Cue The Camels: Jerusalem Bed Sheets 

Chapter Five

I was in seat number 33E, center aisle, in coach. Brown and yellow stains covered my seat and the tray table hung from a hinge so damaged that I had to prop it up with my left knee. I tried not to make eye contact with a frustrated mother who was stood in the aisle with her crying baby – her submissive husband in standby mode with the baby’s formula bottle in one hand and a clean diaper in the other. The poor man exemplified Henry David Thoreau’s quote: ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. A renegade four-year-old weaved through the cabin and ‘tagged’ an elderly Hasidic man who was praying next to the emergency exit. I just prayed that my iPod wouldn’t die and that the Ambien would soon kick in.

              Our flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv was a long sixteen hours. My in-flight entertainment was watching a live performance of Jewish cultural and family dynamics. There was some English spoken on the plane but mostly, a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish filled the stuffy air. The guy on my right was reading The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper and drinking a Sprite. To my left, and fast asleep, was a Teletubby of a man, whose yarmulke had slipped down to his forehead and who, on occasion, snorted like a hog. On my iPod, my Natacha Atlas remix played. Eventually, I entered the ‘twilight zone’ when the Ambien finally took effect.                             

                  As we approached Jerusalem on Highway One from Tel Aviv we could see the city lights reflecting off low-lying clouds. The first time I’d set eyes on Jerusalem was several years previously: it had been a clear night under a full May moon. The limestone walls of the Old City had been awash with blue moonlight and the air had been completely still, and uncomfortably humid. Klezmer music played on the car radio, which seemed appropriate as the streets pulsated with trucks, cars, city buses and pedestrians dodging traffic. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry with their cell phones attached to their ears. 

On this visit, however, there was no moon. Jerusalem was quiet and room service was closed. I lay on the bed munching a Balance bar, stretching my legs and back when the peaceful night vanished with the screech of tires and a ‘Whoosh!’

Below my balcony, on Aharon Katsir Street, a van was on fire. I grabbed my Nikon and got a few shots of the van just as one of the back tires exploded from the heat of the fire. In the distance I could hear sirens as I watched the driver run and disappear into the night.

                  What if the van’s full of explosives and I’ve just watched the driver run away? The Hyatt Regency is full of tourists and here I am, on the balcony, shooting stills – the only thing left of me will be ash, meat and a Nikon F3T!

              But that train of thought wouldn’t lead to the money shot, so I kept shooting until I heard chatter from a walkie-talkie above me, on the roof. 

              Looking up, I could make out the silhouette of an armed guard and the barrel of his Uzi submachine gun. He was dressed like a Ninja, all in black, and wore a balaclava. His conversation was in Hebrew but there was no alarm in the Ninja’s voice. The Israeli fire department arrived, as did the police. They were in the process of putting out the van’s fire when the potential terrorist returned to the scene, showing the police his driver’s license and some papers.       

              When I share this story of the would-be Jihadist and the van on fire, people often ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid when you go to Israel or the Middle East?’ 

              ‘I’m always very comfortable in Israel,’ I reply. ‘Besides, everyone carries a gun. But what does it say about your faith if you’re afraid to go where Jesus walked?’ Without a beat, I continue, ‘Quite honestly, I’m more fearful of going into a 7-Eleven in L.A. at midnight and getting shot, than I am about getting blown up in the Middle East.’

               The fire of the van had been extinguished so the Israeli fire department left with the police. I watched the driver of the van hail a cab; the show over, I jumped in the shower before falling into a deep sleep. 

              I woke to the loud chirping of sparrows. The morning sun presented a new day as I walked out onto the balcony to greet it. Below me, the blackened shell of the van sat desolately. I looked beyond its charred skeleton to the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by its stone walls and the Damascus and Jaffa Gates. It was hard to imagine that within those walls so much bloodshed had taken place, given that it spanned only 220 acres. Jerusalem, for me, was the Disneyland of the world’s most sacred sites: the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock. In spite of the many solar panels, satellite dishes and electrical wires cluttering up my eye-line, I could still imagine what the Old City of Jerusalem looked like five hundred years ago.

              Our plan was to start filming at the Christian Quarter’s entrance of the Jaffa Gate, on the west side of the Old City. We would then shoot still images and slices of life throughout the Jewish Quarter before finally moving on to the Muslim Quarter. At that point, we planned to double back and follow the Fourteen Stations of the Cross of the Via Dolorosa, which would lead us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. The end of the day would be spent in the Armenian Quarter. With that in mind, I grabbed the Betacam, my Nikon camera, Sony Discman and a day-pack full of camera batteries and tapes, before heading out. 

              Jerusalem is a rich source of content for television news pieces and documentaries, as part of secular or religious programming – both of which keep me employed. The entire country of Israel is a treasure trove of archeological digs, ancient tombs, artifacts, current affairs and war.           Standing at the Jaffa Gate, I watched a young American man preparing to perform and sing at the entrance to the Old City. He had a small consumer camera on a tripod and a silver, portable radio-cassette player. His blonde hair was coiffured within an inch of its life and didn’t move even when the breeze picked up. He was wearing a light blue polo shirt, khaki pants and penny loafers: the unofficial ‘uniform’ of most young evangelical Christian men in America. He held a microphone that wasn’t connected to anything and asked a fellow tourist if they would hit ‘record’ on his camera and ‘play’ on his cassette recorder. As a disco beat rang out, the young man raised a clenched fist, his index finger pointed to the heavens; with his fake microphone in the other hand he began lip-syncing to the music. ‘We were lost sheep in a dark, dark valley. Lost, lost, lost.’

              During the chorus he danced. ‘He’s obviously not a Southern Baptist,’ I thought, recalling the old joke: ‘Do you know why Southern Baptists don’t believe in sex? Because it may lead them to dancing…..’

              As the music built in tempo he was completely absorbed, twirling and bouncing around like Zebedee. Behind him, an old Palestinian man in a gray suit who’d been watching began mimicking the dancing Christian, nearly tripping over his own feet. Standing to the right of the Jaffa Gate, three young, female Israeli soldiers smoked cigarettes and giggled at the impromptu performance. Tourists stopped to take photographs before continuing their pilgrimage into the Holy City. The Palestinian circled the young Christian – now aware of his new backing dancer – upstaging his performance. Jockeying for pole position, the old man moved towards the camera. The young Christian tried to put his arm around his waist but the old man wasn’t having any of it. He pulled away, and when only inches from the lens of the camera, he shouted: ‘God is great! I love America! I love hamburgers!’

              Upset, the young American stopped his performance. With his arms at his side he watched the old man praise America as the music played on. The Israeli soldiers, having enjoyed their unscripted reality show, turned towards the city to start their patrol. I tagged along behind them, past the Tower of David and into the Jewish Quarter. 

              Before entering the quarter I put on my Discman’s headphones and listened to my music which cut out external noise and distractions, thus helping me to focus on the rhythm of life inside the ancient walls. It’s amazing what you see when you’re immersed in music; it’s like your senses are heightened to compensate for the workout your ears receive. Sights and smells are more vivid and the trance-like calm I felt delivered a lucidity I couldn’t tap in to when people’s shouts and blaring car horns drilled into my skull.

              Track one, Jethro Tull’s ‘Living in the past’; ‘How appropriate,’ I thought, as I entered the bleached limestone homes and shops of the Jewish Quarter. It was spotlessly clean with pretty flower boxes and blue-and-white Israeli flags. Orthodox men wore black hats and coats; they rushed around as young Israeli soldiers stood sentry at every corner. Entering the vast space of the Western Wall Plaza, men prayed to the left while women prayed to the right of the huge stone structure, the retaining wall of the Dome of the Rock. A large group of American Christian pilgrims were stood in the middle of the plaza photographing each other with the Western Wall behind them. As they waved into the camera, Jewish men dodged and ducked around the group, covering their faces so that they weren’t also photographed. I heard one of the Christian women ask her tour guide, ‘Where can I get an iced tea, dear?’

I passed a contingent of Israeli soldiers at the entrance to the Muslim Quarter. Unlike the sterile antiseptic Jewish Quarter, the aroma of grilled onions, spices and garbage filled the narrow stone walkway. Vibrant, noisy, crowded and intriguing, the Muslim Quarter is the poorest neighborhood of the four quarters. Darkened from age and smog, the limestone walls were covered in green, red and blue graffiti. I stopped to film children playing in the ancient streets and spotted an old man sitting on some alley steps, counting the ninety-nine names of Allah with his prayer beads. A young coffee vendor approached, wearing a Manchester United football jersey. He offered me a shot glass full of coffee which I accepted. ‘Shukran,’ I said.

‘Afwan,’ he replied. ‘Would you like to sit down?’

‘I would love to, but I’ve work to do. May I come back and join you for coffee?’

‘Of course, of course, my friend,’ he said.

At that moment, one of many self-appointed Palestinian tour guides in Jerusalem interrupted our conversation. ‘Mr. TV, you need me to get you in the Dome of the Rock. I know people. No problem, no problem. Come, it’s easy, Mr. TV.’

In Arabic, the young vendor started scolding the tour guide for his intrusion; their voices rose and spit flew through the air. Caught off guard, I stepped back as the veins in the tour guide’s neck began to enlarge. 

Shit! I should be filming this.

I brought the Betacam to my shoulder, but the argument was done. The tour guide stormed off but not before he’d jabbed his finger at me and shouted, ‘May your children cheat you!’

I continued my hunt for the money shot through the ancient labyrinthine streets and alleys, amongst Jews, Christians and Arabs wearing variations of their traditional dress. Although I was surprised, others appeared unperturbed as a Christian pilgrim passed, wearing shorts and carrying a seven foot wooden cross with a wheel attached to its base. Two nuns shopped for pastries and four Muslim women pointed at a shop window, discussing which of the mannequins’ hijabs they preferred. The volume of banter from the local merchants as shoppers haggled only added to the bustling atmosphere, the smell of deep fried falafel deeply ingrained. Symbolic of a country with bipolar disorder, one nearby kiosk sold the CDs of American, European and Arab artists along with T-shirts bearing the Israeli air force emblems and prints such as ‘Free Palestine!’, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, images of Yasser Arafat and Che Guevara. 

              ‘Mr. Mr….my friend, you come into my shop, please? Are you an American?’

        In my best Barry White voice, I replied, ‘No, no, I’m Klingon.’          

              ‘Oh, that’s okay. I take that money too.’

        The Muslim Quarter overflowed with pure capitalism. I continued through the souks, occasionally stopping on Via Dolorosa, shooting video and still images of Christian pilgrims, IDG (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers and Muslims on their way to prayer. At Station Three, I found a multitude of Korean pilgrims with point-and-shoot cameras, all wearing the same bright yellow hats. They followed a guide waving a bright yellow flag as he spoke through a mini bullhorn. I swear I saw the same group of Korean pilgrims in Rome two months before. Those yellow-hat-wearing pilgrims – and the group of red-hat-wearing Italian pilgrims right behind them – were on a very tight schedule.  I decided to wait them out at a nearby sidewalk café and enjoy a cup of tea, a ‘kanafeh’ and a smoke. As the mass of pilgrims finally passed, I noticed a tourist on the corner babbling prophecies with tears in his eyes. This wasn’t an unusual sight in Old Jerusalem: devout Christian pilgrims got quite emotional when walking in the footsteps of Jesus. 

              The ones you’ve to watch are the seemingly normal Christian pilgrims who suddenly become ‘inspired’. They shed their normal clothes and transform into biblical characters, garbed in nothing more than a toga made from their hotel’s bed sheets. We call this ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ and I wondered which of the biblical prophets the man opposite would become. Usually, it’s Moses, John the Baptist or Jesus Christ himself. 

        I’ve yet to find the woman who truly thinks she’s the Virgin Mary. It’s said that she walks the Via Dolorosa every day to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to sob at the altar of Golgotha, mourning the death of her son, Jesus. She may sound far removed from reality but there is another ‘Virgin Mary’ – she invited everyone to her son, Jesus’, birthday party in Bethlehem.            

              There’s a joke in psychiatry that if you talk to God, it’s called prayer, but if God talks to you, you’re nuts. There seemed a disproportionate number of those who contracted Jerusalem Syndrome that were American Evangelical Christians, though there have been reports of deeply religious Jews – and, in rare cases, Catholics – also contracting this strange affliction. Peak seasons are Easter, Passover and Christmas. 

              Over the years, Israeli police have come across multiple biblical characters running around in bed sheets and even goatskins, proselytizing to the citizens of Jerusalem. Tour guides are asked by the Jerusalem authorities to watch for these symptoms: agitation, singing/shouting verses from the Bible and/or religious songs, marching to holy sites, delivering sermons in a holy place and urging people towards a better life. People who fall behind the group and who want to go off alone are observed carefully because once they get to the ‘bed-sheet-toga’ stage, there’s no stopping them.                                                                                                     

             After the mass of Korean pilgrims moved on, and before the Italians moved in, I grabbed the cameras and continued walking the Via Dolorosa. A metal medallion hung next to patched-up bullet-holes bearing a Roman numeral; these indicated the historical events at each location, of Christ’s walk to Golgotha.                   

              The church belonged to five different Christian groups: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics (Franciscans), Armenians, Coptics, and Ethiopians. This makes for complicated arrangements; disputes are common, particularly over who has the authority to carry out repairs. There’s a wooden ladder on a ledge just above the main entrance that’s been left there since the nineteenth century, because no one can agree who has the right to take it down. It’s not unusual to see fights between monks from different sects in the Sepulchre. Passions run high, particularly on important holy days. All it takes is a monk in the wrong place at the wrong time in a religious procession and it’s SmackDown. Fists fly, holy water’s thrown, beards pulled and even candlesticks used to ram groups of opposing monks. 

              The Jerusalem police had enough on, patrolling the bed sheet prophets without keeping the peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A bit disappointed that there was no rumble between rival gangs of monks, I left the Holy Sepulchre and made a mad dash to the Mount of Olives, east of the city. This, potentially, was my last shot of the day and my first sit-down meal was patiently waiting for me. The Mount of Olives was the perfect location to shoot a setting sun over Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, the Golden Gate and Lions Gate in the foreground. Sunset and sunrise both made great shots which meant my days were long. With copious amount of coffee and snacks to keep my sugar level high, I averaged a sixteen-hour day. As the sun packed up and left, dusk turned to night and jewels of light gave Jerusalem softness from its harsh reality. Maybe it would see a better day tomorrow.  In spite of war, terrorism and the recent ‘intifada’, Jerusalem remained a devotedly holy place for the world to visit. As I left the Mount of Olives, I had to pass Bar-Ilan Street which could prove to be a harrowing experience, especially at night. 

              Ultra-orthodox Jews gathered on Bar-Ilan Street, a main Jerusalem thoroughfare, to protest about driving on the Sabbath. They threw rocks at passing cars and trashed restaurants with non-kosher food; they slashed tires and set trashcans on fire. Proudly burning the Israeli flag, they also committed acts of violence on women they didn’t consider to be modestly dressed – all in an effort to influence how the secular Jews of Israel should live their lives. The Jerusalem police resorted to riot gear, club-swinging and water cannons to keep Bar-Ilan open. The ultra-Orthodox had an unlikely ally in their fight for religious observance in Walter Sobchak, the Polish-Catholic convert to Judaism from the Coen brother’s cult movie, The Big Lebowski. In the bowling alley scene, Walter explained why he couldn’t compete in league-sponsored bowling tournaments during the Jewish Sabbath. ‘It’s Shomer Shabbos. I don’t roll on Shabbos. Saturday,’ he yelled, ‘is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don’t work, I don’t get in a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t pick up the phone, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as fucking don’t fucking roll!             ‘I don’t roll on Shabbos!’ adorned T-shirts alongside Walter’s image cocking a 9mm Glock: it was on cups, aprons, posters, mouse pads, caps, bumper stickers, hoodies, dog tags, and even babies’ bodysuits. We approached the Orthodox neighborhood in a convoy of Israeli traffic. I could smell smoke; all I saw were trashcans with yellow flames vaulting upwards and men dressed in black standing about. No stones were thrown, there were no blockades, just singing and shouting as we left their civil war against secularism. We drove by Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital, for tourists with Jerusalem Syndrome, and turned northwest of the city, past olive groves, crops of tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. Off Highway One was the village of Neve Ilan and the Elvis Inn. We were greeted by a five-meter tall golden statue of Elvis Presley. Inside were more life-sized monuments scattered in various poses, such as Elvis sitting at a table, strumming a guitar. The jukebox played his greatest hits on loop and even the napkins bore his image. The walls were carpeted with Elvis photos, movie posters, magazine covers, concert tickets, postage stamps and license plates.                                                                                                 

              A short, portly man stood at the souvenir counter waiting to buy a kitschy keepsake. He had greaser sleeves (extreme sideburns) and wore a white polyester jumpsuit with rhinestone shoulders; round his pot-belly was a crudely embroidered American eagle belt. He also had Elvis’ trademark gold-framed sunglasses. I felt I’d discovered a new psychiatric condition: Elvis Syndrome. I saw that another Elvis statue was sat across from me, staring me down as my spicy burger, (kosher beef, of course) French fries and Coca Cola were set down. ‘Thank ‘ya very much,’ I said to the waitress, giving her my best Elvis impression.                                                          

              ‘You don’t think I hear that every day?’ she scowled. 

              ‘Must be the end of her shift,’ I thought.                       

              The jukebox played Elvis’ ‘Viva Las Vegas’ as the front doors swung open and two truck drivers walked in, laughing and discussing something in Hebrew. The Elvis impersonator walked away from the souvenir counter, past the two men who barely noticed his get-up. There was shouting from the kitchen and the wonderful fragrance of fried food filled the restaurant. As I watched a young couple point and stare, open-mouthed, at the multitude of Elvis photographs on the wall, I ordered another Coke. It was the end of another perfect day, and as Elvis’ voice sang from the jukebox: ‘Bright light city gonna set my soul. Gonna set my soul on fire,’ I couldn’t have agreed more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s