The view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is an iconic one. The visit is well worth the time… IF you can time it right. When the big tourist buses are there, it's "balagan," our favorite Hebrew word that means "crazy, a big mess or chaotic." The hill is crawling with loud tour guides, gawking tourists with selfie sticks and pushy Arabs selling souvenirs and camel rides, just trying to make a day's wage. When the masses are not there, there is space to breathe, time to enjoy the view and observe Jerusalem's bustling life as it's happened for thousands of years. On a beautiful fall day, I got a small Ezra Adventures group of 4 up there around noon time and was pleasantly surprised. We were almost alone. 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 introduce tourists to a stereotypical parking lot ride. Since there wasn't much going on, two of my four guys showed a glimmer of interest in Kojak. And 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 heavyset Arab handler. After some price negotiations that involve lots of hand waving (because only tourists and suckers take the inflated first price), a deal was struck, and the camel ride began with an irritated growl from Kojak as he awkwardly stood up. Smiles and chuckles were had, pictures were taken, and we went back to enjoying the day. Then the fun began.
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 and an unexpectedly transparent way. 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. Gosh. It was amaaazing. My newly emboldened crew did the same, and wholeheartedly agreed. Soon Nasser's lunch for 1 was finished by 4 of us sitting under an olive tree overlooking Jerusalem. Yet it left us wondering and asking 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. He struggled to explain the directions that would take us into East Jerusalem, what bus to take, the cost of the bus fare and lunch. Although I know my way around Jerusalem, I had no idea where he was telling me to go. A moment later, Nasser's friend, Hassam, randomly drives by when Nasser jumps up and starts yelling in Arabic. Hassam stops, and there's a loud and 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, I made a spontaneous executive decision- Let's go! As Nasser closes our car door, he says, "if the police stop you, tell them you are his friend"…. "Wait… What?!?" Before I got an explanation, we were already on our way.
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 that appeared to have half the cars in Jerusalem being repaired. 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. This was odd. We stopped at a big garage, not a restaurant. Maybe he's asking for directions, I nervously wondered. Nope, Hassam confidently gets out, smiles and beckoning us to follow him, back past the garage to a warehouse with large partially rusted metal doors. To me, the setting said "horror movie," but my new friend's kind smile said, "don't be a pansy." So we followed.
We step 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, yet strangely decorated- a TV, pictures of fast cars and large Smurfs and Disney characters on the walls. By the look of the few young Arab men in the restaurant, they were as stunned to see us as we were to be there. Hassam, who spoke more English than Ibrahim and his sons, (which was still only small broken phrases), warmly seated us at a table for 4 in a restaurant that could seat maybe 20 people, if these 20 people were all a close family of 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 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 and we ain't pansies. Soon it was all on the table and quickly heading to our mouths, even the sheep liver, although admittedly not as often as the chicken. As we started, a smiling man we hadn't seen before appeared from the kitchen with a 1 liter Coca-cola bottle filled with a light green olive oil. As if we asked him to, he proceeded to pour a generous amount of olive oil on everything with appeasing devotion of an honored host. The truth was we were still trying to figure out what was happening and who this guy was. Regardless, I learned that day if the olive oil is from a coke bottle, it's guaranteed local and probably the best you've ever tasted.
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 we 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 with no arguing- less than 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, to the awkward smiles and chuckles of the young Palestinians that were coming and going. We have pictures to prove it.
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 warm smiles, exaggerated hand gestures and good-natured 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.
The message of the day was step out of your fears, get out of the box, and live a little. When you would like to try some sheep liver, I know a good place that has the Chocolate Fish stamp of approval.
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.