April 29, 2004

Reading Friedman at the Ramses Hilton Centre

The movie didn't start for another thirty minutes, so there was a lot of canned Egyptian techno-pop to look forward to. Instead of merely waiting for the lights to dim, I read from Thomas Friedman's book 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization'. It had not occupied first place on my list of things to read, but while I was in Tel Aviv I discovered that Israel is not the best place to find Noam Chomsky's book about the Israeli-Palestinian disaster. Reading the book has been an exercise in patience. Journalists like Friedman have not been trained to evaluate, but rather to describe things as they are--at least, that is what Friedman claims to do, although I bet old Chomsky would have a thing or two to say about such pretensions.

My bookmark was wedged snug at the start of a new chapter entitled 'The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention'. This theory states that once a country gets a McDonald's, it never again goes to war with any other country that also has a McDonald's. It seems that this has actually proved to be the case, the one exception perhaps being 1999's pseudo-war between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo, although Friedman takes great pains to use that example as simply an exception that proves the rule.

He writes, 'Once NATO turned out the lights in Belgrade, and shut down the power grids and the economy, Belgrade's citizens almost immediately demanded that President Slobodan Milosevic bring an end to the war... Because the air war forced a choice on them: Do you want to be part of Europe and the broad economic trends and opportunities in the world today or do you want to keep Kosovo and become an isolated, backward tribal enclave: It's McDonald's or Kosovo--you can't have both. And the Serbian people chose McDonald's.' A bit further on he makes his point clear: 'When governments do things that make economic integration and a better lifestyle--symbolized by the presence of a McDonald's--less possible, people in developed countries simply will not tolerate it for as long as they did in the past.'

Symbolized by the presence of a McDonald's. The New York Times's signature columnist uses McDonald's as the criterion for a 'better lifestyle'.

The funny thing is that only ten minutes before opening Friedman's book I had actually visited a McDonald's in order to eat a strawberry ice cream sundae. It was another result of my having shown up early for the movie. The Ramses Hilton Centre is the closest thing Cairo has to a genuine American shopping mall, and side-by-side on its topmost floor reside middle-class Egypt's pride and joy: a McDonald's and a multi-plex cinema. The Cairene version of Ray Kroc's tract-home was just like every other one, complete with plastic balls, and except for the fashionable women in head-scarves and the addition of a pita-wrapped McArabia to the menu, I could have been on Contra Costa Blvd. The place was insanely clean for Egypt, and the counter staff insanely smiley; not that Egyptians don't smile, only that their smiles are usually genuine, free of the eerie plasticity which employee training videos inculcate in American retail slaves.

In a city like this one the distinctions between classes are very sharp, and very apparent. One need only pass from the medieval quarter to the downtown area to witness a profound shift, not only from lower- to middle-class, but more importantly from Muslim to Globalizing Cairo. The entire city throbs with desperation, manifested differently by both sides of the divide: in the medieval quarter, impoverishment reigns, and people are desperate to hold on to their traditional Islamic ways in a globalized world where Islam's foundations are constantly being undermined; globalizing Cairo, on the other hand, is desperate for 'integration' with the 'broad economic trends and opportunities in the world today', and for the self-respect they feel they will earn once they have thrown off all but the barest minimum of their traditional inheritance.

This is an intensely religious culture. I am a bearded man, and as I walk the streets of Cairo it is not at all uncommon for a stranger to walk up to me and pointedly ask, 'What is your religion?' or perhaps even, 'Are you a Muslim?' That can be unnerving to someone from a culture where religion is little more than a political category. Westerners have been taught to treat personal religious belief as something very private, and questions of spirituality are usually raised only when one is sure one's questioner more or less shares one's beliefs. Bring up dogmatic issues at a cocktail party and the social frisson is positively palpable. In fact, for powerful intellectuals like Friedman, who now try to view the world 'six-dimensionally', to use his expression, religion qua religion has no place at all in their mental worldview. The decision-makers of today's world see man as a political, cultural, environmental, economic, technological and biological animal. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman will dissect the Arab side of the argument from those six dimensions: he will take into account the Palestinians' desire for self-rule, their history and geopolitical situation, the level of their economic 'development', the amount of bandwidth ripping through their telephone lines, and even their genetic make-up. But their religion? Does someone like Friedman have the slightest clue what is happening inside that Arab Muslim when he bows his head in prayer? To Friedman, is that even worth considering?

When religion becomes only a cultural sub-category, without any prerogatives of its own, then culture is emptied of all qualitative content. On the level of culture, then, the kimono has no more intrinsic value than the boxer-brief. For Friedman, the goal to work toward is not the pulling up of McDonald's from the garden of genuine culture in which it has sprung up like a weed (so to speak). Rather, what is important is that the Japanese child, for whom McDonald's has become indistinguishable from something traditionally Japanese, learn to love McDonald's as an aspect of a different culture, just as you and I love to eat sushi. But if traditional religion were to be accorded a civilizational dimension with prerogatives as absolute as economics, politics and the rest, then it would be clear that anything worthy of the name culture would never produce something so inhuman and unnatural as McDonald's.

It isn't about McDonald's. I ate there today and liked it.

The lights in the theater dimmed, I put the book away, and watched 'The Passion of the Christ'. Being a Christian, I wept and wept. Afterward, as I left the comfortable globalized world of the cinema and found myself once more on the teeming, steaming streets of Cairo, a young boy with only one arm and one leg, wearing rags and covered in dirt, scuttled over to me like a human crab. He was truly pathetic, clutching a cracked plastic bowl, and was only able to growl and moan. He couldn't even beg properly.

I passed him by, and crucified Christ all over again.

It isn't about McDonald's at all.

Posted by djsmall at 12:36 AM

April 28, 2004

A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Two: No Problem Baghdad, Big Problem Baghdad

'You were in Baghdad last month?' I asked, astonished.

'Yes, no problem!' Chai answered. 'I fly to Moscow and there I met an activist on way to Iraq, and so I thought: I go to Iraq too!'

Chai recounted his exploits with a remarkable childlikeness and an incredible sense of humor, not to mention an outrageously appropriate Japanese accent. His English was not good, and it would take a Dickensian writer to reproduce its maximum comic effect. Very quickly, though, Her Lad and I realized we had stumbled across a completely unique and wonderful specimen of our silly species.

'One can go to Iraq?' I asked.

'Ah, yes! No problem! There is no government there, so man at border, he just stamp my visa. Welcome to Iraq!' Chai reenacted the scene for us with robotic precision, air-stamping twice forcefully, then adding another 'No problem!'

I asked to see the entry stamp and he showed it to me. Indeed, there it was, a round and green inkblot, slightly faded with Arabic script. He had made a land crossing somewhere along the Jordanian border. 'Wow!' I remarked. 'I want to go to Iraq! Can anyone just go? Isn't there a war there?' Her Lad suggested, 'Probably only Americans can't go, like Cuba,' to which I replied, 'But don't we rule the place now?'

'No, you can go! Americans too, no problem!' Chai insisted. 'I met American activist and she said, "No problem! I just say I from Costa Rica!" No problem!'

'What was it like?' Her Lad asked.

'Oh, very nice, very nice. People very nice. All day I hear boom here and boom there from bomb explosion, but everyone smile and say: no problem, it normal!'

'Did you see Americans around? American soldiers?'

'Ah, yes.'

'What were they like?'

'Ah, eh... They were not friendly. They'--he mimics a thick, scary infantryman with a big weapon.

Chai then got a tad more serious, but just a tad. 'I think they have big problem, though. Big bisexual problem.'

Beat. Eh?

'Four times in Iraq I have bisexual problem. I go to bath, you know, bath of Turk.'

'Like a hammam?' I suggested, well acquainted myself with that oriental luxury.

'Yes, hammam, yes. And I sit and old man'--Chai then mimed massage--'and then he'--followed by a shampooing mime--'and it'--another mime, this time of soap running into his eyes--'and then'--nervous, mischievous smile--'he kiss me!'

'What did you do?'

'I go "Fuck you!"' he said, once again shoving his Arab assailant away.

'Was there anyone else there?' Her Lad asked.

'Yes, and they say, "Oh, be careful. Old man bisexual." I think Arabs have big bisexual problem. A taxi driver, he lean to me and make bisexual!'

'What did he do?' I said, entertained now beyond my wildest dreams.

'He lean forward'--Chai does so, towards me--'and he'--Chai extends his arm my way--'grab'--his hand opens--'my'--closer, leaning in--'dick.'

'Whoa! Wow!' exclaimed Her Lad. 'What did you do?'

'I say in Japanese, "Fuck you! No way!" They have big problem in Iraq with bisexual. I think they no real Muslim there.'

'But you liked it there?' Her Lad asked, perhaps not believing someone could have with all the bisexual around.

'Ah, yes! People very friendly! I go to cinema and it was pornography. All pornography! I sit down and see only man and think, "Iraq women no see movies." But then it start and I think, 'Oh, that is why!' because it all pornography. Big pornography. Just big sex! The men sit'--he sits straight up, expressionless, without emotion--'and watch. Only pornography!'

The conversation turned then to things more mundane. Where are you from? Where are you going? Japan, he said. He studies medicine at a large university there, but has no place to live, so he sleeps in the Art Club room. 'I am president of Art Club!' he said. 'Oh,' I asked. 'You are an artist?' 'No, but I am president of Art Club! I sleep in Art Club room!' Chai was turning out to be very extraordinary and wonderful indeed.

'So where you from?' he asked.

'San Francisco,' Her Lad answered.

'Oh, San Fransisco. I heard. Bisexual paradise?'

Nervous laughter. 'Yes, yes. Bisexual paradise.'

Chai was not impressed. 'And Amsterdam, too, I hear is bisexual paradise. They marry each other there, men do.'

'And in San Francisco too,' Gene informed him, Chai's face then manifesting shock and slight horror.

I spied a brown-skinned man nearby, listening in. He was dressed like a Muslim cleric and had a long, grey beard. My eyes opened wide, as I thought, Oh my! He's been listening to this all along.

'It is a fact of life!' the wise-looking one said in answer to my anxious stare.

'Yes,' said Chai. 'Gay people everywhere.'

'But they are a peaceful people,' the newcomer announced. 'You never see one of them blowing people away with a machine gun.'

'Are you Egyptian?' I asked.

'No, I am from India.' His accent should have given it away. 'From Bombay.'

There we were, then, Her Lad and I, at the Israeli-Egyptian border, sitting with a Japanese boy fresh from bisexual assaults in Baghdad, and a broad-minded imam from Bombay preaching the peace-lovingness of gays. The people one meets.

'You like Israel?' Chai asked us.

'Well... Let's say it was difficult,' I answered diplomatically.

'You go to protest?' he asked.

'Protest? What protest?'

'The protest of security wall. You know, they build big fence around Palestine? I go to protest. It was very good! No problem!'

To be continued...

Posted by djsmall at 02:20 AM

April 26, 2004

Her Lad and the Muezzin's Orgasmic Cry

The walk from Cairo's medieval quarter was back-lit by the setting sun, and for a moment the horrible air pollution here seemed almost worth it. The soft hues of a hundred colors framed the city's thousand minarets, their crescent-topped points raised proudly heavenward, as the muezzin's cry called the faithful to the sunset prayer. We were just stepping off the curb into a six-pronged intersection when the call to prayer rang out from a mosque only yards away, ripping through us like piss-shiver, an erotic puncturing of the heart. So it was for me, at any rate. Her Lad's eyes widened at the mournful cry--'Allah Ackbar!' 'God is greatest!'--and he sang 'Beauty!' in the sing-song way he reserves for those moments when normal living is penetrated by something extraordinary, or when the extraordinariness of normal living is too apparent to go unexpressed.

A bit further on down the street we passed by a mosque covered in neon-green trim. We were deep in conversation about his love for his Her when he happened to glance through one of its windows and then abruptly stopped. Through the star-patterned grill he could see five or six rows of Muslim men, heads bowed to the floor. He probably said something like, 'Wow', and for five minutes or so was absolutely glued, transfixed as the rite worked itself out.

The men rose, hands crossed over their abdomens: all in concert, all as one. A soft and almost bubbly voice floated out to us on the street, going through the prayer cycle repeated five times a day, every day. 'God is greatest, God is greatest. There is no reality but the Reality, and Mohammed is His prophet...' They bent at the waist, again as one. Then up once more, this time with their hands cupped behind their ears. Some mouthed along, others yawned, and then they all again bowed their foreheads to the floor. The light inside was harshly fluorescent, and the sickening scent of bare feet spilled onto the sidewalk. But the men performed their devotions, men of all ages and colors, men in suits and men in robes, boys and youths and fat and thin; all lined up, bowing and rising, bending and straightening. Allah Ackbar. Allah Ackbar.

It was a familiar scene for me. I have been peering through the windows of mosques for a long time now, in Turkey, in Albania, in Jerusalem, in the Sinai, and now in Cairo too. There is something almost flirtatious about it, my tip-toeing around a mosque at prayer time, fearful of disturbing the Muslims within, but unable to simply pass it by. For me, as a Christian, Islam is like one of its women: veiled and quiet and inexplicable, but radiant with fiery eyes, her beauty unmistakable yet always out of reach, peeking out here and there in tantalizing mystery. There is something oddly familiar about it all, and we know that much of what seems most foreign in the Muslim tradition was present in Christianity before Mohammed, disowned only later on by Christians looking to distance themselves from Islam. At the same time, though, its appeal to a commitment that embraces all of life, all of society, the whole man, up to and including the motions of the body, is totally alien to someone from California raised on individual expression and the cultivation of ease and marketable whimsy. I look through the window, then, at the rows of men at prayer; and I hear the muezzin's cry penetrating to the outermost corner of their social world, reminding every ear of heaven's prerogatives; and it comes as a profound challenge to my own religious efforts, diluted and modern to a sometimes torturous level.

But what must Her Lad be thinking? 'Wow,' he muttered, and as we finally turned away and resumed our walk down the street, he said, 'I never knew it was like that.'

Earlier in the day we had visited an ice cream parlor with a Cairene acquaintance, a devout Muslim girl (head uncovered, an acknowledged sin for which she hopes God forgives her) for whom atheism is an inconceivable, frightening and even sinister character flaw requiring immediate amendment. Her Lad tidied off his second dessert to the sounds of her concerned exhortations to faith. 'I understand what religion is saying,' he answered, 'but it doesn't reach my heart.'

I have been dragging the poor boy hither and thither from one holy place to the next: the Burning Bush, the Western Wall, the Holy Sepulchre, the mosques and madrases of Cairo. He has been brought face to face with the world's faithful: the monks of Sinai wrestling with hordes of daily tourists; the Hasidim of Jerusalem bobbing up and down below the Temple Mount; and the impoverished and demoralized Muslim masses prostrated all in a row. He has been through the wringer. If what I the practicing Christian see through the mosque's window disturbs, intrigues and scares me, then what must his reaction be?

Later on we had dinner with an American journalist on whom we poured out the observations, frustrations and questions that we had stored up during our ten days in deeply troubled and troubling Israel. 'If Moses were alive today,' our companion commented, 'he would be sent to the Hague and tried before the war crimes tribunal,' and then launched on a hilarious rendition of Numbers 21, where Moses gets furious with his Hebrew followers for neglecting to slay the women and children along with the men after their victory over and total slaughter of the Amalekite army. Her Lad laughed and laughed, and I did too, but I thought that his laughter was perhaps a kind of exorcism, a purging of the uneasiness which over-exposure to religion can cause.

He had said to me a few days earlier, after we finished touring the blatantly propagandistic pro-Israeli Museum of the History of Jerusalem, 'All I can see that has resulted from religion is hatred and bloodshed and ugliness. Perhaps there is beauty somewhere in religion. Of course there must be. But the ugliness is so overwhelming that I just don't want religion to enter into my mind at all. I can't consider it. It is too ugly.'

There is integrity in that. But then what did he feel as he peered into the mosque beneath that sunset sky? How does his distance from those men at prayer strike him?

How is he struck by his distance, then, from me?

Posted by djsmall at 12:29 AM

April 24, 2004

A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part One: Musings on an Opening Question

Two French lovers had turned down our request that all four of us share a taxi to the Israeli-Egyptian border, when a young man from Japan approached and asked, 'Do you have a visa for Egypt?'

Did we have a visa? Two days earlier we had spent three hours at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, a place unappetizingly reminiscent of a cesspit, waiting for them to authorize our re-entry. The man at the immigration window was very friendly, and in the end we were given our visas without the added bonus of an interrogation by the Consul, but the wait was unexpected and unwanted, especially as we knew that with each passing minute our chances of enjoying the seaside pleasures of medieval Acre were decreasing. When we were finally handed our passports, newly furnished with visas and a thick blue ink stamp which bled all over my fingers, I discovered that the embassy's bureaucrats had put a staple through mine in order to better secure (or so they thought) the lamination around the photograph, which has deteriorated somewhat after so much use and abuse.

This brilliant idea of theirs, no doubt implemented with the best of intentions, caused us no small trouble yesterday when we tried to make good on that visa and leave the Holy Land. Passports that have been tampered with are a one-way ticket to a half-hour no-holds-barred grilling from a sweet-faced but stern-voiced Israeli border control officer, her henchmen nearby, Kalashnikovs at the ready. 'Where have you come from?' 'What did you do there?' 'Who are you traveling with?' 'What can you tell me about him?' ('Where do I start?' I thought.) 'What is your religion?' 'Who gave you the idea to come to Israel?' 'How much money do you have with you?' etc. As always, I met this barrage of questions with a barrage of verbose replies, while Her Lad, once his turn came up, did not bother hiding his feelings about such inhumane disrespect, and answered with one or two words only, often asking, 'Say again?' as if to say with ire, 'I choose not to hear your stupidities the first time.' When they asked him, 'What can you tell me about your friend?' he asked, 'What do you want to know? He has a big beard and didn't have one when we were kids,' for which he was rewarded with a chuckle. All I got for my concerted witticisms during my interrogation were two smiles.

Being delayed at the embassy in Tel Aviv did indeed cause us to miss out on beach fun in Acre. The day before, though, we had walked up and down the Tel Aviv coast, so our desire for the sea did not go totally unfulfilled. I swam while Her Lad sat on the powdered sand and soaked up the familiar beauties of a breezy shore. 'This is the first time I've actually had fun since I left home,' he said, not the nicest thing to hear after having traveled with a guy for two weeks. But Her Lad is a homebody at heart. In fact, he says the primary reason he travels is to be able to appreciate home that much more. It is difficult for me to understand that perspective, but then again, the more I travel the more I feel disinclined to return home at all. I think this difference between us, that Her Lad travels to reinforce the familiar while I travel to escape it, reveals a lot.

He would attribute it to my incorrigible extremism, but the reality is that from deep down to tip top, I hate America to the core, and can see no good in it, or at least no special good. It is a blind-spot, I know, but it seems to me that everything truly good about America is true of all countries to the extent that there is good inherent in all people. But as I travel to countries more and more unlike America, I discover that the good in them is not present in America, and are not based merely on the common good shared by all men, but something subtler and more rarefied, something (I dare say) spiritual. The problem I have with this situation personally is that having been raised in America, I carry within myself all those aspects of it that seem to me most evil. Traveling for me, then, is a flight from social evil in the hope that doing so will provide a foundation for a flight from personal evil. Likewise, the unfamiliar, exotic and unnerving things I see in foreign lands provide touchstones by which I hope to stimulate in myself something unfamiliar, exotic and (perhaps even) unnerving, always assuming that the unfamiliar, and thus for me un-American, will always tend toward the spiritual and away from the merely mediocre. (Katie Vigil is probably banging her head on her keyboard right now, with all this talk of good and evil. Hopefully she will find the spiritual-mediocre distinction more acceptable.)

Her Lad is different. He thrives in the society in which he lives. He is intelligent enough to see its flaws, but clever enough to take its flawed rules and use them to his advantage. In an unfamiliar world, though, where the rules are different and usually less rigidly enforced, he draws inward, disturbed and slightly scared at the chaos of it all. When I watch him get this way, it seems to me that his cleverness is then in overdrive: however unable he would be to put his ideas into practice, I know he is thinking of all the ways the chaos would have to be ordered so as to allow him to regain his place at the top of the totem pole. How can you manipulate the system when there is no system? He travels, then, for the thrill of the return, when America's Golden Arches will empower him again to be all he wants to be, hurting nobody thereby, and protected by the system from being hurt himself.

None of this was in my mind when the young man from Japan asked me about my visa status. All I said was, 'Yes' and asked him his name.

'You can call me Chai,' he said.

'You mean like "tea"?'

'Yeah. That is the nickname they gave me in Baghdad last month.'

To be continued...

Posted by djsmall at 03:52 PM

April 19, 2004

Hitler's Birthday Eve

April 19th, the day before Hitler's birthday, is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, though the Lad from Carthage doesn't think the one has anything to do with the other. At 9:59 this morning, a single minute-long air-raid siren resounded throughout all the Holy Land--even, I am sure, into the Palestinian Territories, the entrance to which has been sealed by the Israelis in anticipation of reprisals for their assassination on Saturday night of the most recent leader of Hamas.

Her Lad and I were to visit the 1500-year-old Greek monastery of Saint Savvas today, but were informed that foreigners are not being let in to the West Bank. When I phoned a friend of mine who lives near Bethlehem, behind the freshly constructed security fence, I could hear the tension in her voice. She lives in a hilltop apartment overlooking the Dead Sea to the east and the Israeli settlement of Gilo to the north, she and her two invalid parents and three sisters, all of whom sleep in one modest bedroom. When we visited last week, we were received with incredible warmth, though the matriarch of the family, who had lived once upon a time in Honduras, upon discovering Her Lad's proficiency in Spanish, insisted on gurgling Spanish words at him loudly, no small cause of discomfort on his part. It being Easter Week, we were provided, in this order, the requisite port and pina colada with chocolates, then red-dyed eggs, and finally Turkish coffee and Easter cakes. The laughter was contagious, the candor much appreciated.

It is safe to say that we have both forgotten everything we thought we knew about Palestinians and the Palestinian Territories. Passing from Israel into the road outside Bethlehem is like going from night to day. Walking the streets of Jerusalem's New City, which is modern and almost entirely Jewish, an American feels oddly at home. New York accents are in the air, the architecture akin to what one finds around the Bay Area--when we walked back to the monastery in which we are staying, we could have been walking down Treat Blvd. in Walnut Creek. The West Bank, on the other hand, feels more like what one would expect of the Mediterranean: shabby and chaotic, a bit depressed but resonant with a strong sense of community.

Even within Jerusalem's Old City itself, which is separated into four quarters, the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish, this distinction is apparent. Setting the Christian and Armenian Quarters aside, as they are mainly home to ecclesiastical foundations, in the Jewish Quarter modern people are everywhere, living in a modern way; in the Muslim Quarter, modernity is present, but it is filtered through something foreign to it, something we have been conditioned to consider 'oriental' and 'exotic': the poverty, the crowds, the noise of hustle, bustle and banter, the bubbles of waterpipes and sizzle of falafel set to fry.

Her Lad and I only found out about Saturday's assassination while we were circling the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. A British couple whose son works for BBC News told us about it, and suddenly the closed shops and melancholy in the air made complete sense. Aside from the explosive calls for revenge from a few, the mass Palestinian response has been to cry for justice by crippling so far as they can the foundations of Israeli commerce: the shops are all closed and will be for three days. Her Lad summed up their attitude: 'Oh, you're going to do this? Then we are going home.' Palestinians do all the grunt work in Israel--like Mexicans in California, for example--and so have a reason to believe their peaceful protest will have an effect. 'But when are such Gandhi-like attitudes and tactics reported by the media?' Her Lad's sagacity opined.

It is the way of modern people to focus only on the negative aspects of traditional life and only on the positive aspects of modern life. For someone like me, the temptation has always been to adopt the opposite approach, and gaze rosy-eyed on traditional beauty while condemning outright modern mediocrity. I would hate to think my experience of Jerusalem and its environs has passed through that mental sieve, though it is likely that it has, and Her Lad would probably attest to it. I don't want to paint the Israelis as racist covert colonialists, nor the Palestinians as oppressed freedom fighters. A situation like this one is far too complex for that.

It is difficult, though, very difficult. When the air-raid siren ceased, all the Jews of Israel stopped whatever they were doing and stood silent for a minute, bringing to mind the atrocities committed sixty years ago, in hopes that such evil will never happen again. And my friend near Bethlehem was forbidden at tank-point from leaving her fenced-in home.

Posted by djsmall at 02:10 PM

April 17, 2004

Troubled Songs of Zion

On June 15th 1099, Frankish warriors entered Jerusalem and slaughtered its inhabitants, who were at that time mostly Muslims and Orthodox Christians. The crusaders' own chroniclers reveled in the bloodshed. According to one, the blood which ran down the steps leading to the Temple Mount and its majestic Dome of the Rock, where the massacres were staged, was so deep as to come up to the knees of his horse. That is hard to believe, but the nature of the exaggeration is telling: gleeful barbarism always errs on the side of excessive gore.

Ninety years before this 'liberation' of the city from its 'infidel' overlords and 'heretical' clergymen, the city was dealt a crushing blow when the Caliph of Cairo, 'Mad' Hakim, razed the Constantinian Basilica of the Resurrection to the ground. This destruction-happy Fatimid's intolerance of Christianity was in marked contrast to the city's first Muslim ruler, Omar the Rightly-Guided, who four hundred years earlier declined the generous offer extended him by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Sophronius, to join the prayers at the cathedral church. Were he to do so, said Omar, his just-recently inspired followers would turn the venerable site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection into a mosque. Such magnanimity was not Hakim's way, though, and his crazed obsession with stamping out whatever wasn't Islamic caused his own soldiers to assassinate him. Yet he lives on to this day, for when certain Shiite Muslims in the Lebanon reacted to the news of his murder with a messianic despondency, they soon elevated him to the status of prophet above even Mohammed himself, thus giving birth to a new religion, that of the Druzes.

Hakim's legacy lingers on more generally too. His was the first Muslim regime to seriously consider the forced conversion of Christians. Previously, Muslims had been happy to merely rule over the Jews and Christians in their lands, the Peoples of the Book protected by divine fiat in the Qur'an; because of this, for example, Egypt was majority Christian until the 14th century. But in Hakim's wake, the name of the mad caliph spread quickly throughout Christian Europe, both East and West, and gave the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus a powerful propaganda villain in order to muster the armies of the West--whose religion his own church had declared heretical a scant forty-five years earlier--to help him repel the increasing threat of the Seljuk Turks who at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 totally routed the Byzantine army and took central and eastern Anatolia for their own. Thus the above-mentioned Frankish warriors arrived on the Middle Eastern scene, and some might say they haven't left since, though adopting different guises and carrying different ideologies.

So Jerusalem is no stranger to troubles. It is indeed a troubled city, and to its conscientious visitors, deeply troubling.

Posted by djsmall at 11:24 AM