“Orange juice?” “Falafel?” The invitation floats down Jerusalem’s Old City streets, seeking lodging in the ears of the hungry.
In this case, the voice behind the appeal belongs to Sameer. Plump oranges are piled to his knees. To his right is a stainless steel display stretching across the front of his shop. A peek inside reveals buckets of cabbages, pickles, onions, eggplant, salsas, some unidentifiables, and, of course, the magic paste that holds the whole of the Mediterranean world together: hummus.
My head turns; he reels me in like a fish.
“You are hungry,” his arms are stretched out, palms up. “Come. Sit down.”
“Only if you tell me your story,” I warn.
“Absolutely.” He chuckles. His english is accented, but clear enough. “Are you a believer?” he asks.
It is an easy opener. This is, after all, Christian Quarter Road. We are less than two hundred steps from the tomb of Christ. An atheist (or possibly a New Testament Professor) might wander through from time to time, but given all the dangling olive wood rosaries, the smell of burning incense, and the 3-D pictures of Jesus blinking on the cross, I doubt it. Even for me it has an unsavory quality, like the moment you realize you are chewing on somebody else’s pen. Calvary is open for business, “but just for you, my friend.”
“Yes,” I answer. “I am a believer.”
“Praise the Lord! Me too.”
I walk to the back of the shop, past five small tables. A refrigerator sits in the rear and isolates the eating area from the food preparation area. I open the fridge and extract a can of Coke Zero. I carry it back out and settle into one of the tables. It is a slow morning, so Sameer abandons his street songs and plops into the chair opposite me.
He is a large man who breaths heavily. His shirt is stained, but his face is bright. He leans back, trying to get comfortable.
I seek to extract from him the story of his business. He politely rehearses a few details, but is uninterested in my questions. The municipality gave him a falafel license in 1984 but his space is too small to get permission for anything beyond veggies in a pita. His tale is common for this part of the world. Business was good up until 2001. Since 9/11, it has plummeted. This year marks the 30 year anniversary of his start-up. He would like to sell and move.
“It is a small, but nice shop.”
He shifts his weight to the other side of the chair and the conversation to a more interesting track. “In 1972 an Alliance pastor moved into a flat across the street from ours in Beit Hanina (a northern suburb of Jerusalem). He had a car.” Sameer’s eyes dance. “No one had a car in those days. It was nine-teen se-ven-ty two!” The number is enunciated slowly.
Sameer continues. “So I watched him to know when he went to town. Then one day I went out at that time and stood by the road. He asked me to ride to be with him.” Sameer makes a whistle shape with his lips. “Wow-wee! A car!”
“Af first I went to church with him . . . just to see the girls.” He offers an aside in a low voice, “You know how the boys are!” We both laugh.
Cars and girls, I think. It is universal.
I bite into my falafel sandwich. It is overflowing with goodies. As I chew, an unpleasant taste creeps forward. In my haste, I had forgotten to tell him to leave out the eggplant, a vegetable that even a foraging viakvark will refuse to eat (WARNING: explicit language follows). I swallow what’s in my mouth trying my best to appear nonchalant and unalarming. I have become a Frenchman popping slugs like jellybeans. I chug the Coke desperately trying to wash out the slime trail that dangles between my tonsils and gizzard.
Sameer is unaware of my gastronomical struggle; he is rolling in his memory now. “Then, one day in 1978 there was a revival. I went. I sat in the back. I became a Christian. But not like these.” He motions to the street outside his shop. “These are just traditions. But Jesus is in my heart.”
From there, Sameer tells me the story of how he first learned, and then taught. He led the hymns, and, in time, became an elder, then treasurer. His English skills were good enough that he translated sermons for visitors. He floated between the Alliance Church and the Baptist Church. Finally, he enrolled as a student in the Bethlehem Bible College. He wanted to preach.
I almost cough up an onion. “Whoa! Bethlehem! Do you know Alex Awwad?” Alex is a professor of ministry at the Bible College there and a dear friend of mine.
“Of course. AND his brother, Bishara.” Saleem beams.
It is a small world. I think.
“So what do you do now in the church?” I ask.
“I started a Bible Study for Arab speakers at Christ’s Church (inside the Jaffa Gate) in 2000. We meet every Friday, except for holidays. It is not a large group, 15 or 20 people. When we have food, more people come. We always have Nescafe.”
I eat around the remaining eggplant as best I can, managing to consume most of the sandwich. I look around for the garbage. Sameer points to a bag hanging on the wall. I deposit the remains there, hoping I don’t offend my new friend by not eating the whole thing.
Wiping my face, I launch a direct question. “So what is your dream?”
Sameer doesn’t hesitate. “I want to encourage Arab Christians and Messianic Jews to worship together. In heaven, you know, we will be one people, one blood.”
This is not the kind of thing that you hear in every shop in Jerusalem.
Sensing the conversation is nearing its end, Sameer hauls himself out of the chair and beckons me to follow.
“Look at this,” he points to a plaque on the wall.
It hangs at eye level about half way back in the shop. It is a gastronomic reflex of the “Priestly Blessing” of Deuteronomy 6:24. “May the Lord bless you as you enter the falafel chapel and bless you and you go out.”
It just doesn’t get any better than that. Even without eggplant.