"Now that they have returned to their place, the Lord has taken up wandering to different places, and His name will no longer be Place but Places, Lord of the Places"
(Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open, 118)
Remembering my first visit to Jerusalem, I find myself drawn to one distinct memory, perhaps the only moment I felt at home in the holy city. It was a mid-June afternoon, and the Old City's cobblestone streets teemed with tourists, the tawny walls smeared with oranges and blues of shirts worn in support or protest of the impending Gaza disengagement. The jumble of foreign languages, the fragments of tour guide factoids, and the slow heaving of the June heat covered the city in a frenzied din. It was not until I managed to escape the crowd, finding myself on the roof of an old apartment building, that I was able to take in the quiet Jerusalem breeze, the gentleness of the surrounding hills, the majesty of the city, and for the first time, hear the low wail of the muezzin that called out over the city from the other side, the Palestinian side.
Perhaps my incessant reading of Mahmoud Darwish's exilic poetry, mixed with my reminiscence of my father's stories of his own refugee experience from 1948 Palestine heightened my sense of displacement in Jerusalem. As Darwish writes of Jerusalem, "My longing for you...is a separation/And my meeting with you...an exile!"
That particular summer I was enthralled with the poetry of Darwish's Israeli counterpart, the late Yehuda Amichai. Despite Amichai being raised in Jerusalem, and remembered as the "walker of the city," always out in the streets writing hymns to his town, one senses in his work a quality of discomfort and displacement even when within Jerusalem's walls. Aviya Kushner, a contemporary Israeli poet and journalist, described Amichai's Jerusalem, as "a lover...and an enigma...he was always trying to understand her." As if Amichai belonged to Jerusalem's streets not as a citizen, but as a passer-by, never rooted or content, almost an exile. Nevertheless, one must ask what is the content of Amichai's displaced poetics in Jerusalem, if it is not the Darwishian sort, if it is not rooted in geopolitical exile?
Examining Amichai's poetry, we find his haunting sense of estrangement and displacement in Jerusalem at once a source of discomfort and inspiration for his most heartfelt ballads on the city. As Amichai scholar Ranen-Omer Sherman has put it, the poet's "Jerusalem always remains a geography of almost eroticized otherness..." Amichai's poetry celebrates Jerusalem as a lover would celebrate and pine for an unattainable beloved. It is his very metaphorical distance from the city, his sense of otherness in it and from it, that informs Amichai's impassioned poetics on Jersualem, as if the poet wrote from the Diaspora instead of from the Holy Land. We see examples in Amichai's collection Poems of Jerusalem, written in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, and amidst the 'reunified' Jerusalem. Strongly articulating a sense of exile, he writes: "I heard bells ringing in the religions of the time/ but the wailing I heard inside me has always been from my Yehudean desert." Rather than eulogizing the recapture of East Jerusalem, the poet takes himself outside the city. Amichai gives himself up to the loneliness and longing of the wanderer in the desert, consumed by the "wailing" for some figurative Jerusalem, even as he is living in the material Jerusalem, a Jerusalem now nominally "whole." The content of Amichai's tender relation to his city is not derived from the proximate "bells," but by an exilic space he creates and inhabits.
Amichai's metaphorical distancing from the city reflects one of the poet's most critical influences: Yehuda Halevy, a twelfth century Andalusian poet whose cultural poetics, as Sherman puts it, "remained torn between exile and Zion" (10). Another passage in Amichai's "Jerusalem 1967" opens:
"This year I traveled far away
To see the tranquility of my city.
A baby is calmed by rocking, a city is calmed by distance
I lived in longing. I played the game
Of Yehuda Halevy's four strict squares:
My heart. Myself. East. West."
The speaker only recovers his city in distance, in assuming the game of the exiled, Yehuda Halevy's game, so he may find the "tranquility" of his figurative homeland through the unstained lens of exilic longing. Thus while Amichai is physically rooted in the land and city meant to deliver the Jewish people from exile, as a poet, he relies on the memory of exile, the legacy of Yehuda Halevy's longing, "that Yehudean desert" to relate to his hometown. This poetic distance, permits Amichai to escape the less than idyllic space Jerusalem occupies in his own historical moment. On another level, his separation between "heart" and "self," the poetic distance Amichai traverses in order to relate to his city, may parallel the relentless distance between the Israeli and Palestinian, within Jerusalem. Even if East and West have been "unified", there is still the ongoing and undeniable antagonism that divides his Jerusalem from the "other's" Jerusalem, so pervasive it figures almost as an exile.
Yet this is a division preceding post-1967 Jerusalem; it is a division that has beleaguered the State of Israel from its inception. On this note, we can examine one of Amichai's earliest and most famous, poems dedicated to Jerusalem. The poem, aptly titled "Jerusalem" opens:
"On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight.
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City, a kite
At the other end of the string,
I can't see
because of the wall..."
The motif of the wall in this poem stands literally and figuratively as an obstruction to visibility of and relation to what is on the other side. It is a mechanism of distancing and separation that estranges the speaker from the space of the "other," a space within Amichai's own city. These walls can also be sources of displacement for Amichai from Jerusalem. He ends the poem with a strong evocation of the state of discontent and discomfort on both sides of Jerusalem's walls, and perhaps as a result of these walls:
"We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags,
to make us think that they're happy.
To make them think that we're happy."
Returning to Amichai's "Jerusalem 1967" series, we find the poet journeying, rather than into the Yehudean desert, to the other side of the wall and finding a site of identification rather than estrangement. The poet relates a journey to the Old City "on Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting," to stand "in front of an Arab's hole in the wall shop" to tell him "in my heart about all the decades, why I am now here/ and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here." Working from the lens of memory of his father's shop in Germany and loss of his father, the speaker finds a sort of redemption in standing in front of the Arab. It seems only in front of the Arab "other," Amichai can achieve, within Jerualem, what he seeks in his poetic journeys through Halevy's Yehudean desert. Only in front of the Arab can he come to terms with why he is "now here." He closes the poem:
"When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate.
And I returned, with all the worshippers, home."
In the aftermath of this encounter with the other, the poet can actually return, with all the worshippers, home. Perhaps then, it is not just in distancing ourselves geographically that enables us to appreciate home, but more significantly, in traversing the distances that exist between our self and the other, that enables us to retrieve a sense of home. Perhaps the space of this poeticized encounter between an Israeli and Palestinian in Jerusalem, between Darwish, and Amichai, generates a more profound sense of home than a material homeland can ever create.
Maybe I have only searched in Amichai's conception of Jerusalem for a reflection of my own experience of the city on that mid-June afternoon two and a half years ago. For me, the only moment that released me from the discomfort I felt, was the wailing that called to me from that other side. As it flowed through me, I was reminded of the intensity of home when imagined from the "Yehudean desert," from the distance of the exiled other. Perhaps we all share a sense of home best imagined in a state of exile. Darwish commented in a recent interview: "Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room. It's not simply a Palestinian question. Can I say I'm addicted to exile? Maybe."
Hannah Assadi is a senior in Columbia College majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and the Writing Program.