Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Jerusalem Part I: Adventures Along The Via Del Crap

Another dispatch from Israel from a friend who is traveling there.

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Saturday June 26th, 2005.

Jerusalem, the capital of the Israeli state and ground zero of both its appeal and its georeligious conflict, simultaneously lives up to expectations and confounds them. Jerusalem, like Florence or the Napa Valley, is preposterously scenic. Leaving the humid crowds of Tel Aviv, where one assumes that the British spent as much time fighting cholera as they did the Irgun, you ascend 1500 steady feet into rocky hills and ridges that are capped by the city itself. On the way, pine forests and stony fields are partitioned by olive groves and the odd vineyard.

Most every building in the city is covered in a pallid, not quite marble-like cladding, Jerusalem stone, that makes the city architecturally cohesive -- one of many contrasts to Tel Aviv. The use of Jerusalem stone was mandated by the city's former British masters, whom one suspects loved the city more than most Jerusalmites. (The Brits, however, would be chagrined to learn that Jerusalem's Arabs have improved upon simple black tea. Drenching sugar and mint in simple Lipton makes an amazingly refreshing drink, even on a hot day.) The city's uniform architecture helps lend the place a bit of a mythic quality, especially since no one who doesn't have to covers everyday buildings in stone anymore. It's also uniquely elemental -- the stone takes on a blazing, reflective glare at noon and a Homeric, pinkish-hue at dawn and dusk.

Jerusalem's Old City, with its Armenian, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian quarters, is where all the real action is and represents the most contested real estate (fine, at least outside of Manhattan) in the Western universe. Our extremely perky guide, a nice Jewish girl with an aqua-colored brocade skullcap, nose ring, and hot pink pedal pushers nearly stranded us, nineteen clueless Americans, smack dab at one of the few entrances to the Temple Mount immediately before the human tidal wave that precedes the Friday sermon -- the Muslim equivalent to fixin' to go to church time. After an excessive amount of gesturing by some itchy Israeli guards and a tantalizing look into the compound that contains the al-Aqsa mosque and the gold covered Dome of the Rock (collectively Islam's third holiest site, except for the third Thursday of the month when felafel at Joe's Shwarma Shack goes two-for-one) we navigated our way through the Muslim Quarter.

The Muslim Quarter is a place of legend within a place of legend and possibly one of the one places a gaijin like me could ever hope to living in a real life Sinbad tale. Traders used to -- and still do -- descend upon the Quarter's market, or souk, to buy and sell their various sundries. The souk is still there, and it does indeed contain wonders. Men carry massive trays of fresh bread whose smell wafts towards you and mixes with both the aroma of cooked meat and the crisp smell of incandescently fresh vegetables. Narrow stalls offer bright bins of cinnamon, green tea, curry, and cardamon. There is also a fantastic amount of crap.

Once the Israelis and Palestinians figure out their differences, I have no doubt of Jerusalem's Muslims ability to tap into the power of globalization, for nowhere have I seen such a river of schlock aimed squarely at tourists -- apparently the more Christian the better. The Muslim Quarter is the world epicenter of the plastic Jesus, the Virgin Mary Magic Marker, "real Jerusalem dirt," and prayer beads more suited to a day at Mardi Gras drinking hurricanes spiked with LSD than to the Epiphany of St. Festus. The 'Quarter also sports more than its share of garbage strewn on the streets and public urination, which seems to be a local sport. Surely the Most Merciful and Compassionate did not challenge Sinbad's smell receptors thus?

This river of commercial treacle flows uphill -- almost miraculously -- along the Via Dolorosa, the route the Christ trudged with his Cross towards his ultimate crucifixion. I'm sure the J-Man had to fend off a mob on ankle biters selling film, postcards, and purple Fanta although I hope He was spared -- unlike me -- his portrait skillfully rendered on black velvet. (Note to travelers: If you learn any Arabic in your life, make sure you master the forceful delivery of the term "imshi!", which seems to be a combination of "Beat It!" and "Don't Make Me Come Back There!")

Interestingly, the Muslim Quarter is slowly being colonized by religious Jews, who are taking to heart the command to inhabit as much of the Old City as possible, to the point of paying fabulous sums to the former Muslim owners for what amounts to a rotting hulk of stone. Ariel Sharon, certainly no lover of Muslims, owns such a house unsurprisingly festooned with enough flags and blue bunting to outfit a nice sized parade. That this practice -- where Muslim and Arab landowners sell out to Jews hell bent on reclaiming what (they think) History says is theirs -- mirrors the way both sides originally got into the current fix, seems to bother neither side at all. But of course more than they buyers and sellers of houses lay claim to this city, which may end up being a problem with absolutely no solution.

The best example of Jerusalem's parochial insanity is brought to you by the Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Holy Sepulchre is built on top of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was executed, and also encompasses the site of his former tomb, conveniently excavated now for your viewing pleasure. Built piecemeal during the Crusader and Byzantine periods, the Church sprawls on top of the hill and offers an array of nooks, naves, crannies, and chapels that would make an Indiana Jones movie proud. It's also falling down, owing to the division of sects; Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Abyssinian (that's Ethiopian to you), all charged with its upkeep. Upkeep, however, implies ownership and none of the sects will tolerate any of the other getting the upper hand. The Russians, as a result, have resorted to propping up the walls of their chapel with steel I-beams while the Armenians and Greeks are currently engaged in a glacier-paced battle over the removal of a ladder perched over the main entrance that has only rested there for the past seventy years or so.

This madness is so complete that it falls to one of Jerusalem's prominent Muslim citizens to open the joint in the morning and close it at night. No doubt the old geezer's eyes have permanently rolled into his esophagus after trudging out his door in his robe and slippers every morning for lord knows how long (you can certainly take revenge with you, however, as he gets to pass the honor along to his sons). I just hope that somewhere Muhammad is getting a good chuckle over the whole thing. For all our faults, we Americans would have never let this one come about -- it would have been settled with a bake sale or a game of touch football long ago.

Next stop, Jerusalem Part II: "Jerusalem Is People!!!"

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