Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jerusalem. Looking back (part one)

“Arafat said ‘it is the job of every (Palestinian) woman to have 14 children. 4 for themselves and 10 for the cause,” said the woman to me as she was crossing over the manic road, taking me to a street-side falafel stand. Her eyes were filled with the horror of the idea that one could invoke such an idea of violence from fertility. The 10 were to provide the raw meat, the mules, of the suicide bombings. It’s not a quote I know, but apocryphal or not it parallels quotes he made at other times. Yet he also won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzak Rabin. But Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli, Sadat by an Egyptian; Kennedy and King by Americans; Gandhi by an Indian. We feed on our own.

She was not native Israeli nor native Palestinian. She had been born in what was then Rhodesia, a fertile agricultural heartland, into the white minority that finally relented the power it had not earned, turning the country over to Robert Mugabe, who hurled it so far back into the stone age that it is, even from a distance, a tragic scar instead of a thriving heartland. Her family fled as so many white Rhodesian/Zimbabweans did as things went badly for that community, as Mugabe took greater and more accurate aim at the tragedy of his policies through the invocation of a race card, a land card and a power card by zeroing in on the most virulent symbol of Colonialism, skin color. She had taken a circuitous route to end up in Israel, in Jerusalem, another city wrenched by the barriers of color, faith and a desire for the land upon which others stood.

A charming, urbane and endlessly curious woman, she showed me the grace of the region, whether from a treat of a curbside meal or the kindness implicit in being an elegant, wandering host. We had met briefly in Washington, but became more truly acquainted in a day of meetings, touring from success story to success story there in West Jerusalem. Those success stories are of peace, of common purpose to teach, to lift up, to invite dialogue and invent possibility from the ether. All in the deep shadow of fear, which casts about in Jerusalem seemingly at will and alive, spreading and receding, somehow infused into every single heart and mind I encountered, a living thing, a violent emotional thing that upends conversation and takes root in that part of the brain that controls the “fight or flight” response.

“Jerusalem is dying,” an Israeli artist said in mid conversation. “Culturally it is dying. The art which was central to the city 20 years ago is being forcibly migrated out, polarized and pulled apart, Israeli to the West in Tel Aviv, Palestinian to the East and North to Ramallah. If we don’t find a way to change it, the city will be dead of all culture save religious culture, and then where will be find any common ground?”

Jerusalem is only now emerging from the grip of a religiously conservative mayor, a man who ground the secular art of the city down.

We think of Israelis as very westernized, and of course we think of their dance as among the finest, if not the finest, in the world (which in my view it absolutely is). Yet there are now just two professional modern companies in Jerusalem. They occupy different floors of the same building, and do so in a strangely symbolic way, one at ground level, exposed to the world and to the street, buffeted by that experience, the other below ground, working on many levels, and working the land literally at a farm outside the city, taking root, a plant, at first underground and then emerging from below to create something wondrous.

Amir Kolben’s studio stands at ground level of the plaza. To enter his workspace you enter his studio. It’s a grand tradition, really, that you must walk through the workspace to get to the changing space and sitting space and reflecting space. It reminds me of the old Feet First in DC, and there’s something very inviting about it. Art exposed, really. His studio is compact, but enough to generate large, deep and devilishly hard choreography. The company, like ours, is 8 or 9 dancers, and like ours they are full of that life, and that banter, that implies a healthy inquiry and deep passion for the work.

Coming in as a guest the hospitality was wonderful, though embarrassing as I disrupted their entire process and got a treat in seeing some of the material performed. Captivating hardly describes it. Such invention.

The door to the studio stands at the far right corner of the room. All the rest is windows. Mid run of an excerpt from “Interface” I glanced at the windows and saw a young and exquisitely beautiful woman with her young son. They were peering through the space where the shades were open between the small footing wall and the space about 3 feet above the ground. She was electric in her energy and he was fascinated, smiling and absorbing the mad energy of the work.

At the end of the run I asked Amir if he had seen them there. “Yes,” he said. “A few months ago that would have been impossible.”


“Because the religious restrictions of the last Mayor made it a requirement that we close those shades completely. Our work was indecent and people had to be shielded from seeing it. Too immodest.”

But this was Israel I thought. Israel is a liberal voice in the arts and I was so startled by the idea that what I was watching was only months before unacceptable to peer at through a window. So much human beauty hidden from sight when it should be celebrated.

It reminded me of the challenges I had been advised of in terms of Cultural Sensitivity when coming to the region. But those warnings had been for Arab societies. Yet again, these two sides were not so very different.

“You know I used to go to Ramallah all the time to listen to jazz. It’s illegal for me to go there now.”

I never asked him which side had made that law.

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