THE NEW NEW MIDDLE EAST
THREE WEEKS AND ENDLESS WAR IN THE PROMISED LAND
What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing, the birth pangs of a new Middle East.
We should go to the Arabs with sticks in hand and we should beat them on the heads; we should beat them and beat them and beat them, until they stop hating us.
—Israeli taxi driver, quoted in David Shipler, Arab and Jew
I. INTO THE LEVANT
Moments ago they closed a street in Jerusalem. The police came and unspooled red tape and wire as cars backed up Jaffa Avenue. They wore heavy vests and carried big guns, but they were laughing. Two storekeepers plugged their ears. There was a small explosion. Someone had left a bag sitting in Ben-Yehuda Plaza. This is one part of Jerusalem.
At Mike’s Place in West Jerusalem the tables are outside and a breeze cuts through the courtyard. I play pool with my friend Maimon who lives here now with his wife and child. We met at a ski resort in Colorado eight years ago. I was hitchhiking under a full moon and the white glow of the mountain tops when Maimon stopped to give me a ride. I got a job bartending at the top of the gondola lift, and Maimon taught snowboarding lessons, and when we weren’t working we zipped down the mountains. Those were endless days, where the only thing that mattered was the depth of the snow.
But that was Colorado, and this is Jerusalem, where Jesus died and Mohammed rose to heaven and the Jewish Temple stood for a thousand years leaving nothing but a retaining wall where the Hassidim knock the brim of their hats and kiss the bricks and leave notes and prayers for their God. The capital of a nation at war.
Maimon tells me a story about his time in the Israeli military. It was a time before we met.
“I was in the infantry,” he says. “We were in Gaza, sixteen years ago, and they were launching mortars at us. We saw where they were setting up, spotted them in our planes. They were in an orphanage. I fired at them, but it was night. I shot with an M60, which is a nineteen-pound machine gun that fires 550 rounds per minute. Do you understand what I’m saying? I had coordinates, but I couldn’t see anything, and I was firing on an orphanage.”
From the bar we head to the Wailing Wall and I leave a note on behalf of a friend and I kiss the wall. I should perhaps make my own wish for the war to end but I’m not a believer. We are close to the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus fell carrying the cross he would be nailed to, and we can see the gold dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque. The old city, with its ancient walls and cobbled roads and armies of the devout singing and muttering in the dark, is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. We stay there, bathed in history, and I forget about the orphanage Maimon had shot at. I will go to Gaza soon, twenty-eight miles long and surrounded by an electric fence. All I need is a press card.
Today, when I go to get that card, they don’t want to give it to me. The press woman says, “What is the Believer? I have never heard of your magazine.”
“The Believer is a big magazine in America,” I say. “OK, maybe not that big. It’s a prestige publication.” I ask her if she would like a copy and she looks through me with hatred. Finally I prevail upon her.
When I am leaving, I say, “Have a nice day.” I kind of want to ask her on a date. I don’t know anybody in Israel except Maimon. She says, “I will not have a nice day. Fourteen Israelis have just been killed in Lebanon.”
A Hezbollah spokesman says the soldiers were “burned alive in their tanks on our land.”
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