My lemon seller is in tears. Not as a result of his strong lemons, but because of his emotions. The once joyful merchant seems now a broken man. His empty eyes stare into the distance. The British authorities are busy demolishing the tents and improvised wooden stalls. He turns to me and picks up a crushed lemon from the muddy ground. “Look! That’s all that is left”, and he throws the wounded lemon back. “I’ve had enough. I can’t put up with any more. Let the Jews take my place. I don’t care”. And frankly, I don’t care either, after his nasty behaviour not so long ago. He then leaves the spooky market place in silence, back to his village of Lifta, without lemons and money. Welcome to Jerusalem in the early 1920’s.
After the British had sent the Ottoman Sultan with a one way ticket on his flying carpet back to Constantinople in 1917, they are shocked about what they see at the market. Chaos rules. Merchants with their crates full of fruit and vegetables, wooden stalls or tents with eggs or chickens, some more or less alive. Hygiene is dramatic with slippery creepy crawlers and fed through cockroaches all over the place and noisy insects flying from chicken to buyer and back. “Here you can get some meat for free”, a seller shouts with a telling smile.
During the rainy season you can hardly move, as shoes get stuck in the mud, which has a nasty smell and brownish color. As there is no sewage I always try to avoid thinking what is under those soles. Despite all this, many visit the area, especially those from outside the Old City Walls. “This place is far better than a timely journey by carriage to the Old City and get abused by Arab vendors”, a visitor from one the new Jewish neighborhoods told Anat.
This may all sound pretty pleasant, but the opposite is true. Due to the famine, prices are high and the range of products is limited and the quantity is extremely poor. Some people come to the market to dip their dry slice of bread in the water with a strong herring taste. Only once a month they treat themselves with this strong smelling delicacy. For the merchant this is his way to help the poorest. On Fridays, before shabbat, the salty liquid of the pickles serves as a way to consume the otherwise dry, tasteless bread.
The even less fortunate arrive at the end of the day in the hope to find a bargain, which in times of famine is wishful thinking. Earlier, customers wait and ask the butcher if he has some offal left for them. It doesn’t seem to matter what, as long as it eatable. The dripping organs are a culinary lifesaver for many.
The market has no central coordinator, so anyone can sell his products here. The consequence is that within a couple of decades the market has been expanding rapidly, in every possible direction. Left and right merchants are shouting for attention, buyers arguing about politics or bargaining about the price. Donkeys and camels, all in their private parking lot next to their boss, are having their loud ‘discussions’ too, while doing other things to worsen the smell. Somehow nobody seems worried about the dire conditions. The British think otherwise: “This threat to public health is not our cup of tea. It’s time for change”.
Sir Ronald Storrs, the British Military Governor of Jerusalem has ambitious plans for the market. The Cambridge graduate wants a modern market which fits the status of the Holy City. For this he turns to someone who knows the strength of architecture and town planning: C.R. Ashbee. But first, how are the neighborhoods doing which have sprung up these past decades? Let’s go for a little walk!
Next: Mouths to feed in the emerging neigborhoods around the shuk.