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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Does Jerusalem close?

The lines and layers of the city on the hill,on a first visit

Written by Sudeep Paul |
January 30, 2012 3:40:53 am

Back in the days when the printed book,map and picture still mattered,you didn’t 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 don’t allow us to hide behind knowing a place through someone else’s 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 people’s history,but these two decades have produced a half-century’s worth of substance,albeit a half-decade’s 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 mustn’t 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 Ya’akov/ Mishkenotecha Yisrael…”,to an explosion of delight in my friend and guide,Zivit.

I hadn’t batted an eyelid in awkward surprise on the hour’s 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 synagogue’s 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 Malamud’s 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 it’s the new literature on Jerusalem’s buses,crying out against everyday segregation,that hits home with the enormity of this city’s,and some others’,growing divide. The Haaretz headlines of late precipitated into the reality of the secular and non-Orthodox majority’s battlelines with the Haredim. Na’ama Margolese,the eight-year-old girl from Beit Shemesh,didn’t 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 Atias’s 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 anybody’s 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” doesn’t 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 it’s too ancient. And at the perceptively friendly mingling of Arabs and Jews in the Old City. That didn’t subvert the story of the Arab Quarter,but then few people ventured here during the Second Intifada,which wasn’t 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 city’s political status,Arabs and Jews agree on one thing: violence and terror aren’t 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 Sharon’s “illegal” house in the Arab Quarter,there’s an immersion in the moment. Perhaps,and this doesn’t 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,it’s 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 hadn’t 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.”

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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