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

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

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

Recent Posts
You Can Turn $10,000 Into $20,000 For The Hidden City Daily; Here's 15 Reasons Great Why

You Can Turn $10,000 Into $20,000 For The Hidden City Daily; Here’s 15 Reasons Great Why

December 15, 2017  |  News

With our campaign hitting the home stretch, a generous donor offers to match the next $10,000, if we can raise it by campaign's end on December 31. We need your support to make it happen > more

City Council To Vote On Ridge Avenue Demo Moratorium

City Council To Vote On Ridge Avenue Demo Moratorium

December 13, 2017  |  News

A bill to place a temporary hold on demolition applications for 300+ historic properties along Ridge Avenue goes before City Council tomorrow. Michael Bixler has the details > more

The Marvelous Multiple Occupations Of The Midtown II

The Marvelous Multiple Occupations Of The Midtown II

December 11, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

Last June, one of Center City's last classic diners, Midtown II at 11th and Sansom, closed its lunch counter for good. The high-profile property is now under development, although plans for the space remain elusive. The Shadow takes us behind the façade to reveal a lively list of tenants and a colorful history of reuse > more

Secrets! Romance! Scandal! The Hush-Hush Love Of Philly's Paint King And His Irish Lass

Secrets! Romance! Scandal! The Hush-Hush Love Of Philly’s Paint King And His Irish Lass

December 8, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. takes us to Old City where the flames of a secret affair scorched newspaper headlines in the early 1900s > more

Marc Lamont Hill Energizes Germantown Ave With New Bookstore Cafe

Marc Lamont Hill Energizes Germantown Ave With New Bookstore Cafe

December 6, 2017  |  Vantage

Academic, activist, and political commentator Marc Lamont Hill carries the tradition of the Black-owned bookstore into the 21st century with Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books. John Henry Scott has the details > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

December 4, 2017  |  Vantage

Hidden City's annual fund drive is in full swing on Generosity and we've got a brand new batch of perks celebrating Philadelphia available. Here's a look at this year's killer lineup > more