by Glenn Willis

In mid-March, I went to Israel on a study break from nearby Cyprus, wanting to see its countryside, to feel the mood of the place, hoping to walk around old Jerusalem for a few days. I spent three weeks travelling through much of the country, its northern semi-rural landscapes green with crops like those in Eastern Washington's irrigated desert. The old walled city of Jerusalem was a fascinating, claustrophobic tour through various historical epochs etched in white stone, its sprawling but beautiful modern city covering the hills reaching down into the Judean desert.

When I bought my plane ticket, Ariel Sharon was openly considering allowing Yassir Arafat to attend the Arab League conference in Beirut. At the time, light American diplomatic pressure from former General Anthony Zinni seemed to be delicately pushing Israel's government toward some preliminary agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

The depressed mood in the New City late in my stay, when hopes for any agreements had been exploded, was different from what I sensed my first few days in Jerusalem. Those days were mostly spent wandering the stone passageways of the Old City, trying to deflect the advances of Arab shopkeepers, who had been bereft of customers for months. Responding to their impromptu introductions with even the slightest glance risks an almost physical coercion into shops full of menorah keychains, T-shirts and mass-produced olivewood carvings of Jesus's strained face. I've evolved a purposeful stride and move politely now through some amusing invitations: "I'm not a terrorist!" In the middle of my stay, though, after a violent string of bombings and Sharon's decision to keep Arafat from the Beirut conference, the feeling of the city grew much more apprehensive and silent.

I rested for several minutes one afternoon on the front steps of the Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter. For a while I was alone, trying my best to like an inconspicuous native no one would take the time to bother. A middle-aged, grey-stubbled Palestinian man in a cardigan sweater came over and sat on the steps next to me, smoking, and invited me to sit. I said I was okay, thanks, not wanting to be asked to come into anyone's shop.

He was quiet, though, and stayed with me silently. After a few minutes, two younger men sat on the steps next to us, smoking and talking quietly. When the older man rose to stretch and stroll around the empty intersection, asking me again to have a seat, one of the two younger men asked where I was from. I told them, provoking smiles.

The one who had spoken to me turned to the other and said, "Maybe he's a Jew?" The other looked up at me and said, "Maybe security." They seemed almost serious. But I stood my ground, smiled, and handed them my overused guidebook, after which they seemed to lighten up. They moved on to questions about my age (same as them, I think), what I do, what I study, if I had been a soldier. They seemed genuinely surprised at my insistence that armed service isn't compulsory in America.

A small patrol of Israeli soldiers walked through the intersection, ignoring all of us. I asked my new friends how it felt to be on the front page of The New York Times every day. The more fluent one brightened, half-joking, "We Palestinians are the most important people in the world!"

Then he spoke, without my asking, about suicide bombers: "The Jews, they are afraid to die. We are close here to our God, we can die any time -- we don't care." Something like real anger showed for a second. His friend told me in more broken English that their university near Ramallah had been shut down for the last year. The more fluent one changed gears suddenly and asked about the exchange rate, then about how much a haircut costs in America.

There is a security camera at every intersection in the Muslim Quarter; there isn't a single one in the Jewish district. But the human security presence in the old city is far less pervasive than on the streets of the modern suburbs. In the Muslim areas, a small patrol of Israeli soldiers will pass quickly through a market, universally ignored, their calculated nonchalance mirroring the residential attitude. No one seems fazed by the fact that Sharon's house, in an arch above the main Muslim thoroughfare, is draped with an enormous Israeli flag hanging from a central window.

The patrols pass much more frequently through the Jewish Quarter, assault rifles slung safely over shoulders, and the soldiers' palpable relaxation there makes it difficult to tell whether they are actually on duty or not. They're high school boys, if that -- skinny, talking loudly among themselves, sometimes walking with a girlfriend and carefully propping their sunglasses on their heads as if designer shades were an official part of the state uniform. I've wondered, watching them, who among them would be capable, much less willing, to do any real damage in Palestinian towns and camps.

I thought a lot during my stay about the distance between the relatively normal life I often felt inside the old city -- where a few tourists wandered and residents did their qrocery shopping -- and the high politics of conflict I was reading about in the daily papers. My time walking through the stone passages seemed to show people living their lives, relatively undisturbed by what was happening only a few miles away. A friendly, handsome young Palestinian barber told me, as he shaved my jugular with a particularly sharp blade, that he was more interested in whiskey and women: "Whiskey and ladies, you know?"

Which seemed refreshing, a rebuke to the self-important comments of Sharon and endlessly evasive manipulations from Arafat. I think it was probably Dick Cheney's convoy of police cars and big black Chevy Suburbans that passed me one Monday near the American Consulate as I walked to see the Scrolls, but no one on the street seemed to do more than glance.

The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I felt with the news, which seems to manufacture or at least sustain conflicts built from the vague, threatening words of prime ministers, presidents and the more improvisationally violent.

But the quiet of my first few days in Jerusalem didn't keep, my more frequent walks into the modern city felt much different to me, and I still feel frustrated at my own inability to describe any better than The New York Times what a richer truth might look like. Outside the sensory and historical novelties of the old city's slim stone passages, I only intuit something like a disciplined, stiff normality. Not quite denial, but not openness either.

For a while, having my backpack checked when entering any cafe or restaurant in the new city seemed interesting, a sort of cultural recognition and rite of passage. Now it's routine and annoying -- and one is tempted, sitting safely inside, to eye the doorman and make sure he's being thorough with the new arrivals.

Soldiers stand on almost every city block, occasionally asking to see someone's ID, mostly smoking and looking bored. People go about their business, shop and go to work with all the cheerfulness befitting that enterprise, but there's a kind of privacy and inwardness about their walking. One man passed me yesterday pushing a double baby-stroller and carrying what looked like an M-16. Hard to be friendly with his kids.

In the cafes, well over half of the customers seem to be chain-smoking. This Tuesday, in a vegetarian restaurant where I've sometimes gone, the place was filling up on the evening before Passover began. The owner asked a family coming through the door if they wouldn't mind sitting downstairs in the basement dining hall. This confused me because the upper room, with windows onto the street, was not yet full. Someone told me later that customers won't continue coming into a restaurant if it seems even remotely crowded, all gatherings being a target.

An older couple who sat down next to me, emigres from New England in the '80s, talked with me for a while, and said my growing sense of social depression was largely accurate. They told me they missed what they felt was a more regular Israeli dynamism.

Nearly every day in the square outside that restaurant, an old man leans on a trash can and rattles a plastic cup for change, all the time preaching in an ironic, phlegmatic voice about the growing necessity of Israel's atonement. Sometimes he mixes in a joke, and he's almost always smiling, a strange cross between a schizophrenic and a holy fool. The odd thing is the number of people who give to him as they pass, and how many return his smile, as if he were the neighborhood's treasured sage.

A young violinist playing nearby one evening -- his music slow, but sharp and skillful -- also drew several people from the shops lining the pedestrian mall, a block away from where two people had been killed a few days earlier by one of the suicide explosions.

That particular bomb might have been a turning point of some kind. In the morning, I had taken an early bus down to Masada on the Dead Sea, where a thousand Jews committed communal suicide in the first century A.D., rather than be taken captive by four besieging Roman legions sent to clean up after the Great Jewish Revolt. I hiked up to the mountaintop fortress, then spent a couple hours exploring the ruins before coming down again to catch the bus back to Jerusalem.

I'd just missed one, so I stayed and talked with the two security men guarding the entrance to the area, playing chess with assault rifles on their laps, interrupting themselves once in a while to check a passing driver. One of them, immensely excited by my small knowledge of Russian, told me he was from Tashkent, spoke to my limited ear about his family, asked me if I'd been a soldier. Both of them pressed me, between moves, about my attitude toward the Arabs. They pointed flippantly to the rain-drenched Jordanian hills across the Dead Sea from where we sat. They were curious to know what "negrevy" (African-Americans) were like in America, and then asked again what I thought of the Arabs.

On the bus, a quiet, middle-aged Jewish man sat next to me at the next stop, and we read our books in silence through the Judean Desert. Coming into the city, waiting in traffic to pass through an Israeli checkpoint, the driver turned up the radio slightly. The silent bus gave way to a low murmur of Russian, Hebrew and English as people around me started talking to one another, and an elderly woman across the aisle leaned over to ask my neighbor what the radio was saying. An explosion, he said, on King George's Street. The woman noted that her daughter worked nearby.

Hearing his American accent, I asked the man what had happened. "The radio is talking about this explosion -- it hasn't said how many hurt. Most of these people probably know someone who works in that area." The bus was quiet again.

He told me he was a psychologist at a prominent Jerusalem hospital, and I asked him if people somehow got used to the atmosphere, or used to wondering whether the bus they were on was the right place to be. "Of course not -- there's no second nature to be developed about those things." He shifted to thoughts on the Palestinians, talking about their "cultural" differences: "In the West, mothers simply don't send their children out to do these suicides, see?"

On my way home from the station, I passed the roped-off street where the explosion had interrupted the afternoon. It seemed to have spewed out an array of cameramen and soldiers into the surrounding blocks. I kept walking and ducked into a relatively empty cafe for a big hot chocolate, sat down and stared into space for a while. A young man my age came over from a few tables away and said, "Hi. Could you just watch my bag for a minute while I use the restroom?" Starting up the stairway across from me, he added: "I promise it won't explode."

Glenn Willis is a Richland, Wash., native who is studying in Cyprus. He sent us this dispatch during a side trip to Israel.

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