09 July 2013

On Track

On my first visit to Israel in 1985, I took the train from the old Jerusalem station with two other students from Hebrew University (a Brit and a German) all the way to Haifa.  Nearly thirty years ago, the station was rundown and on its last legs.  Now it's a chic new public shopping and event space, and the old tracks consist of several miles of some of the most beautiful running and biking lanes you'll ever see.  For the last couple years I've run its length on each visit, marveling at the way in which Jerusalem continues to be built and rebuilt:  an historical, religious, political, demographic, and sometimes controversial mandate that goes back to King David's first decision to conquer what was then a series of small hills and relative backwater of the ancient world.

On that first train ride we chugged out of the city, traversed hills and valleys to the coast, past Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinian neighborhoods, past rosemary, blooming bougainvillea, jasmine and honeysuckle, past cypress, olive, oak, willow and almond trees, past scurrying cats, impossible crows, past the pious and the secular, past memorials to past wars and seething tensions to future showdowns.  Layer upon layer upon layer of a never-ending, eternal life here in the land.

I thought of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley singing about trains, their wheels rolling, tracks clacking, and closed my eyes to the insane layers of identity we each bring to our encounters with this city--mine as American as it was Jewish.

Name the nation and those lenses have been worn to discern the landscape:  Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian; Greek and Roman; German, French, Russian and British; Syrian, Moroccan, Yemenite and Iraqi; Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Italian and the list goes on and on.  That we speak of this as a land of two peoples is, on a certain level, radically reductive and terribly inaccurate.

Our multiple selves; our gnarly, knotted, rooted selves that having already been imposed upon us we in turn impose upon this tired and endlessly tolerant landscape.  No wonder the sun is so bright.  So much inquiry into the corners of our hearts and minds--the city's inhabitants need all the illumination they can get.

Anyway, after a peaceful run up and back on the path yesterday evening, I encountered one young man sitting on the rail, next to an old piece of track.  We exchanged pleasantries in Hebrew that can best summarized in the following manner:

-Have you been running from the beginning?
-Yes.  I have to watch my heart.
-May your heart and your legs sustain you til 120!
-God willing.
-Til 120!  Run til 120!

Already at age 50 I have experienced at least five or six Jerusalems.  I wonder how many I'd see by 120?  Would my left big toe, which aches greatly, make it til then?  Would my left calf, protected now by a compression sock, survive the journey?  Will my heart, genetically tuned to its perilous fate of my forefathers, hold out for the duration?  Those discs in my neck--is their inevitable compression of muscle and bone a fate I can tolerate for 70 more years?

And this is just the body.

How many more religious awakenings will we witness?  How many more illusions of messianic redemption?  Which sides will come to which table to bargain over which borders?

Who will till the soil with whose blood and whose sweat and whose tears?  Whose used up books of prayers to used up gods will fertilize the used up land?  What fruit will it bear?

A train once ran on this path that I run but now its history that rolls from point to point.  The events, the stories they generate, the ways we hear them and understand them, over and over again.

I sat at the Colony restaurant last night, at the edge of the old track, eating dinner, drinking a beer.  One bartender spoke Jerusalem Hebrew.  Another spoke a Hebrew accented with the cadences of South America.  In the kitchen, a young African cleaned dishes and sang to himself songs from home, in a strange land.

Afterward, I walked to the new station and spent time inside Tal Erez's evocative exhibit, A Point of View, featuring noted photographers depictions of Jerusalem through the kitsch of the Viewfinder.  The jarring perspective of an artist's nuanced eye as seen through the toy of a child:  trying on, or finding, a view.
Voices of discovery echoed inside the room; outside the restaurants were full; an outdoor screening of a film festival movie echoed off the walls; children zoomed around on small bikes; a dog, tied to bike stand, barked.

Time refused to sit still.  History continued to be made.  I called my friend Sadek to make lunch plans.  "Ramadan might begin tonight," he said.  We'll know in a little while."

"What do you mean?" I asked.  "We Jews declared a new moon this morning.  It's Rosh Hodesh Av."

"We see things slightly differently," he said, laughing.  The Viewfinders clicked and clacked on their tracks, a train of images rolling past.

Just before 4 am this morning two cats got into a fight.  Two crows woke up.  The muezzins vibrated over the hills with mournful, deep and holy prayers.  I rose from bed, stood at the window, drank the morning air, and imagined it sinking, seeping down, into layer upon layer of one man's time on this ground, in this place, at this time.

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