Faith and hope in Jerusalem, by Kanchan Gupta

September 13th, 2009

By Kanchan Gupta
From India’s Sunday Pioneer

September 13, 2009

It must have been a strange, if not bemusing, sight for the faithful shrouded in ultra-orthodox gloomy black, the tourists in khaki cargo shorts and fluorescent tees clicking furiously with their spanking new digital cameras, and the Israeli soldiers armed with menacing Uzis ready to shoot from the hip at the slightest hint of trouble and ask questions later, as I approached the Wailing Wall, the Hakotel Hama’aravi, the holiest site for Jews, in the walled city of Old Jerusalem. But if the faithful were taken aback by a kurta-pajama clad Indian, a knitted kippah firmly in place, approaching the Western Wall, or what remains of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great, they did not bat an eyelid. Nor did the soldiers take note of this departure from the routine although remote-controlled cameras, monitored from an unseen chamber near the Temple Mount, must have swiftly zeroed in on me, recording every move, every gesture. My ‘jihadi’ beard would not have gone un-noticed. The tourists may have been amused, but I wouldn’t know how many bothered to record it to show relatives and friends back home.

In photographs the Wailing Wall looks towering; in real life it is awesome. The surface of the gigantic stone blocks has been smoothened by the passage of time. The repeated caressing of history’s gnarled relic, the touch of millions of palms of worshippers seeking forgiveness over hundreds of years, has imparted a dull gloss to the sand stone. Blades of wild grass peek hesitantly from the cracks and crevices on the wall stuffed with tightly folded slips of paper. Visitors scrawl prayers, pen their wishes or seek penance on scraps of paper and then stuff them into the cracks and crevices. Miraculously, they don’t fall out. Faith and ritual have common denominators across seas and lands.

An elderly rabbi gently guides me to the Wailing Wall, explains the traditional wish-making ritual, and asks, “What would you like to wish for?” What could I wish for? Peace in the world? Naah, I would rather let President Barack Hussein Obama deal with that. Peace with Pakistan? My former editor Vinod Mehta is already on the job. Peace in the Holy Land? Not a bad idea, but why waste a wish on something that’s not going to come true? So, there I stood below the Temple Mount, my pocket notebook open on my palm, my pen uncapped, desperately trying to think of something which, if it were to come true, would fetch joy and happiness to others. It would be easy to ask for something for myself - may the bank lose my car loan papers - but that would be a belittling and not a humbling experience. After a while I settled on wishing Iran would never get around to actually putting together a nuclear bomb as that would be catastrophic not only for Judea but also Samara and the Arab lands beyond. The energy of a million suns has the power to annihilate all living beings but it lacks the intelligence to distinguish an Israeli from a Palestinian, an Arab from a Jew, a Sunni from a Shia. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be thrilled by the thought of pressing the trigger and re-enacting the Holocaust, but there’s no reason to allow him the macabre pleasure of mass slaughter.

Having scribbled my wish I tore the page from my pocket notebook, folded and placed it in a crevice, gingerly pushing it deep inside. It’s unlikely my wish will come true - faith cannot triumph over failed diplomacy and bogus sanctions; it can at best heal inner wounds and foster hope till reality hits you in the face. This doesn’t upset me a great deal: I have been hit in the face once too often to let my hopes soar too high. But just in case Iran abandons the path to destruction I can always claim Mr Obama alone didn’t have a role to play. Which, of course, won’t happen. Iran will go ahead and make the Bomb and scare the daylights out of everybody, including us. It’s bad enough that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal; it will be infinitely worse to have two nuclear-armed neighbours, both irrevocably wedded to radical Islam albeit of varying shades and with different goals. We will have no other option but to accept the reality. But will Israel accept it too? Indeed, will Israel wait for Iran to acquire the Bomb? Or will it launch a pre-emptive strike, similar to that on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in the summer of 1971?

Later that night, I return to Old Jerusalem and enter the walled city through the Jaffa Gate. The dimly lit cobbled streets wear a desolate look, the raucous clamour of the day has given way to a certain stillness. I turn into the Armenian quarter where music wafts from a cafe. The Armenian quarter is the smallest of the four quarters in Old Jerusalem, which is divided among Jews, Christians, Muslims and Armenians in neat, well-demarcated blocks. The Armenian families which now reside there trace their ancestry to the original pilgrims who came to the ancient city. Most of the Armenians have migrated out of Jerusalem and Israel over the years; strangely, their population has declined since 1967 when East Jerusalem was liberated from Jordanian occupation by Israeli troops, but that could be because migration has become easier since the 1970s. Many of the old Armenian families are believed to have gone back to Armenia after the Soviet Union’s collapse in a sort of reverse migration, retracing the roots of their ancestors. Apocryphal stories are told of how shells that fell in the Armenian quarter during the Six-Day War did not explode, thus sparing this part of the walled city of destruction and death. At one end of the lane the Armenian flag flutters atop a pole, rising above leaning apartments.

Ravenously hungry, I order a shoarma-stuffed falafal with Turkish coffee. The falafal tastes heavenly, the shoarma melts in the mouth, the coffee scalds my tongue. The shisha arrives and I puff away late into the night, unmindful of the gathering gloom and the darkness that descends as lights are switched off in homes. In the cafe, some of us linger on, unwilling to leave so soon. The flaxen haired young woman at the counter, jabbering away in Armenian to a friend on her cell phone, slides another CD into the music system. That’s her way of letting us know she was in no hurry to pack up for the night. More coffee is ordered, freshly lit shisha is handed around, the dying embers of some are stoked to life.

It’s a starlit summer night. From this vantage point Jerusalem looks at peace with itself and the world. But it’s a deceptive peace. In Gaza, the Hamas plots its next move. In West Bank, Abu Mazen worries whether Fatah will stand by him. As for Israelis, they live on faith and hope. And an unwavering determination to overcome all odds, no matter how high they are stacked, against them.