Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.
Somewhere near Ramallah, we looked up from our newspapers and noticed the high walls topped with razor wire to our left and right, a telltale sign that we were driving through the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Situated to the east of the security barrier and once ruled off-limits to Israeli government ministers because of a flare-up of violence – namely, Molotov cocktail attacks on vehicles – it appears as any stretch of highway does, grey and a little desolate. Perceiving our awareness, the driver looked at us anxiously through the rearview mirror. “We avoid traffic by taking this road today. To our left is Ramallah and to the right is Hebron,” he said in an official tone, hoping, I think, that we weren’t familiar with the villages of the Palestinian territories. “This one wants to go to Ramallah to see a brewery,” said my friend, Alec. The driver shot me an incredulous look. “Okay, yes, go,” he said. “That is, if you want to risk your life for a beer.” I laughed and Alec explained that my perspective is slightly different because I currently live and work in Kabul. “I just want to feel at home,” I said sarcastically. “This stretch of highway is really doing it for me right now.” He ignored me and started on a lengthy and rather partisan history of the First and Second Intifadas that lasted all the way to the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem where we were staying.
Alec and I met on the first day of law school and spent the subsequent three years poring over legal texts and treatises together, a humbling experience that challenged us intellectually and emotionally. It was in the midst of this rational endeavor that we occasionally discussed politics and religion, our conversations about the former often ending with a fiery exchange of epithets and accusations; democratic progressives and classical liberals don’t often see eye-to-eye. But the one subject we could discuss without theatrics was religion, and perhaps more importantly, it was religious ritual that often brought us together with our friends in one place: a Shabbos table in Crown Heights. We spent innumerable evenings there sharing a meal, listening to the Hebrew prayers, and discussing ideas, the law, and our lives. And so it seemed quite natural that we should travel from opposite sides of the world – New York and Kabul – to meet again in the Holy Land, a place that is intensely foreign but intimately familiar to both of us as Americans raised in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions.
The streets of the Old City were nearly empty in the late afternoon on Easter Monday, and as we wandered inadvertently from the Christian Quarter, with its well-lit shops and gregarious shopkeepers, and into the less commercial Muslim Quarter, an eerie silence settled over us. Some idling inhabitants ventured a greeting – A-salaam alaikum – and beckoned us in for tea, but we declined politely and kept walking, feeling that perhaps we had wandered too far off the beaten path. I recalled a friend’s warning: “Don’t go near the Damascus Gate,” and thought about the “No knifing” stickers plastered on utility poles up and down Jaffa Road that we had seen earlier in the day. I wasn’t afraid – a kid with a kitchen knife is less intimidating than a Talib with a Kalashnikov – but the aura of the Old City had certainly changed from the open and vibrant place it had been a couple years before. As we circled back around to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and climbed the stairs to Golgotha, we heard the muezzin’s call to prayer in the distance. “This is what I love about the Old City,” I told Alec, “the diversity of belief in such close proximity.” We watched as a Christian pilgrim, tears streaming down her face, knelt beneath the altar to touch the place where Christ was crucified. Somewhere not far from this holy site, Muslims would be reciting the takbir, arms placed over the chest, head down, eyes closed. I considered the likelihood of a Third Intifada, and what a sustained wave of violence would mean for these sacred places. The ruins of Palmyra, the destroyed monastery in Mosul, and the bullet-ridden buildings and rubble-strewn streets of Kabul came to mind. I lit a candle and closed my eyes.
Our official tour of the Old City began the next day in the Armenian Quarter, where our guide paused along a narrow corridor to reflect on the Armenian Genocide. “Do you know what happened to the Armenian people under the Ottoman Empire?” he asked. We both nodded. “1.5 million people were murdered. 1.5 million. And now ISIS is doing the same thing to Christians in the Middle East. Just read about the steps they are taking to establish a Caliphate and you will see the parallels.” Armenian Genocide remembrance posters plastered to a wooden door declared in bold letters across the top: RECOGNITION, CONDEMNATION, PREVENTION. He didn’t have to convince me that we in the West have failed to recognize, condemn, and prevent atrocities time and time again.
In the Upper Room, along the Via Dolorosa, in the prison of Christ, and standing atop a building with a view over the magnificent Old City, I began to recount the biblical stories of my childhood: Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal at the Last Supper, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate declaring Jesus the King of the Jews and then washing his hands of the matter, Veronica wiping his face as he carried the cross, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land. Throughout the city, walls rest on older walls, Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic architectural elements exist side by side, and the faiths and customs of civilizations are celebrated together, often within the same structures. In these places, the past emerges as part of the present, and the stories I once knew by heart seem so immediate.
When finally the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall came into view, I paused briefly to take it in, as I had the first time I visited the Old City. In such moments I feel separated from the passion of a true believer, but overwhelmed nonetheless by the significance of the place. Ironically, I don’t think Alec felt the same. His first reaction was simply: “I imagined that it would be much bigger.” We each tucked our written prayers into the ancient Wall, and emerged later on the plaza for further observation. Even with the cameras and groups of tourists, and the general lack of reverent behavior, I wondered how such a place could fail to inspire wonder. We were in Jerusalem, after all, a city where even the mundane, like a section of a limestone wall, becomes extraordinary.
At dinner on our last night in Jerusalem, over Moroccan food and Israeli wine, we discussed what we had seen and thought about during our trip. I told Alec about an interesting novel I had just read – Houellebecq’s Submission – and how one of its driving fascinations is the need for religion. “Setting aside the author’s satirical intent as it relates to French intellectuals, isn’t it honorable and good to humble oneself before something greater?” I asked. I was thinking back to the times I had seen the Afghan attorneys in my office pause during their workdays to pray. Whether it was unthinking habit or not, I have been repeatedly touched by their devotion. “We’re both doubters, in a sense,” I continued, “ and I’m not suggesting that, as in the novel, an anti-liberal religious regime is desirable, but when I’m in Jerusalem, the usually fleeting longing to be part of a tradition and a community, and to seek understanding through faith, is intensified.” He took another sip of wine and looked thoughtful. “Do you see the world through words, Jess?” he asked. I looked at him, slightly puzzled, and explained that yes, naturally, as a lawyer and an aspiring writer, I can best express myself with words. He said, “It’s not like that for me. I understand things – particularly the things we’re discussing – by feeling, or through a sense I have that I can’t really put into words.” Was this avoidance, laziness, or disinterest? The idea that my friend, a Manhattan litigator, had thoughts and feelings he could not describe in words struck me as one of the most disingenuous things I’d heard in quite some time.
On further reflection, I concluded that you can spend years parsing the law with a person, arguing about the minutest details in structure, meaning, and intent, only to realize much later that the most important parts of our lives and our friendships may be beyond the limits of our rationality, and cannot be reached with the tools and mechanisms we have so painstakingly learned to use.
Jerusalem is a city we learn about through words, in the stories and teachings of the Abrahamic religions, but, as I realized during this interlude in the Holy Land, it is a place we come to know through feeling and experience. And perhaps, even for those of us who think and express ourselves best through the words we speak and write, the depths of those feelings are knowable, but truly inexpressible.
Photos: 1. Church domes of the Old City; 2. Entrance to the Old City at Jaffa Gate; 3. Church of the Holy Sepulchre; 4. “No knifing” sticker on Jaffa Road; 5. Armenian Genocide Remembrance posters; 6. View of the Old City from the Jewish Quarter; 7. Western Wall and Dome of the Rock; 8. At the Western Wall; 9. Walls of the Old City — all by Jessica Wright