For weeks I brushed off all the imploring invitations to step into my shop, welcome, just see, look lady, you don't have to buy, just see lady, welcome, welcome, please, have some coffee, maybe mint tea?
The merchants in the Old City are desperate for customers but even in the good years, good years which have not yet returned, they intimidated me with the endless hassling. It made me crazy. It was the Jerusalem version of squeegee kids.
I was wrong. I should have accepted the invitations.
The hard sell is there, sure it is, but many of the shops are good and the people who own them interesting, charming and easy-going. I have made many good friends among the merchants of the Old City and will miss them when I go home.
But with so many shops, strung along the great streets of the Old City - Christian Quarter Street, David Street, El-Khanqa, Armenian Patriarch Road, Derech Sha'har Ha'arayot - how can you figure out the ones to enter?
Forget trying to decide on the basis of what you need or what you know. Go with what you feel when these merchants show off their best goods. They like to talk and get to know you; when they are a little surer of who you are and what you may be open to, they'll push past the trays of film, the postcards and the Hebron pottery (which I happen to like, okay?) and pull out the pieces which can make your pulse quicken.
Heard of suzanis? I hadn't - not until about three weeks ago. I stumbled over them with a friend when we edged in to one dusty place to look at Palestinian embroideries and old rugs.
"What are these?" I stuttered. "These!" The shopkeeper instantly dropped the stuff he'd pulled out for me and started unfolding suzanis - wonderful, gorgeous, breathtaking. My friend knew all about them; in fact she has a few. Hers, like these ones in the pictures, are antiques.
Suzanis are richly embroidered fabrics made as decorations, bedspreads, curtains, even pillow cases. And they were made in the 'Stans - Uzbekistan, Turkestan, Afghanistan...
The best ones you see now are at least 150 years old, but most of the ones in the shops are about 50 years old. The poppy is the most persistent symbol in them and the pieces come in various colours although most are stitched in reds or pinks with blue, tan, yellow and green silk threads.
I am also hooked (and have been for years) on handpainted Armenian pottery - the tiles, the dishes, the sinks, the lamps and bowls - all covered with the peacocks and flowers and trees and traditional motifs of this culture. There is a ton of nice Hebron pottery around that imitates it, but the real pieces levitate compared to the copies. At home in Toronto, we have a Tree of Life tile mural we had shipped from Balian's on the Nablus Road; for years it waited in a cupboard, each piece wrapped like a little present, until we could afford to renovate our kitchen. Now it fills the space over the stove. Our big buy on this trip is a handpainted sink from the Sandrouni pottery in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City; it will go to the cottage and rest there until we can afford a new bathroom.
Then there are the beads and the bead shops. The pal who taught me about suzanis also showed me the best old beads to buy and I am hooked. It's like crack. My hunt for them has taken me all over Jerusalem and now I am making necklaces for my daughter's wedding. Not with old beads, though; we're going for a more bridal look. Pearls and such. More expensive too, I might add.