In Israel's quiet between bombs, an uneasy hope
TEL AVIV — Last week I found myself in Jerusalem again after an absence of more than six months. Although the magical majestic city is my most beloved place in Israel, and is hardly more than an hour from my home, I no longer travel there unless necessary. Once there, I choose my destinations carefully - no public transportation, no markets, no crowded avenues. I'm not alone.
Gone are the days when I'd walk for miles through the city's meandering stone streets, looking at the spires of churches and mosques silhouetted against the bluest of skies, unable to resist buying filigreed earrings or Armenian ceramics in open air markets, passing the museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the hospital synagogue where stained glass windows by Chagall shine, paying a visit to the last remaining wall of the ancient temple destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus, and breathing the crisp air scented with pine and rosemary.
In Jerusalem, I felt both in the 21st century and in the lap of millenniums. Beside me passed monks in brown robes, nuns in black gowns, Hasidic Jews in black leggings and fur hats, Arab women in head scarves and men in kaffiiyahs, teenagers in blue jeans, government officials in suits - a mélange of the exotic and the everyday.
But Jerusalem has become - in my mind and others' - a dangerous place to be warily approached. Terrorism abounds all over the Middle East, and Jerusalem is a particular target, with attack after attack at pedestrian malls, restaurants, parks, universities, markets, and above all, on buses. Not only are foreign tourists dwindling, so are visitors from within Israel.
It had been months since the last large-scale terrorist attack in the city. When I finished my meeting there last week I was tempted to revisit the places I love, but I looked around uneasily at the bustling streets abounding with armed guards at the entrances to every public place - and I just drove straight out of town, back down the mountains until I reached Tel Aviv University.
I arrived in time to hear a reading by the university's American writer in residence. I'd read a few stories and essays by Jamaica Kincaid, but they hadn't prepared me for her resonant voice still bearing traces of her native Antigua; nor for her humility before the microphone, or for her powerful prose about dreams and wrenching personal struggles that propel her to write. In the question period, Ms. Kincaid refused to discuss the local political situation: "If someone invites you to their home, you shouldn't tell them how they should live."
But she did bring up her deep-seated fixation with the scars of colonialism, a time when even naming was in the hands of the conquerors: "Did you know that the bougainvillea which grows so abundantly around you in Israel was named for a French colonialist?"
Kincaid reiterated that she had come to Israel against the advice of everyone she knew back home, including her children. "They told me all sorts of things might happen to me, so I mustn't come. But I wanted to because I am a writer, and I need you, my reader. A writer must face the most terrifying things, most of all himself. If a writer can't come to see a reader when invited," she declared, "then he shouldn't write at all." As she left the stage, she said with conviction, "How happy I am that I've trusted my instincts to come here."
Kincaid spent the next day in quiet Jerusalem. I wondered if the city spoke especially deeply to the woman who as a child immersed herself in the King James Version of the Bible. Did she stand upon its hills to gaze west toward the fertile coast, or east over dramatic mountains toward the Dead Sea? And I wondered if this writer enamored of gardens had become heady with the scent of the rosemary. Then, her trip over, Kincaid returned to her peaceful dormant garden in America.
Forty-eight hours later, a bomb killed more than 11 people and injured dozens on a Jerusalem street Kincaid might well have trod. Perhaps the quiet of recent months had awaked in her the hope that the promised land could finally become a land of promise.
Would Kincaid still have thanked her instincts had her visit been scheduled the week after the bombing instead of before? Or, like we here - uneasy - would she have been unable to cloak herself in Jerusalem's garden of beauty?
Yet Kincaid's visit itself was a symbol to those here who flocked to her public readings, a statement that humanity and literature also contribute to hope.
• Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.