Saturday, 31 July 2010

Babylon Revisited

Tel Aviv at two in the morning - sexy, bustling, alive, with 24-hour grocery stores, eateries and snack bars open, pubs, surprisingly sober, compared to the equal time of the day and week in Oslo. Smiles and compliments, so shy and cute. Traffic jams - at 2 am. Shopkeepers on the steps playing guitar. Hot humid air and the sound of the sea. I am back. Breathing. Living. Breathing. Back. I am back.

The joy of it strikes me. I guess my vibrant smile and the feeling that passion for life doesn't any longer have to be subdued is part of the reason I get so much attention. Soldiers smile. Shopkeepers smile. I smile. Men with guns. So much has changed.

The bus to Jerusalem has a line written on the sunscreen, in Russian: "Live is short - be patient for a while". I remember Maltese buses with "Only Jesus can save you". Probably not a very good idea to bring this up here. I see Jerusalem from afar. I feel nothing. Just that everything is the way it should be. I am back. Where have I been all this time?

The smell of fig trees. I remember it from childhood in Sukhumi. I feel I exist simultaneously in two alternate realities - here, and the rest of the world. I actually feel I never left.

I happen to be invited for a Shabbat meal by the woman who helped us fix the electricity in the Jewish Quarter in February. Who would have thought I'd see her again. We talk and we drink. Water added to wine. They explain why. I don't have the guts to say I know. Her very Orthodox husband tells us how Israel clings to God like a dove. I remember the picture I never took. A soldier talking to white doves in a cage.

We sit by the open windows for Shabbat lunch. As the only Christian, I feel a bit odd when everyone starts singing gospel. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home... Amazing Grace... Can it get more weird? What prompted this? I never said a word... truly, Spirit moves in mysterious ways... Holy Mass in Hebrew a block away from Mea Shearim. Surely, Holy, Holy, Holy will never sound the same again...

A never-answered 'why?'. We ask. And we talk. What do you think? Why? I was hoping you knew. Do you think suffering can be redemptive, I ask.

You think you are called to fill all those shades of gray with light. I hope you can. For sometimes I feel shades of gray is all there is...

I whisper to the stones that Your hand may have touched. They seem to have accumulated the heat of the day. I lean against them, so warm, and let go of it all - sin, confusion, loss, pain, love. So much love. I touch the ground where You rose from the dead. I touch the walls in the cellar of St Peter in Gallicantu. My favourite place in the whole of Jerusalem. I wonder where Fr. Mario Azraq is now? We had such a funny episode down there...

It looks very peaceful now. Almost no soldiers, no yamam. Hugging and saying hello. You look like models. It would be an honour to take a picture with you. You are fighting our battle, why wouldn't it be? But all those shades of gray, how do you ever fill them with light?..

We talk of the uncontrollable katyshas, empty streets, safe rooms and bomb shelters and how easy it was to get used to things like that. A neigbour girl comes in and asks if they, too, received new gas masks. It's probably not such a good idea to gas us, though - after... Yes. But do you believe him? Will he actually risk a nuclear war? Well, I think I can believe anything at this point.

When it comes to wars, aren't we all losers? Yet, isn't evil made possible by the licence we give it? I remember the story of an old lady who was kissing each helmet on the assembly line when she was volunteering for the IDF. Everyone started doing the same when they saw her. Here and now, it seems perfectly logical.

A friend of a friend was being questioned at the airport, and I think he came up with his whole political agenda and all the things that this country ever did wrong. They listened to him. And then the girl who was asking questions came up, hugged him, and kissed him on the cheek.

I kiss the warm stones. Come, Lord Jesus. I walk down Via Dolorosa and "Пусть всегда будет солнце" plays at Ibrahim's shop. We sang it at kindergarten. I greet him with joy, like an old friend. I missed you, he says. You have no idea. I feel I have been in a dark stuffy room suffocating.

I breathe. And it doesn't matter how long this lasts. Here and now is all I have. Orthodox Jews praying on the beach, as the sun is setting in Tel Aviv. People taking a nap in the shadow of the trees in the midday heat. And nobody would be surprised if I did the same. Everyone sleeps on the roof of a hostel with no air-conditioning. A cashier talking to me in broken Russian. Why? Why would anyone learn Russian??

Breathing. Being yourself. Isn't that the greatest gift of all? I'll be back...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

So much has changed - and yet... An excerpt from a travel diary of 1836

This excerpt from a travel diary written more than a century and a half ago brings out into the light some of the history that seems to have been denied us in the West in recent years - but also rings the bells of recognition within me. Yes, the times have changed, and the people have now returned to the land they can call their own, but the warmth and love and hospitality are still there, and have been shared with me in the past few days as warmly as they were in 1836... The road to reconciliation starts within our hearts. May we have the courage to walk it.

Visit to the Jews of Hebron (1836)

I followed the janissary, who conducted me around outside the walls and through the burying-ground, where the women were scat­tered in groups among the tombs, to a distant and separate quarter of the city. I had no idea where he was taking me; but I had not ad­vanced a horse's length in the narrow streets before their peculiar costume and physiognomies told me that I was among the unhappy remnant of a fallen people, the persecuted and despised Israelites. They were removed from the Turkish quarter, as if the slightest con­tact with this once-favored people would contaminate the bigoted follower of the Prophet. The governor, in the haughty spirit of a Turk, probably thought that the house of a Jew was a fit place for the repose of a Christian;1 and, following the janissary through a low range of narrow, dark, and filthy lanes, mountings, and turnings, of which it is impossible to give any idea, with the whole Jewish popula­tion turning out to review us, and the sheik2 and all his attendants with their long swords clattering at my heels, I was conducted to the house of the chief Rabbi of Hebron.

If I had had my choice, these were the very persons I would have selected for my first acquaintances in the Holy Land. The descendants of Israel were fit persons to welcome a stranger to the ancient city of their fathers; and if they had been then sitting under the shadow of the throne of David, they could not have given me a warmer recep­tion. It may be that, standing in the same relation to the Turks, alike the victims of persecution and contempt, they forgot the great cause which had torn us apart and made us a separate people, and felt only a sympathy for the object of mutual oppression. But, whatever was the cause, I shall never forget the kindness with which, as a stranger and Christian, I was received by the Jews in the capital of their ancient kingdom; and I look to my reception here and by the monks of Mount Sinai as among the few bright spots in my long and dreary pilgrimage through the desert... .

Judge, then, of my satisfaction at being welcomed from the desert by the friendly and hospitable Israelites. Returned once more to the occupation of our busy, money-making life, floating again upon the stream of business, and carried away from the cares and anxieties which agitate every portion of our stirring community, it is refreshing to turn to the few brief moments when far other thoughts occupied my mind; and my speculating, scheming friends and fellow-citizens would have smiled to see me that-night, with a Syrian dress and long beard, sitting cross-legged on a divan, with the chief rabbi of the Jews at Hebron, and half the synagogue around us, talking of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as of old and mutual friends.

With the few moments of daylight that remained, my Jewish friends conducted me around their miserable quarter. They had few lions to show me, but they took me to their synagogue, in which an old white-bearded Israelite was teaching some prattling children to read the laws of Moses in the language of their fathers; and when the sun was setting in the west and the Muezzin from the top of the minaret was calling the sons of the faithful to evening prayers, the old rabbi and myself, a Jew and a Christian, were sitting on the roof of the little synagogue, looking out as by stealth upon the sacred mosque contain­ing the hallowed ashes of their patriarch fathers. The Turk guards entered the door, and the Jew and the Christian are not permitted to enter [the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron – I.K.]; and the old rabbi was, pointing to the different parts of the mosque, where, as he told me, under tombs adorned with carpets of silk and gold, rested the mortal remains of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob .

1 The author probably did not know that in all Muslim lands, travelers could be lodged only ill the Jewish quarter (or Christian, if it existed) or in khans.

2 The sheik and his attendants were Arabs paid to protect the security of the traveler. Every traveler, even if indigenous to the country, was obliged to place himself under the protection of an escort so as to escape the danger of being robbed or killed by the Bedouins.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), the later discoverer of the Maya civilization, from a book Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petrea and the Holy Land, New York, 1837; reprint University of Oklahoma 1970, (pp. 312-14).

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Future Classics Fashion

I have found some of the coolest clothes ever, just on the verge between avant-garde haute couture and city chic, but still wearable. Perfect seams and details, and many ways to wear each garment.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Three months into my return to life in the normal, post-Christian, relativist and pacifist Europe, or, rather, it's weird outskirts, I find myself once again pondering the essence of the question that seemed to fill the air in the place where it was once asked, WHAT IS TRUTH?

WHAT IS TRUTH? seemed to bounce off the walls built over or about the same place where the famous converstaion between our Lord and the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate had ocurred, the place where I had been living, and serving, for three months.

Three months into my return to Europe, I am growing to think more and more that standing up for the truth isn't really an option, or a question of bravery, no matter the costs.Once found and recognised for what it is, the truth is so compelling that standing up for it is the ONLY option, unless one wants to live a life of defeat and compromise.

When Geert Wilders called Bat Ye'or a brave woman, I thought to myself - I am sure she wishes she had a choice NOT to be brave. Does he think himself brave? Moving from place to place? Always on high security alert? With fatwas and death threats against himself? Or did he, too, find himself in a position of not being able to shut up any more? The question of bravery doesn't arise when you are compelled by the truth, I'm afraid.

I am growing to appreciate the people I never thought I would even pay attention to. A mere six months ago I would have spit myself in the face had I been told I would be siding with the likes of Bat Ye'or, Geert Wilders, Melanie Stevens or Pamela Gellar. Who? ME?! A liberal university graduate? A pacifist from the age of 10? Jogging to Arabic music and practicing my belly dance several times a week? Just in November last year I was furious when a guy said at the conference that the Church will never see its true face without reconnecting with its Jewish heritage. Just a year ago I was telling everyone I was so happy to be a Catholic and not have to answer that question of 'Do you love Israel?' ever again.

And now I suddenly found myself unable to shut up about the very things I was opposing. Writing to the United Nations special envoy and the Director of Foreign Affairs Institute. Joining a group whose very existence made me shrug indignantly about a year ago. Purple prose to the soldiers. Blurting it all out to the editor-in-chief who published my photos some months ago - only to find her,and the rest of the editorial staff - more or less agreeing with me.

Finding a lot of people agreeing with me. And gradually finding out that the reasonable, the well-read, the well-informed are the ones who are silent. Who never dare, or never bother to speak up. It is precicely those who have nothing to say that say the most. The truth is silent.

Which brings me back again. To those flat stones, that get so slippery in the rain. To jasmine blossoms falling softly on the ground. To that permeating sense of Presence, and yet - total freedom. To the confusion of absolute good and absolute evil existing side by side within a few metres from each other - or maybe even within one and the same person...

Does that make them indistinguishable, though? Shall I cease to call good good and evil evil just because I have seen them at work in one and the same person? In one and the same nation? In one and the same place?..

Those slippery stones with small gutters cut out, so that horses wouldn't slip... They witnessed the meeting of a man who said his sole purpose in life was to bear witness to the truth - and a disillusioned Roman governor, who just wouldn't admit to himself that once you accept the truth for what it is, you have no choice.

Maybe, in the beginning, you wish you had... Or maybe, along the way, you meet someone who is as passionate for the direct opposite of what you know to be the truth. But will it mean that the truth doesn't exist?

I reached out for the one I tried to destroy - another Jewish truth-seeker wrote just a few years later. WHAT IS TRUTH? the governor asked indignantly. And the Truth was silent...