Glimpses Of The Holy Land

 

Eilat at night | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Eilat at night | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

They were glimpses, that’s all I got–of the Arab city of Nazareth, of Jerusalem, of Tel Aviv, of the Negev, of Syria from across the border, of black Bedouin tents set in the chalk and glare of the Jordan desert. A traveler is struck dumb, for one, and if he’s not reporting, and not making his way to the backs of shops or inside strangers’ apartments, or to the shade of a school’s courtyard or at a table in a university lecture hall or getting a shave in a crowded medina, he can only proffer and guess.

I went to Israel on a family trip, the occasion of my niece’s bat mitzvah. I went with my liberal prejudices and love of the work of Israeli novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman, and my unquenchable desire for ancient Muslim cities–labyrinthine streets, alternating darkness and light, sour smell and piercing color, insistence and reticence all at once. With my little Olympus, I stole some 4,000 images.

The politics fled from me quickly; they hurried along from my mind in bursts of confusion and contradiction and I was left only to gaze and ponder the security wall around the West Bank, the pro-Palestinian graffiti in the doorways of Jerusalem’s Old City, minarets rising above countless Israeli towns, Israeli flags forcefully planted at the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem, a Tel Aviv beach–Givat Aliyah–inhabited equally, and peacefully, by Muslims and Jews.

On the Jaffa Road, Jerusalem | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

On the Jaffa Road, Jerusalem | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

I watched a Palestinian boy show an orthodox Jewish toddler how to fly a kite and held it with him as his mother smiled joyously on and a block away I was manhandled and called a dirty Jew by an Arabic-speaking shopkeeper who didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t have time to browse his store (it was true: we had to be at dinner at 7:30). Space signifies everything and time confirms it; space is devout; space is trampled on; space is cursed; space causes people to kill. At the Western Wall, with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock above, space is a battleground for gender; space is secreted for the divine; space is shared haphazardly; space is ruthlessly defended.

And here I found the manipulation of space through architecture and street art all the more potent. At the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, I was moved to tears not by the now familiar story of the genocide, but by the momentary experience of survival engendered by the architect Moshe Safdie; you leave the galleries, leave the names and the stories of the murdered, of the survivors, and are propelled by the force of the building itself in to the defiant glare of the promised land. Your dirty privilege swells from your stomach into your throat.

Yad Vashem, Moshe Safdie | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Yad Vashem, Moshe Safdie | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In the long hall of the old cotton makers’ souk in Jerusalem, faces blur and neon collides with stone and dirt and darkness. In Florentine, a Tel Aviv neighborhood more akin to a hip section of Barcelona or Athens or the Northern Liberties of a decade ago than the cotton souk of old Jerusalem, street art–sometimes diminutive, sometimes overpowering–speaks, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a shout, with all the nervous confusion of a place worn from love, what really must be a kind of madness.

Street art in Florentine, Tel Aviv | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Street art in Florentine, Tel Aviv | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

 

Recent Posts
The Tale Of Catfish And Waffles

The Tale Of Catfish And Waffles

September 23, 2016  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Long before chicken and waffles took hip restaurant menus by storm Philadelphia was famous for the meal's precursor, catfish and waffles, served at inns and taverns on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River. Harry K. sets the table and serves us up a heaping plate of local culinary history > more

Requiem For A Moderne Gem, William Penn Annex Post Office

Requiem For A Moderne Gem, William Penn Annex Post Office

September 22, 2016  |  Vantage

Contributor Ann de Forest delivers a eulogy for the decline of civic architecture and the closing of an iconic post office on East Market Street. > more

Residential Towers To Connect Old City With Northern Liberties

Residential Towers To Connect Old City With Northern Liberties

September 22, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Apartment high-rises planned for East Callowhill, Little Pete’s replacement moves ahead, adverse possession in Fishtown, conserving INHP’s bronze statues, and Clarke defends low-density urban development > more

Planning Commission Scoffs At Bill To Increase Parking Minimums

Planning Commission Scoffs At Bill To Increase Parking Minimums

September 21, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Chilly reception for Blackwell’s parking proposal, Historical Commission committee supportive of designating three Baptist churches, Saint-Gobain gives $700K for LOVE Park, and the artistic filling of some South Philly potholes > more

A Look At Philly's Smallest (Official) Neighborhood

A Look At Philly’s Smallest (Official) Neighborhood

September 20, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Strolling through West Shore, when Philly was addicted to “artificial ice,” Snyder Plaza gets a colorful paint job, and expanded food options on Market > more

Assuming Room Temperature At The City Morgue

Assuming Room Temperature At The City Morgue

September 20, 2016  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow gives us a stiff lesson on corpse storage and the history of Philadelphia's morgues > more