A Taste Of Pomegranates
Young, lean soldiers armed with machine guns cluster just inside the massive Jaffa Gate. A wooden cart full of pastries stands to the left, near a small fenced green where executions once took place. This is a busy entrance into Jerusalem's Old City, in Israel.
A map on the wall at the visitors' center displays neat lines to mark the Jewish, Armenian, Christian, and Muslim quarters of the walled village. But on the narrow, cobbled streets there's nothing carved in stone.
Some of the world's holiest ground for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lies within these walls.
Thousands of international tourists travel to the sacred Western Wall to pray for ailing or departed loved ones. Some claim they can feel the tension in the air in this region, one where violence sometimes seems to make international news almost daily. A travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State in February remains in effect today, eight months later.
Around 40,000 residents live within the Old City that measures less than one square kilometer. Michael Zenou is a new Israeli working in the Old City, where he makes and sells hand-squeezed juices. The 24-year-old moved here recently from Toronto.
A sign lists the fruits and vegetables in Hebrew and English, but one look at Zenou's pink-stained fingers and nails reveals what he makes most often: pomegranate juice.
The pithy fruit full of swirls and seeds has mottled skin. It can range in size from that of a tangerine to a grapefruit. Abundant here in the Middle East, the pomegranate is still somewhat exotic and mysterious to many Americans who are used to fruits grown and trucked to grocery stores from many miles away.
Zenou slices a pomegranate in half, and with youthful energy and a manual juicer, presses out a surprising amount of liquid. Two or three more halves and the tall plastic cup is full of ruby-red juice.
Things are quiet on this breezy, sunny day. That isn't necessarily a good thing. "All these problems are not good for business," he says. "Especially in the Old City."
The juice is so pretty, it's natural to think it will taste syrupy and mild. But it doesn't. It has a sweet yet bitter flavor, with a sharp bite and texture from bits of crushed seeds.
Zenou, who also works in Tel Aviv in the logistics field, has never lived abroad before. Asked how and why he chose Israel, a place known for conflict and uncertainty, he says, "It's the best place."
As he cuts and presses pomegranates into juice, the song "Wonderwall" plays in the background, and only later will someone remark that the band's name -- Oasis -- seems fitting in this green city surrounded by desert. And if people are worried today about a shooting the day before, it doesn't really show. Tourists nibble on tabbouli, buy souvenirs, say their prayers. The day ends quietly.
A pomegranate is not like a banana or a peach. It's an acquired taste, and not for everyone. When I tell my friends about Michael Zenou, they're intrigued by his small, modern story set against one that is so vast and ancient. My friend Diane and I discuss whether or not to go back to the Old City. We ask our new Israeli friends for their advice.
"Just be careful," they say.
So we decide to go. We bring scarves to cover our heads and our bare, American shoulders at the Western Wall.
We want to see it. We want to pray and feel the breeze. We want to taste the pomegranate juice.