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...

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