Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Jerusalem |
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Postcard from Jerusalem

As the BA Tristar Stargazer Rose passed over the island of Rhodes and started the let-down into Tel Aviv, the late afternoon sky and sea shaded into each other with no horizon. So much haze suggested a lot of heat down there. The flat sea broke into a surf of white buildings. Ben-Gurion airport was half-full of commercial jets. It was also half-full of military transports: C-130s like the Entebbe raiders and rows of Dakotas harking back to the old gun-running days before the state of Israel officially existed. Planes from different wars, they looked the same age in the hot air.

Beside the road to Jerusalem after sunset, the spines and carapaces of buses and armoured cars, painted with red lead and left there as memorials, looked ageless in the headlights of four lanes of traffic. In 1948 there was a single carriageway or even less and some of the bus convoys never got through. In 1988 the trip takes less than an hour by shared Mercedes taxi and the biggest risk you run is of being driven mad by the news programmes on the car radio. If the language is not Arabic then it is Hebrew plus static. The two tongues sound roughly the same if you don’t understand them.

The American Colony hotel is in the eastern, ergo Arab, part of the city. My ambitions being those of a tourist rather than a foreign correspondent, I had figured out that in the event of a sudden war with Syria, Jewish terrorists would be less likely to blow up an Arab hotel than Arab terrorists to below up a Jewish one. I was determined not to let history ruin my holiday. Besides, the American Colony is easy on the eye, with a fountain splashing in the flower-filled stone courtyard and cool rooms with domed ceilings ensuring sound sleep until a few hours past midnight, whereupon the mosque next door wakes up the faithful for prayer, and the unfaithful along with them.

The mosque has a minaret but no visible muezzin. Instead it has a loudspeaker system that sounds like a concrete mixer rigged to play very old Leonard Cohen records. Actually the broadcast material is a cassette of selected passages from the Koran, but unless you are a Muslim already the noise won’t make you feel any more kindly towards Islam, so when day finally dawned I headed downhill towards the Old City determined to do Christianity, my old outfit, first. Islam could come next and Judaism last, it being, so to speak, the home team.

Just around the corner from the American Colony, the whole area of the Mandelbaum Gate is still pocked with bullet holes, reminding you of how much metal the two components of the populace are capable of flinging at each other during times of stress. People on the streets either were Israeli soldiers or weren’t, in about equal proportion. The average soldier seemed barely post-pubescent but was made less laughable by a slung machine pistol or an M-16. Looking as much like a tourist as possible — the trick is to read map and guidebook simultaneously, while checking all street signs and regularly holding up a wet finger to establish the direction of the wind — I arrived at the Damascus Gate and plunged into the souk, the legendary Arab market where it is possible to obtain spices, nuts, dates, dark glasses and Dallas T-shirts.

Acquiring a sun hat for a price which left the man who sold it to me laughing in disbelief that I had agreed without haggling, I found my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the actual site, according to a revelation vouchsafed the saintly Empress Helena, of Our Redeemer’s crucifixion and entombment. Golgotha is a rock sticking up through a split-level chapel to the right of the doorway. The tomb is under the rotunda and inside the Aedicule, a marble launch vehicle with a small, low doorway at which it is necessary to queue while waiting for the maximum four people within to get over their sense of wonderment.

The four people ahead of me were Japanese, with the appropriate photographic equipment. They were inside for a long time and seemed to have generated an electrical storm, or possibly a small nuclear chain reaction. Then they came out stern first. This might have meant that they were Buddhists, but after going in there myself I concluded that they had merely been Christians with bad backs. It is a tight fit in the Holy Sepulchre and the arrayed silverware is not much compensation. The experience registered zero on my holiness meter but perhaps I was beyond redemption.

From the Holy Sepulchre I went out of the Old City through the Lions’ Gate and across the Valley of Kidron to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the kiosk selling soft drinks at least has the merit of not claiming to be on the actual site of Christ’s arrest, merely near it. After downing several tins of the Israeli version of Coca Cola — it calls itself just Cola but even that’s putting it a bit high — I went up into the Mount of Olives, and thus reached the conclusion that if Jesus ever did the same he must have had strong legs. It is a near-vertical climb with few stopping places that aren’t already occupied by goats, but when you look back across the valley you get some idea of why Royal David’s city should have received so much media coverage in history both ancient and modern. In a landscape shaped by the Creator with a blowtorch out of hot rock, the position of the city is the one unmistakable offering to Man. The onlooker’s whole instinct, as his brain curdles under the noon sun, is to get inside and worship in any form that involves having a drink.

That night in the hotel I got into training for my first encounter with Islam by watching a belly-dancer circumnavigate the swimming pool to the adder-lulling rhythms of a Palestinian pick-up band with amplified guitars. When she pinched the thumb and forefinger of her extended right hand together it started a ripple which set off a spasm in her left hip after crossing her chest like a mule-train through mountains. She was dynamite. She was also, I discovered after tucking a 500-shekel note into her bejewelled waistband, a Jewish girl who works every major hotel in the Middle East for a three-month season and then goes back to Los Angeles to run a workout studio. Pondering the mystery of existence, I was played to bed by the Koran cassette and fell asleep just in time to be woken up by it again in the darkness before dawn.

Back in the souk next day, I turned left past a merchant selling carpets printed with the image of Elvis Presley, had my bag checked by teenage Israeli soldiers at the entrance to Temple Mount, and stood suitably dazzled by the Dome of the Rock itself, the Qubbat al Sakhra. ‘Where are we?’ asked an American pointing a Panasonic minicam at the golden cupola. ‘We’re at the Rock of the Dome,’ said his wife. Their attached name-tags proclaimed them to be members of the Samuel Group from Minneapolis. A guide told them about the Temple Mount. ‘This platform was built artificially by Herod the Great.’ ‘By Harold the who?’ asked the man with the minicam, pointing it at the guide. ‘Herod. King Herod,’ said his wife, taking a photograph of her husband with an Instamatic.

Feeling that my spiritual communion with Islam was being distorted by Western influence, I took off my shoes and entered the Dome, which isn’t bad as domes go. The strict, Byzantine geometry of squares within circles comes as a relief after the eclectic shambles of the Holy Sepulchre, and lines from the Koran look far more beautiful incorporated into the scarlet and gold mosaic of the inner cupola’s roof than they sound on a clapped-out tape-recorder in the middle of the night.

One of the main reasons why the place was originally built was to impress the infidel and in the case of this infidel it worked. The other main reason was to provide a sufficiently grand shelter for the eponymous Rock, which, fenced off in the centre of the building, still protrudes at the same angle as it did when the Prophet departed from it on his Night Journey to Paradise. As opposed to the founder of Christianity, who ascended vertically like a Harrier, the founder of Islam needed a take-off ramp. There must have been a lot of air traffic over Jerusalem in the old days but presumably the departure times were staggered to avoid the risk of collision.

After sleeping at the hotel through the middle of the day, I was galvanised by the mosque clearing its throat and headed back into the souk, to be greeted from dark doorways by that strange, ululating cry which means ‘Here he comes again! The man who will pay anything!’ Stopping only to consult my maps and guidebooks, I zig-zagged towards that corner of the city which held the Jewish Quarter until the Arabs captured in1948, whereupon the centres of devotion were flattened.

When the ruined area was retaken during the Six Day War, the Western Wall was taken along with it. To this, the holiest place of Judaism, I now found my way, hoping that it would at least provide, in contrast to the stereo minarets, a modicum of reverent silence. This proved not to be the case. What it provided was reverent uproar.

Against the gigantic and precisely fitted stones of the old temple platform, the Jews have been praying since 1967 in the attempt to make up for the years they were denied access. The men get the lion’s share of the wall. The women must look on, but a gentile male needs only to have his bag checked and he may wander at will among the varieties of Jewish religious experience. Ancient Hasidim on little chairs sit so tightly against the wall that the brims of their black hats curl upwards at the front against the stones. The characters with the phylacteries on their foreheads are presumably even more orthodox, although if you didn’t know that the little black box contained a slip of parchment you might think it was a battery pack. As the visitor ambulates past the praying backs from the open stretch of wall to the further stretch under Wilson’s Arch, he must step carefully in order not to be bowled over by the bar mitzvah processions that pass at the trot every few minutes to and from the subterranean synagogue.

Most of the little boys being turned into men wear a yarmulka no more elaborate than a floppy Frisbee and are thus outclassed for exotic flair by those young Hasidic devotees whose ancestry lies so far to the East that their unblemished oval faces, framed by unshorn locks, glow like Modigliani odalisques. Have they got sisters? As if reading my profane thoughts, an old man in full kit — hat, coat, book, beard — turns and looks at me accusingly every few seconds. But when I move aside he still turns rhythmically to look at the same spot. It is part of the routine. Whether he is expressing a personal quirk, or faithfully reproducing a special convention of prayer which was all his persecuted forbears had to call their own in some famine-racked Pale of Settlement shtetl, the onlooker would be unwise to guess. What the onlooker can’t miss is the fervour. The Wall unites the various degrees and forms of Jewish orthodoxy into a single, throbbing hosanna.

Whether they can ever again be united away from the Prayer Place is another, and perhaps more serious, question. In secular Israel, State and synagogue are supposed to be separate, with the former providing enough dissension to be going on with. Internal religious quarrels were never on the programme, but hindsight reveals that they were inherent in a creed which places so much emphasis on the observance of the rules. The returning diaspora brought several different versions of the rules home. In the Russian Colony at noon on the Sabbath, I saw a man in a white kaftan and a climatically inadvisable fur sombrero shouting at passing cars. Apparently the only remarkable aspect of this behaviour was that he was not throwing rocks at them — standard practice in certain districts, which knowledgeable drivers avoid on Saturdays, and for most of Friday evening just to make certain.

The most integrated of these districts — almost, dare one say it, a ghetto — is Mea Shearim, meaning a hundred gates. In a few streets on the old border with Jordan, ten thousand Hasidim live in dedicated aloofness. The children look enchanting in white lace caps and the serene women in chaste peasant garb have a humbling charm, yet the men in full ultra-orthodox clobber plainly mean heavy spiritual business seven days a week.

Trinkets are on sale to tourists but there is no mistaking the fact that prayer is the principal manufacture. Visitors are told in advance not to disturb the mood. request and warning to women visiting our vicinity: not to appear in our vicinity in short garments (not covering the knee) in short sleeved clothes (not covering the arm). the torah obliges to dress in modest attire that covers the entire body. we do not tolerate people passing through out streets immodestly dressed or mixed groups passing by together in male and female company.

Such signs are hung above the street like parade banners. Watching a tiny man with unshorn locks, a long beard and at least three layers of black clothing inch past doubled up under the weight of an old Westinghouse refrigerator, I couldn’t help feeling that the fear of defilement was being overdone. But a certain measure of hortatory self-assertion is understandable after a millennium of insecurity.

In sharp contrast to the way things were where the community originated, the Mea Shearim people cause the Government trouble rather than vice versa. Also they do it mainly by keeping themselves to themselves. In other parts of the city, even more orthodox groups browbeat the neighbours. During my stay, the merely orthodox residents of one district were complaining that if the ultras took over the filling station on the corner, no wheeled vehicle would be allowed to move unless drawn by a mule. Nothing so menacing from the Mea Shearimites. Any woman visitor dressed as a Carmelite nun in a gas-mask would be safe from attack as long as she didn’t accidentally stand near a man. The district exudes the unworldly reassurance of the cloister, if only because it is one of the few places on Earth where you will have difficulty encountering a child in a J.R. Ewing T-shirt.

But Eretz Israel was conceived in the kibbutz, not in the synagogue, and the diaspora didn’t come home to be more holy, it came home to stay alive. Most of the founding Zionists, the ones who built up the country so that it could receive the mass influx when it arrived, were socialists from the Ukraine and White Russia who thought religion was on its way out of history. Some of the present-day Hasidim, on the other hand, are as anti-Zionist as Yasser Arafat, believing that deliverance can come only from the Messiah, and that Hebrew should not be spoken, only read. Such divergences could never have been pulled together even by the powerful beauty of the Torah. They were fused together, in the crucible of the Holocaust.

The secret of what made Israel into the last nation state is at Yad Vashem, on a hill outside the city. Like many building projects in Israel, Yad Vashem is bunker architecture, but in this case there was never better cause for showing the world a blank face. The Memorial Hall with its Eternal Flame is not as imaginative as Tel Aviv’s splendid Museum of the Diaspora with its column of light, but it is still one of the world’s only appropriate exercises in brutalist ribbed concrete. The roof weighs down on its thin rim of sunlight, the names of the extermination camps are spaced across the unyielding floor like a constellation of dark stars, and birds (on tape, like a muezzin’s cry) sing in the eaves as if one and a half million children had grown up to hear them, instead of vanishing into the smoke.

Whether all the young soldiers who have been brought here on the eve of battle were touched to the quick I don’t know, but I can well believe it. My own imagination was unstirred, having been stirred to its limit by this disaster long before, or so I thought. But in the art gallery next door I was unmanned all over again, by one of the last works of Jacob Lifschitz in the Kovno ghetto, a drawing of a little girl. He drew her as if she were the meaning of life about to be subtracted from the world. Lifschitz perished in Dachau in 1944. Like nearly all the six million, he considered himself a citizen of the country in which he was born, with Palestine far away and the state of Israel not even a dream.

Hitler made the dream come true. He set out to kill a race and ended by creating a State. Everyone got the point except the Arab nations, who, by belittling the magnitude of a historical tragedy, and continually threatening death to a people which believes such words when it hears them spoken, ensured both the expansion of Israel and a steady worsening of the Palestinian population’s already desperate fix. 

The visitor needn’t leave Jerusalem to see what the refugees lost. Deir Yassin is within the precincts of the modern city. It is not meant to be a monument — there is no signboard to tell you what its name is or what happened there — but the valley of empty houses would make anyone wonder where the people went. The answer is that the lucky ones fled, and the unlucky ones were butchered by the Irgun. The leader of the Irgun at the time is the Prime Minister of Israel today.

Floating in the Dead Sea near where the Scrolls were found — they are full of thrilling messages about the need to send back the empty asses after the olive oil has been delivered — I was glad that the Middle East question was not mine to answer, since I was busy trying not to yell with pain from the amount of salt in my eyes, which I had been told to keep shut when I dived in, but had opened at the shock of bobbing to the surface like a suddenly inflated life-raft.

The salt gets into every orifice, but once used to the feeling of having been sodomised by a conical container of Cerebos I lay there as if on a hot, wet mattress and tried to take some comfort from the fact that with regard to the Middle East there is no advice which anyone of even vaguely British extraction can decently give, so there is no point getting into a sweat. If the British are not hated in Israel, it is for one reason only — that they made Israel possible, and out of altruism, not self-interest. The Balfour Declaration was the work of men who saw the need to redress a historic wrong, and their generosity is made no less admirable by the fact that it helped to create another one, which it will be for the Israelis to set right, as one day they must.

On that score Mr Begin needed no advice from a tourist. I spent most of my last night in the American Colony standing under the shower looking like Lot’s wife but the chances were that the Prime Minister was awake too. The best and the brightest of Israeli youth had been camped every night outside his house demanding an explanation of the Lebanon adventure. Some of his colleagues were camped out there also, protesting against the protestors. The argument was keeping the neighbours awake like a mosque with a looped tape.

The minaret’s pre-dawn gargle faded behind me as I went back in a shared taxi down the road to Tel Aviv past the fossilised convoys and the old Sherman tank on its plinth. At the airport security counter they made the Hasidic rabbi ahead of me open his suitcase. It held three more outfits the same as the one he had on. Then the Tristar took me back to the nice safe life that permits the luxury of laughing at the world.

— August 14, 1983