Leonardo Sciascia, the Sicilian writer, said the richest and most tempting markets are found in the poorest places - places where the threat of hunger hovers overhead. In such places, a market is not merely a market but a colorful spectacle that represents the dream of the hungry man.
The Ramle souk is one of the main reasons to visit this city, because alongside the idyllic dream of Middle Eastern bounty - the stalls piled with firm red tomatoes, deep purple eggplants and bright yellow lemons - one also finds legumes, and Indian and Ethiopian spices, all at incredibly cheap prices. Apart from the souk - how can this be put nicely - you really have to exercise your imagination in order to picture the city as it was in its glory days. Cities and lands that attracted conquering armies throughout the generations may be well-documented in the history books. But without serious restoration and preservation projects, it's hard to turn them into hot tourist destinations.
1. Burekas and lemonade
The last time the word "original" was really in vogue may have been when one still could go out to Ramle for a wild night of rock and roll in the nightclubs. But that doesn't detract from the goodness of the "original" Turkish burekas still being sold at the small vendor's stand established in 1957 by Haim Kulo's father, who immigrated from Istanbul. The stand is now being run by his grandchildren. And even though these original burekas have spawned an empire of little shops all over the country, the greasy, golden-brown filo-dough pastries filled with cheese or spinach and accompanied by a brown hard-boiled egg are still delicious. Here they also sell the wonderful Ramle lemonade, a natural, corn-yellow drink made by crushing the entire lemon - peel, pulp and seeds, too - and then straining the liquid through a special sieve. At the bureka shop you can also buy frozen containers of the lemon concentrate. The small Formica counter there is a perfect place to begin a trip to the souk.
Original Turkish Burekas, 3 Jabotinsky St., (08) 925-5911
2. The Iraqi roller
In the back room stands the kneading machine, a mammoth metallic object with a human expression, turning out a huge quantity of dough at a monotonous and mesmerizing pace. Yitzhak Naim takes the dough circles from the machine and hurls them forcefully against a hot iron surface, part of the enormous roller that looks like some particularly sinister contraption from the Iraqi inquisition, and the dough starts to bubble from the scorching heat. The roller flattens the large pitas on both sides and makes sure they are perfectly browned.
Na'im Bakery, 15 Jabotinsky St., (08) 922-7289
3. Sugarcane juice and Bollywood movies
The first room is devoted entirely to colorful videotapes of the best of Bollywood. In the second room, Yonatan, a former security officer at the Israeli embassy in Bombay, who immigrated from India three years ago, sells packages of wafer-thin papadum made from chickpea flour, sacks of Basmati rice and a variety of Indian spices. Outside the shop, on Wednesdays and Fridays, sits a man selling sugarcane juice. You can watch him hard at work, squeezing the sweet juice out of the sugarcanes with a primitive-looking machine. Similar models apparently were used by the ancient Indians, who were the first to record the process of producing this juice 2,500 years ago.
Merkaz Hatavlinim, 13 Ma'apilim St., (08) 925-2756
4. Green chickpeas and molukhia
Every souk has a stand like this one, where just standing in front of the fresh raw ingredients is enough to make your mouth water at the thought of what delicious things they could make. At Bassam's stall you can find bunches of molukhia leaves (also called Jews mellow); tiny purple eggplants; small, firm-fleshed squash; and spiky mini-artichokes that you know are just waiting to hold some little lamb meatballs seasoned with pine nuts. There are also giant cabbages, slightly sour miniature plums, grape leaves and fresh green chickpeas that are a pleasure to munch on roasted or steamed and sprinkled with coarse salt, similar to soy beans.
Bassam's stall, at the corner of Jabotinsky and Rashi Alley
5. The Ramle Museum
The only regular visitor is Mr. Yosef Kalish, who lost his son in the Yom Kippur War and escapes the emptiness at home by sitting next to the memorial monument before trudging off to meet the elderly retirees who gather at the nearby mall. Every once in a while, organized groups come here for a tour and explanation of the city's glorious past, and the Golden Age of the Muslim period. The rest of the time, the rooms are pretty much deserted. This glorious past can be seen mostly through small models and displays that recall a more blessed time. In the old travelogues in the museum's small library, ancient travelers lavish praise on the city's fine wheat, sweet raisins and good wine, and on the olive groves that surrounded Ramle.
Ramle Museum and Yad Lebanim, 112 Herzl Boulevard, (08) 920-7586, (08) 929-2650
6. The Franciscan church and monastery
The thick and imposing latticework that blocks off church altars often also conceals beautiful works of art. Somewhere high above the alter, in the church of the Terra Santa monastery, is a painting by Titian depicting Jesus being taken down from the cross. Those with sharp vision may be able to discern some of the brilliant details; the less eagle-eyed will see only a dark, indistinct image. This impressive Franciscan monastery is currently home to just one priest and two nuns of Italian origin, but once it housed dozens of monks and nuns, who excavated an underground tunnel that led to the church's olive press one street over. The tunnel is now closed. It is advisable to pre-schedule visits to the monastery, which is closed to passersby, to see the place where, according to legend, Napoleon slept while at war in this land. The story goes that when the small and testy general slept here, the muezzin's early morning calls so annoyed him that he pulled out his pistol and killed the poor fellow.
Terra Santa, entrance from Adas Shafiq St., (08) 925-2907
7. Nihad's sculptures
A month after returning from a Greek prison, Nihad Dabeet installed three sculptures on the roof of his family's Samir Restaurant. He was jailed just one week after he finished six years of sculpting studies in Bulgaria, for trying to smuggle drugs from Bulgaria to Greece. In his six years in jail, he continued sculpting with matchsticks and bread - a mixture of dough and saliva the prisoners spent long hours kneading for him in exchange for cigarettes. Nowadays he exhibits his work - flexible sculptures made from iron wire - in galleries and museums around the country, and he also teaches sculpting in schools and community centers. A year ago he built himself a studio next to the Franciscan monastery, after the neighbors, a poor family with seven unmarried sons, gave him a space in the ancient foundations of an Old City building. Nihad had to empty 15 truckfuls of garbage and sand before he could build his studio in the spectacular space adorned with medieval archways, beneath a residential building containing rooms typical of all the different historical periods and all the conquerors who left their mark on Ramle.
Nihad Dabeet, next to the Franciscan monastery, 050-5703700
8+9. Musings in line for hummus
In the alleyways of Ramle's Old City you still see posters from a movie, set in Gaza, that was shot here not long ago. It's not hard to transform the alleys of Ramle into the streets of Gaza, which tells you a thing or two about the degree of filth and neglect in the Old City and the "ghetto" - the nearby Arab neighborhood. The ruined and crumbling Armenian quarter now contains much scaffolding, testimony to the restoration work that has recently begun. Twenty years ago, this was still a lively area. When the families who lived here were evicted to make way for parking lots, the houses started to collapse and crumble. It would have been nice to recommend a visit to the Turkish baths, too, only there's really nothing to see in the ruins.
For lack of other attractions, hummus becomes the Old City's main draw. The Khalil Restaurant and the Samir Restaurant are both nice, simple places that, aside from the surprisingly long lines that stretch past their doorways on the weekends, don't leave too much of an impression. At Khalil, your best bet is the hummus with ful (fava beans); the small open kitchen at Samir produces some so-so salads, terrific falafel, good stuffed vegetables and two dishes that are hard to find elsewhere: matawma, a spicy chicken dish with lots of lemon and garlic, and another chicken dish with fresh tomatoes seasoned with baharat spice mix.
Khalil Restaurant, 6 Kehilat Detroit St., (08) 922-2284; Samir Restaurant, 7 Kehilat Detroit St., (08) 922-0195
10. The Indian restaurant
Among the dozen types of snacks manufactured in Ashdod for the Maharaja Restaurant, it's easy to get addicted to achura, a spicy rice treat with a tinge of sweetness from peanuts and raisins. The venerable Maharaja restaurant still offers a good Indian vegetarian menu that includes a thali with raita, dhali and chutney; a selection of samosas, pakoras and puri; and a variety of vegetable and bean dishes. The crowning glory, at least aesthetically, is the desserts: burfi - sweet milk cakes poured into round, square and rectangular molds and colored in bright hues; jalebi - coils of fried dough dipped in honey; and laddoo - balls made from chickpea flour and sprinkled with bright patches of color.
Maharaja, 87 Herzl Boulevard, (08) 922-3534