The Intensity of this City

Article from my time spent in the Palestinian Territories- June/July 2012

Perhaps the feeling most keenly awakened in me by Palestine is the feeling of intensity. I think, after almost three weeks of absorbing this enchanting land, the intensity of the experience has left me a little drained. It isn’t the same sort of intensity that is felt in a place like London, with its daily procession of countless drones dressed in grey; countless noises creating one blank din in your head. London; it’s a manic rush, bordering on panic. And there is never any space to breathe, as though all those countless people, and cars, and things, have in fact always been there and never moved; like in a photograph, fixed. It is a deadening intensity. But here, in Jerusalem, it’s not that kind of intensity.

Here, the intensity is of a sort that grips your spirit in ineffable ways. It begins with the sounds. The calls to prayer come at you in waves from every direction; at dawn and at dusk: as the day begins, proceeds and ends. One call is echoed by another, and then another, and another, as though you are swimming in a sea of sounds proclaiming ‘God is the greatest’. From all around, wave upon wave of sounds come to serenade you, till the tides drown you and you surrender. Then there is the sound of the recitation of Quran, as it gushes through the land, and you know that those rolling hills and those trees have borne witness to these magisterial notes for millennia. These sounds transport you, far away, to wonder beyond this land, the birthplace of civilisations.

The sounds let your spirit drift away. They stimulate a longing for a return to human origins, to a place beyond this imperfect world: because Jerusalem too is tainted by imperfections. It is imperfect because it is replete with sounds that irritate the spirit: the sudden, alarming blare of car horns, the carnal growls of stray dogs, the relentless noise of the souks as traders vie for custom. Then there is the boom and crackle of fireworks through day and night, the sound of music blaring, the sounds of guns firing. To ears attuned differently, perhaps these would be considered an essential element of the beauty of this place. Not to mine. There is something agitating in these sounds, something Dionysian which taints the air with a sense of discord.

There is the intensity of sounds, and then there are the sights. From our balcony we see spread before us a city that has seen the rise and fall of empires, a city that has seen monsters, martyrs, heroes and warriors. It is a city that has absorbed into itself the blood of the countless dispossessed, the innocent and brave. What we see before us now are sweeping hills and whitewashed buildings that dot the landscape. Out of the earth rise church steeples, domes, minarets and yet more domes. The centerpiece, the crown jewel of this land is the golden dome of Jerusalem, which the fire of the sun sets ablaze at dawn. It is said that once the Dome of the Rock was a silvery grey, just like Al-Aqsa. The Caliph had commissioned two engineers to carry out some construction work on the Dome. In return for their services, he had offered them several hundred gold coins. The engineers refused to take them as payment and suggested instead that they should be melted and spread over the dome. An extraordinary act of charity then, lit up the city of Jerusalem with the torch of Islam.

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