Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ET: Almanac

Every second or third Saturday we would make the pilgrimage to Talpiot, to Uncle Joseph and Auntie Zippora's little villa. Our house in Kerem Avraham was some six or seven kilometers distant from Talpiot, a remote and somewhat dangerous Hebrew suburb. South of Rehavia and Kiriat Shmuel, south of Montefiore's Windmill, stretched an expanse of alien Jerusalem: the suburbs of Talbiyeh, Abu Tor, and Katamon, the German Colony, the Greek Colony, and Bakaa. (Abu Tor, our teacher Mr. Avisar once explained to us, was named after an old warrior whose name meant "father of the bull," Talbiyeh was once the estate of a man named Taleb, Bakaa means a "plain or valley, the biblical Valley of the Giants," while the name Katamon is an Arabic corruption of the Greek kata monēs, meaning "beside the monastery.") Father still to the south, beyond all these foreign worlds, over the hills and far away, at the end of the world, glimmered isolated Jewish dots, Mekor Hayyim, Talpiot, Arona, and Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, which almost abutted on the extremities of Bethlehem. From our Jerusalem Talpiot could be seen only as a tiny gray mass of dusty trees on a distant hilltop. From the roof of our house one night our neighbor Mr. Friedmann, an engineer, pointed out a cluster of shimmering pale lights on the far horizon, suspended between heaven and earth, and said: "That's Allenby Barracks, and over there you may be able to see the lights of Talpiot or Arnona. If there is more violence," he said, "I wouldn't like to be them. Not to mention if there's all-out war."

We would set out after lunch, when the city had shut itself off behind barred shutters and sunk into a Sabbath afternoon slumber. Total silence ruled in the streets and yards among the stone-built houses with their corrugated iron lean-tos. As though the whole of Jerusalem had been enclosed in a transparent glass ball.

We crossed Geula Street, entered the warren-like alleys of the shabby ultra-Orthodox quarter at the top of Ahva, passed underneath washing lines heavy with black, yellow, and white clothes, among rusty iron railings of neglected verandas and outside staircases, climbed up through Zikhron Moshe, which was always swathed in poor Ashkenazi cooking smells, of chollent, borscht, garlic and onion and sauerkraut, and continued across the Street of the Prophets. There was not a living soul to be seen in the streets of Jerusalem at two o'clock on a Saturda afternoon. From the Street of the Prophets we walked down Strauss Street, which was perpetually bathed in shadow from ancient pine trees in the shade of two walls, on the one side the moss-grown gray wall of the Protestant Hospital run by the Deaconesses, and on the other the grim wall of the Jewish hospital, Bikkur Holim, with the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel embossed on its splendid bronze gates. A pungent odor of medicines, old age, and Lysol escaped from these two hospitals. Then we crossed Jaffa Road by the famous clothes shop, Maayan Shtub, and lingered for a moment in front of Ahiasaf Brothers bookshop, to allow my father to feast his hungry eyes on the abundance of new Hebrew books in the window. From there we walked the whole length of King George V Avenue, past splendid shops, cafés with high chandeliers, and rich stores, all empty and locked for the Sabbath, but with their windows beckoning to us through barred iron grilles, winking with the seductive charm of other worlds, whiffs of wealth from distant continents, scents of brightly lit, bustling cities dwelling securely on the banks of wide rivers, where there were elegant ladies and prosperous gentlemen who did not live their lives between one attack or government decree and the next, knowing no hardship, relieved of the need to count every penny, free from the oppressive rules of pioneering and self-sacrifice, exempt from the burdens of Community Chest and Medical Fund contributions and rationing coupons, comfortably installed in beautiful houses with chimney stacks rising from their roofs or in spacious apartments in modern blocks, with carpets on the floor, with a doorman in a blue uniform guarding the entrance and a boy in a red uniform manning the elevator, and servants and cooks and butlers and factotums at their beck and call. Ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed a comfortable life, unlike ours.

Here, in King George V Avenue, as well as in German-Jewish Rehavia and rich Greek and Arab Talbieh, another stillness reigned now, unlike the devout stillness of those indigent, neglected Eastern European alleys: a different, exciting, secretive stillness held sway in King George V Avenue, empty now at halfpast two on a Saturday afternoon, a foreign, in fact specifically British, stillness, since King George V Avenue (not only because of its name) always seemed to me as a child to be an extension of that wonderful London Town I knew from films: King George V Avenue with its rows of grand, official-looking buildings extending on both sides of the road in a continuous, uniform façade, without those gaps of sad, neglected yards defaced by rubbish and rusting metal that separated the houses in our own areas. Here on King George V Avenue there were no dilapidated verandas, no broken shutters at windows that gaped like a toothless old mouth, paupers' windows revealing to passersby the wretched innards of the home, patched cushions, gaudy rags, cramped piles of furniture, blackened frying pans, moldy pots, misshapen enamel saucepans, and a motley array of rusty tin cans. Here on either side of the street was an uninterrupted, proud facade whose doors and lace-curtained windows all spoke discreetly of wealth, respectability, soft voices, choice fabrics, soft carpets, cut glass, and fine manners. Here the doorways of the buildings were adorned with the black glass plates of lawyers, brokers, doctors, notaries, and accredited agents of well-known foreign firms.

As we walked past Talitha Kumi Buildings, my father would explain the origin of the name, as though he had not done so a fortnight before and a month before that, and my mother protested that he would put us all to slee with his explanations. We passed Schiber's Pit, the gaping foundations of a building that was never built, and the Frumin Building, where the Knesset would later have its temporary home, and the semicircular Bauhaus façade of Beit Hama'alot which promised all who entered the severe delights of pedantic German-Jewish aesthetics, and we paused for a moment to look out over the walls of teh Old City across the Mamillah Muslim Cemetery, hurrying each other along (It's a quarter to three already and there's still a long way to go!), walking on past the Yeshurun Synagogue and the bulky semicircle of the Jewish Agency building. (Father would half-whisper, as though disclosing state secrets: "That's where our cabinet sits, Doctor Weizmann, Kaplan, Shertok, sometimes even David Ben-Gurion himself. This is the throbbing heart of the Hebrew Government. What a pity it's not a more impressive national cabinet!" And he would go on to explain to me what a "shadow cabinet" was and what would happen in the country when the British finally left, as one way or another they surely would.)

From there we walked downhill toward the Terra Sancta College (where my father was to work for ten years, after the War of Independence and the siege of Jerusalem, when the university buildings on Mount Scopus were cut off and the Periodicals Department of the National Library, among others found a temporary refuge here, in a corner of the third floor).

From Terra Sancta a twenty-minute walk brought us to the curved David Building, where the city suddenly stopped and you were confronted by open fields on your way to the railway station in Emek Refaim. To our left we could see the sails of the windmill at Yemin Moshe, and up the slope to our right the last houses in Talbiyeh. We felt a wordless tension as we left the confines of the Hebrew city, as though we were crossing an invisible border and entering a foreign country.

Soon after three o'clock we would walk along the road that divided the ruins of the Ottoman pilgrims' hostel, above which stood the Scottish church, and the locked railway station. There was a different light here, a cloudier, old, mossy light. This place reminded my mother of a little Muslim street on the outskirts of her hometown in western Ukraine. At this point Father would inevitably start to talk about Jerusalem in the days of the Turks, about the decrees of Jemal Pasha, about decapitations and floggings that took place before a crowd gathered right here on the paved square in front of this very railway station, which was, as we knew, built at the end of the nineteenth century by a Jerusalem Jew named Joseph Bey Navon, who had obtained a concession from the Ottomans.

From the square in front of the railway station we walked down Hebron Road, passing in front of the fortified British military installations and a fenced-off cluster of massive fuel containers over which a sign in three languages proclaimed VACUUM OIL. There was something strange and comical about the Hebrew sign, lacking as it did any vowels. Father laughed and said this was yet more proof that it was high time to modernize Hebrew writing by introducing separate letters for vowels, which, he said, are the traffic police of reading.

To our left a series of roads led downhill toward the Arab quarter of Abu Tor, while to our right were the charming lanes of the German Colony, a tranquil Bavarian village full of singing birds, barking dogs, and crowing cocks, with dovecotes and red-tiled roofs dotted here and there among cypresses and pine trees, and little stone-walled gardens shaded by leafy trees. Every house here was built with a cellar and an attic, words the very sound of which afforded sentimental pangs to a child like me, born in a place where no one had a dark cellar under his feet or a dimly lit attic above his head, or a larder or a hamper or a chest of drawers or a grandfather clock or a well in his garden fitted with a hoist.

As we continued down Hebron Road, we passed the pink stone mansions of wealthy effendis and Christian Arab professionals and senior civil servants in the British mandatory administration and members of the Arab Higher Committee, Mardam Bey al-Matnawi, Haj Rashed al-Afifi, Dr. Emile Adwan al-Boustani, the lawyer Henry Tawil Tutakh, and the other wealthy residents of the suburb of Bakaa. All the shops here were open, and sounds of laughter and music came from the coffeehouses, as if we had left the Sabbath itself behind us, held back behind an imaginary wall that blocked its way somewhere between Yemin Moshe and the Scottish Hospice.

On the wide pavement, in the shade of two ancient pine trees in front of a coffeehouse, three or four gentlemen of mature years sat on wicker stools around a low wooden table, all wearing brown suits and each sporting a gold chain that emerged from his buttonhole, looped across his belly, and disappeared into a pocket. They drank tea from glasses or sipped coffee from little decorated cups, and rolled dice onto the backgammon boards in front of them. Father greeted them cheerily in Arabic that came out of his mouth sounding more like Russian. The gentlemen stopped talking for a moment, eyed him with mild surprise, and one of them muttered something indistinct, perhaps a single word, or perhaps a reply to our greeting.

At half past three we passed the barbed wire fence around Allenby Barracks, the British military base in south Jerusalem. I had often stormed into this camp, conquered, subdued, and purged it, and raised the Hebrew flag over it in my games on the rush mat. From here I would press on toward the heart of the foreign occupier, sending groups of commandos to the walls of the High Commissioner's residence on the Hill of Evil Counsel, which was captured again and again by my Hebrew troops in a spectacular pincer movement, one armored column breaking into the residence from the west from the barracks, while the other arm of the pincers closed in with complete surprise from the east, from the barren eastern slopes that descended toward the Judean desert.

When I was a little more than eight, in the last year of the British Mandate, a couple of fellow conspirators and I built an awesome rocket in the backyard of our house. Our plan was to aim it at Buckingham Palce (I had discovered a large-scale map of central London in my father's collection).

I typed out on my father's typewriter a polite letter of ultimatum addressed to His Majesty King George VI of England of the House of Windsor (I wrote in Hebrew--he must have someone there who can translate for him): If you do not get out of our country in six months at the latest, our Day of Atonement will be Great Britain's Day of Reckoning. But our project never came to fruition, beacuse we were unable to develop the sophisticated guiding device (we planned to hit Buckingham Palace but not innocent English passerby) and because we had some problems devising a fuel that would take our rocket from the corner of Amos and Obadiah Streets in Kerem Avraham to a target in the middle of London. While we were still tied up in technological research and development, the English changed their minds and hurriedly left the country, and that is how London survived my national zeal and my deadly rocket, which was made up of bits of an abandoned refrigerator and the remains of an old bicycle.

Shortly before four we would finally turn left off Hebron Road and enter the suburb of Talpiot, along an avenue of dark cypresses on which a westerly breeze played a rustling tune that aroused in me wonder, humility, and respect in equal measure. Talpiot in those days was a tranquil garden suburb on the edge of the desert, far removed from the city center and its commercial bustle. It was planned on the model of well-cared-for European housing schemes constructed for the peace and quiet of scholars, doctors, writers, and thinkers. On either side of the road stood pleasant little single-story houses set in pretty gardens, in each of which, as we imagined, dwelt some prominent scholar or well-known professor like our Uncle Joseph, who although he was childless was famous throughout the land and even in faraway countries through the translations of his books.

We turned right into Kore Hadorot Street as far as the pine wood, then left, and there we were outside Uncle's house. Mother would say: It's only ten to four, they may still be resting. Why don't we sit down quietly on the bench in the garden and wait a few minutes/ Or else: We're a little late today, it's a quarter past four, the samovar must be bubbling away and Aunt Zippora will have put the fruit out.

Two Washingtonias stood like sentries on either side of the gate, and beyond them was a paved path flanked on either side by a thuja hedge that led from the gate to the wide steps, up which we went to the front porch and the door, above which was engraved on a fine brass plate Uncle Joseph's motto:


On the door itself was a smaller, shinier copper plate on which was engraved both in Hebrew and Roman letters:


And underneath, in Aunt Zippora's rounded handwriting, on a small card fixed with a thumbtack, was written:

Please refrain from calling between two and four o'clock.
Thank you.  
Amos Oz: A Tale of Love and Darkness

No comments:

Post a Comment