Tuesday, January 6, 2009

War? What war?

I caught my first horrifying glimpse of the Gaza conflict at around 8:30 last night. Exhausted by a long day spent hunting for the place where I was supposed to pick up my cell phone (the basement of an office tower in the post-industrial wastes of Givat Shmuel, as it happens), and, perhaps incongruously, studying Midrash (but more on this later...) I was, ominously enough, waiting for the bus on the corner of Herzog St. and...Gaza road. A few middle-aged types were chattering in Russian (with the animated smugness of a group of people convinced that no one could understand what they were saying); I was struggling to stay awake, and after ten minutes of wondering when and if the 19 would get around to picking me up I heard a veritable hurricane of sirens approaching the center of town. In the space of about 30 seconds there passed 15 police motorcycles, two SUVs, a Magen David Adom ambulance, and a single stretch limo with no license plate and thick, completely blackened and probably bulletproof windows. "Sarkozy," one of the Russians said. The bus showed up about a minute later.

Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of this self-indulgently paradoxical state of ours is that in Jerusalem--undoubtedly one of the most conflicted and divided cities on earth--you have to go actively hunting for evidence of conflict. For instance, I was having coffee at an Arab-owned cafe on the Via Dolorosa this morning, on the periphery of the Muslim quarter (note to caffeine addicts: the Moslem Quarter is home to the best coffee you'll probably ever have. Imagine Greek coffee loaded with cinnamon and you'll get a vague sense of what Arab coffee tastes like...) The TV was turned to Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting the predictable reel of burning buildings and dead Palestinian children, a routine with which the small group of Arab teenagers watching were apparently bored--a minute or two after sitting down, the owner and I were alone in the cafe. 

"This is very bad" he said after a few moments of watching me watch Al Jazeera. "What are they saying?" I asked, explaining that I didn't know Arabic. I'm not sure if he said "we killed three of them" or "they killed three of them," but it really doesn't matter: the badness apparently lay in the fact that three IDF soldiers had been killed, and not in the mountains of dead bodies that Al Jazeera so enthusiastically broadcasts. I took this to mean that the man was generally worried about the continuation of the war, a response that betrayed the shocking lack of partisanship even in the heavily-Arab sections of the Old City. Indeed, there were no more Israeli police in the Arab half of the Old City than there were when I was there a year ago, and the entrances to the Temple Mount were manned by the usual detachments of unoccupied, blue-clad mishtarah. "This is very bad" is no more trenchant a commentary on things than an offhanded "hey, how 'bout that war going on?" would have been--which is an attitude that epitomizes the passive, instinctive co-existence upon which any workable peace must be based, and which seemed to be holding just fine when I walked through the Muslim quarter at around 10 this morning...

As for what I was doing in the Muslim quarter: My next class isn't until Monday; Hebrew U doesn't begin until next Thursday, and I have a week of potential moonlighting as a tourist or backpacker between now and then. I am, in essence, without anything to do. And when I woke up I realized I hadn't laid eyes on the Old City since getting to Jerusalem two days earlier. I'd seen what could be called the worst of the New City: the crammed buses, the crowds squeezing their way down a now-truncated Jaffa Road (by the way, those who claim that Jews are the ones who have been the most severely victimized by Zionism are vindicated by the current state of the Jaffa Road. Right you are, Professor Massad: no Palestinian terrorist ever did as much damage to the New City's central thoroughfare than the proposed Jerusalem lightrail, which has turned the once-proud avenue into a disemboweled one-way street. I remember seeing the "Coming Soon: Jerusalem Lightrail" signs outside the central bus station when I was in Israel a year ago; naturally my first thoughts were "Sure. Lightrail. This is Israel. Who the fuck are they kidding?" Well children, if you will it...), the long distances that usually have a hill or two thrown in, for spite it seems. It felt wrong to have been in Jerusalem for two days without at least dropping by the Western Wall, or seeking out the isolated corners of the Old City I hadn't seen yet. Or getting a cup of Arab coffee, for that matter.

I spent a couple hours wandering the Old City, and the place is every bit the noir-ish, literary backdrop come to life I remember it being. This is one of those places that I'll never process as being completely real, or really as anything other than a kind of socio-historical play-theatre--hey, there's a Crusader church, you think to yourself. Or a Roman street, or a Mamluke palace, or a medieval synagogue. It's useless mental acrobatics to arrive at some satisfactory reflection on how just how all that stuff got there; to shoulder the crushing intellectual weight of socio-historical reality rather than accepting the odd, better yet ineffable coincidence of its all being there. Of course, when something becomes inexplicable it also becomes unreal--because there is, I'm convinced, no such thing as inexplicability, inexplicability being a much-too-convenient recourse for those who'd rather gawk at history than be deeply involved or even troubled by it--which is my typical attitude when faced with the churches, mosques, palaces and synagogues that clot every level of the mound-like Old City.

Today--during the couple free hours I had before a talk at the Yeshiva I wanted to go to (more on this in another post, hopefully...) I went in search of the Mamluke architecture hiding out in the alleyways of the Moslem and Christian quarters. Much of the Old City's classical Moslem architecture--much of it dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, and some of it dating from earlier--has been horribly neglected, and on the inevitable day (sometime in the next 15 years, hopefully) that Jerusalem is partitioned, there will hopefully be some kind of Arab-Israeli effort to save as much of it as possible. That's just the kind of cooperative effort that could make partition less of a bitter pill to swallow--for both parties...

...I was gonna upload pictures, 'cept that I unpacked my backpack in preparation for a 5-day jaunt up north and left my USB cable back in the apartment. So expect a week-and-a-half's worth of pics next Sunday or Monday; of Jerusalem, Warsaw (definitely more on that later), and hopefully Haifa, Akko and wherever else I find myself between now and next Sunday. Meanwhile, see if you can make sense of what must be strangest Haaretz article since the start of the Gaza offensive... 

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