The City of the Walking Flower

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A photograph of a city in the distance beneath a rising sun. A tree dominates the foreground

Jerusalem is ultimately a city of eternal strangers. The connection to the city is not a connection to place, but rather a connection to time.

Here, on the watershed of the winds, between reality and imagination, between the utopia of the celestial spheres and the doom of the underworld, stands Jerusalem. The city is a pile of stones that separates sea from sea, tomorrow from yesterday, the green from the desert, and, above all, the sacred from the profane. It is like a broad cosmic-political terminal, the starting line for the competitions in which participants race to other places, other times. Here in Jerusalem, and in the four corners of the earth, the descendants of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad jostle one another on the track, taking part in an Olympics of the evil spirit that knows no rest. They are all poised, crouching to the ground in awe of the holy, waiting for the starting gun in order to defeat gravity.

When I was a child, Jerusalem was inextricably linked in my imagination to the apocalyptic day of the great dash forward, from which there is no return. The scenario, including the instructions issued by the official sitting on a raised platform in the dome of the sky, was determined in advance and minutely detailed. In the play of the End of Days, mortal actors have no freedom to improvise. They must play the roles determined for them, with complete faith and no reservations or questions, such as what if, maybe, nevertheless. According to the scenario, the Jews are destined to destroy the Muslim mosques in Jerusalem. Because of the support the primarily Christian West gives the Jews and the Jewish state, the Muslims will retaliate by rising up and destroying the Christian churches. The West’s reaction will be swift: it will gather its armies to conquer the K’aba. And thus, in an uncontrollable chain reaction, a great world war will break out: the Apocalypse. Eventually, the Messiah will come and bring a new world order, entirely different from the one we have now. As a child, I never imagined fate would call me to rub shoulders with the inhabitants of this city, nor did I conceive of the possibility of living in what was destined to be the eye of the storm at the End of Days.

In the year 1690 there also lived someone who thought the End of Days was happening before his lightless eyes. No one knows his name, and chances are no one ever will. A man from Aleppo, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, arrived that year in Jerusalem. He prayed there, strolled through its markets, met its people, and as is the habit of many pilgrims, put his impressions down in writing. One day he went out to a hill west of the city walls. The hill served as a Muslim cemetery, and the graveyard still exists in the center of Jerusalem in the Mamilla quarter. His guides related that here, at the edge of the cemetery, someone once dug a grave and, within the grave, found a Muslim man sitting and reading the Quran. The man from the grave addressed him and asked what had happened, whether the Hour, the End of Days, had come. The digger, frightened by what he saw, fled for his life. However, after a while he returned to the place, accompanied by other people, and found no trace of digging or the man in the grave.

Nearly two centuries later, someone else thought the End of Days was near. In 1874 a Dutch woman came to Jerusalem; the citizens called her the Dutch Princess. She decided that it was not enough to dream. She wanted to anticipate the practical needs of the Redemption and the End of Days. Therefore, she embarked upon the construction of a building that was to serve as a huge hostel meant to accommodate the 140,000 Children of Israel who would remain alive at the End of Days. The place she selected was none other than that same plot west of the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla. The man from the grave in the previous story is of the Children of Ishmael, but had his luck been with him, he might have been able to lodge in a five-star hotel as the “Shabbes goy” (a Gentile who performs household tasks prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath) for the surviving Children of Israel. The Dutch Princess ran out of money and never completed her project, which shows that even in the business of the End of Days, the earthly marketplace reigns.

The people of Jerusalem, the living and the dead, dwell there in expectation of the Day of Judgment.

Independence Park now stands on that site. Like many of the gardens in the Holy Land, it represents the Garden of Eden and, by extension, the expulsion. So, throughout the years, the people of Jerusalem, the living and the dead, dwell there in expectation of the Day of Judgment. Jerusalem is slowly borne above the earth’s surface, as if the stone of the city were not the same stone, as if the wind were not the same wind, and as if the people were not the same people.

Jerusalem is unlike other cities. It has laws of its own. For example, the laws of physics do not apply here. The city of Jerusalem is borne above the earth’s surface by supreme metaphysical forces, and any attempt to descend with it to the firm ground of reality—to the street, the café, the noise of the buses, the municipal garbage—leads to the crashing of dreams soaked in the holiness of the End of Days and fantasies sprinkled by divinity. Therefore, the city is famous for its syndrome, the Jerusalem Syndrome. Anyone who strolls through the streets is likely to encounter people whose dreams have all shattered on the ground of reality in this strange city. Where else in the world is there a city with a syndrome all its own?

Anyone who strolls through the streets is likely to encounter people whose dreams have all shattered on the ground of reality in this strange city.

Jerusalem is best kept in the cellars of the imagination. It is recommended, and perhaps desirable, to write about it, especially poetry. The city does right by poets. It provides them with an abundance of color, images, and metaphors. However, it is not a good idea, perhaps it’s even dangerous, to break it down into small details. Reality could hit you in the face, and dealing with this will be difficult. All of Jerusalem’s inhabitants are strangers, yet she does not welcome strangers. Here, strangeness has a hierarchy. I, too, am a stranger in Jerusalem, and it does not welcome me either. But what am I, a mere mortal, compared to the many days through which so many mortals have passed?

During the 1870s, about a hundred years before I came to Jerusalem, a man from Damascus named Nu’man al-Qasatili came to the city gates seeking progress and openness. The Damascus of those days looked to him like the epitome of backwardness, so he set out for what he imagined to be the city of lights. He did not find the city of lights, of course, but he immortalized his impressions in a chronicle of his journeys through the provinces of Greater Syria. He noted that there were about forty thousand inhabitants in the city at the time. The natives were a minority in Jerusalem. The rest were a motley of strangers: Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The majority of the city’s inhabitants had arrived there from distant places, beyond the sea and desert. Today the population of Jerusalem is more than four hundred thousand souls. The inhabitants of today are new strangers, or the descendants of yesterday’s strangers. The strangers of today are the fathers of the strangers who will be born here. Gradually, it becomes clear that strangeness is an inseparable part of the city. The strangers who have settled in the city enjoy when strangers come to visit. They wait expectantly for the visitors because they provide a significant part of their income, as al-Qasatili says. Those who have already settled in Jerusalem do not love the other strangers who have already settled here, but all of them want the strangers’ money, that is to say the tourists, because that is how they earn their living.

Who builds whom? Does man build a city in his image, or is it the city that builds the man? This question may seem simple, but with respect to Jerusalem, it is not. Cities built along the coast take their character from the sea. They face the sea and draw serenity from it. The cycle of the waves beating endlessly on their shores pervades them with a sense of life without end. In Jerusalem, too, there is a cycle, but it is the cycle of a volcano, and you never know when it will explode. There is also a sea near Jerusalem. But in this Jerusalem sea, you always lie on your back with your eyes looking up toward heaven. You needn’t lift a finger in order to float because Jerusalem’s sea always pushes you upward. You can sink only into hallucinations of other places and other times. Any attempt to stand with your feet on the ground, to be in reality, demands a supreme effort, and in many cases it demands a lot of tears, and not always because of the salt of the Dead Sea.

As I told you, I was not born in Jerusalem. I came there in the seventh decade of the twentieth century to join the congregation of strangers that inhabit it. Jerusalem is ultimately a city of eternal strangers. The connection to the city is not a connection to place, but rather a connection to time. The connection is not to stone, object, or anything earthly, but rather to moments, feelings, experiences. And Jerusalem, as opposed to many cities, has too much time, too many moments, and too much past. And with so much past in Jerusalem, it is hard to see the future, because the future of Jerusalem always pulls toward the past. The people of Jerusalem walk through it with their eyes stuck in the backs of their heads and their faces eyeless. This is perhaps another reason why the people of Jerusalem frequently fall down in the street. Every movement in it, even the smallest, leads to a wound. Every stone you turn over in this city could be hiding a scorpion because, as the tradition has it, Jerusalem is a golden chalice full of scorpions. The Jerusalem of yesterday, today, and presumably tomorrow sits on the watershed of the winds, between the desert and the mountain. It is a mixture of Hebron and Warsaw. Two seas battle for it, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the Dead Sea to the east. A sea of life and a sea of death, exactly like its history. Though it seems, more and more, that it is turning its back to the West and not dwelling in the East. It pulls towards the past, to Creation. Too much past has passed in Jerusalem, and in a place where the past is so dense, it is hard to see the future.

Too much past has passed in Jerusalem, and in a place where the past is so dense, it is hard to see the future.

And at that very place in Mamilla, al-Nabulsi writes, he saw something wonderful. He noticed a plant the size of a finger, green in color and with a flower. The plant had two arms, four legs, and a small red head with a white tuft on top. It also had a reddish-pink tail with vertebrae, and this plant was alive and walked on its legs. Hope hides in al-Nabulsi’s legend. The day will come when not only the Torah will go forth, but the flowers of Jerusalem will begin to walk freely on its earth. I have been living in Jerusalem for a number of years now, and I pass by this place often. Every time, I examine the ground, hoping to see that walking flower. However, in the meantime, I make do with other walking flowers, which I have been seeing for years. They have arms and legs, but not their own. These are the arms and legs of the girl who makes the rounds at night, selling flowers in the bars of Jerusalem.

Translation from the Hebrew

Born in 1953 in al-Maghar, an Arab town in the Galilee, Salman Masalha has lived in Jerusalem since 1972 and holds a PhD in in classical Arabic literature from the Hebrew University. He writes in both Arabic and Hebrew and translates into both languages. The author of eight volumes of poetry, his articles, columns, poems, and translations have appeared in newspapers, journals, and anthologies in both languages as well as in various others. Some of his poems have been performed to music and recorded by Israeli, Palestinian, European, and American musicians.

Vivian Eden holds a PhD in translation studies from the University of Iowa. The author of one book of poetry and numerous articles, she translates from Hebrew into English and a bit from French. Her day job is at Haaretz’s English edition, a daily newspaper published in Tel Aviv with the International New York Times.

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