Thursday, November 13, 2014


There was an awkward moment one afternoon this fall when my friend Savannah asked me, "So, have you been to Jerusalem?"  I took a quick surprised breath and held it, my mind instantly accessing smells and sounds of one of the most amazing places I've ever been - and then realized that she was talking about a new local restaurant, and released it all in a puff. Gone.

I went to Jerusalem with my parents when I was seventeen and what I knew about it then would have all come from Sunday School; somehow, for all of the international living I had done, I was not very up on my current events.  It is embarrassing to say this now, but I was naive enough to wear my red and white checkered kaffiyeh on the airplane, which got me pulled aside and questioned apart from my parents for an uncomfortably long time.  I understand now that I would have fit the profile of a PLO sympathizer, which is to say I was young and energetic, it was the 1980's, and I was traveling to the Middle East.

My visit that year was filled with sensory experiences: smelling the suqs, the mixtures of spices in open barrels and baskets, the mixture of humans, hearing the wide variety of sounds, the shopkeepers, the imam's call to prayer, the music winding out of shops into the narrow streets.  I remember Armenian pizza and the hummous against which all other hummous will be judged. I was also a senior in highschool and it was a challenging time for my family; my memories of those days are mostly vivid, flashes of color and light - a rooftop meal, rows and rows of scarves, the ride through stark desert to Jericho - and being so self-absorbed, I don't think I went home with any better understanding or impression of what life might have been like for someone living in Jerusalem. But I remembered the smells.

Fast forward twenty-six years, and standing on the top of the Austrian Hospice, near the Damascus gate in the old city of Jerusalem, the smells have not changed.  There is a busy intersection of streets in front of the hotel, and a minaret directly outside our bedroom window.  I have that cocktail of feelings that is equal parts excitement, joy, and deep sadness.  I cannot believe I am here again, that I am so fortunate to return to such a place; every particle of what I see, hear and smell brings me to life and I feel such contentment.

The sadness is how I experience most happy things in my life: I know I will feel your absence so much more for how happy being with you makes me.  Your presence represents your absence.  I know - can I just say that it runs in the family, just a bit? The sadness comes from knowing how short my time here is.  How can I leave a place that has so much life in its walls?

This trip also is buzzing with information that is new to me.  I spent the previous nine months reading as much as I could about "the situation" in Israel and Palestine, and as with most things, the things I know illuminate how much I can't possibly know, but my experience this time around goes so much deeper than my senses.  Now when I look at someone I want to know where they stand, what their story is, what are their struggles and their hopes for this place.  I can't get enough of the stories, from our guide, from our driver, from the women we've come to meet, from the women who have travelled here before. I try to situate myself on the bus near the women who I know will want to talk about it all with me, who will indulge my need to process everything, to ask questions or feel my feelings.

Our guides on this trip - two women who have been here many times before - have crafted an amazing experience for us.  They are aware of how much new information we are taking in, not just with our minds but experientially.  We tour so many churches and ruins that we laugh about how on the next trip they should issue temporary tattoos of the timeline of conquerors, represented clearly in the levels of stone built upon stone: Canaanite, Israelite, Babylonian Exile, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Early Muslim, Crusaders, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, State of Israel...Imagine, 3300 BCE to 1948 on the inside of my forearm for easy referencing.  We experience Hebron together for the first time, and they are careful to balance what they know will be an intense day in the middle of a Palestinian city pockmarked with Israeli settlements (they didn't know how intense) with a visit to a beautiful glass and ceramics factory.  Our day ends in a restaurant straight out of a movie, with tables full of baba ganoush, dishes of olives, baskets of pita bread, tabouleh, hummous, dolmas, Cremisan wine.  We have a chance to laugh at each other, trying the "hubbly bubbly", and it brings some balance to the horrors of the morning.

Our visit to the Wailing Wall of the Temple Mount is intense.  On a sensory level, it is unsettling after wandering the narrow streets and covered markets to enter such an open, vulnerable place as the square next to the wall.  I feel exposed and aware of the soldiers roaming everywhere.  One has to go through metal detectors and have passports at the ready before entering the area, which feels invasive and heightens the sense of vulnerability.  After all we've seen and heard on our trip, it is overwhelming to be standing in this place, the wall of the old temple.  How many people have prayed here? What does it mean that people still come from all over the world to place their hands on this wall and pray, whispering, crying, spending their brief moment touching the stone with their eyes closed before being gently pushed aside for the next wave of visitors?

From there we continue up to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The atmosphere is light - there are children playing ball, and several picnics scattered around the wide, park-like space.  

at the Al-Aqsa Mosque

One night in Jerusalem we have had a wonderful evening with Dalia Landau, the subject of the book The Lemon Tree.  It has been another full, emotional day, and by 10:30 most of us are in bed.   I am getting ready for bed, but can hear some commotion in the street below our window.  We have ornate grates on our windows, which are beautiful, but I am frustrated to not be able to open the window and look down to see what is going on.  Finally, I can't stand it, and as my mother reaches to put down her book and turn off the light, she notices that I am jamming my legs back into the pants I wore all day, and am fumbling for my shoes.  She knows I'm as tired as she is, and she's worried about me wandering out into the streets alone but I say, "Mom! I was an anthropology major! It's killing me sitting inside while there is something going on out there with all these people!!" I don't have to go far.  Leaning over the garden wall I can see a congregation of Ethiopian Orthodox, drumming, dancing, singing.  (It is close to 11:00 at night, and there is also a jack-hammer pounding away next to the jubilation!)

My brain is expanding so quickly, and my understanding.  I hold just the smallest thread of the story, wrapped around my palm and now when I think about Jerusalem - even when I visit the little hole-in-the-wall with this mighty name - there is so much that floods my mind.  The orthodox men, in their black hats and long coats, passing brightly clothed Muslim women with headscarves; the young Ethiopian men greeting each other by bumping shoulders, a sort of full-body high-five; the illusion that Jerusalem is a city that teems with peaceful diversity, shared by people with deep faith.  I see the young - they are so young - Israeli soldiers clustered on the rooftops, machine guns in their laps, always watching.  I know that while there is deep faith, there is also deep division, though the celebratory atmosphere of Orthodox Easter makes it seem that all is lively and well for the moment.

It has been a year and a half since we took this trip, and I'm still processing so much about it.  For other posts about this trip and a list of books and movies, please visit this page: Stories about Palestine.

This post is another in my attempt to paper November with my writing and photos!


Kerry said...

Wonderful, vivid post. I hope the memories never fade, that this trip you & your mom made together will live in your head forever.

merry said...

YES! YES! YES! This is where my whole body has been this past week following the conference last weekend, eating hummous and tabuli and pita and special chicken ala Nazareth. And I just posted to Ali Abuminah of EI about what we experienced in Hebron! Our minds are in sync once again!! And I still love your pictures! They bring the smells and the sounds back so clearly. I've got to make sure Nancy and Bonnie read this!!

Sukayna said...

I am living in southern Lebanon, with our three unschooled daughters. I am so happy you have fond memories of this area, its history and culture. Sadly, many people will never know how beautiful and intricate life here is.....either through lack of caring or simply being unable to make the journey. The region is seriously so much more than hummos, baba ghannouch, unending wars etc. Thank you for pointing that out, in a very gentle way. I hope you can visit our side of the border one day!

slim pickins said...

Thank you for taking the time to leave me a note, Sukayna! I would love to know more about your life there in Lebanon. I hope to get back to the middle east some day; it is so hard to describe to people here how beautiful and rich the diverse cultures there are.