'It was very nice to meet you. If you were going to Suez, I could have given you a lift,' the Indian imam said warmly.
My reverie was broken and I was back at the bus station in Taba at the Egyptian-Israeli border. Herlad and Chai were tucking into the standard Bedouin fare of rice and goatchop, and, I now noticed, so was I. Flies were buzzing mercilessly and an Arab man was peeing against a wall nearby, but it was still a relief to be out of Israel.
The elderly Muslim from India in flowing white robes who had earlier proved himself so forgiving of homosexual vice, and who had since then been meditatively puffing on a hookah, was saying his goodbyes. A yellow 1970s-era sedan, rusted in parts and in possession of truly outrageous suspension, honked impatiently. Without turning around, he backed away from us with his hands together in front of him, as if for prayer, and bowed modestly. We returned his civilized gesture of sincere and friendly leave-taking as best we uncouth moderns could, dribbling goat grease and clutching cans of Coke. He turned and squeezed himself into the makeshift taxi, out of whose windows spilled various legs and arms and turbaned heads. Dust seasoned our lunch upon the car's swift departure.
'So, are you going on to Cairo?' I asked Chai.
'Oh yes, No! Yes, I want to go Cairo, but have problem. I have no visa for Egypt.'
'But aren't we in Egypt right now? Didn't you cross the Egyptian border with us?'
'Yes, but I have visa for Sinai only, not for rest of Egypt. I go, what it called, Shamshak, Shamarsheek, Shashanna...'
'Ah yes, thank you! Shamshalshok! I go there and maybe they give me visa for Cairo, I don't know. If not, I take a boat to Sudan.'
'Does the Sudan have a coastline? Can you sail to the Sudan?' I asked, conjuring the Raj with the definite article.
'Uh... I don't know. But I want to go to Sudan.'
'Aren't they massacring each other in Sudan?' Herlad asked, post-colonially and always to the point. Of course, Chai answered:
'But what were you saying about the protest at the security fence...?'
'Yes, that very weird...'
An Israeli soldier in full riot gear was shouting something through a megaphone, but the distorted Hebrew was lost on Chai. He was standing in a group of Western activists whom he'd stumbled across at his hotel in East Jerusalem. They were of all sorts: the very stoned Mexican man on his right wore dreadlocks and a standard-issue Che Guevara t-shirt; to his left, a bald-headed Hari Krishna from Estonia shouted expletives. All around him there was healthy impassioned youth, desperate to do good, waving placards and banners, and chanting in unison. They were all nursing hangovers and reminisced together now and then, with mischievous glee, about the previous night's bash back in Zion.
Chai hadn't gone far from the Damascus Gate when he'd found exactly the sort of hotel he'd been looking for, a crumbling building that had been built by the British during the Protectorate, and which had now fallen into extreme disrepair. Its original color was anyone's guess, for years of war and exhaust fumes had turned it a sullen black. The signboard outside was hand-painted in Arabic script only, except for the word 'Hotel', whose pastel Art Nouveau curly-cues hearkened back to gay colonial days. Then, the Levant had been criss-crossed back and forth by camel-loads of beautiful Europeans, the educated, cultivated socialites, scholars and adventurers whose reasons for coming were legion, yet who were remarkably able to discover everything about its civilization except what about it really mattered. Ancient faded grandeur absorbed their attention to varying degrees, from erudite to atmospheric, yet their different reverent awes, whichever way they beamed, shone over the heads of living, breathing brown-skinned Muslims, pitiable or loathable, take your pick; but whose function, like ushers in a cinema, was to facilitate the fantasy and remain essentially unnoticed, and who in the end became themselves tragically fixated on the brilliant two-dimensionality floating high above them. Two world wars and a philistinic Fabian socialism did away with the moguls, but once they'd gone, their native audiences remained, whom the projector they left running still chastises and enchants.
The entrance on the ground floor was reached by a flight of six or seven worn marble steps, flanked on either side by the rusted remains of what must have once been elegant wrought-iron railings. The door was open, and only led to a narrow stairwell; Chai might have leaned his head back out the door and glanced right or left, as one does when presented with such odd old buildings, whose inside compactness seem out of proportion to the volume suggested by their outside facade. The stairs were unlit, and only the dim light of the streetlamp coming slantways through the front door, and a purplish glow from the door at its top, lit Chai's upward path.
As he made his ascent, he could hear a certain amount of human commotion above, and when he entered the rather dingy room at the top and was met by a little desk cluttered with mementos of past guests--pins, postcards, foreign currency, scrawled thank-yous, little flags, and the like--, behind whom sat a red-haired girl of maybe seventeen, any expectations he might have had about the place were instantly undone.
'Right, yer just in time,' was the redhead's greeting. 'We close the door at one o'clock.'
Chai just smiled--in fact, he'd been smiling without cessation since he got off the bus. But his eyes betrayed a little confused hesitation. 'Ah yes, yes, I need room.'
'What delegation are you with? I'll need you to sign this form here; and this one, which means we aren't held responsible for anything that might happen at the march tomorrow.'
Had Chai not been the sort of Japanese traveler who without batting an eye had allowed himself to be diverted from a peaceful holiday in Egypt to a hitch-hiking adventure in post-war (sic) Iraq; had he not by now sailed through at least five or six attempts by Arabs et al to maneuver him into a steamy bisexuality; had he not in the previous three weeks accepted all manner of unforeseen and potentially compromising or even life-threatening contingencies; had his soul not been forever imprinted and transformed by all these events, then perhaps he wouldn't have, without so much as a glance at its content or an honest word with the girl behind the desk, signed the form she held out to him. As it stood, however, he did sign it, in full awareness now that he did so falsely; for though Chai was many things, yet despite every outward appearance he was not at all artless; naive and wide-eyed, certainly, but artless, no; there was a certain glint behind everything he said and did, and all the while he knew, if not what it was he was getting up to, then at least that he was indeed getting up to something; and this knowledge was precisely what had sustained him through all his adventures thus far. He was not calculating, nor was he an inveterate thrill-seeker, and I do not wish by denying his artlessness to rob him of the quality he had in great abundance, and which made him such an attractive passer-by to meet and get to know, which I suppose was a kind of stubborn innocence in the face of everything. But intelligence buoyed that innocence, and it wasn't mere happenstance that landed him time and again in outrageous, wonderful fortune. A Baghdadi taximan had leaned over to grab his dick, and yes, Chai had been genuinely shocked by it, and would be again if it happened again; but it did not bewilder or upset him beyond what was proper, and it would by no means keep him from putting himself in a situation where just such a shocking crotch-grab might again be attempted.
So he signed the form, pushed his glasses a bit further up his nose, and, glinting but betraying nothing, said, 'I from Japan!'
'Right then, you'll be in dormroom sixteen.'
'Mishimishquew!' he said back good-naturedly--he said it almost as often as he said 'No problem!', which was, in fact, an approximation of the Arab way of saying precisely that.
Chai made his way to room sixteen, which was a straightforward affair. He entered and got himself settled, and no doubt chatted with the other Japanese delegates to the march who were now his roommates. But their conversation, such as it was, I cannot record here. The world of Chai amongst his compatriots is at many removes from the Chai I grew to love.
Despite the late hour, the hotel was hopping. In fact, from posters on the wall and fliers posted on corkboards hung here and there along the hallway, Chai quickly came to understand that he had discovered a very peculiar sort of youth hostel, packed full with people from every corner of the (bourgeois) globe, dedicated to the spread of social justice everywhere. Most of them were Europeans or of European extraction, as is to be expected: there was a higher number of Australians, for example, than most people are comfortable with. Canadians too formed a large contingent, as did various Scandinavians, including the aforementioned Estonian Hare Krishna, named Pukki, very much the odd man out. There weren't many Americans, really, not proportionately speaking; and the three Frenchmen, two girls and a boy, remained aloof from the rest, which surprised no one. The lesser countries of northern Europe--Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and so on--each had only one or two representatives; there were very few Eastern Europeans, because they are generally too poor to travel, though one outspoken Pole presided loudly in the common room; the only black person there was a college student from Brazil, there were no Middle Easterners except for the hotel staff, no Mediterraneans except for two Greek amateur photographers, and the Asians present were limited to Chai's Japanese roommates and an inexplicable Malaysian woman who aside from Palestinian freedom fighting worked as a petroleum engineer for Royal Dutch Shell. Some were journalists, none of whom were employed by papers or magazines our parents would call reputable. Others were students or N.G.O. workers, and a smattering were simply young backpackers who had somehow or other heard about the hotel and/or the impending protest march, and each for his own reason had come to participate; I suppose Chai fell into this last category, but he was not like the other unaffiliated vagabonds, who had in a way rallied around the Mexican stoner, and played polyglot Scrabble on the common room floor.
Chai walked into the room smiling as always, motioned to himself with his thumb and said, 'Hi, you can call me Chai. I from Japan.' Some people glanced at him in response, there were a few hellos, what's ups, and how's-it-goins, but for the most part people ignored him completely. Four vagabonds played Scrabble lazily, a group of five or six sat in front of a TV news broadcast, and the Pole, an Australian man called Steve, and the Malaysian oil engineer talked loudly together. Chai shrugged his shoulders, still smiling, looked around, then made his way to a little bookshelf and looked through a well-thumbed copy of 'Dianetics' which some zealous or disillusioned former guest had left behind. Somehow a bottle of beer was soon in his hand.
Then, the Pole's voice was raised even louder, and Chai heard him say angrily, 'You fucking Westerners don't know the first thing about it! When have you lived under tyranny? Before '89 I was fucking praying for the American bombs to start dropping!'
Chai brightened a bit, went over to the group deep in heated conversation, and sat on the loveseat next to Steve.
To be continued...
Chai breezed into Jerusalem by bus, fresh from Turkey where he'd suffered even more bisexual assaults, and still reeling from Big Problem Baghdad. What a journey he'd been having! Imagine him, eighteen years old, tall and slight, impressionable and always quick to laugh; in possession of a straightforward comic delivery that caught us off guard in its (conscious?) exploitation of Japanese stereotypes, leaving us at each moment to wonder, 'Is this guy putting us on?'; and remarkably at ease in the company of strangers, eager to answer questions and forthcoming with the little naughty details. From Baghdad he'd traveled up the Mesopotamian valley to nebulous, state-less Kurdistan and thence into southeastern Turkey, where martial law reigns and a campaign to Turkify the Kurds there is in full swing. Having skirted the western flank of Ararat in ancient Armenia, where Noah landed his ark, he'd gone northwards through Erzurum to Trabzon, and then taken the arduous twenty-six hour busride to Istanbul, site of countless hammams and their inevitable shenanigans. Another train journey found him in Ankara, the Los Angeles of the Anatolian wasteland, where he caught a bus to Damascus, back to Arab country. He didn't have far to go to reach his final destination, Jerusalem, the Holy City of conflict and bloodshed.
Whew! If only he were able to ring his parents back home and tell them of his adventures! But no, they'd be unimpressed: they sent their boy to safe and touristy Cairo to get his requisite photos of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and did not expect he'd spend six weeks gallivanting around the war-torn (and bisexual-prone) Levant. How were they to know their little Chai would be sidetracked during a lay-over in Moscow by a peacenik Canadian photojournalist, or furthermore that he even had the inclination or the guts to allow himself to be sidetracked?
But Chai was lovin' it. It was a lot better than his life back home at university, where due to over-subscription he'd been forced to bunk down in the Art Clubhouse, of which he was president--not that he could draw a lick, but what's a homeless undergraduate to do?
It was night when the bus from Damascus crossed the suburban ridge on the outskirts of Jerusalem and began its steep plunge towards the Old City. Chai saw Her laid out before him, a confused mass of twinkling lights punctuated here and there by floodlit domes, belltowers and minarets, the golden Dome of the Rock presiding over all the rest, highest and a bit apart, surrounded by the empty marble Temple Mount plateau. The approaching city was there, then gone, and there again as the bus rode the waves of the massive six-lane cliffside highway. Up and down, under overpasses and over underpasses, between tract-home spreads and all-night mini-marts, the City of David drew nearer.
In the far distance beyond, had Chai known to look he would have spied an awesome sight: a hilltop city of stone and cement, an arched cluster of imposing apartment blocks built layer upon layer, rising to a craggy concrete zenith; its foundations towered hundreds of feet above the valley below, and a fall from the encircling embattledments would mean certain death if it were possible to scale the barbed-wire fencing; a special security road for residents only, equally high off the valley floor and lit by a border of unblinking spotlights, stretched away in a straight, smooth descent. The brilliant antiquity of the Old City kept Chai from noticing this feudal sci-fi dreamscape, which tourists are disinclined to notice anyway. When Her Lad and I rode into town, we too didn't notice the Israeli settlement with brilliant views all the way to the Dead Sea, across the Palestinian heartland.
The bus came to a weary halt outside the Damascus Gate. It was dark and the streets were empty; perhaps a squadron of soldiers were keeping the Muslims from entering the Old City to attend the midnight prayer; the Palestinian municipal buses had stopped running many hours earlier at 6 p.m., after which a strict Palestinian curfew began in full force; there was something decidedly gloomy, almost sinister, in the air. Chai looked left and right. He needed to find a cheap hotel. Across the street he saw a rank of banged-up taxi cabs whose cabbies were loitering together, smoking powerful tobacco and saying little for a change. Maybe one of them brightened upon seeing him and waved him over. But no, Chai didn't want to go much further than where he already stood. Eastern Jerusalem, Arab Jerusalem, outside the Old City but nowhere near the New, where portraits of the old Jordanian king still hang in protest upon cafe walls, disappeared into the gloom before him. Anyone else would have turned away and gone towards the brighter lights to the west, but not Chai, not Mr. No Problem. He tightened his rucksack snug round his waste, visage positive and naive, and struck out across the street.
The taximan shrugged and lit another cigarette as Chai's skinny Japanese frame dissolved swift and light-footed into the urban decay.
In the end, Chai was luckier than we had been on the night of our arrival. Our bus had dropped us off beneath the Tower of David, and once we'd passed through the Jaffa Gate into the Christian quarter, we simply navigated towards the first cheap-looking hostel we could see in our guidebook--although it wasn't really very cheap, or so it seemed to us after bargain-basement Egypt. But the high prices are to be expected: Christian pilgrims require certain standards of comfort, after all; only the city's Jewish quarter was more upmarket than the Christian one.
Next to the Pilgrim Information Bureau, a small wet alleyway sneaked past a hand-launderer's shop and up to a little courtyard. Her Lad's decade-old Lonely Planet--'Hey, I bought it used, and it was totally discounted...'--directed us to this courtyard, which contained a few withering potted plants and, seated at a round plastic table, a strange Asian girl all in white. She was demure and eager to welcome us, albeit silently, shufflingly. Her arms seemed permanently extended at her sides, so there was no question of her removing the straight black hair from out in front of half her face. But she was sweet: she smiled and with a sprightly evangelical jerk motioned us to a plastic translucent doorway, closed shut against all potential intruders. A note whose white had gone yellow in the sun was taped to the door. The black marker-pen was fading and splotched by rain, but we couldn't ignore its paranoia: 'REMEMBER TO CLOSE THE DOOR TIGHT BEHIND YOU!' A smaller note directed us to a buzzer just above it. We buzzed, and then turned our heads in concert towards the giggling Asian girl in white, who shuffled back to her plastic chair, hospitality accomplished. She put a hand to her forehead and stared down at some reading matter of an undoubtedly inspirational nature, when, without so much as a single wayward glance, she stuck a thick Marlboro in her mouth, lit it, and, adjusting her thick-rimmed glasses, sucked in a gratifying drag.
There resounded a grating slice, and our attention swung back to the door as a head-sized piece of it slid open. Our eyes were nearly blinded by the disorienting red glow which filtered through the opening, framing a dim silhouette. It was a head, that was for sure, of curly helmet-like hair. It leaned forward and revealed a face, one scrunched up in skeptical suspicion. We were peered at for a moment, and then--was it our backpacks, Her Lad's western clothes, my long red beard, or simply our whiteness that made the face go soft?--received a relaxed, wrinkled, twinkling look of warm welcome. 'Oh, well good evening!' the face said. 'I'll just unlock the door, so wait a moment.' Another whoosh-bang, and the door was whole once more. We heard a few light clicks from the inside, then the door creaked opened and we were ushered in.
'Sorry about the little wait there, but you know, we don't let the door be unlocked past sunset.' Mm-hmm, we grumbled in distracted reply. We were in a little trapezoid foyer leading into a what appeared from the familiar flicker to be a TV room. The red light came from in there, though the light itself was yellow: it was the walls and the shaggy floor that turned the brightness ruddy. 'Well, we have a vacancy, if that's what yer after.'
'Yeah, thanks,' I answered. 'Do you have dorm beds?'
'Oh, afraid not, not now that Easter's over. But we've got a double, with bathroom. Come on over this way.'
Her voice was oddly monotone and lacked the warmth you'd expect from a woman like her. Clearly past sixty, she wore sweatpants and a sweatshirt which from their rumpled look appeared to be her pajamas. Her accent was American, not the first one we'd hear during our two weeks in Israel; yet she didn't speak like someone from the East Coast, like most of the American Israelis did; rather, her accent was markedly West Coast, a cross between my grandma's and a diner waitress's. She kept her face floorward, and her movements were, though slow, exceedingly exact. She seemed totally self-absorbed, not in a moral sense, but like someone who speaks their every movement aloud: 'Right, now I get the register out... Right, now I give them the room key...' But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves; she was still pottering towards the front desk, which was in the room beyond the red one with the TV. We followed her.
It was like entering an enclosed blood-stained jungle. Three potted ferns in corners were made twelve or fifteen by thin wall-length mirrors, which had been hung in strips to slice up the redness. A worn black leather sofa lined one wall, and a middle-aged man in a suit sat sunk deep into it. Across from him, the TV broadcast was fuzzy and set at an almost inaudible volume. We let the old lady make her way to the desk alone as, almost against our will, we stopped and watched. The screen showed a press conference. There were two podiums, both bearing the presidential seal. Sharon was there with Bush, and they were saying some things devoid of intelligible content as always, but the gist had something to do with a road map and regional security and absolutely never ever giving stolen land back to the original owners. I turned to the man on the sofa. 'Whoa... That's not good, is it?' I think I said, or something like it, but he did not reply.
As we continued on into the next room, I whispered to Her Lad, 'Wow, isn't that amazing, what we just saw? I can't believe it... It's so historic... And we only just arrived... How terrible, though...'
We approached the desk, handed over our passports, and made the customary arrangements. 'So where you two from?' she asked us.
'San Francisco,' Her Lad said. 'Well, we're both originally from San Francisco. I still live there . He lives in Greece.'
'Oh, Greece, eh..? What'r'ya doin' there?'
I made my usual reply: 'Nothing. I live on an island. And do nothing.'
'You're American?' Herlad interjected before I was forced into explaining any further. 'Where from?'
'Oh well...' She became a little conspiratorial. 'I live here, really. Well... Alright, I live here half the year and the other half I live in San Diego...'
'Ah, we've got friends in San Diego, and my sister lives there...' I sort of trailed off. Her manner was weird. 'So you work here for six months of the year?'
'Oh, yeah, well... Here's the thing... I work for the Lord.'
Her voice inflected upwards at the word 'Lord', as if stating the obvious in the form of a question. When confronted with such people, much to Herlad's frequent annoyance, I get silly. 'Really?' I asked smiling, credulous but sarcastic. 'How?'
'We've got a community of believers in San Diego, and I've received a call from Jesus to come here and help fulfill His Plan.'
'By working in a cheap hotel?' Beat. Afraid I'd offended her, I said rashly, 'Uh, WE're Christians.' Maybe I thought she'd tell was what His Plan was. Herlad's eyeballs swiveled ever-so-slightly in my direction, brows glowering.
'Oh you are, huh?' she said; evidently, the moniker 'Christian' alone revealed far too little. 'You're born again, then?' she said straight to Herlad.
'Uhh... He's Greek Orthodox,' he offered up tattlingly, pointing at me, hoping it would satisfy.
'Mmmmm...' she said, giving me a wide, distrustful eye. 'Well, come this way...'
She took us up one flight of steps and across a little rooftop to our room. 'We have a strict curfew here of 10 pm. There's no drinking allowed, of course. And if you have to smoke'--by the slightest movement of her neck she (probably unconsciously) indicated the Asian girl we'd seen outside, whose relationship with this servant of God from San Diego was suddenly thrown into sharp, judgmental focus--'there are ashtrays in the courtyard at the front.'
She left us. The room was small, the beds uncomfortable. Crumbling bits of ceiling powdered us in our sleep. The en suite bathroom was a toilet, shower and sink in a three by three area separated from the rest of the room by a cement-block wall that wasn't even as tall as a man. And all this plus born again fanatics for five times the price of comparative luxury back in the fleshpots of Egypt.