Eating chicken soup in Old Jerusalem

"I will explain to you why I trust no one," Abdullah said to me in his hostel's kitchen

Published May 6, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Excerpted with permission from "Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem" by Sarah Tuttle-Singer. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

The following passage from "Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered" draws from Sarah Tuttle-Singer's intimate experience living in the Old City of Jerusalem — right in the heart of a beautiful and complicated mosaic of faith, peoplehood and desire.

By now, I’m learning Jerusalem well enough to have a routine. Hummus in the morning at Arafat Hummus where I sit wedged in between the Waqf officials who oversee the Temple Mount. When I’ve gone there as a tourist, they stand legs akimbo, grim-faced. But over warm hummus? We’re friends.

Coffee at this little place by Herod’s Gate in the Muslim Quarter where it costs five shekels, and the men play cards inside, and the whole place smells like cardamom and the inside of an ashtray.

I visit my favorite roofs, looking out at the mosaic of faith and peoplehood below.

This time, the place I usually stay with the big purple windows and the view of the Old City that makes the whole place look like a crazy jigsaw puzzle is full. There’s a group of journalists from Belgium staying there. There’s Jan and Boudewijn, both tall and blonde and gorgeous and from Brussels, and they’ve got this group of writers and photographers with them, and that’s part of the Old City, too— people from abroad (mostly Europe) who come out of real fascination to understand the conflict on the ground.

And here in Jerusalem where faith and insanity overlap, where the streets are overrun with scorpions and the righteous, this is ground zero. Which means, people come, eyes open and fascinated, to see the cosmic struggle play out against the stones and sky.

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has shifted over the years—it’s always been chimerical with many sides and facets—like that story about the seven blind men asked to describe an elephant, and each guy touches a different part. (“An elephant is broad and rough!” “No, an elephant is smooth and sharp at the end!” “An elephant is sinewy like a rope!”)

But lately, the conflict has become just as much about faith as it is about anything else.

It wasn’t always this way—the Old City used to be much more secular.

My friend Mary who is a Palestinian Christian journalist living in the Old City explained that it used to be unusual to see a Palestinian woman with her head covered. They wore jeans, she said. It was easier to run and throw rocks in jeans.

But that’s changed—not just on the Muslim side, but on the Jewish side, too.

There used to be this crazy night life scene in the Old City—artists and writers, Arabs and Jews, everyone just hanging out and getting high and hooking up. But that wildness turned inward, turned nasty, and lines were drawn with barbed wire, and the reckless abandon of the Old City around the time my mom was there disappeared during the First Intifada. And as folks became more religious, the city changed.

And since the place I usually stay is full of journalists trying to understand Jerusalem in eight days, I had to find a new place to stay.

I did, although my room is really just a glorified supply closet with a single bed and a little sink I had to pee in when the communal toilet backed up after someone (yeah, okay, me) tried to flush a tampon down.

The place is run by a guy named Abdullah, and I’m sitting with him, now.

Some people take up a lot of space, even when they’re short, and that’s Abdullah. If we were to slow dance together—which we won’t— at least I don’t think we will—he’d bury his face in my armpit.

But instead, he’s making chicken soup in the tiny kitchen of the hostel where I’m staying, and I’m leaning against an old stone wall, painted over in mermaid blue.

But he’s this thrumming force of energy in the kitchen—moving between the stove and the spice rack, shaking, tasting, scowling, shaking, and tasting again.

Abdullah has black hair, the same color as shoe polish. He has grey sideburns, and he wears a natty grey moustache. He has a mouth that turns down around the corners easily, and it takes great effort to turn it up into a smile. I’ve seen it happen for a split second once—I blinked and it was gone.

Cell reception sucks in the Old City. It’s like, the closer you get to God, the worse the network and the harder to communicate with humans. But I’m trying to check email.

My dad sent a “Gut Shabbos” greeting—he does this every Friday.

The Times of Israel Daily Edition’s headlines have gone out—there was another attempted stabbing.

My artist friend Woolf who is 96 and lives near Paris sent me another rendering of Jerusalem. This time, he took a photo I sent him of the roofs over Muristan Square and turned it into a pastiche of paint and newspaper clippings. I smile, knowing that through the thick stone wall on the other side are those same rooftops. I’m actually inside the building where I took that picture a few weeks before.

And I am also tired—the Old City is heavy today, each stone weighted by history and memory, and I feel it on my skin as clear as I felt the needle etch the mermaid tattoo into my right arm. Some days, it isn’t like this, but today it is. Maybe it’s the stabbing nearby? Or maybe Jerusalem is just in one of her moods.

Abdullah shakes his finger at me.

“No, not like that,” he says, and he motions for me to lean forward, and he squeezes a small hand-embroidered pillow that’s between the small of my back and the wall.

“That’s better,” he tells me.

Abdullah turns back to the stove and stirs the soup—he tastes it. He scowls and he mutters something that sounds like, “your mother’s vagina,” in Arabic. He adds a dash of salt and a sprinkle of pepper. He tastes again. He shrugs and hisses, “you son of a bitch.” He adds something green to it that looks like weed, but probably isn’t. He stirs and tastes again.

“Okay,” he says.

It smells amazing.

He ladles soup into two plastic bowls—one he hands to me. “You look too tired and you need your strength,” he tells me.

What is it about chicken soup? My mom used to say that chicken soup can cure everything from a bad cold to a broken heart. She would make it whenever I was sick, or sad, and she added a lot of dill and celery. Her soup was always her soup, and it always helped.

I taste Abdullah’s soup. His helps, too.

There are no recipes for chicken soup. If you find one in a cookbook, it’s bullshit. Don’t believe it for a second. Chicken soup is about intuition and memory—it’s about what you tasted at the kitchen table on a rainy night when you were seven years old, or when you lay on the couch propped up on fresh pillows and your mom brought it to you on a tray. It’s about what you ate in the glow of the Sabbath candles, with your family, safe and warm.

Chicken soup is also an inheritance.

My soup has a lot of dill in it because my mom’s soup had a lot of dill in it, which means her mom’s soup had a lot of dill in it, and her mom’s soup had a lot of dill in it. From generation to generation, chicken soup is a legacy as sacred as bequeathing land or gold.

And I can tell you the best compliment I got in my entire life came from my ninety-two-year-old gramma the Passover before she died. We were all sitting around the table eating the soup I had made for the family dinner. My mom had died, and my gramma had stopped cooking after she buried her oldest daughter, so I said I would do it. I started cooking the soup the day before. As the meat cooked in boiling water, I skimmed the fat floating on the top. I added parsnips, carrots, onions, leaks, and a lot of dill. Just like I remember my mom doing it. I made the matzo balls in the soup, small and hard, just like my mom did it, too.

My gramma tasted it, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, they were shining, and the years softened around her face.

“Oh. I’m still here,” she said. “For a minute I thought I was back at my mother’s table eating her soup.”

I felt like I might break open then—both of us, sitting there, my gramma and me, both of us desperately missing our mother’s tables and our mother’s soup.

Anyway, I guess Abdullah’s mother made her chicken soup with a lot of onion and black pepper. It’s good.

“Okay,” he says to me while bouncing on the balls of his feet. “While you’re eating, I want to tell you about a fundamental difference between us.”

“Okay . . .”

He wags a finger at my nose, it barely touched the tip.

“You trust people!” he snorts. “You walk in here with your scarf and your bags and your blondeness, and you smile and trust people!”

“Okay, that’s true. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt,” I say as I think about what that’s meant in my life—waking up on that dirty bed, getting stoned at Damascus Gate, and the Grey Man who hurt me in the foul room that smelled like a dying animal.

“Ah, but I am older than you, and I. Trust. No one.”

He takes out a ten-shekel piece from his shirt pocket and slams it on the table in front of us.

“Look at this!”

I pick up the coin.

“You are looking at this coin, and you believe it! You believe what it wants you to believe. If you were selling chewing gum or cigarettes or sahlab downstairs, and I gave you this coin, you would take it!”


“You would be wrong!” He jabs the space in front of us with his fin- ger, and his eyes dance.

“How come?”

“It is counterfeit!”

He takes out another coin. It looks exactly the same to me as the first.

“Open your hands!” he orders me. I place my hands open in front of him. My left, and my right. He places one coin in each.

“Close your eyes, and feel the difference.”

I do just like he tells me. One coin feels slightly heavier than the other—I feel its density. It matters. The other coin, now that I can compare, feels a little lighter. But when I place them side-by-side on the wooden table, it is actually a hair or two thicker than the first coin. I rub each surface with my thumb. The heavier coin feels smoother— the edges softened by other hands. The lighter coin is rough, almost like I can scratch off the palm tree in the middle with seven leaves and the two baskets with dates, and the state emblem and the words “for the redemption of Zion” in ancient and modern Hebrew letters.

The cool thing about Israeli shekel is it’s modeled on the ancient shekel that peopled used back in the day. Even the name “shekel” is the same name for the currency they used in biblical times—it’s even in the book of Genesis. Hebrew words all contain a three-letter root, and the root of “shekel” is based on the root verb “weighing.”

The shekel may have referred to a weight in barley.

I Googled it—and I learned that back in the day when the patriarchs and the matriarchs were milling around, the shekel may have been worth 180 grains.

The ten-shekel piece and its evil almost-twin that I’m holding in each hand are Israeli New Shekels—but they bear the traces of those ancient coins that were used thousands of years ago.

“Now look at this coin!”

He points to a tiny mark on the heavier, smoother coin. I look closely just to the right of his shiny fingernail at the little emblem for the State of Israel with the word “Israel” written beneath it in Hebrew.

“Do you see that? This means it is a real coin! Now look at the other one!”

There is no emblem. No “Israel.”

“This! Is! Fake!” He snatched it from my hand and slammed it down on the table. My chicken soup ripples in the bowl.

“Don’t spill!” he says, and he grabs a napkin and wipes around the bowl even though there’s nothing on the table.

“Don’t spill and trust no one!” he says again.

I take another bite of the soup. “It’s really good.”

I close my eyes for a minute, and think about my mother’s dinner table. She did this once—lived in the Old City—years ago, in 1967, after the Six Day War, when the Israeli army crushed the Jordanians and took control over all of Jerusalem, when Jews could return to the West- ern Wall for the first time in decades. I wonder if she ever lived here.

“Okay, I know the soup is good. It is my mother’s soup. Now, let’s talk about you. So you are writing this book. And I want to tell you a story about me. You know, I am a Muslim. I was educated in a Muslim school here in the Old City. I prayed five times a day, with my father and my brothers—my brothers are scum, now. Except the one who is dead. We never speak ill of the dead even though he was a liar and a thief!”

Abdullah nods and sways.

“I will explain to you why I trust no one,” he says, rocking on his heels.

“So, I was a Muslim, and I trusted my teachers. I listened to them when they told me gay people are disgusting! They are taboo! I believed them!”

I put my spoon down and watch him. His hands shake. His little grey moustache quivers.

“I believed this all my life, all my life, I swear to God. And then so much time passing, so much time believing, so much time listening to the things the imam told me about the sins of men, and what they do, and I grew up—but it took a long time. I work many years here and learn many people’s stories, and they all sank in like water through the sand. I was the sand. The truth was water. Do you know what I am trying to tell you?”

“No,” I say. I don’t blink. And I can feel something happening in the room as the soup simmers, and steam rises, as Abdullah moves from left foot to right, as the light shines off the mermaid walls.

“Well. I turned sixty. Such a birthday is sixty. I turned sixty and I woke up, I swear to God, on that first morning, and I said to myself, ‘Maybe I don’t hate gay people so much. Maybe they are not so taboo. Maybe I am actually gay!’”

I dropped my spoon. The soup rippled again.

“Don’t spill! This soup is too good to waste,” he says. “So yes, I am gay. I go to the LGBT center in West Jerusalem, and I talk to people and I make a lot of friends, and I like to go clubbing in Tel Aviv! We can go sometime!” he dances a little to show what he can do.

“Wow,” I say to him. “That’s amazing. But, Abdullah, you just spent the last few minutes telling me not to trust anyone, and how to tell if someone is trying to cheat you out of ten shekels. So how am I supposed to know if what you are saying is true?”

“Ah!” he says as he turns off the soup, turns to me and smiles for more than the blink of an eye. “Everything about me is the truth. After all the lies I have heard, and all the stories fed to me, I live the truth. Except for my hair. I dye it dense black—you know, for the boys. But that is all. My hair is the only thing not true about me. The rest you can trust.”

I think about Jerusalem and her rooftops, and my mother, and I think about the others who are struggling to understand this place earestly. I think about the mermaid on my arm and what she means, and I think about my children and the life I’m giving them. I think about all the leaps of faith I’ve taken, and the ones I’ve seen others take, about the things I’ve lost and the things I’ve gained. . . . And I’m glad for every misstep, for every mistake.

So I choose to trust him.

By Sarah Tuttle-Singer

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