On Conflict, Camels, and Seeking Something Sacred
I wouldn’t tell my mom about driving through the West Bank, I decided. She was nervous about my being in Israel in the first place; she didn’t need to worry about me being in the volatile territory, wedged between Jordan and Israel, that was ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the second Oslo Accord of 1995. Mom’s parting words when she left me at the entrance of JFK had been an exhortation not to do anything foolish or put myself in danger’s way, both of which I considered driving through the West Bank might constitute.
But it felt safer there than I expected. And we were careful about it, peeing at the last rest stop under Israeli domain before pursuing highway 90 onwards through the blinding white sands of Palestinian territory, so that we wouldn’t have to stop in the wrong areas. I didn’t make eye contact with any drivers we passed in the West bank, only with a camel. From my sun drenched passenger seat I felt that if anyone registered that we were there, Western infiltrators to a world we did not understand and which did not understand us, they might show us hostility, a shaken fist perhaps, or I don’t know what, but I didn’t want to find out—or to be found out. For I felt like I didn’t belong on this nerve center of a strip of turf, and truly I didn’t—exactly who does belong on this land is a topic that polarizes scholars and politicians all over the world and fuels ongoing local violence. It was the cantankerous question of belonging that was to punctuate much of that day, and to reveal a truth about the young nation of Israel: that every moment and every movement here is permeated by that conflict sparked by this country’s will to exist, that every moment is permeated by the persisting need to guard this existence.
We’d worked up enough courage by the time we passed the camel to stop the car, and we did get out and admire him beside the busy marketplace where he was tethered. The market was a sort of Arab equivalent to the suburban New York strip malls around my home, but occupying tents and selling, in addition to nail polish and dishsoap, dates and the granular green spice called za’atar. It was nondescript enough a place not to feel politically charged, to feel safe, or normal at least. But Noa made sure to only speak English. Not, at this time, her native Hebrew.
Noa made sure to only speak English too when we had gotten into Jerusalem an hour later, after we’d passed back into Israel through a checkpoint where soldiers peered through the sunshine into our car. Exultant and relieved to reach our destination without incident, we parked at Mamila to enter the Old City of Jerusalem on foot at the Jaffa Gate. We were looking for a Russian icon at my insistence, me with my peculiar secular obsession with the art, the artifice, of human faith. And it was going to be a lucky venture, Noa told me, because the man I bought fresh pomegranate juice from at the Jaffa Gate gave me correct change. Noa was touched by his honesty; it didn’t even dawn on me to expect otherwise. Symptoms of our cultures, American me and Middle Eastern she, I thought. Starting the day with such a miracle as a straightforward transaction, though, couldn’t be anything but a good portent. And indeed, we happened unwittingly to have entered directly into the Old City’s Christian quarter, conveniently opposite a Christian Information Center that was dark inside with a priest and a nun perspiring in black muslin. For an authentic religious icon they directed us to an Armenian Christian store at the fourth station of the cross, the place where it is said Jesus encountered his mother along his way down the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion. We set out with a hand-drawn map, feeling touched with luck.
Our luck faltered, however, when we found ourselves obliviously sauntering through the Arab quarter of the city, of which I knew nothing but which Noa explained to me was an uncertain place for an Israeli to be, especially an Israeli soldier as she, at the time, was. Now again I’m only speaking English, she told me as she found my hand and clutched it between us. We’re just tourists, she said. We proceeded down the winding stone pathways of the Old City to pass through an archway or tunnel of sorts, a tight stone corridor. In it, like in most of these alleys, there was heavy pedestrian traffic, Arab men walking in one direction and, all of a sudden, a phalanx of Israeli armed police walking in the other direction, pushing against the tide of bodies, pushing us all to one wall so they could sidle through the passage with loud black boots on the cobbles. Then the Arab men standing in front of us were muttering menacingly among themselves. Then they were muttering menacingly to the Israeli soldiers. Then a soldier, close up in the face of an Arab man in his path, sneered “move it,” and then there was dread in the air thick enough to slice. I looked on puzzled; Noa, understanding the Hebrew exchange I could not, experienced a dry-mouthed expectation of something she knew to be routine, ugly, a nearly-forgone conclusion. We couldn't move, really, it was a jam of warm bodies in white robes and us in our most modest warm-weather garb and the officers in their blue suits and bulletproof vests.
Maybe it was the greatest manifestation of our luck, actually, that prevented anything violent from erupting in that passageway just then. I learned since of the frequent stabbings that occur in this quarter of Jerusalem, commonly of Israeli police like those we encountered by irate Arabs. But the volatility of that particular confrontation subsided harmlessly and we shuffled on, white robes and blue suits and meticulous, neutral tourists all tracing our respective paths out from the breathless archway.
When we came to the Armenian store, called the Hamaedian Gallery for the wealthy local family who owns it, we found dozens of icons…old icons, real icons, vibrant hand-painted wonders. Here in a large low basement I set eyes on a beautiful orangey panel of Madonna and Child with muddied, chipped faces and I knew that I would not depart from this room without unburdening my wallet of a fair amount of money. It was a mortifying realization, and thrilling: I couldn’t believe my luck in this discovery, I couldn’t pick one icon to buy, I couldn’t imagine leaving any behind. So overwhelmed was I by the abundance of beauty around me that the baby-faced Mr. Hamaedian who was attending us, and who explained he was the store owner’s son, remarked that among his multitudes of clients (which included, he said, Putin’s wife), he had never seen anyone so genuinely excited about icons as he saw me then. I was crouched on the floor, hugging my knees, swaying.
After one hour, a phone call to my parents and a number of soul-searching conferences with Noa, I at last settled on one large icon of a woman robed in black against a blank, ivory-colored background. The painting was an estimated 250 years old, of Russian origin, and its subject was Saint Eudokia of Heliopolis, of whom I’d never heard but who, I discovered once I returned to wifi and Wikipedia, was Lebanese and lived in the first century. Supposedly she was visited by a vision of Saint Michael prompting her to convert to Christianity, which she did and which she convinced many others to do after her, but for which Roman officials beheaded the lady in the year 107 CE. It was the first sentence of the brief Wikipedia article, however, that contained the most colorful and engaging detail about the subject of my new icon: “she was a very beautiful pagan, and garnered her wealth by attracting wealthy lovers.” I have to admire and appreciate a woman who dared not only to defy the Roman Emperor and take her spiritual development into her own hands, but also to harness her beauty to her more superficial benefit—the last, at least, I can relate to. That she is identified first and foremost by her feminine wiles is satisfying to me as a young woman in a way much Christian hagiography is not. Eudokia was only sainted, of course, for her eventual renunciation of these practices and these suitors; in a subversive twist of fate, however, what has endured of Eudokia, in her most immediate mainstream iteration today, is her sensuous femininity, the very shrewdness of her unchristian ways.
I bought the icon and the young Mr. Hamaedian bought me and Noa lunch at his friend’s Armenian restaurant nearby. Famished and worn out from our exhilarating day of choices and chances, risks and rewards, we were relieved when the rotund, twenty-something salesman left us deferentially in the hands of his wizened restaurant friend, commanding us to order what we willed, it was taken care of. Two lemonades, a tangle of red cabbage, hummus, eggplant and a few pitas later, we made our contented way back out into the goldening afternoon and were just turning down the Via Dolorosa when young Hameadian came lurching towards us, panting. He had something for us, he said, and when we stepped back into the dim Hamaedian Gallery he presented Noa with the gold and green ring she had been coveting in his jewelry case all the long while I was agonizing over my icon selection. He had marked her patience, he told her with glinting eyes, and this was his reward to her for being such a devoted friend. I couldn’t have repaid her better myself. His reward for me, he revealed, was another large icon, its background scraped down to the pale gesso like the one I’d just purchased. He had taken it out of storage especially for my perusal, he announced—he’d sell it to me at half price. I contained my mirth and politely deflected his pitch; the free lunch and ring strengthened his suit but I was determined to have just one icon from Jerusalem: flying home with a trunkful of them would diminish their importance to me, the value of this purchase as a reminder forevermore of this experience and this country…
The way home from Jerusalem was more comfortable than the way to it. We drove across the thin waist of Israel between its Eastern border, where we could gaze down at the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, and its Western coast, where Tel Aviv embraced the sea. In an outlying Tel Aviv neighborhood there stood home, home for Noa and her boyfriend and their rapacious dog Apa, and home for me for one night more, on the couch with the fleece blankets which it was too warm for. As I packed my suitcase that evening, with the new icon swaddled in shirts and bathing suits, I wondered at the staggering coexistence of such spirituality and such animosity and in one location, and in the name of one cause. For Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, functions as an intersection of the three largest of world religions: the Old City that I visited is home to the most sacred of sites for Christians and the most holy site, a few hundred yards away, of Jews. A site holy to Muslims too, second only to Mecca, is located in the same square. But despite the humility and devotion that these sites attract, and the values of tolerance and love that the Abrahamic religions ostensibly promote, the city of Jerusalem, as I experienced first hand, is continuously convulsed by resentment and strife. How is it that the intersection of faiths coincides here with the intersection of the astounding human capacities for worship and for hatred? Does their entanglement say something about the propensity of religion to cloud reason and blight brotherhood? Or indicate a human propensity to pervert even the most sacred and peaceful of institutions for self-servitude? I know little about these things, which are mysteries even to those who have devoted lifetimes to their study. But I can’t help feeling that these forces of piety and hostility, which seem so mutually exclusive, could not coexist and inflame each other as they do if religion in practice did not in some way fall short of its ideal iteration, the purest vision of itself.
I left Israel wistfully, I’d had an astounding introduction to this country and the plane seat was crushing my knees. It was ironic, as I took off over the splendid geography of the Middle East, that I worried about the safety of an icon in my bag while musing on the contradictions inherent in spiritual institutions around the world. It was like a poem I’d read by Robert Hass, about lagunitas or lacunas: the small spaces between things, gaps. When compared to each other, the way I’d feared the West Bank and the uneventful reality of our car ride through it (the grinning camel) formed a lacuna; so did Eudokia’s sainthood and her beguiling means of acquiring wealth; Noa masquerading as a tourist and the Israeli soldier that she really was. These were the gaps between the appearances of things and their truths, between the enchanting symmetry of a religious icon and the skewedness of religion. It was not until I got home that I could begin to distinguish the truths from the appearances, and it may yet be years before I know which of the two I prefer. The icon is beautiful on my kitchen wall.