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Coke in Jerusalem

by Robert Michael Maakestad

While studying abroad in Israel, I found myself surprised by how severely I missed carbonated beverages – in particular, Coke. As a college student in the U.S., I took my access for granted: the dining hall, nearby restaurants or gas stations, the local grocery store, and even nearly every academic building and dorm. On the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City, however, carbonated beverages are much harder to find, especially at a reasonable price.

As the semester progressed, I found myself becoming more and more desirous of a Coke, which is strange as when not in Israel, I drink soda once a week max. The thought of the bubbly sweet liquid gained power as the time without imbibing extended. The school store at Jerusalem University College (JUC) had a small fridge stocked with Coke, Pepsi, and Orange Fanta, but I wasn’t about to pay fifteen shekels (approximately four U.S. dollars) for a small can. Sure, Jerusalem’s restaurants carried soda, but it’d cost over four U.S. dollars for a small glass without free refills. Breaking a fifty shekel bill for a single cupful felt excessive; when you’re used to paying a dollar for as much as you can drink, four dollars feels like a fortune.

Jerusalem’s Old City, a five minute walk from my room on Mt. Zion, consisted of a web of claustrophobic alleys lined with shops whose wares spilled out onto the stone block pavement, which was worn smooth by the three-and-a-half million pairs of feet that walk them each year. Nearly midway through the semester it had begun to feel less like an impossible maze, yet I still hadn’t located any shop that sold soda for a reasonable price. It did make sense though; because cars couldn’t fit down the tight alleyways, shops paid young teen boys to wheel their wares in on carts through the packs of tourists – no delivery vehicles, just wooden frames with handles and wheels tacked on, piled high with packages. Most of the boys were small and scrawny, the piles of goods much taller and heavier than they. Despite the frequent sight of these carts being shoved along the city’s corridors, I never saw any laden with drinks. It was rumored that other students had found 1.5 liters of Coke for sale in a Bethlehem grocery for fifteen shekels. It was only a thirty minute bus ride from our door, but I’d yet to figure out the Arab bus system, which provided access to the West Bank. Anyway, I was confident I could find carbonated drinks somewhere in the Old City for a price that didn’t raise my eyebrows.

Most afternoons when I wasn’t studying, I’d head into the Old City to explore. While my primary goal was to take in the vast array of sights and cultures that mixed throughout the city sprawl, I also had a secondary goal of finding the cheap soda that I knew had to be there. I’d pop into small groceries and hovel-like tourist traps selling wooden crucifixes; framed photos of Israel’s most famous sights; t-shirts with Hebrew lettering and all manner of cartoon characters, superheroes, and public icons; and more multi-colored scarves than could possibly be imagined.

About two months into the semester, I walked into a small grocery store after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. At the very back of the cluttered floor stood a small refrigerator which held normal-sized cans of Coke, Pepsi, and Fanta – all for ten shekels each. It was worth it for three dollars. I snagged a Coke and walked to the front counter where a large Arab man sat reading a magazine. He seemed friendly and smiled when I fished a ten shekel coin from my wallet and thanked him. The Coke was the perfect cool in my hand to combat Jerusalem’s spring heat.

Walking several blocks south down the alley, I slipped onto a side-street to the right and climbed a steep wrought-iron staircase to a roof that spanned almost a block’s length atop the shops. The roof was paved and seemed to offer access to several housing complexes for Orthodox Jewish families. Aside from that, though, it served as an overlook across the roofs of the Old City to what used to be the Jewish Temple Mount complex – the enormous stone block base of which now houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the more famous Dome of the Rock whose golden upturned bowl glints under the Israeli sun. Directly behind these structures rises the Mount of Olives speckled with churches and chapels, but which is dominated by an enormous Jewish cemetery with thousands of above-ground mausoleums, the cemetery where many Jews think the resurrection will begin upon the Messiah’s arrival.

The view from the paved rooftop is one of the best in Jerusalem, and certainly the one with the fewest number of steps to climb. Almost every tour group that visits Jerusalem gathers on the smooth cement to hear a short lecture on the topography of the city. At the top of a dangerously slick paved slope, a cement outcropping juts up, the perfect place to sit and enjoy the scenery. After scaling the incline, I plopped down and cracked open the still-cold can of Coke. Sipping it, I rolled the syrupy fizz across my tongue like a fine wine, gazing out over the city that had become my home.