January 30, 2012 3:40:53 am
Back in the days when the printed book,map and picture still mattered,you didnt have to land on a spot on the earth,sacred or profane,to be counted among the elect who knew that blessed ground. Times with no acumen to appreciate the countries one travels in the mind dont allow us to hide behind knowing a place through someone elses written or spoken word. To be present in body is to know in spirit.
Twenty years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel may be a ridiculously short timeframe in either peoples history,but these two decades have produced a half-centurys worth of substance,albeit a half-decades quota of demonstrated camaraderie. But it was as good an occasion as any to make my way to Yerushalayim,still the centre of the world for many,and as old as recorded time. Reading,understanding and taking off to dream may still be paid lip-service somewhere,but one mustnt assume to know a place without ever being there,must one now? So I had my little whisper of revenge on the world-travelled when I looked westward from the Mount of Olives at the Temple Mount,the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa and muttered the only lines of Hebrew I knew of old,Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov/ Mishkenotecha Yisrael…,to an explosion of delight in my friend and guide,Zivit.
I hadnt batted an eyelid in awkward surprise on the hours drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yet my eyes opened up with the wonder of the sight I had seen many times,without my own corporeal presence opposite. Those lines How good thy tents are,O Jacob/ Thy dwelling places,O Israel were uttered by Balam,the Heathen prophet dispatched by the Moabite king to curse the Hebraic people. Balam,instead,had ended up blessing the Israelites,and his prayer opens the synagogues morning service. A little later,a rabbi on the steps leading down to the Wailing Wall would hold my hand and we would utter the lines together,with the good rabbi profusely blessing Indians before politely asking for a few shekels for his brothers in need. No surprises so far. But was the reality an exact match for the picture in my head?
Well,Bernard Malamuds timeless and placeless Lower East Side may have produced his legendary universalism (or reductivism): All men are Jews. I was a man,non-Jewish,in Jerusalem,who may have had little time for god at the Western Wall,or anywhere else,worrying more about the yarmulke being blown off his head by the wind or picturing the Second Temple from reconstruction sketches. There were countless women in the other queue,of course. But its the new literature on Jerusalems buses,crying out against everyday segregation,that hits home with the enormity of this citys,and some others,growing divide. The Haaretz headlines of late precipitated into the reality of the secular and non-Orthodox majoritys battlelines with the Haredim. Naama Margolese,the eight-year-old girl from Beit Shemesh,didnt strike a chord with her trauma. She scared people into an apocalyptic vision of their country,built on the harmonisation of modern and traditional,being taken away from them. Remember another Jewish-American author turning Malamud on his head All Jews are Men? (Last Friday,Haartez urged Bibi Netanyahu to reject Housing Minister Ariel Atiass proposals for public housing favouring the Haredim the more the children,the earlier the marriage,the better.) But how to bridge the new divide without hating the ultra-Orthodox,or being hated,was anybodys guess.
The twice-destroyed City of Peace is a city of divisions. It divides the past from the future,and the dividing line is the present. Standing on that line,where till 1967 the walls to the east of the street were Jordan and those to the west the new state of Israel,being there doesnt help. You have to pull your imagination out of your pocket,and pepper it with your meagre knowledge of history. But soon you start armouring yourself against the blows from such proximity the layers of the city,built and destroyed through centuries,rediscovered and uncovered,and still being excavated,the main Roman Cardo that ran north to south and,of course,the Crusader narrative of the Via Dolorosa. The Jerusalem syndrome,religious or secular,may not get you,but the city thrives on mixing it all up and frustrating every attempt to layer your vision and thought.
My own defence against that relentless return of the past fell through twice at the Wailing Wall,maybe because its too ancient. And at the perceptively friendly mingling of Arabs and Jews in the Old City. That didnt subvert the story of the Arab Quarter,but then few people ventured here during the Second Intifada,which wasnt all that long ago. Jerusalem is a continuing attempt at securing one narrative over another,but beyond the question of a Palestinian state or the citys political status,Arabs and Jews agree on one thing: violence and terror arent good for business. At the heart of the eternal presence of the past,commerce is the great harmoniser,even if the symbol of the conflict sits right there on the Temple Mount.
Jerusalem,to the outsider,is a city with an open future,undecided and uncertain. But from the bullet holes on the Zion Gate,where the Palmach fought on to relieve the Jewish Quarter in 1948,to Ariel Sharons illegal house in the Arab Quarter,theres an immersion in the moment. Perhaps,and this doesnt come readily from books,a peaceful future for Jerusalem lies in confining the past to tourists and preserving the present for residents. Being there,nurtures that thought. But then,its fleeting,impressionistic and naïve. Jerusalem does not close.
* The Jerusalem syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,nor am I sure about spontaneous psychosis. Yet,on my way to Jerusalem,I had politely asked for silence to lock in the moment of my entry into the city on the hill. We were passing the narrow gorge of Bab-el-Wad with the remains of the destroyed armoured cars. If that moment continues to haunt me,it was because I was there. Again,if I hadnt already known the story of Bab-el-Wad,1948,would I be moved at all then,and now,in the tranquillity of distance? Perhaps I had opportunely remembered the song: Bab-el-wad/ Do remember our names for ever… Here sorrow and glory live together/ With a burnt armoured car and the name of an unknown.
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