Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Conversations from the Holy Land: Jesus was a Hunk

Break for a conversation:

At an art gallery in Jerusalem, I am captivated by a statue of Jesus wrought in jagged, black metal. It’s an angry Jesus, frustrated, his eyes, lids heavy with disappointment. And resignation, he will always know too much, be haunted by his prescience, misunderstood by those who claim to be his friends.

Next to me, gazing at the sculpture, is a pretty girl, a bit younger than I am – maybe 18. She looks as if she's in a quandary. Biting her lip, deep in thought. She turns to me, and asks tentatively if I am Jewish.

We chat. She is here with a youth group, I tell her a little about my trip. And when I confirm that I am Jewish, she asks,

“What does the Jewish god look like?”

I take this to be a serious theological question.
“Well, Genesis says that God made humankind in his image. So that could be mean that there’s a god that looks very much like you or I somewhere, or you could take that to mean something more symbolic – in his image, like with his complexity, or with his ability to create,” – I’m riffing with my limited knowledge.

“Jesus was a hunk,” she says.

In her hand is a post-card of a blonde, beatific Jesus that she seems to be comparing to the more slender, Sephardic-faced interpretation in the gallery. In her post-card, Jesus is rather athletic looking beneath his loose white robe. Very quarterback-esque. I have not seen anyone who looks quite like that Jesus around here.

“Jesus was probably not a hunk, I say with holy condescension. Jesus was probably starving and really skinny.”
“He wasn’t starving, he had a big meal at the last supper. And people gave him food all the time when he was walking around preaching and suntanned. He had to have been good looking to get such a following. At first, you know before they realized he had something important to say. At first he was just good looking. Like Ronald Reagan.”
“I don’t know,” I counter, “The Jewish people are into this guy the Messiach now, and he is definitely not a stud."
“But the Jewish people didn’t follow Jesus. Maybe they only follow ugly people.”
“Yes, I say, maybe they killed Jesus because they were jealous of his good looks.”
“The Jews are a jealous people,” she says, “always wanting what others have – just look at Israel.”

Repelled and delighted, I want to take this girl with me on my travels, in order to have the constant benefit of her insight.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Scaredy Cat Lost in the Holy Land, Part One

The Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem. I’d been told not to go. The Israeli’s that I talked to eschewed the area, exercising a long-cultivated mistrust of the people there. It was implied that I wouldn’t be welcome, that it was dangerous, and already I was developing a tickling fear, the spoiling bias of us and them.

The Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter, is a maw of stone. But there is little to fear in the currency exchange booth that stands center. Nor in the stalls of cheap belts, cell phones, and men’s underwear and or even in the corridor packed, sweaty and dim. If you have money to spend, then you’re welcome. The danger, as I discovered, is artful, woven into the price of the rugs and disguised by the ingratiating smiles of the weary locals.

It would be misleading not to adopt the Israeli terminology – Arab (which here includes those merchants in the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem and in the Arab-Israeli cities of Bethany, or in Bethlehem, Jericho, Nabulus or Ramallah in the West Bank). It’s important not to mask the distinction with political correctness – as I came to understand for both Israelis and Arab-Israelis, this word is a checkpoint to prejudice on both sides.

The labyrinth of Old Jerusalem forks and twists, tightening its tendril alleys around innocent visitors. The market corridors are breathless spaces, spilling over with quotidian goods for the locals packed into the apartments above, and cheap tourist trinkets that vary little from stall to stall. Most shops are many-denominational in their wares – chintzy crucifixes, and tallith that hang from the walls with the rugs. Merchants are quick to gauge your persuasion and hock accordingly. Hookahs crowd the floors, ones as tall as my shoulder, copper tea and coffee sets are polished raw, and strange papery dresses hang stiffly from the ceiling, shifting in the rare breeze.

For awhile, I stood to the side, watching women and their young daughters scour through piles of headscarves, children’s backpacks and racks of the all-covering smock-like coats, popular among the observant. While I never saw a female merchant, the women were not shy about interacting with men. Shaking the goods in the shopkeepers’ faces, flinging them down with distaste, stomping off, scowling back.

Not what I expected. A mall. Next to the prison where Jesus was kept. A mall stretching to the Kotel, surrounding the Dome of the Rock, the monasteries, and yeshivas, and ancient mosques – this holy place. Where desperate supplicants plead for help, and the devout prostrate themselves on the rocks where Jesus bled. This is no cathedral. No hollow, muffled place where people trip along the edges hesitant and attentive, make their peace and go. People live here, loudly in all the mess and meanness of survival. Reverence when you find it is frenzied and raw. And yet, beyond the malls, tucked into the quiet, residential alleys are schools and daycares and hidden places of worship. I could turn a corner and find myself in an empty stone alley echoing with the call to prayer.

Someone could loose their sanity here, I think.

Lonely Planet in hand, it's my goal to follow the Six Stations of the Cross – the path Jesus took to his crucifixion – later dramatized with glee to a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar, which I watched in preparation for this trip. The monks trudge this path on their knees every Friday and I had gotten up early to follow them but, it turns out I was actually there on a Sunday and this is where the confusion began. I had misplaced two days in the timeless limbo of traveling.

He was standing under one of the few street signs marking the Villa De La Rosa, sweating in the shade. There was nothing interesting about him. No warning signs. A clean polo shirt and jeans – tourist friendly apparel - a professional. Later I would know to look for the security badges that mark the official guides – he didn’t have one.

“Girl! Pretty girl! Miss! Looking for the Stations of the Cross! Miss!” It only takes a moment’s hesitation, a pause in your step, an instant of accidental eye contact, a sigh. Then they’re on you. Merchants and would be tour guides, anyone out for a dime, they have honed the skill of reading weakness. They are practiced tradesmen. I don’t just say this poetically, these guys have it figured out.

“I can see you are lost, why you ignore me?” he demands, “I can help.”
“I uh.”
“No it’s fine. I will take you to the Stations, you want to see, yes?”
“We just go up there.” He points into a mess of people, in the direction I just came. “Stations impossible to find. No signs, this place.”
This lack of signage I have discovered for myself.
“No, that’s okay, I, uh.”
“I am the guide for the fifth station. Here.”
He notices my hesitation.
“Three men you know. American. Pass by me. Yesterday. I call out to them, they ignore me. I see them walk in a circle, once, twice. Three times they walk in circle. I say again, hello, can I help? I just try to help. I just try to help. Finally the men stop. They are hot, they are so hot and lost. I say, why you ignore me, three times you go by, I call you. I want to help. They say, we thought you want money. I hate hear about money! Always about money. I say no. I want to help. You hurt my heart, you ignore me, I say. And the men say, no I sorry, I didn’t mean to. I say, is it because I am Arab? They say no, no. But it’s too late. My heart is hurt. They think all about is money. I tell them, has nothing to do with money. I want to help, I say, you lost, I want to help. I live here. This is my city. So I show them around, beautiful things. But why they ignored me? Why, why is this? You need help. I help. I show you the six stations, come, come it will be easier.”
I didn’t want to be prejudiced. I didn’t want to be one of them. And so on behalf of all liberal Americans and exhausted tourists, I went.

To be continued...