Friday, June 12, 2009

The Alchemist

When I arrived here 11 months ago (almost to the day), I went straight to the archaeological dig at Tel Hazor, as you already know. One of the women I met there, Jess, became an instant and fast friend. Jess is from the States, and is now living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is, without doubt, one of the most amazing people I've ever met - and I've met many amazing people. What makes her so amazing? For one thing, she taught me that there are many aspects to archaeology that I'd never thought of before, specifically the restoration side, something Jess is intensely interested in. She aspires to eventually return to Israel and help rebuild structures like the temple/palace at Hazor. Another thing she taught me was about strength and limits: when I had arrived, she was under the weather with a stomach bug and when it got to be too much, she'd head back to the kibbutz to rest; the other times, though, when she didn't feel her best but she wanted to keep digging, she'd take a deep breath, reach into herself and say: "You will run and not be weary. You will walk and not be faint." This is taken from Isaiah 40:31, and as soon as she said it, you could see renewed strength flow through her. It was pretty cool. She called me a "get-along-bear," meaning I got along with everyone, and she gave me my favourite nickname yet: Canadia. The last facebook-message exchange we shared was started by her: "Is it uncool to say I deeply and profoundly miss you?" You'd have to have a more than solid, more than Grinch-like heart to not be instantly melted. The other amazing thing about Jess is her unbridled enthusiasm for almost everything, and she often would look at me and say, "You're living the dream!"

I have to be honest: until we had that recent facebook exchange, a part of me had forgotten that I am living the dream. I had forgotten that not only am I living my own dream being here, but I am also living the dreams of others. There are very few people who can truly say they are following their hearts (as I am), and doing so in a land that is very close to so many hearts. So, when Jess asked the questions, "Are you returning to the continent soon? Or shall you set up shop there permanently?" - I provided her with two immediate answers: "I'm home 5 July. I don't know if I could set up shop here permanently - but you've inspired a blog post."

This started me questioning myself: why not set up shop here? Israel is a beautiful country, the weather is stable for 8 months of the year, the healthcare is great, the universities and their libraries are enviable, the diversity of the people is interesting. The cultural palate is colourful and engaging - concerts, theatre, religious and historical and touristy attractions, the literary scene, hiking and nature. Plus, the sheer weight of history in each square metre and the stories held in each grain of sand would be more than enough to keep me here, as well as living in a city boasting not just hundreds but in some cases over a thousand years of architecture. The media-painted picture of Israel isn't entirely representative: I have met and enjoyed the company of both Israelis and Palestinians. I have encountered a desire and quest for peaceful co-existence expressed in the conversations with these people that isn't always presented by mainstream Western news sources. Bombs do not go off in every bus, on every street corner. I like the energy and smells and exotic atmospheres of both the Arab suk and Jewish shuq (but not on Fridays). I like the call to prayer - all five of them daily. I like saying things like, "That's Israel for ya," when something isn't as organized, as precisely advertised, as fast as what we 'organized' folk from across the pond are accustomed to.

So, why not? The biggest reason: As I said to Jess, "Living the dream is only as wonderful as the people you're living it with." Living the dream was more fulfilling when I was living it with Jess, Adrienne, Debbie and Mary. Living the dream would be more realistic if my closest friends from home and my family were here. It occurred to me today as I pondered that statement (that living the dream is only as wonderful as the people you're living it with) that this past year has been a break from my reality. I'll try to explain this as best as I know how, by first stating that I've never been very good with temporal perception. I'm an excellent time manager, but when it comes to perceiving and absorbing large spaces of time, I suck. This year has been a prime example of this: I didn't pack until the night before my flight because it didn't seem real. I looked at the calendar given me of important dates for religious holidays and university closures and never believed Shavu'ot, the last holiday listed, would arrive. Shavu'ot was two weeks ago. Emily came and went and it was a wonderful interlude and connection with her and home when I was feeling low after passing my 8 month anniversary abroad. Jason arrives tomorrow and it hasn't sunk in. What has just sunk in is that yes, I'm living the dream but a greater part of me feels that I'm living in a dream.

My academic reality revolves around texts that, in many ways, are dreamlike in quality. I'm reading and translating stories and myths which were written thousands of years ago so that we guess at their meaning, their intention, their cultural milieu, antecedents and allusions. My solid ground is based on this. Daily-life-perceived-negatives are really more funny than anything else, like the non-existence of lining up for anything, stereotypical Israeli aggressiveness, the expensive toiletries and packaged food (a bag of frozen peas is about 4$CND), the feeling like you're waiting for Godot when you're waiting for a bus. Some not-so-funny stuff? Obvious racial profiling directed specifically to any man who remotely resembles an Arab, the normalcy of walking through metal detectors before entering any public space, the normalcy of seeing people armed in the streets, the normalcy of checkpoints, not knowing whether those bangs are fireworks or gunfire, men hissing at you on the street because your hair is uncovered, feeling better about walking around when you're in a group in which at least one man is present.

What adds to the dreamlike quality of living in Jerusalem for me is the sense of exclusivity here. The city is divided into East and West, with the Security Wall marking areas of that division. The people are identifiable by their dress: for a non-exhaustive example,the Haredi men in their black hats, their wives in wigs; the Muslim women covered from head to toe; the Copts in their black frocks and flat-top hats; the orthodox Jewish girls and women in calf-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts, the men in kippas; the young Palestinian men in tight, bright tshirts and jeans with embroidered pockets; the tourists in large, tightly-knit groups. Secular folk stand out because they don't look like any of the above. Looking at all of this through my Canadian/North American eyes, my cultural background promotes inclusivity (melting pot/cultural mosaic, anyone?). I am an interesting outsider here: I am not Jewish nor Muslim nor do I consider myself Christian. This sense of exclusivity extends to the academic world, as well: I was told by professors on several occasions that a degree like the one I am pursuing would never be acceptable in the mainstream programs of HU. This is fodder for another post, or for my meeting with my mentors back home, and doesn't change the fact that the professors I'm currently studying with have taught me amazing things, turned me on to fantastic resources, have helped my thesis take shape in ways that I never could have imagined before my arrival here, and have been supportive in their own way. What this has provided me with, more than anything, is a strength of purpose and belief in what I'm doing, that I'm not a traditional academic and that it's ok. I can't imagine what my life would be without this thesis - it has taken on a life of its own and is an important part of mine.

So, long-winded as that was, I think my final answer would have to be, No, I shan't set up here. If I ever have another opportunity to visit, absolutely I'll return. I'm beyond grateful to be here. I'm beyond amazed that I'm here. Israel is an incredible, frightening, strange and wonderful place, and there's not much I would change about my experiences here - both personal and academic. But, even though this is where I am now, this is not where I belong and maybe I had to come here to realize where I do.

1 comment:

D said...

which is, of course, Denmark :)