In July 2014 I visited  Jerusalem for a few days to meet Dorit Naaman as part of the Katamon Project. The tragic events that culminated in the Gaza war were already under way. By the time I left, the onslaught had begun.

Below is my first dispatch, posted on Facebook on 9 Jul 2014. I’m reposting with minor edits and the addition of photographs.

Third night in the old city of Jerusalem. This is a place that exudes history and religion from every nook and cranny: churches of more denominations I knew existed, domes, belfries, spires, synagogues, mosques, minarets, cemeteries. It’s also a city rife with conflict. Police barricades are stacked along the streets, ready for deployment, soldiers armed to the teeth walk up and down all the time and there are enough cameras in every corner of the old city to make even a Londoner uncomfortable.

Austrian Hospice entrance
Austrian Hospice entrance

My travel companions and I are staying at the Austrian Hospice, an oasis of peace, calm and cleanliness. It’s situated in the muslim quarter, where Via Dolorosa meets the street that leads from Damascus Gate to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (the holiest muslim site in Jerusalem), forming a little square that in this holy month of Ramadan is a happening place, particularly after sunset. Cars are barred from this section of the old city after 8pm, the multi-coloured light displays hanging over the cobbled-stone streets come to life, men of all ages mill around, the streets are lined with vendors selling food and souvenirs, there is loud music and fire crackers and people are constantly on the move.

Also at dusk, a dozen police/army with serious-looking machine-guns take positions behind the barricades opposite the Hospice door. I’ve no idea whether this is because of Ramadan, the tragic events of the past couple of weeks or both. There have been a couple of demonstrations in our little square since we arrived, and last night when news spread that a rocket hit Jerusalem, you could smell the nervousness in the air everywhere in the city.

Police barricades at Via Dolorosa
Police barricades at Via Dolorosa

The grounds of the Hospice sit a couple of stories above the street. The front door downstairs which seems to weigh a ton is always locked. You can unlock it with the key you’re issued at check-in, if you clamber over the half a dozen Arab youths (shabab) that regularly hang out on the steps. They’ll move if you ask them to but only if you do. Otherwise they won’t so much as look at you.

Shabab loitering on the steps of the Austrian Hospice
Shabab loitering on the steps of the Austrian Hospice

Tonight those guys probably saved the hotel and the lives of those of us who were here at the time.

Following an intense day of memory chasing in West Jerusalem, my friends and I went our separate ways. After a short rest, I took to the streets with my camera. Tried the Dome of the Rock but it was closed for prayer so instead I went to the Western (Wailing) Wall, exited the old city by Dung Gate, walked around the city walls on the road overlooking the Mount of Olives, and then back in through Lions’ Gate.

I was tired, so I parked myself with my laptop in the garden of the hotel and ordered a ‘Jerusalem pizza’. I had just dug into it and was savouring the za’atar when I felt a bright light behind me and suddenly people were running everywhere and sparks were flying about as smoke filled the air. I looked over my shoulder: Fifty feet away, one of the old cypress trees that reach all the way to the top of the Austrian Hospice had turned into a burning pillar.

The shabab pulling water hoses through the lobby of the Austrian Hospice
The shabab pulling water hoses
through the lobby of the Austrian Hospice

I grabbed my backpack and my computer, managed to manoeuvre the Jerusalem pizza on the other hand and ran inside wondering if I’d manage to make it unscathed by the sparks. Thankfully I did. In no time, the hotel was flooded with young guys running up and down, grabbing fire extinguishers from every floor and deploying water hoses. It was the shabab from outside – times four!

I deposited my stuff in my room which was already filled with smoke, closed the window and then headed to the rooftop. A few of the guys were already there trying to direct the folks down below who by now included regular firemen. They were all concentrating on the one tree that had first caught fire, but I spotted some sparks in the other ones and I pointed them out. They relayed the information to the hose-wielders in the garden and I played spotter while chatting with a couple of people. A girl with a camera said that the minute the fire started, word on the street was that the Israeli soldiers had started it. Now, I’m no friend of the IDF but I dismissed that as way over the top! I’m pretty sure it must have been a fire-cracker from the street below.

Tree still smouldering while down at street level bright lights and tons of people celebrating.
Tree still smouldering while down at street level bright lights
and tons of people celebrating.

A German-speaking guy said he was doing kitchen duty in the basement (and had in fact made my Jerusalem pizza, his second so far!) when the place filled with smoke. He then pointed out the crowds down below that kept streaming into the city from Damascus Gate,  undaunted by the fire above their heads. He thought it a very strange sight.

After an intense half hour or so, the fire was under control, the street guys exhausted, with blackened faces and ashes all over them, and the floors of the hospice full of puddles.

A couple of hours later there was barely a sign of all that excitement. The place was spotless, the shabab were back in the street and I was back in the garden with my laptop, having finished the Jerusalem pizza, the last couple of pieces of which had acquired a distinctly smoky taste…