A Journey of a Thousand Tongues
Behind the Mask Jerusalem
I moved in front of Lars and made myself the target of the man holding the knife, not out of any sense of protecting Lars but because I wanted to be the one recognized as the ‘head’ of the hunger strike, not Lars, sure somehow the men had not come to kill us but only to make us leave, but it was still a gamble. I realized that as I stood a few inches away from the man looking him in the eye wishing it was still Lars in that position of leadership; the man was dead serious.
“Don’t look me in the eyes. You’re nothing but a dog. Look down dog.” This was said with such contempt I complied, and as I did I saw the knife, which he was shielding with his jacket so it couldn’t be seen from a distance. When the men had come into the park they stood in a group in front of us, a couple holding one arm behind their backs like they had some weapon, the group jacking to spring. I had made myself the sole object of their bad attention through force of ego, like I said, though originally they had come and confronted us as a group, demanding to know which one of us was Lars.
There were four or five men in total, one left as a lookout near the park entrance closest to us, making sure we could see his walkie-talkie. I could see they were nervous. They were also all young, in their early to mid twenties. We were told later by Israeli friends that they were part of the Palestinian mafia of the old city, not from the PLO, Hamas, or anything like that, but we never actually found out what group they were from. All we knew about them was that they were friends of Mohammad, a manager of a hostel in the old city that catered to Western tourists. He himself was nowhere to be seen, though he’d been there in the afternoon with his friends, the same ones there now (new ones added), to tell us he wanted to play soccer there and needed the whole park to do so, and so we had to leave. We had refused, and he said he’d be back. Now, in the night, it wasn’t him back but his friends, who, we’d later learn, he’d lied to about the nature of his relationship with Patricia to get them to do what he asked, lying about us too.
“We’re coming back at 1 a.m., and if you’re still here we’re going to kill you, all of you, and you,” he said putting his face close to mine, “you, we’re gonna fuck you first before we kill you. You hear that? We’re gonna drag you in these bushes after we kill everybody else and fuck you. You know what that means?” He said it like he was letting something secret revel a moment in the moonlight, what little of it there was, and I nodded yes, abhorring the understanding I had. With my long flowing hair and flowery hippie clothes I probably looked more feminine than masculine, but this wasn’t really about sexual attraction even though some element of that was present. This was about male domination, wanting submission, control, what the whole thing was about actually. Mohammad was mad at us because the night before a friend of ours, Patricia, had come to us badly beaten by him and wanting our help, and we gave it. He had beaten her up because he tried to take her off alone from the group they were partying together with, and she resisted, and he punched her face and body until she got away.
She had come to us immediately after, and the next morning he came to the park to talk to her, us trying to keep that from happening because she said she accepted his apologies but did not want to talk to him then or at any other time. He pushed past us and went to talk to her anyway and told her that if she wouldn’t give him another chance she had to leave Jerusalem because he wouldn’t be able to control himself, and she told him that all she wanted was him to leave her alone, and that she wouldn’t press charges or do anything to him, just please leave her alone. That made him mad and he shouted at her and left the park. So for attempting to protect Patricia from him he had sent his gang to make us leave the park in which we had been conducting a hunger strike in for the past 7 or 8 days, and this literally rained on our parade.
It was Jerusalem 1995, a tinderbox where the least little thing ‘not on its side of the line’ could instigate a small riot or a scurried scuffle. We had not appreciated that fact in our youthful plans to do a hunger strike for peace there in a little park outside of Jaffa Gate. It was Lars’ idea, and by the time I came on the scene he was doing a ‘last supper’ with his small group of friends and supporters, mostly young women, two of whom were his sisters. During the dinner I pulled him aside, and we went outside, and I asked if he really planned to strike until death. He assured me he most certainly did, though his mother had just paid a surprise visit from Demark to insure her 22 year old son wasn’t going to kill himself, and he’d assured her he wasn’t going to, or something to that effect. She had left him with his sisters to keep an eye on him, and so it’s not probable he’d have starved himself to death. But when he’d told me he was going to do so he had a certain look in his eyes that was such an exaggerated mixture of sadness and pride – ‘woe is me I’m great enough to lay down my life for others’ – I believed him.
It was a little restaurant just outside the old city, Israeli I think, but it could’ve been Palestinian (your mind over time can merge the most surprising things). We were on the steps in front of the place, and it was late afternoon or early evening. I had only arrived in the city a couple of days or so before, direct from Houston on KLM, via a fortifying three day stopover in Amsterdam because I couldn’t board the flight to Israel without purchasing a return ticket. Like every other obstacle in the whole thing, it wasn’t really an obstacle but a great help in disguise. My step-brother had a flat there and gave me the royal treatment to help prepare me for my poetry posting.
Lars and I had been having conversations since we’d met in the hostel we both stayed at, where Mohammad was the manager by the way, intense conversations, the kind you have when your world’s at stake. I’d told him my story, how I was becoming prominent in a small town feeding and sheltering the homeless and organizing a community dream library with the help of the local public radio station and fell from grace and had to leave town in the dead of night, and how I returned to my hometown of Houston and did some ardent soul-searching and wrote a cycle of poems, and now I was going to post them on holy sites in the old city, poems like “The Last Man on Earth”, about human unity, “The Overthrow of I Am”, about dethroning the human ego, and “The Reincarnation of Adolf Hitler”, about him in hell realizing his pain is the pain he gave and redeeming himself.
“You’ll get yourself killed!,” he’d told me in an earlier conversation, and now on those steps he was telling me I was the one doing something stupid, not him by killing himself in a hunger strike for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, “if it came to that.” It was then I saw the something else, a little glimpse of something in me that I was getting acquainted with but wasn’t proud of, something in all of us: the chosen one. It was there on his face: he will be the one that brings peace to the Middle East. It had not taken over, was still just some glimmer of hope not fanned into a fire, and so he was a passionate young man exuberating confidence and not some nut proclaiming himself somebody. It is the hardest thing to reconcile: being at the center of your senses sensing the world but not being the center of the world, being a nobody constantly confronted with all the somebodies that made history, and Lars was not going to give up without a fight. Do any of us?
He’d conceived of the hunger strike in Jerusalem on a train from Delhi to (then) Bombay, or the other way around, and soon after he’d made his way here to carry it out. Before India he’d traveled through Iraq and Iran, converting to Islam, which had awoken in him a sense that he had something to do, a mission, and being treated so special by all the people who hosted him, which probably had more to do with him being the only Western convert among them than his specialness, that sense had grown so strong here he was in Jerusalem on his mission.
I sat there a moment and fantasized about how I thought he fantasized events would unfold: people saddened, ultimately torn apart, by this young man’s sacrifice, his deteriorating health reported daily by the world press, more and more people holding rallies to save his life all over the world, the leaders of the two peoples coming together to outline peace to prevent such a brave man’s death, and I could do that with some accuracy because it wasn’t too unlike the world splash I made in my fantasies posting the poems, in my own fight with being nobody, though in my case it wasn’t being a nobody I fought against as much as it was being an unredeemable bad man. It would come to Lars and I on a hunger strike and waiting for people to come join us.
The Last Man on Earth
Your face is not your face.
Your hands are not your hands.
Your genitals are not your genitals.
Your thoughts are not your thoughts.
They belong to us.
How you look we look.
What you do we do.
What you hide we hide.
What you think we think.
We are you.
That isn’t you in the mirror,
Nor you being raped,
Nor you dying,
Nor you killing.
It is us.
Who you are we are.
When you’re hurt we’re hurt.
When you die we die.
When you kill we kill.
We are human beings,
Every last one of us.
I called him on his ‘I’m this specialness’, and he smiled sheepishly like he’d been caught in the cookie jar, but he still wasn’t deterred, and so I accepted his invitation to join him if he’d help me post the poems afterwards, which would mean we wouldn’t strike unto death, and he reluctantly agreed. On my insistence, we decided to call it a hunger strike for inner and outer peace, since I told him I needed to change myself before I could change the world, my recent fall so fresh in my mind and heart, and so I would be fasting for inner peace, and he would fast for outer. It was a couple of weeks before Easter and Passover, which would occur at the same time this year, and so we set the end date for around then, Lars not agreeing on a concrete end date having to do with I knew not wanting to dispel completely the siren whiff of martyrdom. I was 33 and eleven years his senior, and it’s just human nature to make more sense at that age, though from most anybody’s perspective we both were being the biggest fools.
We started our strike that night in a little park below Jaffa Gate and next to Yemen Moshe, the neighborhood with the windmill on the side of a hill. He had found the park and liked it because it was frequented by both Israelis and Palestinians (Arabs Israelis call them), but sitting there alone in the dark we wondered if it was too out of the way for us. Before too long, a couple of hours or so, a young South Korean man came riding up on his bicycle, odd because this was night and not day and grass not asphalt, but he said he’d seen us sitting there. He said his name was Johnny, and he’d just cycled around the world for peace. We had no doubt this was a meaningful coincidence. It became for us a downright synchronicity when, in the course of our conversation, he turned around and lifted up his shirt. On his back was ‘world peace’ tattooed from shoulder to shoulder. Yes, we saw, the park was the right place. Johnny, though, we weren’t to see again until we ran into him as we posted poems Easter morning in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
In the morning Katrina and his other sister, came to sit with us, who’s name escapes me, since she left soon after strike began, and I didn’t get to know her. Patricia came too, including a young and colorful ‘alternative’ Palestinian man, who brought his drum and who would paint our hunger strike sign and sleep with us the first couple of nights. Since we had sleeping bags and other camping gear, and we were playing music and singing, sometime in the early afternoon the tourist police showed up, but they were quite friendly and sat down with us, one, Amir, even taking a guitar of ours and playing and singing a rock song. It was obvious he really liked Patricia, the Helen of Troy of our story, launching all these ships in it. She was from Scotland and a friend of Katrina and worked as a waitress in the old city. I don’t know exactly what it was about her, but she had what men liked, gave off some kind of mystery it seemed a lot of men wanted to solve, had to solve. He was focused on her the whole time, and when he left he told us we could camp there until some fundraising event scheduled there in a couple of weeks, and we knew it was because of Patricia. We were to learn later from locals we were the first group that had been allowed to camp there, and others had tried.
At the urging of his sisters we agreed to drink banana milk or some fortified puree every other day or so, and so it wasn’t a real fast, though we did agree to stay away from all substances like grass, tobacco, and alcohol, stimulants like coffee and tea, and to abstain from sex. I was quite nervous about fasting and kept talking about that banana milk, and it became a joke among us those first couple of days, Don and his banana milk. I was also quite jealous of Lars being the center of attention, as though it were only him on the hunger strike, and all the silly admiration that involved, and I did and said things you do and say so to make it known you are also importantly involved. Soon more people joined our little camp, and the change in demographics tipped the scales of power in favor of a duo doing it, and with Lars’s shaved head and roundish features, though he wasn’t fat, that reminded you of Buddha, and my long hair, beard, and skinny frame that made me look a lot like the historical Jesus, and with us laying all over one another all the time, having let our ego boundaries down like new-found lovers, we were a dynamic duo, which, after a test, would bring a small musical crowd to that park to play and sing in a spirit of a united joy, a little echo from, in my ears, the kingdom of the music within. Unfortunately that’s something you can only hear about if you weren’t there, and whether you believe it or not, you might wonder at the life-deciding test we had to past for something like that to occur, a love in, a gathering, in the sense of those things.
Our test was no small one, getting back to where I was facing a man with a knife in the dark in the park that begins the story. It meant a personal encounter with death, and it didn’t matter if the threat was real or not; standing there in the darkness in Jerusalem having just been told by Palestinians they were going to come and kill us if we didn’t leave, it had the six o’clock news all over it. To top it off, it suddenly started to rain, for the first time since we’d set up camp there, and standing there in the pouring rain holding our lives in our hands it was all a bit much, and our only thought was how quickly we could get out of there.
After a short pow wow we decided to ask the help of the Israeli man that had befriended us, a robust older man named Josef that came to the park daily to do Ti Chi and walk his dogs, bringing a pot of tea each evening his wife made for us. He’d introduced us to his long haired son, Milo, my age, who in the coming months, in my vagabonding around Israel after the strike, I’d come to other times in need of aid and support. I ran up into Yemen Moshe to their townhouse, a steep hike, while Lars organized the gathering together of everybody and our things. I spoke to Josef several minutes, and then returned to the camp. Within 10 minutes Milo came driving down in a van and told us he had arranged for us all to spend the night in the empty apartment of a friend. He told us his father had called the police and was told there was nothing they could do unless we filed a complaint, and he asked if we wanted to, and we said no, and he said he figured as much.
There were 5 of us by that time (Katrina and Patricia more outside support): Ramon, a sensitive and gentle spiritually-minded young man in his early 20’s from Amsterdam, Saskia, also from Amsterdam in her early 20’s, strong, matriarchal, but not concerned with group politics, with a headful of dreads bicycling Israel, Zeke, a funny little man, a Russian immigrant in his mid 50’s, a Torah scholar, dabbler in Kabala, vagabond, Lars and I. Neither Saskia nor Zeke had been there when we were threatened, but she had returned to camp immediately after, and he came walking up as we were throwing things into the van. He stared at us in disbelief and then asserted himself, and though the interchange was longer and bit more complicated than I record it here, it boiled down to:
“Are you crazy?” Zeke asked.
“They’re nuts. Come on let’s go,” Milo said motioning us into the van.
“Look what you’re doing man, just walking away from everything. One little thing and you run, you run!”
“But Zeke,” I told him, “they said they were going to come and kill us, and they’re going to fuck me first, then kill me!”
He made some body movement that ended in a stance that said he’d come to a decision. Going off a ways from the van he said loudly, “Who’ll stay here? I’ll stay here if just one other person joins me.”
“I don’t believe it.” Milo was shaking his head.
I think it was Lars who went over and stood beside him first, but I’m not sure. It might’ve been me, but, at any rate, in a matter of a couple of thoughtful minutes all of us did. Milo started ranting, “You come to my country and do all this crazy shit. Why don’t you do it in your own country?” He continued complaining as he got into the van and drove away. I felt like I was watching life and hope leave the area. For some minutes we 5 stood there in silence in the dripping rain, and then I got animated and mentioned again, for the umpteenth time, how experienced I was in extreme situations, ex-Green Beret, dream traveler, homeless person, a failed candidate to become a community prophet, though I never listed that one, (soon I’d have to add ‘Jerusalem peace activist’), and I had a plan.
It wasn’t until I was going up into the first hostel in the old city I’d decided to go to, the Tobasco, where Katrina and Patricia stayed (though on this night they were in Israeli Jerusalem), that I realized how insane it would sound asking backpackers to come and do an all night vigil with us. My plan was simple; go to as many backpacker hostels as I could and get as many people to come stand with us as possible, and seeing all the people with us, they surely wouldn’t kill us. Lars was credulous, but I’d grabbed Ramon anyway, and we’d hustled up out of the park and into the old city
“In your head, in your head, zombie, zombie, zombie ei, ei,” was echoing through the backpacker cafes and the streets they were on, the hot song playing on the hostel radios, is in my mind the taste of my encounter with the ancient city when I look back on it, not playing though when I went in, but it did capture my moment. I went up the steps and inside to the desk and panted out my story to Jay, who worked the desk at night and let us take free showers there, a young American man from Denver, who was to play an increasingly intimate role with Patricia’s ships in the story. He was in Jerusalem tied up with either pursing spiritual enlightenment or joining the U.S. Army and being a badass – the cowboy hat always on his head a symbol the army had the upper hand –, between peace and war, which seemed to be the flavor of the old city, but true to its big moon overhead, it turned out he was tied more there for love.
Jay surprised me by saying he couldn’t use his position to do that, but said he could go tell a few people he knew in the hostel and ask them to come to the front room. I figured I’d walk up, and he’d sound the alarm, but in anything that asks for more people there’s always the gatekeeper. Within a couple of minutes several people were there, on the sofa, the chairs, or standing, all expectant of something but I could see were disappointed with what they got as they looked on Ramon and I. Dripping wet, out of breath, coming in from the night, I looked at them looking at us as I told my strange tale, and I couldn’t put anything appealing into it until a couple of boys around 18 or so began asking specific questions about not only why the strike but what religion we belonged to, and then I perked up and gave it more appeal, at least to one of the boys, Alison from Canada who was there to find out about God. The other, from South Africa, was interested because of the situation itself, and would, on the way to the park, tell us about how used to such situations he was being from South Africa. We only managed to get those two to come with us, and then only for a couple of hours they’d agreed, but two or three others, including Jay, had said they’d come sometime later after he got off work, but they never came. With the interview ordeal we had to go through to get those two, and the realization of how absurd it sounded asking people to do what we were asking them to do, we decided not to go to other hostels.
I would imagine Alison still tells the story of being a boy in Jerusalem on the search for God and being lead at night through the old city, out Jaffa Gate, and down into a little park to a mad encounter with some unorganized misguided peace group. The rain had stopped and left the air washed clean with a slight chill on it. The splashing echoes of our feet as we made our way made for a much better sound than my voice spitting out in-between breaths my thoughts to this kid on God, but the closeness of the presence of ancient times, coming to a crescendo as you approach and go out the great gates with the spotlights hitting the giant stone walls, like brooding lights in darkness illuminating some stray expansive mystery of the existence of God, made for such talk. It was just my words did not match the concreteness of the sight.
The conversation with Alison took place while I was having one also with the South African boy as we all ran down to the park, and, when we arrived, during an argument I had with Lars, which made it, on my end, a conversation attempting the impossible by talking about spirit and matter at the same time and they both are the dominant link. So, not being all that good at conversation gymnastics (I’m a writer not a speaker), it boiled down to turning from the other boy and giving Alison my Dr. Seuss tripped out cosmological interpretation of spiritual experiences I’d had, which, if I’d have simply described in the first place, would have perhaps given him an eye on God fit for such a setting, but as it was he only got the silly interpretation. These are not my exact words, but it’s the gist of the ‘elucidation’:
“The world is on the Who-cycle you see, humans are Who-I, driving I-cycles, and animals Who-me, riding me-cycles, plants Who-be sitting on be-cycles, and inanimate objects, Who-no, on no-cycles, denying they’re on a cycle, but they are. Everything makes up the single existence of the Itself, and there are innumerable other cycles all the way to the Itself, but the next cycle on our scale is Who-we, flying the we-cycle, aware of themselves as expressions of the Itself and of their unity with the whole Who-cycle, who we are secretly becoming and who also the personal Gods are,” aware that last part wasn’t the exact man to God relation, but I figured I’d have time to sort out the difference. That last part was always the problem, giving a Godhood to man, when I gave this spiel to anyone, the spiel I gave to people that asked me what my religion or spirituality was. I asked him if he understood, and he flatly said no.
When we arrived at the park, which momentarily interrupted the flow of the conversation with Alison, and after a moment permanently ended the one with the other boy, the others in our group, Saskia and Zeke were there at our spot talking to Lars, We were camped in an area of the park not illuminated by the park’s lights, and it occurred to me as I saw them we would be much better off staying under one of the lights, but before I could say what was on my mind Lars came walking up towards us saying, “Two people, that’s all you could get?” I made haste to introduce both boys as I began to defend myself, but then he attacked my plan, saying he knew people wouldn’t be crazy enough to come here at night in the rain under a death threat and stand with us. It must’ve been at that point the South African boy realized the situation was nothing like the conflicts he was used to in South Africa, and he slipped off, but I honestly don’t remember because the argument Lars and I was having, which quickly centered on the best place to be killed, in the darkness or in the light, once I made my suggestion we move, was the worst one we’d had so far.
Lars won, and we would not be moved. He’d suddenly become a pillar of faith. For my part it was high time for some alone time, but I was suddenly hit with a barrage of questions from Alison about God, which I honestly tried to answer, not yet down to earth or mature enough just to tell him what I’d experienced about God and the soul, not what I believed about them, of the opinion, as most are, that expounding on such big subjects I had to give a whole worldview. God, however, was not on my mind, my mortality was, and so I quickly tied up the talk and excused myself and went to a little gardened area nearby and sat down on a park bench. I had suddenly become scared to death, as the implications of the fact that my life was truly in danger had finally hit me.
The fear was infinitely compounded by the fact that the situation was just too close to the scenario of a lucid dream some years before where I got stabbed in the heart by an angry man with brown skin standing with three others at night in a park, and instead of waking up in my bed like I was trying to, I died and actually went to the doorway of the other side, or had what’s called a near death experience. I’d wondered at the time, because of the strength of the dream, whether or not it was showing me how I would die, and sitting there at night in a park having been threatened with a knife by very angry men with brown skin it seemed the dream was in fact precognitive, and I had that fight you have with yourself when you have the power to save your life but don’t want to take the escape because of some ideal you believe in.
You just feel so damn stupid, or at least I did. I wasn’t really on a hunger strike for inner peace as much I was on a personal journey of redemption but couldn’t say that outright. I can’t really say if redemption is worth dying for, even from this distance of 20 years, however much it’s worth its weight in gold in everyday life, but it’s not an ideal bigger than yourself, and maybe it’s best to only give your life to what is larger, if you can see past ego disguises and see that what you think you do for God or humanity, 9 times out of ten, is really something more to make yourself bigger even if that’s because you’re declared so unfairly small. I didn’t see any of that being so young, but it all bore on the moment regardless, and it all made me feel so stupid and equally so afraid.
Sitting there I could see pulsating down the length of my body and onto the ground wide yellow horizontal irregular lines, one every half second or so, and concentrating on them, which is like looking at otherworldly lights coloring oddly a scene, auric lights they’re called, the whole area I was looking at turned into a an exceedingly beautiful violet checkerboard etched deep with the lines of the unknown, the place seen as pure energy, what it was it seemed the place rested upon, or was truly built of, something starkly sacred, and there is just something about beauty that helps chase away fear, especially spiritual beauty, and then I was alright, not immediately but after some minutes, the sudden shift to seeing energy as opposed to a world of forms coming at first as such a shock it was scary, that otherworldly fear taking some time to leave because it mixed so well with the fear of the coming of death. I wasn’t ready for whatever danger the night might bring, either rape or death, but I was there.
I returned to the others and wasn’t surprised to find Alison had left too. No one was talking, just each into our own thoughts standing there in the returning rain, that dark pounding chill. When we started talking it was about the others who’d said they’d come, how they probably wouldn’t, and how it was best that those who wanted to stay in a hostel that night to do so, because it might rain all night long and only maybe three could fit in the one man tent, and Saskia and Ramon opted for the hostel and left the park. I don’t know how long it was after their departure, but Zeke suggested we all just go into the little tent erected because of the rain and “go to sleep; if we’re still alive in the morning then we’ll know things are better.” That’s just what we did. In the morning things were better; neither rape nor death had come, nor any danger, only our unremembered dreams.
Normally we made some attempt to remember dreams so to discuss them after morning yoga exercises and meditation in our long walks together down deeper into the valley of Hinnon, or Gehenna (hell), the valley the little park opened down into. Though over the years I can’t remember if it was before the amphitheater directly below the park or after, presently you come to little shallow caves along the opposite ridge where, records have it, ascetics lived when the land was under tribute to Egypt, and each one was castrated one day on the misread orders from Egypt that said to gather taxes from them too. They thought it read to castrate them. On further you come to a place where, I learned from Lars, there was a temple to Baal where children were sacrificed, fathers putting their toddler sons into the arms of his image and it being set on fire, the screams of the child drowned out by the sudden eruption for that purpose of the devotees in mad deafening frenzy. Lars said he thought a lot about the father of such a child, how it must’ve gotten to him at some point no matter how he tried to ignore it, talking about the family too and their suppressed guilt, and I picked up the image, the mute feelings, the terrible pain, and gave it a feel. Yes, I figured, at some point they felt it. We all do.
On one such morning a couple of days before the coming of Mohammad’s men he told me of a dream he’d had in the night where he and I were walking through an ancient forest of tall dark trees that many tourists walked through but were careful not to encounter the dark of the forest. They left and the forest got increasingly darker, the branches of the trees turning into racks of antlers hanging down, at which point we noticed young bulls in the distance watching us about to charge, and so we climbed a tree, both very afraid.
He said after relating the dream that showed him he still had some fear, though he also admitted he was reluctant to tell me the dream because it would prove I was right. We’d been having a debate about his declaration that he wasn’t afraid of anything, and I’d told him that he was in denial, and that everyone was afraid of something. I recommended he pay attention to his dreams, and he’d find out he still had fear, which he’d done and found. But it not only showed he was still afraid of things, it showed us, if we could but see it, the coming of Mohammad’s men and the threat they would present, as it would be as if we had been chased up a tree, figuratively, and by young bulls, what animal it can be said those men acted like. Precognitive dreams are like that, rarely if ever an exact telling of coming events as I’d feared that lucid death dream was. Rather, they are cloaked in the symbol of dream and rely on the skill or even luck of the dreamer to interpret them before the events foretold have happened. Most of the time you see they are precognitive only in retrospect, but if you’re a person that has them often or seldom, or close to someone that does, that in itself is such a sight to see.
It was actually a lucid dream that lead me to decide to come to Jerusalem, which at the time was the farthest place from my mind to go and post my poems, the ones that’d come out of that soul-searching at home in Houston after my public fall. I’d begun posting poems on bulletin boards and the like in the small town I was locally famous in for such things as that. I had first picked the streets of Amsterdam to post my poems on because it was a city known for being open to art and for being open-minded, and of course because my step-brother Steve lived there and would help in any way he could. It happened as I planned my trip that I had a lucid dream where a man dressed in a suit and tie, looking like he’d just walked into the dream from somewhere else, came and said, “Go to Jerusalem. I’ll pay your way to Jerusalem.” Then I went with him and we boarded a glass submarine and left for the ancient city. In the morning I got a phone call telling me I had a job and even a ride to and from work, which was odd because I’d been looking for work for weeks but couldn’t find any because I didn’t have transportation and didn’t want to cut my hair or shave my beard, and I looked all hippied out, and this was Houston, Texas. The job was helping re-organize a carpet warehouse that had been damaged in a recent flood, and so in three or four months I had the money for the trip.
Morning daylight of the soul, that’s what that morning felt like waking up and still being alive, after our test, not having had our sleep interrupted by the young horses’ whipping nightmare. The rain continued, but that didn’t take the joy out of the morning. Still rather early, Milo came driving up and actually drove the van into the high part of the park and left it there for us to sleep in until the rain stopped. He acted like he didn’t want to do it, going on about how long it would take to get the lingering smell of hippie out of his family van, but both he and his father, his mother too I would learn months later when she’d doctor the festering wounds I’d gotten living as a hapless pilgrim without a shekel to my name, had open hearts and couldn’t hide them, try as they might to sound Israeli and tough as nails. The other member of the family, a daughter, was an officer in the army. Boy was she a little put out to come home on furlough and find her family had adopted an American hippie, and he wasn’t even Jewish.
It rained for two days, and we stayed mostly in the van, and no one bothered us, not even the tourist police. If you notice the way things go down in this world, serious things, there’s often a lull after the big events, and if you’re one to ascribe meaning to things, it’s like everybody’s given a chance to think things over. We learned from Jay that Mohammad had done some of that wrong kind of thinking. He had come to give us news of Patricia (we’d be surprised to learn after everything was over he was her secret lover) and tell us of any danger we might be in. Mohammad had blocked the entrances to Patricia’s hostel with two men, a hostel in the Islamic quarter near Lion’s Gate, one she’d changed to so to get out of his sight, unaware that wouldn’t help, and she wouldn’t be able to leave the hostel and would in effect being held hostage. He’d told her if she’d have sex with him he’d leave us alone, and she’d agreed to do so, according to Jay. It was my understanding that hadn’t happened yet.
To prevent that from happening I left the park with Jay and went to Patricia’s hostel. The two goons at the door didn’t prevent our entrance. Patricia was staying in a room by herself, on the bottom bunk, and I sat on a chair near her and heard what had happened during that thoughtful lull: her lying in that bunk for that past two days scared out of her wits, Mohammad paying brief visits to manipulate her into having sex with him. (In making Mohammad sound so terrible, which isn’t hard because his actions speak for themselves, I have to point out that he didn’t rape her, and that shows some humanity however small). I asked her if she wanted me to call Amir the policeman, and she told me in a very weak little girl’s voice yes. Then she started hyper-ventilating, and I didn’t have a small bag or anything, but I managed to get her to breathe normally by holding her chest tightly and firmly telling her to slow her breathing down, counting her breaths.
There’s a police station inside the old city near Jaffa Gate, and a payphone nearby, and having his number, which I got from Patricia (why she hadn’t called herself I don’t know), I called Amir. He told me to wait there, and he’d be there in 15 or 20 minutes. I asked him to come alone and he agreed, but it wasn’t very long before the gates to the station opened, and a squad of Israeli infantry came running out, with Amir and other policemen leading. I was asked to lead them to the hostel.
This story’s maintained by irony of the image: a special forces soldier 11 years before, now here I was several days on a hunger strike for peace (it not being a real fast or for the highest ideal notwithstanding) leading a squad of soldiers armed to the teeth, myself all decked out in colorful hippie clothes, on my head a wide Native American headband with the kind of beads that glitter in the light, with a wolf on the forehead. In any other circumstances I myself might’ve been arrested on the grounds I was too much of an irony for the scene, and I had succumbed to the Jerusalem syndrome, a city-specific temporary mental illness whereby someone walks around Jerusalem dressed in robes and giving their blessings to everyone thinking they are a Christ or something.
We left on the run, Amir and I at the head, he explaining as we ran that there’d been several complaints by tourist women about Mohammad, but so far they hadn’t been able to nail him, and now they finally had a chance. I remember looking at the places we passed as we argued over the ineffective and revenge-oriented formula crime and punishment, as I saw it at least, and right when I was making my point we were going past the Church of the Redeemer, but Amir has a point too: men like Mohammad were not going to stop assaulting women until you make them stop, but I forget how well or ill he dressed that idea. As for me, it was all hitting a little too close to home, more of that irony of image, because what I sought redemption for was, allegedly, not too terribly unlike what Mohammad had done, mine wearing though a non-violent skin.
The Reincarnation of Adolf Hitler
The look of cruelty moves
from off my face
as Hitler repeats itself.
Born again of the Human Race
of which I was before,
I show you now my secret self,
the one you know as Thor.
I am quite really a made-up man,
with a hammer, and a hatchet,
and the whole damn clan,
or was, was I, way back when?
Here it is I reveal
the secret which
will make me real.
The pain I feel I confess
is the same within your breast.
Now sitting in the dead center
of the very cyclone
of pain itself,
I’m not mad anymore,
not even me.
The quiet lightening looks of blame
move from off my face
as darkness redeems itself
and lights up the whole damn sky.
I don’t know if force is always necessary to get someone to stop forcing themselves on others. It was needed here, since Mohammad had been assaulting women with impunity and now was holding Patricia against her will, and only the authorities could rescue her. Even I could see that. But you have to wonder how many crossroads he and his community had come to together before things had reached this pitch, moments where they both could’ve taken a better road in relation to one another if those moments would’ve been seen and seized. You could tell he didn’t like this about himself, wanted to be seen as an educated and sophisticated young man, not as an animal, but his marked bitterness towards the world spoiled everything. Lars attributed that bitterness to the occupation, but I saw more at work than just the oppression of his people.
It wasn’t really Mohammad I was concerned with, though, wasn’t who I was arguing for. I had come to Jerusalem to undergo another way to right wrong other than the state punishing you on behalf of the wronged, a way of repentance and redemption, a way of the soul, a way you surrender to unconditionally, but I still didn’t know what someone you wrong needs from you – I just vaguely understood that it wasn’t being punished in their name. (I now know they need you to recognize and feel what you did to them to the healing depth of soul, a depth recognizable in dreams you have about each other and a depth recognizable in the depth of world that comes out of the story of your repentance.) I also didn’t realize that I couldn’t bring my community with me to the crossroads I was at in Jerusalem, and without your community redemption isn’t possible, and without it I did not take the right road upon leaving the city.
When we got to the hostel the goons took one look at us and split, and Patricia and Jay came running out – how they knew we were coming I don’t know –, and we were off, he on one side of her and I on the other. We were disrupting pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa, some turning their cameras from the pain and trials of Christ onto us, and I wanted all the glory and to be the only one helping her and couldn’t understand why Jay felt himself so important to the situation to be at her side too, not yet aware of their secret love, but she almost began to hyper-ventilate, and so I put one hand on her back and one on her chest as I’d done before and began saying, in a loud commanding voice, “Breathe! Breathe!” at the proper intervals, and so I was satisfied I would get a lot of the attention. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel her plight. I did. It was that I felt myself and my position more, but such ego positioning I wasn’t aware of and didn’t become aware of until years later. When you do see it though, you wonder at our boundless capacity for self-deception, and you wonder if you’ve ever been sincere.
Lars was waiting standing outside the station, and the procession stopped near the gate, the infantry going on in and the policemen questioning Lars and I about the incident in the park with Mohammad’s men. I was asked if the man had a knife, and I lied and said no because if I’d seen the knife that would be grounds to have them arrested. Amir looked at me with contempt. Then he and his partner took Patricia and Jay into the station (it finally beginning to dawn on me Jay was more than her friend), Lars and I staying where we were, not wanted in and not wanting to go in, Lars yelling at Patricia not to press charges and Amir looking back at us like he wanted to nail us more than Mohammad.
She didn’t press charges, but she did leave the city, though not immediately, in another week or so, because she didn’t want him to win she told me, but she was no longer the confident carefree young women I’d met just 8 or 9 days before. In a couple of days Mohammad and a friend, the one with the knife, came and actually apologized and asked if there was anything we needed, and we told them some stuff we needed, but it never came of course. It had happened that Palestinian elders wanted to know why the Israeli army had invaded their quarter, and they were told of Mohammad’s behavior, and so they read him the riot act, though it did not appear a genuine crossroads he and his community were standing on. In our next camp on the Mount of Olives we’d hear another girl tell us Mohammad had slapped her around trying to force his way on her, and so all we’d done was give him more leave to harm women, but we knew the way you know a dog is about to bite you that giving him to Amir wasn’t the right answer either, though it would stop him temporarily and give him a taste of his own medicine, since with a young Palestinian man in the hands of the Israeli police there will be blood.
When it came time to do my thing, post the poems, we did it after the fast on three consecutive nights, or rather each time around three in the morning, coming down from our camp on the Mount of Olives and entering the old city through Lion’s Gate. On Easter morning we posted them (using clear Scotch tape so as not to damage anything) on the 14 stations of the cross, doing it in a little procession that consisted of Lars and I, Patricia, not the one that figures in this story, one from America, a dedicated Palestinian rights activist, Rye, a painter from an art school in Paris, originally from New Zealand, and a dog named Jin, whose home we had invaded when we moved into a little area below the Palestinian village at the top of the mountain, who each night came farther with us on the posting, the whipping dog of the village and in need of redemption as much as I (she would be taken by Ramon to live in Lifta, an abandoned Arab village occupied by hippies that loved dogs). On Passover we posted them on the doorposts of Israelis in the Jewish Quarter, when it was only Lars, I, and the dog. We didn’t have any special night to post them in the Islamic Quarter, but Lars and I posted them in various places the night after Passover, the most significant of which was on the outside of the Golden Gate, a closed gate that Islamic legend has it, Lars had mentioned several times, the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, would enter Jerusalem, and it would open when he touched it. Standing there on our tippy toes on tombstones, since an Islamic graveyard is there, I saw Lars was hesitant to post the poem. “Lars,” I said, “Are you afraid to tape the poem because you’re afraid when you touch the wall the gate will open?” As we both smiled that sheepish smile you smile when you get caught with your hand the cookie jar, me though stealing giant ego fritters not Muslim messiah mouthfuls, he taped the poem to the gate.
Neither one of us had attracted the attention we thought we’d get, though we did meet a lot of new friends (some not so friendly). Both the hunger strike and the poem posting went virtually unnoticed by everyone. My step-brother Steve had told me that once the wire services picked up what I was doing, it would be all over the news, but that never happened. Every day during the strike I wrote in a letter journal to my community about the events as they occurred, why I was there, and how sorry I was over all that had happened. I mailed it right before we posted the poems, to my close friend Paul who owned a bookstore, asking him to read it on the radio. He’d tell me some months later that he did get the letter, and it made him cry, but he didn’t read it to anyone right away, had saved it for the right moment. Before that moment came he lost it, being a little bit like an absent minded professor, so no one besides him in that small town I so loved knew what lengths I went to try and make up for what it was I was accused of doing.
I reasoned at the time, told Lars and would tell all I told the story to in the years after, that it didn’t matter if anyone read the poems because those were tactical ideas I’d posted in a religious hub of humanity fit to be a ground zero for such ideas, and one day inevitably they’d explode, using that analogy because in special forces I’d parachuted with my team and a tactical (hand-placed) nuke into a country to put on a target (a practice mission), what I felt I’d done with those poems. That my community did not learn of my repentance did matter, almost defeated me upon returning to it and discovering it hadn’t, and it didn’t even want to hear about it – the loss of faith in my humanity and theirs took many years to recover. Now in the autumn of my life, with my faith restored, I don’t know if that act of posting those ideas in that place will produce some sort of magic that will one day become meaningful to the world at large, but I do know that stories such as this one and many others will climb our thought’s skies, and faced with such human stories we’ll turn and face our humanity and in so doing embrace the higher ideals that make us different from mere beasts. When we do that it’s inevitable we’ll not punish wrong but heal it. The question then would be who do you redeem and who would need more convincing. I’ve shown you two wrongdoers. Mohammad needed the intervention of force represented by Amir and his men because it was painfully obvious he would not cooperate with his society otherwise, but did I, one willing to cooperate? If the answer to such a question hinges on anything other than healing and redemption, for all parties, the wrongdoer as well as the wronged, we’ll continue to come up with the wrong answer and the compounding of wrong upon wrong. And who knows, if we changed the fixed formula of crime and punishment to a more situation specific wrongdoing and healing, maybe even the Mohammad’s of the world would come in from the cold.
Look at me will you? Honest to God stories redeem us.