Life goes on here in the shadow of the bombers

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The Independent Online

"Do you think it's safe to go to the market?" my wife, Bridget, asked me yesterday morning. "It's as safe or as dangerous as it ever is," I shrugged. She came back laden with nuts, raisins and root ginger for the chicken biryani she was planning to cook for our guests last night.

"Do you think it's safe to go to the market?" my wife, Bridget, asked me yesterday morning. "It's as safe or as dangerous as it ever is," I shrugged. She came back laden with nuts, raisins and root ginger for the chicken biryani she was planning to cook for our guests last night.

Mahane Yehuda, where the bomb went off four hours later, is our local market, a raucous, pungent extravaganza of fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, cheese and pickles, speciality breads and sticky cakes, gaudy trinkets and fake designer t-shirts. The neighbourhood of cramped stone houses and paved courtyards was one of the first to be built by Jews outside the walls of the Old City a century ago.

We shop there because the produce is fresher, better and, yes, cheaper. We shop there because it's fun, as long as you stay off politics. The oriental Jewish shopkeepers are notoriously right-wing, displaying posters of their Likud hero Benjamin Netanyahu and the Shas guru Rabbi Ovadia Yosef chanting chauvinist slogans on demand for foreign television crews every time there is an election.

We shop there because it's near. The market - three covered lanes of stalls, spilling over into Agrippas Street - is a trolley-trundling 200 yards from our house on the Street of the Prophets. At times like these, when the Government is issuing daily warnings of terror attacks, our suburban friends can stay away from the vulnerable heart of Jewish West Jerusalem. We can't, we live there.

So, you become fatalistic. "If I hadn't gone there," my wife said, "I'd have gone to a supermarket, also in the centre of town." Three years ago, five strollers were killed by a trio of suicide bombers in a pedestrian shopping mall leading to the supermarket. Jewish Jerusalem remains a small town. When a bomb goes off, you phone around, leave reassuring messages on answering machines. You count your friends and relatives. They don't always escape. In the Seventies, an Oxford contemporary and his wife were killed in Zion Square.

In July, 1997, when two bombers blew themselves up killing 16 shoppers inside Mahane Yehuda, our fishmonger, Nissim, lost an arm. A Leeds schoolfriend works in a pharmacy on Jaffa Road, opposite where two car bombers killed themselves and wounded 21 passers-by at a back entrance to Mahane Yehuda in July 1998. Luckily, he was having a day off.

Thursday is a peak shopping day in the market. "There's always tension there," my wife said, "but it didn't feel any different. Everybody was in a good mood."

The joker she buys dried fruit and nuts from greeted her, as he has done for 20 years, in studied English: "Welcome to Mahane Yehuda, lady!" Armed police were conspicuous in Agrippas Street, but less so in the market itself. "I was worried," my wife explained later, "that Hamas might do something against the ceasefire. I just wanted to get in and out." Happily, she did, stopping on the way home at a post office directly opposite Shomron Street, little more than an alley, where a car bomb went off four hours later.

She heard the blast, followed in rapid succession by police and ambulance sirens, from our kitchen. You become fatalistic. You go back to Mahane Yehuda because it's fun, it's cheap, it's near. And because you're not going to let Hamas spoil it for you.

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