Sunday, May 25, 2008


To follow up on my previous posting: one more big player in Jerusalem's battle of the monotheistic gods wasn't mentioned yet, but of course Islam is very present indeed, symbolized by the mosque on Temple Mountain, with its big golden dome that dominates the city.
The first significant thing was that it took me almost an hour to find the entrance: it's right next to the Western Wall plaza, but clearly the Jews are not exactly keen on calling attention to it. But truly amazing was a large board in the official standard style used for all tourist information: "Announcement and Warning: According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site" (signed: The Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem). Only ten meters further on one nevertheless finds another board in the same standard style, which welcomes visitors and gives instructions on how to behave. So much for consistency.
Clearly, then, my decision to pass this boundary and enter the area was an act of transgression. And while another board said that one is not allowed to make photos inside one of the two big mosques, presumably this is meant for muslims only, for I was not permitted to enter either of them at all. This was quite a disappointment, and when I sat down to watch the area (which is spacy and beautiful, radiating a calm and peaceful atmosphere), it dawned on me that nobody - neither the Jews nor the Muslims - wanted me there, in what is believed to be the holiest place on earth - whether it is because the "foundation stone of the world" is present there, or because Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven at this spot. Tourists are barely tolerated, and then only for one hour a day (from 13.30-14.30).
Over the years I had done my share of reading about Jerusalem and its divided population, like all of us, but there's no better example of the fact that "one must have been there to know how it is". We all know that Jews, Christians and Muslims (not to mention secularists) barely manage to cohabitate in this city of contrasts, but how that works out in reality only becomes clear by seeing it with one's own eyes.
Consider this small example: I'm having a drink together with a Jewish-American friend of mine, on a small terrace close to Jaffa gate. The owner of the place tells him that he cannot just have a drink: it's either a full meal or nothing at all. Then he notices me, and realizes that I'm the same guy with whom he had been chatting friendly when I had breakfast at his place the same morning. His attitude changes immediately: of course we are welcome to have just a drink, and will we please excuse him... I do not immediately understand, but my friend does: the owner is of Arab descent, he is a Jew, and I am neither. And that says it all. Needless to add, Jews are doing the same kind of thing to Arabs. On the other hand, both seem to look at the Christian tourists more or less the same way: mostly with a kind of puzzled amusement ("what has gotten into these folks, carrying big crosses along the via dolorosa in the blistering heat?") rather than hostility. And the Christian evangelicals for their sake, of course, see all the others as grist for the mill of conversion.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The many gods of monotheism

I'm traveling, and last week's dominant experience has been the many gods of monotheism. The Egyptologist Jan Assmann has pointed out very convincingly that monotheism is defined less by "belief in one god" than by the attempt to draw a sharp and impermeable boundary between religious truth (the one true God, one's own one of course) and error (paganism and idolatry, a.k.a. whatever is sacred to everybody else). It will not come as a suprise that Twilight Traveler has some problems with such black-whitism (or light-darkism). The irony is that these boundaries invariably turn out to be grey zones, through which monotheists travel to the other side without ever leaving their own territory, and without realizing that they moved at all. Last week in Germany I participated in a beautiful ritual of the (originally Brasilian) Santo Daime community, which blends Roman Catholicism with Amazonian shamanism, and effortlessly combines a firm conviction of having the true doctrine (received by their founder, a rubber tapper known as mestre Ireneu, under the influence of their central sacrament ayahuasca) with an all-inclusive universalism that sincerely wishes love & light to all. Just a few days later I found myself in the city of Meron, close to Safed in Israel, being almost pressed to pulp in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Lag B'omer festivities, when chassidim noisily celebrate the dying day of rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, the supposed author of the Zohar (the classic text of medieval kabbalah). And still the same evening I was sitting in the front row of a meeting of the Kabbalah Center (of Madonna fame), a New Age upgrade of kabbalah created by a rabbi Berg, his wife and their sons, who were all there, dancing ecstatically together with the public, to the music of a Jiddish rock band (see photo below). And if that were not enough, today in Jerusalem I visited the Western wall during shabbat - as solemn and moving as the Lag B'omer feasting had been chaotic and, frankly, aggressive - while the very same morning I had been watching with very mixed feelings how Christian tourists (one of them had a t-shirt that said "property of Jesus") were moving like bees through the "Holy Sepulchre" church in the old city. Unceasingly, visitors were sitting down to touch the "stone of unction'' with their hands or hold objects or family photos against it: although the stone dates from the early 19th century, they seemed convinced that it was connected to Jesus' body and must emit some kind of healing vibration. My Israeli friend Jonatan felt differently: he heard the singing of the monks and just could not bring himself to cross the treshold to that church, least of all on shabbat. I understood his feelings.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Secret Life of Puppets

It's been over two months since my last posting....
Anyway, my only reason for writing now is to tell the rest of the world that everybody should urgently read Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard University Press 2001). Why? What is it all about? Trust me: just read it.