusalem was one of the safest places in Israel. "Even at the height of the intifada, I was not afraid to go with my groups around the eastern parts of Jerusalem," he says. "The local population was more than interested in maintaining peace and quiet. The intifada was raging in west Jerusalem but not in the east." But Horesh adds that security is definitely not the only reason that tourists don't go to the east. "The infrastructure of tourism in this part of the city is almost non-existent. There are some good hotels and eateries, but in general, this part of the city is neglected, the hotels are small and aging, there is not enough parking for tour buses and cars. And this is really a pity, because we could all benefit if this part of the city were to prosper," he observes. The state of neglect indeed has a negative effect and tourists rarely visit any of the museums or historic and religious sites. Hebrew University's Professor Amnon Cohen, a former advisor on Arab affairs to the government and an author of many books on the Ottoman period in Jerusalem, says that there are dozens of secrets in east Jerusalem, hidden from the vast majority of tourists. As an example, he notes, "Among the least known sites in Jerusalem is the Khalidi family library - a magnificent collection of ancient volumes and manuscripts, located in the family house of the Khalidis - the ancient Jerusalemite family. The library, which is located at al-Silsila (Shalshelet) Street in the Old City, is not generally open to the public, but it is possible to arrange a visit to the place by phone." He continues, "And what about the beautiful Mamluk architecture, such as public baths, sabeels, (fountains and water pools) and madrasas, such as Al-Tankaziyya school?" The Al-Tankaziyya to which Cohen refers was built in 1328 by the Prince Saif al-Din Tankazy. In 1967 the Israeli Authority confiscated the school and converted it into an Israeli Border Police station but it is possible to go inside and enjoy the view of the ancient building. Horesh also says that there are many historical and interesting sites located outside the walls. "There is the Rockefeller Museum, which worth a visit at least for its magnificent architecture, if not for its archaeological collections. Of course, it also should be renewed and reconstructed, but the architecture is absolutely wonderful." The Rockefeller Museum, he explains, was one of the first structures to be erected outside Jerusalem's Old City walls. It was built on the site of Karm el-Sheikh, named after the owner of property, Sheikh Muhammad al-Halili, Mufti of Jerusalem in the late 17th century. In 1711 al-Halili built his summer residence there. The house still stands today, west of the Museum. And then there is the magnificent Jerusalem Mormon Center - definitely worth a visit. But all these wonderful places are not supported by adequate services for tourists. In east Jerusalem, they lay the blame on the Israeli authorities. In response to questions from In Jerusalem, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Tourism wrote that "tourism facilities in east Jerusalem have been damaged by the long-unstable conditions that the country has been going through in the last two decades. The fact that the Palestinian Authority cannot operate in east Jerusalem and thus cannot provide any support to the east Jerusalem institutions is unacceptable… On the other hand, the Israeli government deprives east Jerusalem tourist facilities from subsidies and financial support, whereas the western facilities are helped through many governmental channels." The Israeli Tourism Ministry and the municipality did not respond to IJ's questions regarding these contentions. Abdullah Saafin, Ramallah bureau chief for Al-Hurra, adds that the recreational spots in east Jerusalem also experienced a tremendous blow when east Jerusalem was cut off from Ramallah and the surrounding Palestinian cities during the intifada. "I came to Jerusalem after a long absence and the picture is very different from what I observed 10-15 years ago," he says. "Today the people of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho can hardly ever reach Jerusalem; thus the local restaurants, coffee-shops, exhibitions, theaters and eateries have lost most of their clientele. Many owners of the local businesses have told me that they are on the verge of bankruptcy." Yet as things seem to be picking up, there are plenty of new restaurants and eateries to visit. Which restaurants and cozy spots are hot today in east Jerusalem? It depends whom you ask, but everyone seems to have his or her favorite. Abdullah Saafin recommends the restaurant in Ambassador Hotel, the "Al-Basha" restaurant on Shimon Hatzadik Street and Abu-Ali's humous joint at the Damascus Gate. Miral Malki, a student at Bethlehem University often goes to "Panorama" on Az-Zahra Street, where he takes in a great view of the Old City together with an esoteric mix of Mexican and traditional Arab food. Shamiran Khuri, managing director of "Mazada Tours," highly recommends "Askadenia," also on Shimon Hatzadik Street, which is famous for its superb steaks. "Blue Dolphin," just a few feet down the same road, received rave praises from many east Jerusalemites, who noted both the food and the ambiance. After all, the locals don't call Shimon Hatzadik Street "Restaurant Alley" for nothing. Then there are the "Hong Kong House," a Chinese restaurant on Beit Hanina's main drag and "Yummi Yummi," a popular eatery on Ibn Batuta St. (near Salah ad-Din St.), both highly recommended by the younger set. As I asked, the recommendations kept pouring in, accumulating into a somewhat random small restaurant guide. And after conducting an independent, unscientific, and very tasty journalistic-gastronomic study, I discovered that at most of these eateries one finds plenty of foreign diplomats, journalists and UN employees. But while some hardy Israelis do continue to frequent the elegant American Colony Hotel, it is rare to see tourists - foreign or Israeli - looking for good food in the east. Somehow, they simply don't seem to think that way. The divisions between east and west are not only political, cultural or national - they are conceptual, too, dividing up spaces according to preconceived ideas. And so the solution for east Jerusalem and its hidden treasures must be both political and economical, too. It's time that tourists rediscover east Jerusalem and enjoy its beautiful mosques, museums and libraries, comfy restaurants and the unique aroma of the east, blending with its close neighbor to the west.