A walk along the Via Dolorosa, the traditional path of Jesus Christ from condemnation to Crucifixion, is a dizzying experience this time of year, just before Easter, and it has become more so under the shadow of the Arab uprising.
Religious processions mingle with clots of shoppers, the babel of pilgrim tongues is heard along with the Arabic of hawkers peddling Holy Land kitsch . Souvenir crowns of thorns have made their seasonal appearance.
The sense of imbalance induced by this collision of the divine and the profane is reinforced by the intrusive tension that often fills the narrow alleys of the crowded Old City, where stone markers lay out the trail that custom, rather than scholarship, says Jesus followed.
Lives Up to Its Name
From the First Station of the Cross--Muslim school children now play soccer on the stone expanse where Pontius Pilate stood, washed his hands and condemned Jesus to death--to the 14th, the tomb in the dark Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa lives up to its name: Sorrowful Road.
Lined by shops and shrines, the Via Dolorosa is also characterized by furtive glances, stones hurled at soldiers, police chases and a long wait for redemption from civil strife.
“Please, close the door,” said the proprietor of a film and souvenir shop at the Second Station, where Jesus took up the cross. “Please, it is almost time for the strike, and I do not want to be seen with my doors open.”
Every afternoon at 1 o’clock, strikes called by the leadership of the intifada , as the Arab uprising is called, bring shutters rattling down throughout the Arab quarter. On days of general strikes, the shops are closed all day, but Thursday was a half-strike day, as today, Good Friday, will be.
“I cannot sell anything during strikes, or sell anything Jewish, or anything made in Israel,” the shopkeeper said. “They say we cannot. We cannot even talk to reporters. They say that Israelis disguise themselves as reporters to spy.
“Please, thank you for coming. Come again. Close the door on your way out.”
At the next corner, Walid, a member of the ever-present army of young postcard sellers, tried out a multilingual sales pitch. When he saw that his target was a reporter, not a tourist, he quickly came up with something else.
“Come, I will show you,” he said, whisking past a group of German tourists at the Third Station, where Jesus fell under the weight of the cross.
Walid led the reporter to a burned-out car that had been firebombed the night before. A Spanish tourist of Arab descent was having his picture taken beside it.
“The neighbors say the man was a traitor,” the tourist announced, meaning a traitor to the Palestinian cause.
The tourist said he was Amin abu Salah, a physician from Madrid. His cousin, an Arab from Nazareth, took another photo of him.
“They did it to scare the collaborator away,” the cousin said. “Do you think it’s right? I do.”
The picture-taking stopped when Israeli border policemen, wearing green berets and with rifles slung across their backs, came to remove the car. They dragged it toward the Fifth Station, where Simon of Cyrene took the burden of the cross from Jesus. A French tour guide interrupted her lecture about Simon to explain the burned-out truck.
“It was probably an incident owing to the intifada , which you have all read about,” she said. “Now we should move on, because the stores close at 1 for a strike and you might want to pick up some souvenirs.”
She said this with the same enthusiasm she would soon use to relate the story of Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ brow at the Sixth Station.
Rest or Throw Rocks?
At the Seventh Station, where Jesus fell again, Hamed, 17, sells cosmetics from a makeshift stand. He looked at his watch and mused: “It’s almost 1. Time to go home, to rest. Or, yes, sometimes to throw rocks.”
Hamed said he is a participant in the intifada --a perfume salesman in the morning and a masked rebel in the afternoon.
“We want peace,” he said. “Look, the people do not buy. They have no money, and I have to pay 100 shekels to keep this space. We want peace. I do not want to throw rocks all my life.”
At the Eighth Station is a store that specializes in olivewood icons and Fuji film. Proprietor Hamse Sanduka echoed Hamed’s complaint.
‘All Kinds of Taxes’
“You see?” he said with a groan, pulling out a wad of Israeli government documents. “These are taxes. I have to pay land taxes, sales taxes, all kinds of taxes. The Israelis know I am not making any money, but they put more taxes.”
A group of tourists passed, herded along by the French guide, who explained briefly that at the Eighth Station Jesus implored women he met along the way not to weep for him.
“The tourists do not stop,” Sanduka went on. “They do not walk slowly. They have heard about the trouble. They don’t browse. They are welcome to browse, but they are afraid.”
Calm was settling over the Old City. The noise of commerce was giving way to the muffled sounds of a procession, the tapping of walking sticks heralding the arrival of Roman Catholic Archbishop Michel Sabagh at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Sound of Sticks
The sound of the sticks could be heard at the Ethiopian Coptic Convent at the Ninth Station, where Jesus fell for a third time and where nuns now sit in silent poverty, stirring only occasionally to sell a tourist an intricately woven African basket or a hand-drawn icon.
The sticks and the men who carry them, stately guardians dressed in embroidered vests and fezzes, are leftovers from the time of Turkish rule here, when Ottoman officials guaranteed Christians access to places of worship.
Now an Israeli policemen in blue wields authority. He cleared the way into the church for the archbishop and his entourage of Franciscan friars. Sabagh, the first Arab archbishop of Jerusalem, had called off Palm Sunday processions because the timing was not “appropriate.”
‘Need of Inner Prayer’
“In this time of difficulties, I think we are more in need of inner prayer than external manifestations,” Sabagh said, explaining the cancellation.
The Catholic Church and other custodians of the Holy Sepulchre are embroiled in a controversy with the Israeli authorities. At its center is an incident that took place a month ago. Police who were rounding up suspects in a stabbing entered the church and interrupted a service to detain two young worshipers.
The two were later released, and “we protested but there was no answer,” Sabagh said. “When someone wants to come into church, he should come in with permission of the religious authorities. The men were released, so it could not have been so urgent. When the military or police enter like this it is a harassment.”
Sabagh entered the church, passing the stations that recall moments just before and after the crucifixion. He prepared for the ritual washing of the feet of the young friars with him. Jesus had done this with his disciples.
Today, a morning procession is scheduled to take place along the Via Dolorosa. It will take place entirely within the walls of the Old City, so it is considered appropriate even during the intifada . At 1 p.m., the Arab commercial strike will begin as usual.