“Peaceful Zion . . .”

Friday November 24th, Jerusalem.
The Mahane Yehuda market is furiously busy the hour before sundown. An officious orthodox in a large brown robe and fur hat is blowing a cornet through his luxuriously frizzy beard, trying to shut everyone down by the appointed time. Arguments erupt between him and stallholders who want to stay open longer.

*****

Having been a week with friends on Agrippas street near the market, I decide to spend some nights in the old walled city of Jerusalem. The Al Arab hostel on Souk Khan As Zeit Street has the cheapest beds in the Muslim quarter. The manager leads me up some steps to a large dormitory with half a dozen bunk beds.  There’s a pale thin Russian sitting in the corner. He’s smoking and drinking tea, writing pages of tiny script; a metaphysical thesis perhaps. He will not speak to me.

For the rest of the day I wander the souks of the old city, taking pictures with a camera and a telephoto lens. On the crowded steps outside the Damascus gate kids run up shouting, “journalista, journalista,” grinning excitedly, slapping my hand in high-fives. An old woman selling dried apricots grumpily agrees to let me take her photo for several shekels. But I should have taken the picture first because she turns her back and hunches into her shawl as soon as she has her coins.

I hike up Suleyman Street, to Sala al Din, East Jerusalem’s main road. A roiling mob of heads blocks a white van stalled in the middle of the street. Traffic has backed up and horns are blaring. I cross over and see that the left hand side window of the van, a Yeshiva bus that shouldn’t be here, has been smashed. Maybe the perpetrator had been taken to the police block, as the crowd of angry youths have surrounded it. A young Israeli soldier argues with one of the youths. The fact that they are arguing is a positive sign. I don’t hang around.

It’s quite a long walk up through the noisy cement block crush of East Jerusalem to the Anglican Cathedral, St George’s. I enter the gated enclosure to the church within, which has services in English and Arabic. It’s an oasis of Edwardian gentility. The Royal Arms and the standard of St George hang above the nave. Brass plaques line the walls under stained glass windows, recalling military men and their wives or sisters; wistful, time-stalled memorials to sweet Albion. I sit in corner, recalling the tune of that old Church of England chestnut; “Hark the songs of peaceful Zion”, and meditate for an hour or so before heading back to the bustle of Nablus Road, down to the Damascus gate again. I find St Anne’s by the Bethesda pool. This Romanesque crusader church has a vast acoustic. I try to croak out a tune but cannot due to a traveller’s cold.

It’s eleven pm back at the Al Arab. Time to sleep, but the Russian is still writing. He’s got no pack or bedding in this dorm, and it turns out he should be in another room. He won’t let me shut the lights out and he won’t leave. He’s nailed himself down in this cell and seems to be using it as his study, away from the hubbub of other backpackers. He speaks no English, but makes it clear that he wants me to leave him alone. I try to communicate with my hands: time for sleep, and lights off. He becomes hot and obstinate.

I go to the common room where Palestinian TV is blaring loudly, a repetitive montage of heroic music, banners waving over slow motion shots of curly haired little kids throwing stones, and young men hidden under scarves toting AK47s. A few Arab youths are lounging around drinking beers. One of them, tall and muscly and a bit flabby in tight Levis, seems to be the leader of the group. He’s a relative of the guy who runs the hostel. He snickers insinuatingly at the TV footage. He has one lengthened and polished little fingernail-scoop. His fatty eyes seem evil to me.

“The Russian, he crazy,” says the manager. “One more crazy, smelly Russian,” he says again with a weary, tolerant shrug. The Russian has been here a few days and he’ll have to leave in the morning. The manager tells him, in the language of hand signals and exasperated noises, that he’ll have to clear out of the big empty dorm he is using as his private study. But the Russian won’t budge. He sees the little flag on my pack, and starts waving his thin white hands and accusing me loudly as though he’s uncovered a crime; “aaah… ahhh… Australiye, Australiye… aaah…  ahhh…”

I get a bed in a smaller room with an elderly German, Michael. He’s been to Israel nineteen times and is studying scripture and cosmology. Michael is tall, quiet and friendly, with a deep, prophetorial beard. He says he’s devising a synthesis of the Old Testament and Einstein’s theory of relativity. He keeps himself busy working out prognostications for the future of mankind in the margins of a very large book.  Old Michael sleeps soundly, breathing quietly and sweetly, and there’s no snoring from the bunk below. Hope the same is true from me.

*****

The muezzin’s song wakes me at four, and it is the most beautiful call to prayer I have yet heard; passionate and classically restrained. I think to myself “he sounds so full of feeling and sincerity, this couldn’t be a recording, but I suppose it is.” The loudspeaker crackles and his sound bounces sharply around the stone towers of the city. His intonation and ornamentation are perfect, and this seems odd. I don’t hear the Arabic flattened notes. It is a pure, or Pythagorean scale. Other calls to prayer ring out in the distance. Together they weave sinuous polyphonies of yearning. If music is a sign, then the Muezzin’s call is to an infinite and mysterious God, and I feel the holy shiver of that. The singer finishes; his fingers fumble over the microphone, before the hollow “thunk” of the off switch, so it is no recording. I wonder if the sermons carry the same message as the song.

Alert and happy two hours before daybreak, I fix an instant coffee in the common room. I’m going to head out into the dark and find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Half an hour later I’m backtracking a shadowy maze of alleys trying to find the courtyard with the main entrance to the Church. I’m not expecting it to be open, and it’d be good to sit by the doorstep for a while before the inevitable morning bustle. Scrawny cats flee my footsteps down wet pitted paving stones smelling of vegetable wilt and sheep’s blood. Their scabby faces peek out from under empty produce carts. Passing from one vaulted alley to another I look up to see the white stone towers of the old city pulse bright and shrink into darkness as the black hand of cloud plays before the lunar lantern. Can this place be the centre of the universe?

I find the courtyard and the church, a shapeless pile of stone rearing out of the gloom. Its heavy, iron-shod door is open. The first mass is at five am. The interior seems vast in the darkness, chilly and still, with a jumble of dingy pews and chairs. Dusty Byzantine columns lie about waiting to be propped up again. In the arena under the dome sits an ornate wedding cake of a kiosk covering a chamber that was once a cave, the tomb of Jesus hacked apart by an enraged caliph a thousand years ago.

Armenian monks file in and start chanting in an alcove behind the sepulchre. An American Franciscan prepares to celebrate mass in front. It’s an odd heterophony; the priest’s bright Midwestern voice trilling around the altar while melancholy, stony melismas eddy heavily round the back of the tomb. I’m alone in the pews. The altar and the semicircle of wooden chairs before it guard a low arch leading to the tomb. Hidden by a curtain, its innards glow in lamplight.

Mass is over. The priest has packed up and gone. The chanting has stopped. I bend, kneel and crawl into the tunnel leading to the inner place. Glimmering in the buttery light of glass cups filled with oil, reflected in silver sconces and the silver frames of black icons, is a marble slab the size of a man, flat, pitted, glistening with generations of caresses, almost like a slab of marbled flesh in the soft halo of smoky light. How long has it covered the stone shelf that lies beneath? It’s preposterous and holy, and I won’t hinder the tears, which flow as I’m moved to bend and kiss the surface.

*****

It’s a cold grey day. I get chicken and chips for lunch in the cafe down the street from the hostel. I hear the temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, is closed but I’ll go and see if the news might be mistaken. Young soldiers turn me back. The platform is closed to all but Muslims. At some gates the soldiers say; “come back tomorrow”, at others, they say; “closed until the troubles are over.”

I speak to an Arab storekeeper on the empty, covered, Tariq Bab an Nazir, which leads up to the Dome of the Rock. He has three joints missing on his right hand, a sad smile and big accusing eyes; “yes, you all say you are sorry.” He thinks Arafat is no good. “Who is good?” I ask. “Hizbollah. They can make it good.” He adds, “Egypt, Mubarak, very bad man. Jordan? Jordan no good.”  I ask him what he thinks of Saddam Hussein. “He is good, sometimes I think so. . .” “Do you think Saddam Hussein is a good Muslim?” I ask. He pauses. “Sometimes I think no, sometimes I think yes.” He invites me to sit down, but I don’t feel sure enough to take this conversation further. Perhaps if I had the energy to discuss (or even argue) I might only make him sadder and angrier. So I offer my “sorry”, shake his chopped up hand, and move on. Then, enquiring about Roman signet rings, I speak to Khader, of Khader M. Baidon and Sons, antiquities dealer on the Via Dolorosa. The conversation takes the same path as the others I have ventured timidly onto. He is sad and resigned and bitter at Israel, the UN and the US.

There are a few Jews praying down by the wall on this overcast day. It’s quite a small section of wall really, not so broad or high as I’d imagined. An impressive old man sweeps past, robed in the pomp of cream brocade with a big cylindrical turban on his grey locks. He’s like an ancient Babylonian Exilarch surrounded by raven clad attendants. A few Hasids in black quilted coats enter the men’s enclosure to pray. A couple of them look deformed, with pink watery eyes and enlarged lower lips like the Hapsburg monarchs had. I saw many men in this condition when I lived in Brooklyn New York. What will two or three more generations of inbreeding do to them? Many Israelis refuse to mix with others not of their ‘kind’. It’s a fragmented society, and if the arguing were to stop there’d be more reason to worry. As the afternoon becomes evening the air sinks further into a chill and it begins to rain.

*****

Rallies erupt spontaneously all over the new city tonight, especially around Zion Square, due to Monday’s and today’s bombings. The orthodox are demonstrating outside the Knesset, and thousands of youths with flags and banners are singing and dancing, creating an exuberant party atmosphere in the blocked-off streets. The banners say “Barak, go home, before we have no home.” Everyone (of student age, that is) is revelling in the exhilaration of intense and memorable events.

I walk around the bars of Joel Salomon Street but don’t go in, and then find a solitary boulder in the Gan Ha’ Azmaret park. For a while I feel better. I’m never alone in a desolate spot. A few cats sniff the air and slink away. A drunken couple laugh it off down the hill under a lamp-lit tree. An Arab man wanders out of the darkness to talk, offers me a cigarette and sighs “where do you stay tonight?” I’m not talkative, and he floats back into the darkness. I’m alone for a couple of hours until it gets too cold to sit on a rock.

Back to the Jaffa gate, and as I pass under the floodlit citadel, I see this place for what it is: a city of religions, but not of faith. Has “Peaceful Zion” ever been more that an English daydream? Is this the black hole at the centre of our three coterminous universes? Every stone seems to curse the weight of the one above. Jesus had plenty of reasons to lose his temper here.

Under Herod’s turret and through Suleyman’s walls down the narrow stone streets taking me to my hostel bed. A large soft woman in a flowing robe is curled up on the rug in the TV room, reading. Her name’s Edith. The story is that she’s from San Francisco. She spent many years as a beach hippie down in Eliat on the Red Sea, then married an Israeli and had a son. After a while they separated. She then fell in love with and married a Palestinian. Legally it was bigamy, but her Arab husband and his family did not recognise the first marriage (to a Jew) as valid so it was fine with them. She became a Muslim, and then that marriage failed also. Her son was spirited away by her former Israeli relatives. She doesn’t say where the Palestinians are; maybe they’ve dumped her too. She lives at the Al Arab hostel, reading her Koran everyday, lonely and lost apart from her prayers.

The manager seems to have thrown in the towel. The Russian ghost is still here, furiously scribbling in ‘his’ study. He looks very pale, very hungry.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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