Monday, February 9, 2009


Erin and I are in Petra, Jordan. We've been doing loads of stuff lately, like looking at more awesome ruins and hiking around in the desert, but I don't want to write about any of that stuff right now. Right now, I only want to talk about Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is easily the weirdest place I’ve ever been. It’s weirder than Las Vegas, weirder than Bangkok, and weirder than Phnom Phen, Barcelona and Irkutsk put together. I’m certain that I’m forgetting many other weird places I’ve been, but I can say with certainty that Jerusalem is weirder than they are. I don’t think I’ll find a weirder place. Thus, I peremptorily give it the title of Weirdest Place in the World; bow down and hail the new king of weirdness.

Everyone knows that Jerusalem has Muslims, Christians and Jews. The four quarters of the old city are the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. I have no idea why the Armenians have their own quarter; I asked around and nobody could give me a straight answer.

There is much more diversity in the city than the number of quarters suggests. There are many kinds of Jews, and I think many more kinds of Christians. There are probably many kinds of Muslims and Armenians as well, but I couldn’t tell by their costumes. Jews love wearing special costumes to show which kind of Jew they are, whether it’s an elaborate headcloth, a black suit with a black hat, or a green costume with a machinegun.

The Christians' costumes are less easy to define than the Jews', but the brands of the churches they pray in are easier to identify. Every one of the hundred million Christian sects in the world has a church in Jerusalem; the Mormons even have a campus of Brigham Young University there. On a more general level, the Christians are divided into two categories: the local Christians, who speak Arabic and look a lot like Arabs and are in fact Arabs, and the foreign Christians, who speak everything and look like everyone in the world.

You take all of those people and their religious buildings, and you cram them into an old city that is less than 1 km square and surround them by big, stone city walls. There are very many weird people and religious buildings and it is a very small area, so it is very cramped; most of the streets are no more than 4 meters wide, and none of them go straight for more than a hundred meters, because with that many people around, naturally a building will get in the way before long.

Of course, cramped as it is, the old city can’t hold representative samples of all the groups who find Jerusalem holy, so there’s a new city as well. The new city is full of mostly Jews on the one side and Arabs on the other, and it’s not as weird as the old city, but as a backdrop, it definitely enhances the weirdness of the whole scene.

Onto this ornately decorated canvas, we now splatter the paint of a hundred thousand tourists, most of whom consider themselves religious pilgrims. They belong to all of the religions listed above, but the largest number of them are Christians from all around the world, in a more bewildering variety of costumes and colours than you ever imagined Christians came in.

The tour/pilgrimage groups from all-black churches in the United States were most entertaining because of their singing, but the Coptics from Ethiopia wearing robes were definitely more scenic. Many other Christian tourists looked just like ordinary tourists, except for something in the expression on their faces, and the fact that they seemed to spend most evenings in their hotels studying, instead of loafing about, reading novels and drinking beer like normal tourists do.

Naturally, with that number of tourists around, (even if they call themselves pilgrims) there are going to be a lot of souvenir stands. I don’t think I saw anybody selling off pieces of the True Cross like they did in the old days, but they were selling absolutely everything else, from the devoutly secular, (a Montreal Canadiens t-shirt with the team name written in Hebrew, or a t-shirt with a picture of an Uzi machinegun and the caption, “Uzi does it”) to the mixed secular/religious, (a “Guns n’ Moses” t-shirt, or, for hippies or Christians, Jesus sandals) to the strictly religious (any kind of religious icon or item used by any imaginable variant of the three abovementioned religions).

Then, we’ve got to talk about the people who are standing guard over all of this. Israel has mandatory military service for all 18 year-olds; boys get three years in the IDF, and girls get two. Apart from that, there is no apparent discrimination between the sexes: the girls get the exact same kind of machineguns the boys do, and they man the same checkpoints.

Standing guard at select locations around the old town and patrolling the streets were pairs of Israeli soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers looked like grownups, but more often, it was a pair of teenagers, with zits and gawkiness and all the other great stuff teenagers have going for them, except that they had machineguns, too. Often, the boys clearly hadn’t started shaving yet, and even more often, the girls were cute. They were really cute and they had machineguns. They looked like the girls I used to stare at in class when I was in high school, except heavily armed. I couldn’t help it; I thought it was really hot.

The brave women and girls of the IDF know that tourist men are looking at them, so they always wear make-up and earrings. From the chunky woman in her mid-twenties who grilled us at the border crossing, to the machinegun-toting hottie who brusquely checked passports and handed them back with a grunt when we crossed from the West Bank into Jerusalem, female Israeli soldiers make every effort to overcome their baggy-assed khaki uniforms by presenting a dazzlingly groomed head to the world.

Now, if this still-life is not weird enough for you, set it in motion. Set the Hassidim at the Wailing Wall bobbing prayer, get the church groups to sing their hymns as they visit the stations of the cross, make the Palestinian butchers carve sides of goat in their market stalls, have the souvenir hawkers tailor their sales pitches to their targets’ nationalities, and just when the souk couldn’t get any more crowded, get someone to push a three-wheeled cart full of goods down the steep steps. Crowds of nuns! Hordes of Arab schoolchildren! Another church group! And why the fuck not, let's have someone ride their bike down the souk!

The smell is as chaotic as the traffic. It smells of spices more often than shit, cooked food more often than slowly rotting raw meat, nargile smoke more than sweat, but it's all of the other things, too, and you never know what you're going to breathe in next, or where it came from.

And the noise? When it isn’t time for the call to prayer, and when the church bells aren’t striking the full-, half- or quarter-hour, the din is a Babel of voices. The locals who don’t speak to each other in Arabic mostly speak Hebrew, but if they want a chance of selling anything to the visitors, they also speak English and maybe a few other languages. A Spaniard shows up at the immigration post at the border, and you can be sure that someone there speaks Spanish. A Frenchwoman goes to the tourist office and she sure doesn’t have to speak English. Israelis come from all over the world; if they can’t talk to you in your native tongue, they know someone who can.

Ever see a seventy year-old French nun shout at a Jewish border guard? I have! I saw two Israeli soldiers come into a bar with their machineguns and have a beer; one kept his machinegun sitting on his lap while the other put his on the floor and rested his feet on it. I saw Africans kiss a stone slab because they thought that Jesus’ dead body had been washed on it, I saw Muslims kneeling and praying in a crowded street, and I saw Jews writing notes to God and wedging them into the cracks of a 2500 year-old wall.

Wikipedia tells me this about the eighth station of the cross: "Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem.” I don’t really know what that means. I mean, I can guess — four cross-stations later, the cat would be nailed to a cross and six later he’d be dead in a cave, so why not stop for a chat with some local broads? But I really don’t understand why that station should happen to be outside of the internet café I looked up that fact in, and what about it made successive groups of African-Americans burst into song.

I can understand why Muslims might want to build a mosque on top of the Temple Mount, on the vacant platform formerly occupied by the Jewish temple, but I don’t understand why it subsequently became the third-holiest place in Islam.

I don't understand how people can live their lives in such close proximity to thousands of other people whose dozens of varieties of fervent faith are logically incompatible with their own fervent faith, and still believe that their version is literally true, based as it is on true revelation, as opposed to the false revelation followed by the others.

I don’t get Jerusalem. I’ll never get it. What’s more, I don’t think anyone else gets more than half of it, either. It’s not something that can be sorted out into logical categories and solved, or even explained. If you want life and human behaviour and geopolitics to make sense, don't go to Jerusalem; they'll never make sense to you again if you do.

It’s weirder than dogs playing poker. Jerusalem isn't something to be understood; it's a thing to be gawked at and puzzled over and then sadly read about in the news.

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