October 14, 2004

A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Four: Artful Yet Innocent in East Jerusalem

Read Part One. Read Part Two. Read Part Three.

'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:

'No problem!'

'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...

Posted by djsmall at October 14, 2004 03:34 PM