The view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is iconic and well worth the time — IF you can avoid the crowds. When the crowds are there, it can be noisy, a few selfie sticks can be seen, and engaging Arabs are often selling souvenirs and camel rides, just trying to make a day’s wage. Yet at the right time of day, there is space to breathe and time to enjoy the view and observe Jerusalem’s bustling life as it’s happened for thousands of years. I got our small group of four up there around noon time. I think we doubled the overlook’s population as we arrived.
Once there, it was hard to miss “Kojak the camel” dressed in traditional Bedouin regalia and the guys that give tourist camel rides. Since there wasn’t much going on, two of my four showed a glimmer of interest in Kojak. When I say glimmer, I mean “walked by and looked at him for longer than .75 seconds. This was enough to meet Nasser, Kojak’s middle aged and heavy set Arab handler. After some price negotiations, a deal was struck and the camel ride began with an irritated growl from Kojak as he awkwardly stood up. Smiles were had, pictures were taken, and we went back to enjoying the day. Then the fun began.
“I can’t eat this and I already eat too much,” he said in broken English.
After 10 minutes, we were about to leave when Nasser, who was sitting under the shade of an olive tree, called us over. Fearing another overt attempt at selling us something, I ignored him but he persisted. Giving in, we walked over to a surprise — an offer of his barely touched lunch of a spicy chicken concoction with arab salad, pita, and other goodies. “I can’t eat this and I already eat too much,” he said in broken English. Never one to shy away from a generous offer, I tore off some pita and took a bite with my group watching to see what I would do. Oh. My. Goodness. It was amazing. My suddenly emboldened crew did the same and wholeheartedly agreed. Soon Nasser’s lunch for one was finished by four of us sitting under an olive tree overlooking Jerusalem.
It left us wondering where we find more of that, whatever that was. “This is from my uncle Ibrahim’s restaurant, but if you don’t know how to get there, you never find it,” he said in a thick Arabic accent. As he struggled to explain to me the directions, Nasser’s friend, Hassam, drove by, causing Nasser to jump up and start yelling in Arabic. Hassam stops and there’s an excited Arabic conversation thru a car window. Nasser soon turns to me and says “For 30 shekels, he take you to Ibrahim’s restaurant to eat.” With the taste of authentic local food still on our lips, a quick decision is made — Let’s go! As Nasser closes our car door, he says “if the police stop you, tell them you are his friend”…. “Wait… What?” and off we went.
We drove thru Arab neighborhoods of thick traffic that required everyone to know the exact dimensions of their car, with people and markets everywhere. After 10 minutes of this maze, we turned a corner and drove onto a street where it appeared that half the cars in Jerusalem were being worked on. Sweaty, grease covered men looked out of garages and from under cars, chattering in Arabic and staring curiously at the white faces that just pulled up. Wait. We stopped at a big garage not a restaurant, maybe for directions? Nope, Hassam is beckoning us to follow him back past the garage to a warehouse with large metal doors and no sign. Ummm, where exactly are we going?
The restaurant room was nicely tiled, floor to ceiling, and decorated as one would expect near car repair shops — a TV, pictures of fast cars, and large Smurfs and Disney characters on the walls.
We stepped inside a small but clean room where the glorious scents that met us told us we were in the right place. The restaurant room was nicely tiled, floor to ceiling, and decorated as one would expect near car repair shops — a TV, pictures of fast cars, and large Smurfs and Disney characters on the walls. Hassam, who spoke more English than Ibrahim and his sons, which was still only small broken phrases, warmly seated us at a table for four in a restaurant that could seat maybe 20 if those 20 all were inseparable friends, close family, or sardines. No menu, just piles of food behind a glass counter: Arabic salad, fresh warm pita, hummus to die for, and other necessities. Our only choice was the meat. “Chicken meat, chicken liver or sheep liver?” Hassam asked, pointing to piles of raw flesh from the kitchen entrance. three of us were chicken (pun intended) and ordered the chicken. There was one order of sheep liver just because we could. Soon it was on the table and quickly heading to our mouths. Even the sheep liver, although admittedly not as often as the chicken. Note to self, local olive oil that is poured on everything comes from an empty Coca-cola bottle, and it’s good.
As we were losing the battle of finishing every delicious bite, the phone rang. A young Arab man, who didn’t speak a lick of English came over and handed me the phone, looking as bewildered as I was. “Ahh, hello?” I curiously answered. It was Nasser from the Mount of Olives, just checking in on us to see if we had lunch, if were taken care of, and if we needed anything else. I thanked him and assured him that we were happily stuffed. “Oh, I am happy. Ibrahim will give you good price,” he said. And a good price indeed — half the cost of the local tourist places. We were so satisfied that one of my guys found a couch near the door and passed out from his food coma for about 10 minutes, which led to the awkward smiles and chuckles of the young Palestinians that were coming and going. We have proof.
That was one of the best lunches I’ve had in Israel, well, minus the sheep liver. Adventure, exotic mouth watering local food, tremendous Arab hospitality, and mutual communication with only smiles, hand gestures, and finger pointing. I love what can happen when we are willing to take the step to leave our western sensibilities (read: fears) and experience other cultures. The stories become as good as the food. You can’t make this stuff up.