• Journey to Jerusalem: A Poet Faces the Separation Wall

    Meena Alexander

    January 5, 2018

    In the light of recent US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there are resounding protests across the world. India, however, has been relatively silent. Lest we forget what Palestine means to us, here is an extract from Githa Hariharan’s edited volume From India to Palestine (2014, Leftword). Alexander recounts here friendships, losses, resilience and the gates of Jerusalem.

     

    Image courtesy The Indian Express

    I was ready for my journey to Jerusalem. March 31, 2011, I stood in a cold, ill lit portion of Rome airport. Behind me a pale young woman, a baby on her back, and another woman tugging her child along. Long skirts. One mother pulling a blue plastic truck. The men behind them, dark in Jewish skull caps.

    Were they Indian? Were they from Kerala, my home state? With a start I realised they were speaking Hebrew, not Malayalam.

    How time was looping in my head. What should I say when I faced the immigration people at Tel Aviv airport? Friends had told me not to say that I was going to a Palestinian institution. I am going to Jerusalem. I am going to see my husband’s Jewish cousins. I am going to give poetry readings. Perhaps if I said some of this they would not take my notes away from me, take away my computer. I had heard stories of friends who were visiting Palestine losing so much in the airport. I tucked my notebook away, deep inmy bag.

    Pigeons distracted me. Pigeons inside Terminal H, Fiumicino Airport, swooping low by the D and G sign. Bird wings stretched out and fluttering over the neon sign: Dolce and Gabbana.

    Later in my notebook I write: I am flying into my own fate.

    It was dark when the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport. Outside the airport the driver was waiting for me. A burly middle-aged man, he engaged me in small talk. As we drove in the darkness he pointed out, by apartments built on the hill, an ugly scarring thing, brightly lit, a concrete hulk.

    The wall! he said. On this side Israel. On this side Palestine. He moved his right hand off the steering wheel and swiftly gestured back and forth.

    Slowly we drove towards the ancient city of Jerusalem. I was going to stay at the Indian Hospice in the old walled city of Jerusalem, just inside Herod’s Gate.

    My bedroom in the Hospice was cut out of Jerusalem rock. It was whitewashed, cool, and had a curved roof with two beds, a mirror and an attached bathroom. I felt safe in that room and woke to hear the muezzin from the Al-Aqsa mosque calling the faithful to prayer. I walked out, my feet bare, and made my way to a well made of golden stone. It was just a few feet from the room next to mine. Inside the room was a set of steps leading down into the hole where Baba Farid meditated and sang praises to God for 40 days and nights. As I sat by the well, I felt I had died and returned to where I was meant to be.


    One evening in Jerusalem, I walked across from Herod’s Gate to visit my friend NaderaShalhoub-Kevorkian who lived in the Armenian quarter. She was working on a project called “Birth and Death in Jerusalem”. She had told me how hard it was for Palestinian women to get to hospitals to give birth. Sometimes Palestinian women are terrified to give birth – will they be able to get through the checkpoints in time, to reach the hospital? Nadera told me about the corpse of an Armenian taxi driver who lived near her. The corpse could not be buried for four days because the Israeli authorities said his papers were not in order and they wanted to confiscate his house in Jerusalem.

    Out of Nadera’s window I could see the houses of Silwan, some broken down by settlers who were trying to take over that part of Jerusalem. Often people whose houses were being demolished called Nadera because she is a human rights lawyer. Nadera would then rush out to try and help them. So many families are torn apart when the houses are destroyed. How can we bear this, she asked me.

    I thought of my friend Huda al Imam who had taken me to see the house in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood where she was born. The house was confiscated by the Israelis in 1948. Huda stood in front of it, trying to peer into the past.

    Her voice broke as she spoke to me of the house. Once she was arrested for just standing in front of the house. On our way back, through the car window, Huda pointed out a house that was being demolished and I took a photo through the car window. Better not get out of the car, Huda said. You don’t want them to take away your camera. The demolitions were part of an effort to drive Palestinians out of Jerusalem. Houses blown up; people who were born in the city, whose parents had lived there for centuries,denied papers. The cruelty of it all kept me awake for many nights. I bring as many children as I can from the West Bank to see Jerusalem, Huda told me. Once they are fifteen years old, they are not permitted to see Jerusalem or the great mosque. They need to see this city, it is part of their patrimony. Why should they be barred from it?


    One of these days that wall will dissolve, I said out loud for anyone who was willing to listen, it will dissolve just like the clouds. It was what I truly believed. It is what I still believe.

    Impossible Grace

    At Herod’s gate
    I heap flowers in a crate
    Poppies, moist lilies –
    It’s dusk, I wait.

    *

    Wild iris –
    The colour of your eyes before you were born
    That hard winter
    And your mother brought you to Damascus gate.

    *

    My desire silent as a cloud, It floats through New gate

    Over the fists

    Of the beardless boy-soldiers.

    *

    You stopped for me at Lion’s gate,
    Feet wet with dew

    From the torn flagstones
    Of Jerusalem.

    *

    Love, I was forced to approach you
    Through Dung gate

    My hands the colour
    Of the broken houses of Silwan.

    *

    At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.
    An old man, half lame-

    He kept house in Raimon’s café,
    Led me to the fountain.

    *

    At Golden gate,
    Where rooftops ring with music,
    I glimpse your face.
    You have a coat of many colours – impossible grace.


     

    Meena Alexander (born 1951) is an internationally acclaimed poet, scholar, and writer. Born in Allahabad, India, and raised in India and Sudan, Alexander lives and works in New York City, where she is Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center in the PhD program in English. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, literary memoirs, essays, and works of fiction and literary criticism.

    Republished here with the publisher's permission.

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