As published in Volume 11, NO 1, March 2014
by Lily Michaelidou
A journey does not end with the return home. The body still carries the warmth of the people. The landscapes pass in sequence before one’s eyes like a film, and thought with magical agility can travel back, within a few minutes, over the journey, from the moment of landing, the route through traffic deadlock to Haifa, drive on to the holy city of Jerusalem, follow the driver into the expanse of desert, sparsely inhabited by Bedouins, arrive at the Dead Sea and, after the therapeutic awakening, return purified to Tel Aviv.
I woke to the sound of water. It is the end of November and autumn is negotiating its departure. When I went down to the park, the sun had already bathed in the fountain and was sitting on the benches. I sat next to it, gazing at the harbour which stretched out to where the land dissolves into the sea. The huge cranes were standing like sculptures in the water. The sea washes the feet of the town, keeping the roots of the people moist. I wandered along the steep streets. The shops were still shut. In the morning coffee shops, groups, mainly of men, were having coffee, talking and gesticulating – a Mediterranean habit. Small fast-food establishments were preparing for breakfast and lunch. From the heart of the Wadi Nisnas quarter came the strong aroma of falafel hazkenim, mingled with the keen appetite and enthusiasm of the clientele.
Haifa is built on three levels counting from the sea, the first level, up to the highest point of Mount Carmel, the third level. Each has its own character. You distinguish it by the buildings, dress code, the colours on the walls, the people, the way they behave and the smells enveloping them: Jewish, Arab, German, Christian quarters. A question dogs my footsteps in the streets. How do all these communities, with their intense religious past and present, live peacefully? Or does a fragile membrane of silk skilfully mask their differences? Certainly what we sense today, as visitors, is the result of multiple antagonisms and differences which some have managed in one way or other to reconcile.
In the evening, at the entrance of the theatre with the poets and a crowd of people, the religious emblems of the three main communities of the city also welcomed us.
The coffee, under the gaze of Che Guevara in the theatre foyer, had a bitter-sweet taste.
* * *
Mount Carmel dominates from on high, spilling abundant greenery into the settlements. Tall blocks of flats are planted amidst the vegetation and the houses, hiding their facades behind high hedges. The Baha’i gardens literally hang from the summit to the foot of the mountain. In the evening, illuminated, they give the feeling that they are floating or travelling to some nearby sky. In daytime, imperious and remote, they flaunt their nobility, having enslaved the eyes of the visitors. At the bottom they finish up in the German colony with the restaurants beneath the tiled roofs.
* * *
That evening, as we went down the main street of the German colony, we heard the voices of a demonstration. Palestinian flags were swaying above the heads of hundreds of demonstrators demanding recognition of their right to remain on the land where they have lived for years with the minimum, for the “civilised” but for them all. Life between earth, sky and dusty dreams, is all their life…
Jerusalem welcomes us in dust. A mantle of velvety dust covers everything and settles like powder on our faces. The haziness of the landscape conceals a mystery. From Mount Scopus the city is outlined and gradually appears with all its details, just like a photograph in a developing dish. We see the old city, one with the colours of the earth. The Castle, the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, Solomon’s Temple stand out and the whole area of the old city infiltrating and mingling with the new.
The wind of faith flows across the hills, enters the Holy City and from the top of the mountain the living are looking puzzled and amazed. We were walking, swathed in dust. We felt the weight of the faith on our shoulders as well as the allure of Jerusalem for the people enlisted in her service. Their faith rises up like a breakwater protecting them from the insecurity, the fears and uncertainty of the present.
Our first halt brings us face to face with death. From the Mount of Olives stretches the valley of the dead, planted with rectangular tombs, with only the “visitors’ stones” for company, the glances of passersby, the air, the dust. Biblical prophets lie next to contemporary heroes, rabbis and thousands of unknown people. The tombs of darkness in the world of light. Not even a tree among them, a bush or a flower. Only the earth, hard and barren. The only signs of life are the birds flying free and the few relatives by the tombs. Small stones are placed on the tombs, a sign that someone has visited them. Pain and loss are imprisoned in them, like a living butterfly crucified in a showcase. Next to death you discover life.
The bus crosses the barren expanse. All around us the inertia of the desert. From time to time makeshift camps of Bedouins. Under the midday sun, poetic hallucinations, associations and the sound of the air through the half-open windows are driving us to the Dead Sea.
A wide flat sea
I stretched my gaze and gave myself to the heavy waves
with no resistance
sank into the muddy water
felt my limbs like rotten weeds
in complete decomposition
a gentle rinse in the salty water
the purification of dreams and bodily pleasures
On the way back, I am not alone
dust and smell at the limits of the horizon
among the crests of the dunes
The gifts of the earth that compose the body
and the liquefied senses
shall be the lovers of my writing
Only the hidden desires we couldn’t specify. They invaded the threshold of the mind and dominated the thoughts…
Tel Aviv, two slim words, tall like the skyscrapers which are rooted uncontrolled along the sea front and in various parts of the city. Tel Aviv means “the hill of spring” and over it have sprung up complicated stories of people, belligerent relationships of thousands of souls who are living today – ostensibly – in peace. The city, washed by the eastern waters of the Mediterranean, has its own particular character, combining simultaneously Arab, African, Latin American, Russian and European elements which lend the identity of its inhabitants and the places from where they moved to come here.
* * *
We got off at the central railway station of Tel Aviv. Anat was waiting for us at the exit. We took a taxi and traversed the main roads of the city. We got out at Bialik Square, where the old Town Hall and the house of the poet Nachman Bialik are, and on foot we reached the chaotic, colourful, vibrant Carmel Market. It took time to pass through its thoroughfares jam-packed with people, street vendors, merchandise on moveable and fixed stalls, strong aromas of spices and perfumes, particularly women’s. A little further out, the dog market. The road where one can bring, show and give a dog and another can walk, choose and take it with him, without paying.
The sun walked with us through the narrow streets of the old quarter, “The nucleus,” Anat says, “the first inhabitants of the city settled here.” Small, chic shops, cafés with flavoured coffee and restaurants were beginning to close for Shabbat. A period of rest. “Shabbat shalom,” the locals say, as we say “Have a nice weekend”.
Monday morning, December the second, two thousand and thirteen. He was waiting for me at the entrance of the hotel. We walked for a while along Ben Yehuda Avenue and, at a bend, the road brought us out on the sea front. Two days before, when we walked along the same road with Anat and Regina, the sea was rough and hostile, and tens of bold surfers, sliding sideways, were following the huge curves of the waves and vanishing into the foam. Today, however, it is clean and clear. It reminded me of Famagusta beach with its golden sand. In this part of the Mediterranean the cities are linked by a silken marine thread. Only that at Famagusta the buildings had taken over the beach and not left space for a coastal road. Here, walking along the promenade, by the skyscraper hotels and the milestone monuments of the city’s history, I feel like a bird let out of its cage. I am lost in thought but come back to myself again because the sun marks the road and from the shadows of the buildings one can estimate the time. But the sun was not in a hurry; it followed us for the entire route, moving its fingers slowly.
Later, at the Museum of Modern Art, we wandered among architectural trends, artistic combinations and photographic itineraries of an era defined as contemporary.
* * *
Monday afternoon, December the second, two thousand and thirteen. “At the Cinema Café,” he told me on the phone. “We’ll meet there.” We mixed the coffee with poetry, a dash of history, a little fragrance from the flowers of the nearby garden, a good mood to see ourselves out of the stagnant waters of daily routine. We shared experiences from other places, our meetings with people, journeys, flavours that had crossed our palates. Impressions which reconcile us with life, places and people.
The sun accompanied us for quite some time along the Yarkon River and set with it in the sea. A verdant path by the water. The course of the sun, like the course of life. The same and irreversible, which starts from birth, with beginning and end.
* * *
The city I walked with Nissim, Amir, Anat and Regina. These steps I am carrying with me now, crammed into my suitcase, in the belly of the aeroplane… and a strong desire which calls me back…
Let me embrace you, this last night
I’m a flushed sea tonight
a thrusting wave
words floating uncontrolled
and drowning in the water
Let me feel you this lonely night
a swollen sea I am tonight
a tsunami engulfing streets,
entering houses, bothering their residents
The moon kindles the desire Tel Aviv
in the mirror I see more than your name
I see the faces of your fate
the dawn of a bond
washed by the same waters of the Mediterranean
Translated by Christine Georghiades