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Some people ease into your life as if they have always been there and have only been out mailing a letter. Their chair is still warm. Some people know you, recognize in you immediately what most never see. In the presence of such people the word no becomes meaningless. So it was with Arieh. I had been feeling miserable all morning, gummed up with melancholy and bitter thoughts. I had delayed a trip to the souk, the covered market, in order to walk aimlessly around the university's residential complex feeling the sun's unrelenting heat, the hard stones of the little paths between buildings, the prickly [End Page 11] fingers of rosemary that sprouted everywhere, a dark mute green, releasing a fog of sweet scent when I brushed my hand over them.
There stood an hour's walk between me and the souk, a walk that began as a steep decline from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, along El Wadi road in East Jerusalem. Then the route wandered in the shade of a nameless street housing lesser embassies and hotels in a state of circumspect decline. This emptied at last onto a wide boulevard of construction and smog, where the blue flag of the United Nations office flapped palely behind a shroud of dust, and where the crowded tenements of Mea She'arim, Jerusalem's Hassidic neighborhood, began. I was still under the illusion that the long white dress I had worn to the souk was modest enough for my walk through Mea She'arim, but in fact the light cotton was almost sheer, and the small buttons down the front from neck to hem were far too small to do the work a button should. I would say this was the reason Arieh turned to me, standing before the entrance of the building where I lived, to say: "Ah, my queen, my queen, marry me," but that could not really have been the reason, because Arieh was blind.
I left for Jerusalem because Toronto was cold and I had spent the past year immobilized by an ugly, humiliating illness. I had nearly failed half my courses at the university. The urban mornings, all glass and glint, which usually filled me with energy, now left me cold; everything seemed grey, suffused with fog, heavy and damp. I went to Jerusalem to dry out, to toughen up, to learn to live ardently and spontaneously. That I knew nothing about Israel, had not even a basic mental sketch of its geography or culture, did not bother me. I wrote long journal entries about facing the void and creating art, life, out of emptiness.
It took less than the twenty minutes I spent waiting for my luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport, whose air was damp with August heat, whose snack bars were all closed (didn't I know it was a fast day?) and whose clerks did not believe there were hotels in Arab East Jerusalem, to realize that "the void" was just the name I had given to my own ignorance. No place I had ever been was as full, as crushingly stuffed with life, detail or other people's desire, as Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shares the logic of dreams. What I mean by this is not incandescent or obscure, only that this is a city in which you believe [End Page 12] everything you see and hear. It is nothing like the newspapers make it seem. Not a map with red borders drawn and drawn again, though it is partly that. Not a river of peace, a stream of wealth or a mother's comforting breast, as the Book of Isaiah describes it. Jerusalem is a dream city because there is no blueprint, no draft against which to measure or understand it. The streets are not orderly but twist, as a friend suggested, like the tissue of a brain. And certainly in my first weeks there I felt that Jerusalem was...