Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Thoughts on pilgrimage

A walk uphill through crowds from the convent to Damascus Gate.
Stop at my now favourite cafe en route. They are putting up even more Christmas decorations.

A shared taxi to the airport. Meet a party of 77 pilgrims from the Catholic Diocese of Westminster including someone who had once been interested in volunteering at Notre Dame Refugee Centre - with whom I have exchanged emails. What a coincidence. He is now working as Communications Officer for the Diocese. He says that the tour has been good - visiting one sacred site after another. It has been exhausting.

This is exactly what I didn't want to do. Ironically the journey was the important thing: making the effort to get here; working it out; carrying on, even though I really at one stage thought what on earth am I doing - even as I sat on the plane after we arrived at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, waiting for everyone to file off.

All that quickly disappeared - probably as I got out of the Nesser taxi at Damascus Gate and the driver shook my hand and said 'Welcome to Israel'. Then walking to Damascus Gate and up to the hotel - the light - the fruit - the smells - the excitement.

Have had few insights into the life of the soul: but interesting thoughts about seeing as praying and what faith means and might mean.

Jerusalem is probably about what faith means - it seems to be as I write at the airport.

Food is very expensive at the airport but am starving. A last Palestinian beer and - ridiculously - a slice of pizza.

A walk up the Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives gets a very bad press. My American dinner companions last night said they were warned against it by people at reception downstairs when they checked in.
I ask the man there when I try and book a taxi much later for the airport tomorrow (it is in fact too late to book a taxi): he says that it is fine if you go in the day time; obviously don't take all your money with you. They had a guest who wandered over to the Garden of Gethsemane at dusk and came back crying because someone had robbed her money. What did she expect, was the implication - I quite agree - what did she expect.
The Via Dolorosa seems to lead straight to the gate out to the hillside. It's busy. Coaches parked by the side of the road sparkle up the hill.
The olive trees are enclosed by a wall.- you can't go near them - and they are clearly very very old.

There are taxi drivers outside, people selling trinkets as ever - a taxi back to the old City?
Up the hill (it is still before 10) the road rises and has a Mediterranean feel. Bougainvillea. People arrive in groups, so if you wait for groups to pass you have the place more or less to yourself.
The Russian Orthodox Church - Mary Magdalene - opens at 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdyas.
Wait outside and play chess on my phone. Ten minutes.
Glorious gold onion domes.

Inside a nun is tranquilly lighting one taper on each of the stands, to get things going.
I sit for a while then suddenly think I will read the Bible. Why not read what the apostles said about the Mount of Olives. Wandering in the garden at night. Strange that I didn't think of referring back to the source text before. Somehow the words make sense of everything.
The domestic touches that reveal life in the religious community.... here geraniums.

Further up the hill pass the Jewish graveyard. Here thousands wait for the resurrection: they face the Temple Mount, just visible from the gate through the pine trees. Someone is looking for a tomb...

The gold dome of the Temple Mount visible and - below only just - the thousands of Muslim tombs.
Both Jews and Muslims believe that the Last Judgement will be held in Kedron Valley - between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.
Then what everyone calls the 'tear drop church ' - Dominus Flevit.
There are tours in the garden outside: groups leaders talking and explaining. The view across to the old City is spectacular. It is built here for a reason. The window behind the altar (which faces the Temple Mount) is clear.

There is a Latin inscription with Luke X1X v.41

"And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it.
Saying, if though hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side."

The altar is built against a window, which is of clear glass. Behind is the Temple Mount. Everything has come to pass, it seems.
Walk back into the town and a woman in a headscarf near Lion's Gate asks me for directions in Russian to Mary Magdalene church. Have lost all Russian.
Hasten to the Austrian Hospice. It is like stepping into Vienna and there are palm trees in the garden. Americano with hot milk and apple strudel. Send a picture to an Austrian friend.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Inspiration ...and new arrivals from Philadelphia

I am tired. A gin and tonic would be wonderful but there is no gin and tonic anywhere on the horizon. (Ask the next day at the Austrian Hospice next door to my convent and they say they have beer and wine but no hard liquor). There is no bar at the convent.

Have no can opener to open a bottle of beer I bought on the street during the afternoon - so inspired by the memory of someone once lopping the neck off a champagne bottle with a machete - used the marble window ledge to knock the cap off.  (No damage done - see  below).  Immediately felt much better.

There is a strong smell of boiled vegetables at dinner. Only four tables, each sitting eight.
This is the first time I have eaten dinner at the convent - had a presentiment that it might not be entirely what I wanted. There are two new guests from Australia on the first table - and two more on the second table. These second two are looking at the wine list. A wine list! I should clearly sit by them.
They have just flown in from the US. The woman is red-eyed, very tired.
There is white wine available! A full bottle for 14 dollars - not so bad - half a bottle for 10 dollars, rather expensive.
Would they share a bottle with me? No, they are very tired.
Ask the new arrivals from Australia. No, they don't drink.
Never mind. A drink is on my mind. Go into the kitchen and ask if they will sell wine by the glass. This might be possible but would prove expensive. So I buy half a bottle of white. How many glasses? he asks. Two? Yes, of course.
I put two glasses by the bottle, back at the table. Would anyone like any wine? No, they're tired.
Try again in a bit and the woman - Trina - takes a small glass  - thankfully.
We talk about their plans. They had no idea that old Jerusalem would be so hilly and cobbled. It was a real trial carrying their suitcases down from Damascus Gate. The husband has a bad knee.
She asks for my highlights: forced to think, I say waking up early and going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Going to Bethlehem and Aida Camp was good, though it derailed my thoughts for a while.
Thin vermicelli soup, then a battered orange breadcrumbed flattened piece of food that from the outside could have been either chicken or fish but turns out to be chicken. Scalloped potatoes in what looks like diluted milk and vegetables diced - a lot of aubergine and carrot. Dessert is red jelly with a biscuit in it, topped with a (small ) dollop of artificial cream. 'I'd never thought of putting that in jello,' says Trina.

A glimpse of further settlements... and the Jewish quarter

The guide points out something that I hadn't  notice before - or only subliminally.
Israeli flags hang from buildings in the Muslim quarter: settlements, says the guide. He talks about the settlement organisation Ateret Cohamin. He points out the private security guards needed to protect these houses. They are wearing black polo shirts and carry discreet guns.
Now he has mentioned it, spot flags elsewhere, particularly later from the terrace outside my room at the covent.

We walk over to the Wailing Wall. It is Monday, a popular day for Bar Mitzvahs.

This area was reduced to rubble during the 1948 fighting. Much reconstruction.

Into the market, where there are some surprising posters.

This one in particular: the Temple Mount without the gold dome of the Mosque...

And this apparently a totemic image ... soldiers by the wall.

Fatigue and a quest for more information

Woke not at all sure what to do. Watched the sun rise.

Such was the intensity of yesterday that it's hard to imagine sight-seeing and churches. Sit at breakfast with fellow pilgrims at Ecce Homo convent. Breakfast is not spectacular: instant coffee, toast and pitta bread. Cubed cheese (possibly Feta, tomatoes and black olives). A man sitting opposite me at the table introduces himself: he advises the US military on Islamic matters. He is wearing a wooden cross outside his shirt. Someone asks him about Islamic pilgrimage. He says that social pressure is involved: the community puts pressure on people to make pilgrimages.
Converstaion with Diego from Padua. Diego is doing research on pilgrims. He asks if I have mastered the internet connection yet. I say that the problem arises with the different log ins - EH Guests, Coffee House etc. It's just a question of working it out. He says 'I've written a book about that. It's called Women and Computers'.
Look at this? It's a recorder. I'm recording everything you say. I really hope not.

Thinking a lot about Palestine and related issues. Sign on to a three-hour political tour of the Old City. This is mostly a lecture by someone who I am sure is an academic in real life such is his range of knowledge. He is Jewish. Some of his grandparents came from Russia. His intonation, inflections and accent even remind me of an old Jewish friend, who fled the Soviet Union. He is intense and very focussed - impassioned. He wears rope sandals and a checked shirt. There is a gingham trim inside his collar.
We start - what a coincidence - at the cafe near Damas Gate where I had the pumbkin dish. The owner is washing down the terrace. He is the only Christian owner in the quarter: this is a Muslim quarter. His family has lived here for many decades, he says.
Key points from the guide (three hours of talking in all so cannot possibly summarise): the things he said that stick in my mind....
- growing nationalist movements in Russia and Eastern Europe from the mid 19th century onwards led to anti-semitisim and an exodus of Jews
- Palestine at this time was part of the Ottoman Empire
- The British conquered the Ottoman Empire in 1917 (T E Lawrence led the Arab revolt which preceded this)
- The Balfour Declaration was a watershed moment and could be said to be the document that held the seeds of the political problems that now exist in the region. Lord Balfour (Foreign Secretary) viewed a national home for Jews, without infringing on the rights of the non-Jewish population. Seven per cent of the population i.e. Palestine under British mandate was Jewish.
How on earth did this come about? What could the British have envisaged under the Balfour Declaration (not entirely happy about being referred to as ' you the British' by our intense tutor: Colonialism is rape and pillage and murder.)
- The British were under pressure and wanted to leave Palestine.
- The 1929 Stock Market crash in the US led to a clamp-down on immigration there
- The British found themselves pressed between two demands i.e. Zionists v Arabs
- 1936 was the Arab rebellion. The British used Jewish forces to repress the rebellion
- 1947 - the UN partition plan with Jewish and Arab states
However... the Jewish population was urban. Migrants always go to cities - not the country. They buy property in cities, not land. The cities were 50:50 Jewish and Muslim.
The British withdrew in November 1947 and let us say the next day the civil war began. In 1948 Arab states started to send in troops. It became a war of attrition.
The population of Palestine was 1.3 million: 750,000 people became refugees as they were driven out of the current Israel. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel remained, but most of those people were internally displaced.

Gaza became a huge complex of refugee camps.
This idea of parcelling up territory was mirrored in other places as the British Empire was broken up e.g. India and Pakistan.
Fast forward to the six-day war in 1967: (the guide has already been talking for more than an hour.)
Israel conquered the West Bank but there was not much movement of population. Israel couldn't find a way to leave the West Bank or exit. The First Intifada forced Israel to reposition the Oslo accords.
The Second Intifada was against Palestinian leadership as much as against the Israeli government.
The Palestinian authorities were completely corrupt, says the guide. The area is aid depdenent. 'Your taxes go towards paying the salaries of aid workers." Money is also channelled towards Palestinians working closely with the NGOs.
"Nothing like a Palestinian state is being built."
Takes notes of what strikes me: will need to return to reflect on this and read much, much more.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

English Perpendicular and a large icecream

There is only so much religious intensity you can take.
Decided to stick with what I knew so sought out Evensong at the Anglican Cathedral on Nablus Street. This is back in East Jerusalem, near the hotel where I stayed the first two nights.

A relief somehow to step into the courtyard - it is stepping back to the familiar. There are electric gates at the entrance - an unseen guard buzzes me in. This seems so English - the familiar Perpendicular of Victorian restoration.

It is very Church of England, a very sparsely attended service. The vicar is visiting from Nottingham for six months. He welcomes me and asks if I am a priest (the first time anyone has ever asked me that). I ask if it is sung evensong. He said let's see how we get on. We'll all sit in the choir.
Three more people arrive and we start. We sing a hymn tremulously: I have never sung it before. It is right in the back of the Hymn Book - perhaps the very last hymn - number 500 just after the 'National' section.
He asks who might read the lesson and it seems churlish not to offer. The Old Testament reading is Samuel 1, verses 1 to 20. That is really very long. Is that all right? Well, yes of course.
The people want a king. It is the festival of Christ the King - the first Sunday in Advent.
It is a very long time since I have read a lesson, perhaps since childhood and I cannot recall what you are supposed to say at the end. I say Here endeth the lesson, and remember Rev Beckerlegge at Crowan. This is no doubt what he taught us.
 Let's keep silent for a while, shall we? says the vicar afterwards. This is the word of The Lord. Thanks be to God is now what is commonly said: an august voice from the home counties opposite reads the New Testament lesson.
We stand for the creed but do not turn to face the altar as we did at Crowan. I remember singing in the choir at evensong, wearing black robes and surplices we kept in the vestry. I think we even wore square flat caps -  strange to remember now.
Interesting reflections on power and the use of power.
The second hymn, Judge in Splendour, is far more successful,.
Prayers for pilgrims that they may return enriched and enrich the lives of those around them.
Awkward farewells.
On the way home stop for a very large icecream - slightly larger than I intended - Passion fruit, American waffle and rum raisin.

A pumbkin lunch and Palestinian beer

It is suddenly very hot. Return to the cafe where Christmas has already arrived and am welcomed as an old friend. Am persuaded to try the pumbkin dish stuffed with rice and lamb: a very good decision.

A rooftop visit and a glimpse of the Tsars

Throughout this trip have not read the guidebooks ahead of time. Someone said to me before going that you are more alert and more observant if you don't take maps, if you aim to get lost. I wonder if this is true in an emotional sense too.
Go back to the courtyard in front of the Holy Sepulchre and climb up to the rooftop monastery of the Ethiopians. This is a very peaceful place. The cupola covers the chapel of Saint Helena below. There is poverty here, somehow - it is clear - compared to the wealth below.
Climb down to vast underground cisterns.
Water was crucial to the project - always. The priest tells me that Saint Helena found this water and therefore built a church.

An early start and a visit to the tomb

Woke at 5. Roosters crowing throughout the night it seemed, and calls to prayer from the muezzin.
No one up but the night guard. The Via Dolorosa deserted except for an Armenian priest carrying a plastic bag.

 Turn up to climb steps under the covered market: boys pushing a trolley of pitta and bread say good morning.

An Armenian woman shows me the way around the corner to the courtyard in front of the Holy Sepulchre.
It is empty apart from the two of us. She disappears into the church. No one at the Stone of Unction where the lights sway. 

Upstairs - by Calvary - a German mass is taking place in the chapel on the right. To the left a group of Indians pray and kiss the stone under the altar. Then they go.

Downstairs the Catholic Mass is in Latin. The priest starts to put out barriers for the queue to visit Christ's tomb and find myself near the start. This is the dome built by the Crusaders - the Temple Church mirrors this. Monumental pillars.

Little time to look closely. A marble slab and a small room. Not a place for photos.
Leave and wish I could find the Ethiopian monastery I read about years ago in H V Morton. See a small door in the courtyard to the left and go in. THis is it. On the first floor a Mass is taking place. Sit at the back with the women, who half prostrate themselves on the floor beside me, their white scarves covering their bodies as well as their heads. The priest comes towards us with the cross to bless us

Go back to the convent to sleep. It is still a long time until breakfast.
Pitta bread, cubed cheese and tomatoes, olives. Yoghurt and fresh fruit. A very slow conveyor style toaster. I take someone else's bread by accident not realising it is that slow. He jumps up beside me. 'That's my toast!"

Reading and watching

  • Foot by Foot to Santiago de Compostela/Judy Foot
  • The Testament of Mary with Fiona Shaw at the Barbican
  • The Testament of Mary/Colm Toibin
  • Schwanengesang/Schubert - Tony Spence
  • Journals/Robert Falcon Scott
  • Fugitive Pieces/Ann Michaels
  • Unless/Carol Shields
  • Faust/Royal Opera House
  • The Art of Travel/Alain de Botton
  • Mad Men Series 6
  • A Week at The Airport/Alain de Botton
  • The Railway Man/Eric Lomax
  • Bright Lights, Big City/Jay McInerney
  • Stones of Venice/John Ruskin
  • The Sea, the Sea/Iris Murdoch
  • Childe Harold/Lord Byron
  • All The Pretty Horses/Cormac McCarthy
  • Extreme Rambling/Mark Thomas
  • Story of my Life/Jay McInerney
  • Venice Observed/Mary McCarthy