Saturday, September 16, 2006

Jerusalem Syndrome

"Jerusalem Syndrome is actually a rare psychological condition that occurs to
some visitors to the Middle East. They get to Israel and just snap."

It's weird. One afternoon, I jumped out of a cab and picked my way through the rush of the crowd into the popular Ben Yehuda shopping area of Jerusalem to meet my boyfriend. As I hop-scotched my way down street, in the undisguisable aroma of heavily dressed ultra-orthodox men, over various local beggers, between a crowd of veiled women in the company of their sons, it occurred to me that Jerusalem was perhaps one of the least elegant cities I've ever lived in. While there is public transportation, getting around on a bus literally means taking your life into your hands. And, while taxi cabs are not too outrageously expensive, a single Western woman who doesn't speak a lot of Hebrew must really employ the best of her scrutinizing abilities with regard to who's car she puts herself into. Of course, Jerusalem is certainly not a one-donkey (or one-camel?) town, but it does lack in that je nais se qua, refined elegance that most European cities proudly embody. Mmm...perhaps this is why it became so dear to me. It's a risky place, an edgy place, where the people are simultaneously blank-eyed, oddly resigned to idea that this day could be their last, and yet reticently willing to do what it takes to make it home to their families every night.

Jerusalem lacks the refreshing, open-windowed storefronts that characterize all of Europe. There are no shopkeepers standing on the streets, calling you in for a look. Instead, there are men for hire standing with M-16's at every doorway. They stop every person who enters, and give them a gruff pat-down or a scrutinizing "look". They spend their days peering into women's purses for questionable explosive materials. Everything is made of whitish, "Jerusalem stone", which, in the heart of town is covered in car exhaust, and simultaneously spent from witnessing so many centuries of brutality. Outdoor cafes are both a risk and luxury. In West Jerusalem, they are all heavily-guarded. Young people sit outside with an air of European elegance without seeming to care, while the older veterns of the Haghani, sit in the sun in silent homage to what they have personally sacrificed and lost in their own lifetimes in order to have the right to do so.

In Jerusalem, people look you directly in the eye. Not because they particularly care about you, but because they care about themselves. Every single person is considered a suspect until proven innocent. Even ethnic-looking white girls, with olive skin, who look identifiably "Jewish". Considering the circumstances, while the air of latent hostility permeates every facet of life there, there is a certain reassurance that if I am being scrutinized so intensely, then so is the lost individual who might try to take my life with his. At least, this is what I told myself. On the other hand, it's sad to say, but if there really was a certain, inexplicable "look" to an imminent suicide bomber, then perhaps less would take place.

Yes, the streets are dirty, covered in the dust of thousands of years of human existence, toil, blood and pain. Yes, the people are a bit weird. On any given street corner, you can find some mid-thirties, American ex-pat, wrapped in a white hotel sheet, who hasn't showered in months, and who honestly thinks that he is the next messiah. He's not going to tell you that his name is John Smith from Nebraska, because, well, in Jerusalem, he is only known as Jesus. There are a couple of Mary's, too. And sometimes they come in pairs--Jesus and Mary beggers. Sometimes the Jesus will drag the Mary behind him by the hand and beg for money while referring to her over-stuffed pillow-belly, symbolizing the coming of their blessed, feather-filled infant. As if this is not eye catching enough, the sight of a group of Korean tourists, converging upon one of the large steps in the heart of Ben Yehuda and suddenly break out in a fluent English song to the Lord. Well, that's pretty wild, too.

The embrace of life in this place is without question. There is a timeless energy there, perhaps due to the fact that the people are in a constant state of war. Whether actual or simply internal, it's a zone of conflict. My first day there, the Dean of my school said to all of us, "Welcome home. During your time here, you will realize that there is very little that you can do to change Jerusalem, but rest assured: It will change you."

One month away, and I'm already anticipating my return.

And, after I've finally unpacked and wiped the dust from my suitcases, so begins my Jerusalem series...


Anonymous said...

I believe you refer to that "je ne sais quoi."

Namaste said...

Haha. You're right. Merci! Damn French Canadian boyfriends...

Anonymous said...

NP. Great post, as always.

Namaste said...

thanks, anon. glad there's someone keeping an eye on things. ;)