Jonathan Neo

I watched dusk over the Western Wall as the soundscape melted into the groans of praying Jews and the wails of some ten loudspeaker-anointed imams. Some cinematic scene of sonic warfare. Some contradictory image of peace as an Arab girl dances around a skullcap-laden boy, barely 6 years old, with some measure of naïve joy. Beside me, an aged man traces his index finger reverently over a well-work Torah. His head nods forward and backwards as a soft hum emerges from his closed lips. There’s a grand symphony going on, some uncoordinated heart-cry. Lips moving into the sturdy stones through a low groan that melds into a choir of unknown men singing a song. Something ancient and distant. I stand next to them but can’t help feel far away - one of those rare tones in your life, something more profound than Leonard Cohen or more eerie than Jeff Buckley. A wave of musical sorrow. Oh.

Behind me, in some distant-but-close-enough apartment window, sandstone mixes with the smell of curry brewed for the end of the long day. I see shadows through the glass - an Arab mother hushing her two small children to the dinner table. A pot of steam in the middle. The father washes a motley of glass cups. Our eyes meet for a second. Then they return to the soap, dirt and water.

Eli muses in my head. Something fair and far. You don’t go to Jerusalem, you merely return to it. Some great mystery of sandstone and sacrament. Some frantic kingdom of dust and division. “Is this city just stones?” Jesus asks. Small lanes, divided by spires and schwarma, plastered with tassels and trauma. And little Arab boys, running through older-than-time alleyways, hot coffee for the snappy elder firmly in hand. What reverb in the morning call to prayer ignites joy? What makes a place in the desert holy?

There’s a verse from Isaiah: “One day, these hills will be filled with a different kind of joy.” I say “le’chaim” (cheers), and look for another falafel joint for dinner.

And so I sit on a balcony overlooking the temple to three faiths and wonder if Sainte-Terra was meant for saints or seeking sinners. The bus I will take into Palestine winds into view and pauses outside my temporary home. There is an old man who gazes up at me. Some transcendental sensing of sorrow. A loud horn from the driver. I grab my bag and guitar, and jump on the bus into the city of “Ramallah”, where God is great. The old man muses beside me in the stillness - some quiet philosopher, some witness of the turmoil of our times, some sage for a generation of seeking souls.

Issue 9
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