Shopping in Jerusalem

A quick aside before the real entry: Something I discovered last night: not all banks accept all credit cards here for withdrawals. After trying to get cash three times last night and this morning, I was finally able to ask what was up in the bank. They told me that they (Discount) only accept Visa. If I wanted to use my MasterCard, I would have to walk another 500 meters uphill both ways to get the Bank HaPoalim, where I could use my MasterCard. Beyond this, not every bank even has an ATM or a possibility for getting money. Pretty amazing. Learn from my suffering and spare yourself.

Three major groups fill the streets of Jerusalem: the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. Shopping with each of them provides an experience in and of itself.

The Christians are probably the most laid-back, and therefore I have the least experience with them. Wandering through the Christian Quarter of the Old City is a quieter experience than going through the other quarters. Mostly, the shopkeepers just sit there and keep watch. They sell a variety of merchandise, and as you closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holier it becomes. The love to sell things like olive oil and little vials of holy water. Candles can be found in any shape and size and with any picture of Jesus you could want on it. They also seem to do the least business. Usually their prices are marked, but they may be flexible.

While shopping with the Jews (I haven’t done this in the Old City, because I haven’t come across many Jewish salespeople there), the prices are clearly visible and reasonable. Often they have things that you don’t necessarily need, but may want. What you see pretty often, at least in the area of town where I am staying, is lots of silver and gold anything – especially Judaica: menorahs, pesach plates, etc. I can’t afford any of this stuff, so I haven’t really been shopping there. Once I finally found a grocery store here, I found shopping it a rather relaxing experience and was even successful finding everything that I needed.

The Muslims probably do the most business here. In the Old City, they grab hold of you and harangue you, refusing to let you leave until they have all of your money. They mostly want to sell you anything that is worthless; if they sell you something worth $0 for $200, they make more than if they sell you something worth $0.50 for $200. This way, they make the most profit. An example story may help illustrate what I mean:

Yesterday I finally got around to buying postcards to send to family and colleagues. While at a Muslim shop right at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, I found a couple of cards that were acceptable. I enquired about the price: 2 Shekels per card (about 50 cents each), that is 10 Shekels total. Before I could even ask if they sold stamps, the shopkeeper told me that they had stamps available and would be happy to sell them to me. The shopkeeper then left me in the care of his apprentice (?) salesman, a boy about 12 years old, who should sell me the stamps and collect the money, while the shopkeeper presumably went back out to harangue more people. The youth pulled out 5 stamps, 4.60 Shekels each, totaling 23 Shekels. Then he gave me the combined price of stamps and postcards: 10+23=50 Shekels. Of course I called shenanigans, saying that 10+23=33, not 50. He was then kind enough to tell me that the value on the stamps wasn’t their actual value. They were worth more than was printed on them. Well, I told him he was full of bullshit and that I would just take the postcards and go. He obliged. I then went to the post office (across the street) and ordered the stamps: 3 for Germany (4.60 each), 1 for USA (6.70), 1 for Australia (6.50) and paid exactly the total: 27 Shekels. No problem. What this means is that the little Muslim boy wasn’t even selling me the right stamps for what I needed. Rather, he was just going to give the stupid white person the European stamps and be done with it, knowing good and well that the other postcards would never arrive. The Muslim salespeople always seem to think that they are smarter than you and that you will buy anything they have to offer.

They never have prices on anything. The reason for this is that the price for everything starts just below infinity dollars and then moves down from there. Say you want to buy a bracelet with some gold in it: starting price $450,000. You try to bargain him down, but his final offer is still $1,200, which is still too much. You change your mind and try to buy another bracelet, this time with no especially valuable metals in it. Starting price: $500,000. You ask why this one is worth more than the other, even though it is made of aluminum and the other was gold. Well, the second, he replies is made by hand and required a lot of work. Aha.

They also love to try to sell you unprovenanced antiquities, which are illegal to take out of the country without certification from an authorized dealer. Of course they don’t tell you this because by the time you get in trouble for it, they have already charged your credit card 3 times more than you were supposed to pay for it. You are on your way out of the country and lose both the merchandise and the money. Everybody’s happy. Especially frequent are dealers selling “ancient” coins and stones “from Solomon’s mines”. I am assuming that most of these are a rip, even though I am not a geologist. When I went looking for ostraka (pottery shards that were used as cheap writing material – like paper – in antiquity) nobody has them. I think this is at least partly because they know that anyone who knows enough to look for these kind of items will generally be able to spot a fake, and therefore is not as easy to rob. Therefore the market is not lucrative enough and they will just keep fleecing John Q. Tourist. They also love to try to sell you anything made of olive wood. Why? Well Jesus was crucified on olive wood, of course! What, you didn’t know this? For this reason, all olive wood in Israel is the same as the cross of Christ, and at least 3 times as expensive.

A general rule when shopping in the Old City here: never, ever pay what they want. Only pay what you want or just leave. Also, always check to make sure you will have all of your valuables when you leave the store. Police are generally not far away, should the need arise. I think today I may go down there and try to sell them some things. I have some napkins that I got free with my meal; they must be worth at least $1000 each in the Old City. For my empty Coke bottle I could probably ask about $3000. I mean, the writing on it is in Hebrew, and Jesus knew Hebrew, therefore this is Jesus’ Coke bottle. That makes it virtually priceless and $3000 is a steal, when you think of it this way. Maybe I’ll give that a try…

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1 Comment

  1. Michael

     /  16/03/2010

    Quite comical and true. Thanks Jonathan!


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