The Memory of the Stones
Eight months ago, in December last year, I booked a cheap flight to Aqaba with my friend Olga, and, through Eilat, came to Israel for what I thought would be one last time.
On the bus from Eilat to Beer Sheva, I received an e-mail from the University of Auckland confirming that I was accepted for their professional Masters programme, after the completion of which I would be considered a specialist and could apply for permanent residence – provided I have a job, of course. I was done with Europe, I thought. I ended my marriage in August, feeling I was unable to drag anyone else along with me into a new life, and before it was too late, I wanted a fresh start on my own. I stuck to the plan to pay off the small debts by March-April. I was getting rid of things that accumulated through the years. I was ready to go.
I woke up in Beer Sheva that December morning, the first day of Hanukah, and thought to myself – this is for the best. It’s for the best that I leave and never come back again. Never set my foot here again. I want to forget and to move on. A new life, a new challenge, creative people, somewhere to belong – it will do me good. I will belong. And being that far away will make sure I never come back, even if I wanted to. Take a breath and let go. And I stepped out into the sun and let it go.
We decided to spend a day in Jerusalem, before moving on to Haifa, with me being the tour guide in the Old City I knew so well, and by the time we got to the Kotel, the Western Wall, I was in bits and pieces. I touched the familiar warm stones, showered with thousands of tears, and kisses, and touched by thousands of hands, the stones that have heard my most desperate prayers, the ones that didn’t even have words to be put into, the prayers that were just a desire of the heart, beyond words. And that day, as on those other days, I had nothing left to say. I just stood there, breathless, and then whispered softly, with tears streaming down my cheeks (oh, what a relief), that I couldn’t do it.
All of this, all these stones, and the roofs, and the muezzins, the narrow alleyways and the shortcuts, the mornings and the evenings, stopping by Ecce Homo, and getting impatient with tourists, and the little hopes and the tragedies… I could leave everything else, including my family, the man who loved me, the only family I had, my future and my security, and yet, somehow, I simply couldn’t leave this.
And I sat next to my friend and whispered to her: “I’m not sure I can go through with this. I can’t leave the old world. I don’t feel I will survive without this place. And this is the only place I will miss”. She probably thought I just needed to get more sleep.
So we had coffee in the Arab quarter, and I asked the owner of the place if I could take a picture of the mosaic with the 99 names of God – the concept that I find the most fascinating in this Islamic representation is the Sufi belief that the 100th name is hidden, and the one who has discovered it has come to know God as He is. And we chatted with him, even on the subject of “refugee camps”, and he told me, all of a sudden, “if you love Jerusalem, come and live here!”
The little things that stay in your heart. The fragments of conversation, the tastes and smells and the words that stay with you. It was a strange day, the day I couldn’t leave.
And today, eight months later, here I was, walking the same steps, with shops closing already, and the streets empty, customarily avoiding eye contact and street conversation, when I heard hello, how are you from the same coffee shop – and lifted my eyes, suddenly realising that, for some reason, I was wearing the same skirt as I wore on that day in December. The girly skirt for Jerusalem. And I stopped to see that it was indeed the same man with whom we sat back then. “I remember you,” he smiled, as we said hello. “You were here with a friend. Come, sit, let’s talk for a while, I will give you a cold drink this time”
Tamarind drink (free, of course), and casual conversation, as I tell him that I study here now. “What are you studying, Hebrew?” (Oh come on, man, I could have been studying biblical archeology! – I love how Jerusalem does it, every time, straight to the heart). “Please come and visit any time, it’s good to meet people you know, don’t you think?”