Two Number One
On a Saturday in May, when the regular lines were down for the Shabbat, I took the Number One Arab Bus from the French Hill down into East Jerusalem. Indoctrinated by my friend David (a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish), who told me such buses were only for Arabs, I was a little uneasy stepping onto the bus. It smelled of incense and a variety of spices, in a pleasant way, and many women in headscarves were texting on iPhones. How much? I asked the bus driver. 2.60, he said. (The regular bus fare is 6.60). I gave him three shekels and declined the change (as it was only eleven cents in USD terms, and I was already a few seats away from him). For Free Palestine? he asked. OK, I said. He put the change into a bucket.
The bus kept going steeply down the hill, around the curves, past a small mosque, past a small Arab cemetery with white stones, and then along the Wall of Separation. (On French Hill, sometimes I looked on to the wall, just some 200 yards south of the little shopping mall on Ha Hagana, and marveled at the strange historical turn, that the country whose raison d’etre was fight against ghettoization, and whose symbol was the Western Wall, would create this wall, twice as tall as the Berlin Wall, segregating and ghettoizing Palestinians). I asked to step off the bus. Before the wall, in East Jerusalem, it was an Arab but not Palestinian section.
I didn’t have a hat, and the sun was in its zenith, and it was around 95oF, so I looked for shades and walked into a small grocery store with an aluminum roof. A little boy, no older than ten, worked as the cashier, and there were no adults around. How much is a bottle of water? I asked. He said, chekelim. I gave him five shekels, the usual price for a bottle of water, and he returned four. I walked down the street, looking for a store where I could buy sneakers to play tennis with a French journalist.
I had 2.60 ready for the return trip. It was the same big bus, nicely air-conditioned, nearly empty, but there were a few women in headscarves; some had red lipstick, and one pink. I gave the driver the fare, and he said, To go into the city, it’s 5.20. I gave him the sum and wondered why going into Jerusalem should cost twice as much as getting out of it.
Did you get what you wanted? the driver asked.
No, I couldn’t find sneakers anywhere.
Why not ask me? The best place to buy is the old city, inside the walls or outside.
I went to the last downtown stop, the Arab bus terminal near the Damascus gate, opposite from the Garden of the Tomb, namely, the alternative grave of Jesus. It seems in this city of duality, there’s two of everything — Old City, New City; Jewish Jerusalem, Arab Jerusalem; religious, secular — two tombs of King David, and at least two tombs of Adam. The Central Bus Station on Jaffa Street is only for regular, Israeli buses (EGGED) — the bus systems are completely segregated. Two Arab bus terminals are near the Damascus Gate. Since I was right by the second tomb of Jesus, I went inside the walls to see it. This one seems to be favored by Evangelical Christians, and the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other older brands of Christianity. Here, everything is kept simple and unornamented, appealing to the Protestant esthetics, unlike in the Holy Sepulcher, which is laden with gold and bronze, and covered by icons, so that you have no idea what the place must have looked like 2000 years ago. Two big black guys held hands and prayed in tongues under a canopy, with their eyes closed. They looked joyous, like blind singers. The tomb inlaid in the rocky hillside has low ceilings, an antechamber (the weeping room), and two parallel empty tombs, both short. If Jesus fit into one of them, he must have been pretty short, or after rigor mortis let up, he could have been curled to fit, if this is indeed where he lodged for three days.
In the old city, close to Tomb Number One, I found a sneakers store. How much? I asked. 250, the salesman said.
Oh no, that’s too much.
You are my first customer of the day, he said.
So, you should give me a discount.
You know what that means, I have been here since nine in the morning, and it’s three in the afternoon. I have made no money, and I need to make some.
And that’s my job, to help you make money?
220, he said.
It seemed to me if I walked away he would lower the price, but I thought, he has a point, this is a hard way to make money, and I paid. Maybe some good karma in my sneakers will help me. Maybe it will help me win a tennis match. I needed the sneakers to play tennis with a French journalist, who said that when the first thing he thinks of upon waking up is, I want some hummus, it’s time to leave the Middle East. And just the day before my buying the sneakers, he had said, It has come to that, today I woke up and thought about hummus. So I knew I wouldn’t have much time left to play with him.
Anyway, I waited for the paralysis of the Shabbat to be over. One hour after the sunset and lighting of candles, the regular Jewish transportation system would resume. I took the tram back. There is only one tram line: Number One, of course. I took it back to the French Hill neighborhood, passing by religious sounding stops, such as Mahane Yehuda and Shivtei Israel, to the Ammunition Hill. What a name for a neighborhood. How would you like to live on the Ammunition Hill? On the tram many people carried bags, and the thought crossed my mind that it would be easy for a suicide bomber to explode in our midst. I wondered how many people and how often had the same thought. That’s one advantage of taking the Arab bus, you don’t have to think about such a possibility, and I wonder how many people on the bus think about that, that they don’t have to think about that.
I took the Number One bus again a few days later, in my new white sneakers.
The same bus driver stopped for me. Where have you bought the sneakers? he asked. How much?
In the old city. I took your advice. By the way, why does it cost more to go into the city than out of it?
Because into it, it’s mostly uphill and out of it downhill. We spend more gasoline going uphill, that’s why. Where are you from?
Croatia, I said. I could have said the United States, or Canada, but I thought he’d prefer Croatia. Each answer would have been partly right.
How do you like driving the bus?
Much more than taxi. I used to drive taxi, but I had a Jewish boss, and I didn’t like it that there were neighborhoods where I was not allowed to drive. Here I don’t have to worry about bosses and neighborhoods, I drive.
I have taken the bus many times, but I never saw the same driver again. The odds of seeing one and the same are low as there must be fifteen buses running at the same time. So it is strange indeed that I saw the same bus driver three times in a row to begin with. I kind of missed him each time I entered the bus and saw a different driver.
I went to a student bar and told the bartender, a tattooed guy who’d spent six years in the Israeli military, about the bus. He had no idea that the bus existed, and I described it to him, and he said, I thought these were tourist buses.
During the Shabbat, when you can’t take public transportation, I recommend taking the Arab buses. Number 75, for example, will take you to the Mount of Olives.
I won’t. Someone might stab me. And on Mt. of Olives, boys might stone me.
No, you’ll be safer than on regular city buses, I said. There won’t be a suicide bomber on it.
Suicide bombers aren’t such a threat on the buses any more. Most of the drivers now are Arabs, so a suicide bomber would kill two Arabs, himself and the driver. That decreases the odds of them doing it.
Yes, but the odds are still higher than on an Arab bus. By the way, I said, Do you know who the first suicide bomber on record is?
Samson. He brought down the two pillars, knowing he would die, but that was all right with him, as long as he took down many Philistines. (And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.)
I saw my friend David at the Hebrew University cafeteria (where thirteen years ago, a suicide bomber killed eight people and wounded eighty), and he was curious to hear the reports from the bus. Good to know, he said, but you know, it’s unlikely that I will take the bus. I don’t do anything on the Shabbat. At first I used to be restless, wanting to go places, but now I love it. I don’t talk to anybody; I don’t do internet, I only read paper books and sleep, and by the time Saturday night comes, I feel tremendously refreshed.
Because of that suicide bombing, Hebrew University is now a fortress, which you enter through a security gate, with guards checking your bags and your IDs. You have to pass through a metal detector.
Israel is basically one large airport, in terms of security. The dorms I stayed in had armed guards at both entrances. At the North Entrance, on a Sabbath, I asked the guard, do you know whether bus Number One runs in the morning on Saturdays?
No, it’s the Shabbat.
But I know it runs in the afternoon, I have taken it.
I mean the Arab buses.
He had no idea what I was talking about and then a big Number One passed by, and I said, Oh, they run, here’s one. The guard shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t want to see the Number One. He sits there every Saturday, sees these buses perhaps a hundred times per day, and has no idea and no curiosity regarding what they are. It seems many Israelis have developed selective vision —they see what they consider to be part of their world, and ignore the parallel Arab universe, which is to be perceived by satellites and metal detectors. ￼