The Student Village, Hebrew University
A few days later, Coen came to see me. I was flattered, but also couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous that he would want to journey across the city just to sit on a swing set with me and eat sushi. Granted, I had originally suggested that we go to the Student Village bar, but it was closed, so here we were. It warmed me to think that he might see me as more than a drunken make-out, and that he wanted to take the time to make up for what we had skipped. I hoped inwardly that this was his intention rather than to pick up from where we left off….
We finished our sushi and swung back and forth gently, staring at the rather industrial view of the apartment buildings, quiet and cast in dim yellow light. There was an awkwardness between us that wasn’t there before. “I’m sorry about the other night,” Coen began, shifting from the small talk.
“What do you mean?” I played dumb.
“You know - the Elizabeth thing.”
“Oh. It’s ok, I was half asleep anyway....” I didn’t really think they had, but I had to ask: “You didn’t -- did you?”
“Oh - no. No.” He frowned and shook his head, looking like he had more to say. “She’s a very sad person,” he concluded with care. I nodded and there was a heavy silence. I bent down and picked up a feral kitten to alleviate it. “Cute!” Coen smiled and stroked him on my lap.
The memory of our kisses in dark corners hung in the air. “I - I don’t usually move that quickly with guys,” I finally spoke, looking at the kitten as it nuzzled into me. “It’s just - stressful here, and I was alone for a long time…. I’ve never really done that before.”
“I know,” Coen replied gently, and my nerves loosened. “I know you’re...different.” I looked at him in the dim yellow light and my heart glowed a little. He was beautiful. “Let’s talk about something else,” he suggested lightly, and we did. We talked about our homes and our families, our school experiences and the places we’d been and wanted to go. We were so very different, and when he asked me if I believed in God, I knew the gorge between us would only expand. Yet, it felt safe to be honest with him.
“Yes, I do,” I answered his question after a moment of thought.
“Is that why you came here?” he asked.
“Partly, I guess,” I really hadn’t given that much thought. “I was raised in a very Christian town. I loved youth group.... But college is different.” I was surprised to find it harder to be honest with myself than with him. Coen made me really think about things, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. “I think I’m starting to lose that part of me, and I wanted to get it back.”
“Have you? Gotten it back?”
I knew the answer to that question, so far, was a definitive ‘no’, but I had a hard time coming up with an answer as to why. I thought about the small amount of Jerusalem I had seen. Since I’d arrived, it had been a montage of tear gas and soldiers and boys in the street bearing knife scars. I bore in mind that I hadn’t been to any of the holy sites yet, but it was because they were deemed too unsafe to visit. “Not yet,” I finally sighed. “It kinda seems like religion here is a list of technicalities that people kill each other over.”
“Hmm...yeah,” Coen agreed pensively. “You know, in Holland there is very little religion, and we all mostly see things the same. It’s peaceful and I think it’s a better way.” I thought about a world with no God and felt a pang inside. “But,” he continued, “sometimes it feels … empty. Like there’s something missing.... I’m not sure what it is, but it has to be something.”
I stared at Coen while petting the kitten and wondered how such a cerebral mind could fit inside such a hot guy. I could fall in love with him, maybe. Spend the next few months together and travel all over. A male companion could keep me safe in conservative areas, and we could have long talks like this one about the backwardness of the customs we saw or my feelings when a street vendor called me names when I was walking alone. And we would make a fine, foreign couple and I would be happy and safe.
But Coen had asked me why I had come here. Maybe I hadn’t found God or even myself yet, but I still had to try. I wasn’t here to fall in love; moreover, fall in love with a Dutch model who was pro-party drugs and anti-Israel.
“Can I take a picture of you with that cat?” he asked me.
“Yes.” In the picture, I was blushing and beautiful. He left soon after.
Our class trip to Jaffa was my first time out of Jerusalem in weeks. As we drove towards the coast, the weather grew steamier and the number of soldiers and armored vehicles lessened. It felt good to be going somewhere else.
Our tour guide informed us that Jaffa was one of the oldest port cities in the world. Once we were arrived and off the bus, I found that it had a timeless magic that was almost palpable. There were ancient lighthouses overlooking the bay from rocky cliffs, and I could easily picture great leaders like Alexander and Napoleon weighing anchor here. Located in the shadow of Tel Aviv, we could look down the shoreline and see the old blend into the new, springing up into towers of modernity.
We began our tour by walking along the docks where old Arab fisherman sat and smoked. Once a week, these docks transformed into an international fish market, with fisherman from all around the Mediterranean sailing in to sell their weekly catch. But today, they were content to watch the bay and nod kindly at us as we passed. There was a sense of peace between them and the sea that had a renewing effect on me.
We turned inland and headed up some steep steps cut into rock. We passed a creamy stone minaret of a mosque that looked enchanting against the blue sea and sky. Above us was a matching stone church, and I wondered how long these two structures had stood looking at each other.
The church, I soon learned, was called St. Peter's. It was very old and had been destroyed several times. Upon entry we were greeted by Friar Angelo, a short, friendly Filipino-American with an easy way and a dry sense of humor. As he gave us a tour of his church and the Vatican Embassy located beneath it, it was gradually revealed, one nonchalant statement at a time, that Friar Angelo was infinitely more interesting than he appeared. He began life as a Filipino immigrant living in New York. As a young man, he became a realtor and was, in his words, “fairly good at it.” In truth, he had set up shop in the Bay Area, and had dominated the market. At this point, he was still relatively young, with two multi-million-dollar houses, when he "heard the call" to give up his money, his property, and life as he knew it to join the Church. He heeded this call and went back to school to learn SIX new languages. (We were able to get this special tour because my Arabic professor, the very old woman who used to be an intelligence agent, knew him as a student.) After school, he worked his way up the clergy ladder and became the head priest at St. Peter's Church and overseer of the Vatican Embassy. He was likely the busiest man in the world, his time occupied with leading mass in four different languages, barbecuing on the roof for foreign dignitaries (likely including the Pope), and hurling the occasional cannon ball down at stone-throwers. By the time he bid us farewell at the church door, I was ready to commit myself to a life of chastity and poverty if it meant I could attend one of his barbecues.
Our next stop was the mosque, a special trip which required some palm-greasing from my increasingly badass professor. Taking my shoes off, covering my head, and entering the mosque, I tried to repress the feeling of taboo-ness derived from my Western perspective. Inside, it looked more like a carpeted library than a house of God. There were a few men prostrate on the floor, who ignored us as the caretaker explained that the books lining the walls were accounts of Muhammad's life. He also talked about the scholarly nature of Muslim faith, the typical Friday Prayer ritual, and the hole in the stained-glass window where some Jews had thrown a rock. They had yet to be reprimanded by the authorities, and he was very frustrated about it. Before we left, he made us some sweet tea and wished us well.
After this, we had lunch at a local bookstore/café. I enjoyed the pita and hummus as the biographies of Hillary Clinton and Bin Laden stared down at me from the top shelf. Afterward, a Muslim woman who started an organization to help Palestinian women find jobs was invited to speak with us. She explained the difficult situation in which many Palestinian women found themselves: unemployed because of their race amongst Jews, and because of their gender amongst Palestinians. Her organization created jobs for women, making dolls and home-cooked dinners to sell to Palestinians and Israelis alike. These products were meant to spread awareness and bring people together. I found the woman to be extremely driven and hopeful. However, as we headed back toward Jerusalem, passing by heavily-guarded checkpoints and a separation wall, I wondered if there could ever be hope enough to fix this place.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
During my first week of classes, I had discovered the campus’ botanical garden. The entrance was located across from the International Students building, where all my classes took place. The delicate high-desert greens contrasted nicely with the clean, contemporary white stone buildings, and once inside the garden, this classic Jerusalem white stone was incorporated in a more timeless way, paving the path in some places and highlighted in a collection of ancient catacombs which were carved into the stone itself. One could step inside a few of the chambers and look at some of the artifacts that were left there, and outside there were fish ponds and gnarled old trees to sit under. The place exuded a sense of mystique, a timeless steadfastness.
Every day, I would walk through the garden to and from class, and very often I spent my lunches there, rain or shine. I had the sense that nothing bad could ever happen here; that nothing that was going on outside could ever touch it. I seldom encountered others here, and as I wandered, so did my mind. I could imagine Jesus walking through here, high up on the hill overlooking the sinful city, and loving the still trees with their trembling leaves because they did not hate or hurt anything at all, and perhaps he would wish that he could stay hidden up here and never go down to the city again.
There was a place on the outskirts of the garden, a stone proscenium, where I would sit and watch As-Sawiya burn. To the left, just beyond the trees, I could see Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) driving in and out, day by day. Anis had told me once that they were training for Gaza, practicing drills for urban combat. However, it could not have all been drills, because on some days, during class, there were rattling blasts accompanied by plumes of smoke. Our teacher would tell us to come away from the window and mutter something about blowing up the homes of terrorists.
Today, hidden in my garden, I watched tiny men light tires in the street. Like a string of ants, the soldiers approached through an olive orchard, climbing over walls and fences until they came upon them. The soldiers unleashed a series of blasts that forced the men into another street, where they stood their ground and threw rocks until, gradually, they were pushed by the smoke into the decrepit buildings from which they’d come.
In my garden, I was a quiet spirit. I could see and hear, but I could not feel. It was only when I passed through the gates and was walking the road home that my eyes and nose burned from the pepper spray that drifted from the town below.