Monday, July 19, 2010

Postcards from the Edge...

...of reason.  Welcome to the Old City of Jerusalem.

We are staying in East Jerusalem at the fabled American Colony hotel. A place where the guests are mostly UN personnel, journalists and diplomats. Each morning we see dozens of men in suits and briefcases with a demeanor of grave importance having breakfast in the courtyard. After the umpteenth early morning mystery briefcase, I wonder when and if whatever important papers are in there are ever going to do anything towards solving the problem.
The staff is Palestinian and is mostly corteous, sometimes gruff. But the hotel is lovely and it has a pool and that pool, as far as I'm concerned, is the most sacred and holy place in the Middle East after a day of walking around for hours in the July heat in the Old City.
One night we go down to the Cellar Bar to watch one of the games of the World Cup on TV. Nobody knows how to work the sound until a waiter solves the problem by just turning it on. The small crowd is mostly well to do Palestinian middle aged men who drink alcohol and smoke cigars. There are exactly four Western women in the room.  The men seem to be locals who like to go there for drinks. Everything is perfectly cool until at the end of the game one of the men approaches us, asking politely if we like soccer. He finds it endearing that Magnificent Arepa has been toiling in her computer for the entire game (good wifi at the bar). "Your friend likes computers", he tells me; "She's working", I explain. Then, with the same precious politeness, he tells us that perhaps we may want to call it a night because his friends intend to watch a blue movie on the big screen TV. Unless we care to join them. "You are surely kidding", I say. He confounds me a bit and then admits avuncularly that he is kidding indeed. Everything is said with such delicacy and friendliness that it takes me up until we hit our room to realize that the entire bit is extremely inappropriate and gratuitously hostile. And I marvel at the fact that even a wealthy guy like him, who speaks flawless English, sees two women watching soccer at a bar and somewhere in his mind he thinks we are whores. I will write more about the female culture clash with Arab culture when I tell you about Aqaba. But suffice it to say, as much as one tries to understand cultural context and be tolerantly multiculti, for a Western girl, the way these dudes think of women is extremely hard to swallow. And I'm being polite.

                                    The courtyard at the American Colony.

From the hotel it's a 10 minute walk to Damascus gate, the gateway to what is probably the craziest place in the world, the old city of Jerusalem, where the three major religions are virtually on top of one another, beckoning hosts of their faithful. 

                                                   The other Holy One.

First stop is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my favorite church in the whole wide world. This is where Golgotha is supposed to be, where Christ stood in the cross, died and was buried. The church itself is a cavernous hodgepodge where you can breath the dust of centuries and it is refreshingly lacking in the pompous grandeur of other famous churches. It is ancient, mystical and forbidding and always extremely impressive, not only because of its historical importance, but because at least here you can really feel the faith (of others). People pray, kneel, murmur, cry, and rub their clothes on the stone where Jesus was laid to rest after dying on the cross (you can see the deep hole where the cross was stuck inside this church). We stand in line for the better part of an hour to go into the little crypt where Jesus is supposed to be buried. It's a tiny space with an altar, that only allows about four people inside. People come in, surreptitiously take pictures, touch the grave, pray. A man comes in, overcome with religious feeling, kneels, prays intensely and places his shopping bag on the grave, which strikes us as grotesquely rude. So much feeling and here he is, desecrating Christ's last resting place with his bargains. But then we realize that the bag is there to be blessed as well, and means no disrespect. The presents inside have touched the Holy Sepulchre.
As I said, welcome to crazyland. The cool thing about Jerusalem is that if you believe, you probably end up believing even more and if, like me, you don't, you become more of an atheist with every step you take. However, I must confess to you, dear readers, that entering The Holy Sepulchre again actually choked me up. Must be the weight of history and the energy of all that hope and yearning and the tears flowing in the place. Atheists are people too.

The deceivingly small front entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

                                                    The Holy Sepulchre.

Apparently, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is under the custody of both Franciscan friars and Greek Orthodox monks. To avoid disputes, a Muslim family holds the key to the church and they open it at dawn and close it every night.

 Next to the big church where all the pilgrims go, there is a lovely little Greek Orthodox Church visited by no one on the day we were there. A gorgeous little church of Mary and Joseph.

                         Lachrimosa. Supposedly, tears flow from her eyes. 

Here are some more pictures from the Christian Quarter:

                   The Ethiopian Coptic Church next to the Holy Sepulchre.

                          The view from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice.

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