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4 hours in Jerusalem

In through Jaffa Gate; I don't remember where we came out.

If you'd like, you can hear a MP3 reading of the text in this piece.late-night reading of this piece (1.4 meg MP3); it's blurry because I've compressed it heavily; it's also spottily produced, a little nasal, and far from a good dramatic reading, but I have to start somewhere. The “bible reading” section is supposed to sound that stupid, by the way.

“This is the Via Dolorosa,” said the tour guide as we followed him up a staircase, the stone of the steps bowed by time-streams of heavy pilgrim feet. We'd come here through the bazaar, passing dust and trash in the corners, apartments above the stores, Grandma went to Israel and all I got was this, “okay sir you come in here sir very nice to buy,” the passages mostly empty. I kept touching the walls, trying to absorb the age of things, their ancientness, through the new skin on my fingertips.

Incense and mosaics: “This is where he was crucified. That is the Greek Orthodox and that is the Catholic. The crack of the earthquake is in the stone. The Syrians have Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. If you believe.” Cruciform graffiti, etched into a banister along with a few letters of Greek, was captioned with a date: 1867.

An Ethiopian monk rang a bell. A pudgy bearded man passed with his thin wife. He carried a 7-foot wooden crucifix over his right shoulder. His jacket said, Kansas State. “We are walking the Via backwards,” said the guide.

On the way here, along the highway between Savion and Jerusalem, armored transports, vintage 1948, had been painted red and left where their drivers were shot. We drove past an empty patch of land. “That is where, in the Bible, the sun stood still,” someone said.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

The Book of Joshua, Chapter 10

The Book of Joshua, Chapter 10

In the new city we drove past a building facade that was pocked by bullets. We stood on Mount Subco and I hallucinated Sunday School flashcards while, from the mosques below, a dozen electrically amplified muezzins called out for prayer at once.

I was in Israel to explain myself, to describe the concepts behind Ftrain. My hosts, a company in Savion, a suburb of Tel Aviv, wondered if these concepts could be applied to creating a computer program that would speak as if it were human. As we stood on Mt. Subco, before we entered the old city, the tour guide, who wore a frayed black sweater, said, “We would normally go to the Mount of Olives. But as you may be aware with the situation we should not.” It was cold but the sun was bright. I could smell sweat stored in my polyester shirt.

Back in the old city, he told us, “These stones you see are from the time of Herod.” I thought of pastors and youth pastors, long Protestant Sunday services, wearing a suit, splashed with water from a carved wooden font. When I was 14, I went to the 1989 Presbyterian Youth Triennium at Perdue University, the New Testament in my nervous hand, and watched my suburban peers in Christ steal vodka from a Quik-mart, to drink before engaging in group intercourse. What Would Jesus Do? (Start a company, take it public?) On the plane home a woman would say, "my American family, their children went to summer camp and my children went to War."

The guide was struggling because there were too many stories. We climbed 6 flights to the roof of the Austrian Hospice. A dark period oil of Franz Josef hung in the halls, overgroomed moustache dominating the canvas. “You can see from here the Dome of the Rock, and there is where we were, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Back from that is the Jaffa Gate, we came in through there.” Across the street was an ancient stone building, with a fourth floor added by bolting together green corrugated plastic and lashing on a tin roof; chunks of the plastic had broken off to reveal fabric and stacks of paper. Men drank coffee on balconies. The roofs below us were domed, convex bulging masonry, and perched on their plaster were hundreds of small dishes, eavesdropping on satellites.

A few moments later I walked through a metal detector, passing a man with a submachine gun, and my steel-toed shoes from Sears didn't set off the alarm. I put on a paper yamulka and walked forward, and touched the Wailing Wall. A rabbi all in white preached and smiled; a silver and blue-velvet Torah was marched across the plaza by a group of 10 or 12, all in black suits, tassels hanging at their hips. “There are different parts of the wall for different sects,” said the guide. “They don't pray together for all the disagreements. Now also some Muslims say that Muhammad tethered his magical beast to the Wall, so there is further dispute.”

To the right of this was an archeological dig which had uncovered a tumble of huge stones, stones once part of the Wailing Wall. Roman Soldiers pushed them down in the first century, and the archeologists left them where they fell -- vandalism into history. Everything in Jerusalem is built of stone, on the Mount Moriah, Rock of Abraham, and where some stones touch blood cascades.

Before I came here, I knew I was ignorant of the world; but here was my ignorance tall as a skyscraper: languages, cultures, layers of faith and beige stone, all combining into patterns far too detailed for my American eyes. “5 million tourists last year; 100 thousand this year,” said the tour guide.

The next night we drove through Tel Aviv, and I saw the Orthodox quarters, a large park, movie theaters, malls, and pretty girls. I flew home two days later, and as I was in the air a bus in Tel Aviv, driven by a Palestinian, killed 8 Israelis and injured 25. I began to see how it worked: everyone knows everyone else in Israel. The death of eight moves out through tens of thousands of lives in a few moments; cell phones create ever-wider circles, Web sites push the news to the front page. Arafat's office called it “a traffic accident.” A whole nation of muscles tense; millions of eyes harden in resolve, expecting the worst from long experience.

But this story is not part of my narrative. The people I met, the places I went, the conversations held were peaceful, warm, kind. “Young women walk home long after midnight, safely, in Tel Aviv,” said one of our hosts, a Vice President of Product Management.

My head was absolute chaos on the way home. I began to write in pen in a tan, recycled notebook, open on my lap, but I could only draw ovals and arrows, trying to connect Jerusalem to the efforts of the firm, processing several days' presentations on data structures and language acquisition theory, feeling the scratched stone of the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under my hands. I spoke very pleasantly with the woman sitting next to me - a Ph.D. in linguistics, a 30-year specialist the mechanics of sentences, whether Hebrew, Amharic, Arabic, or English. The white noise of the plane, the pings and light snores, put me to sleep.

The next day's New York Times, which I read in Brooklyn with a bagel and coffee, showed a girl who'd been at the bus stop in Tel Aviv. She was 19 or 20. Her face was to the sky and her mouth was open, eyes closed. Two people held her arms. The pose was like that taken of the children at Clement Park, after Columbine in Colorado, in March of 1999.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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