Something that isn’t war
I had posted a profile on a site years before and never took it down. There were occasional responses. In one, a man wrote, “We both appreciate silence,” and in fact, we had both written “silence” in the place meant … Read More
I had posted a profile on a site years before and never took it down. There were occasional responses. In one, a man wrote, “We both appreciate silence,” and in fact, we had both written “silence” in the place meant for music. His picture was black, white, and grainy. His eyes appeared nearly translucent, squinting off to the side and out the window of a bus. His hair was combed back.
Blond, Taoist, grammatically correct: I guessed a British journalist. I even guessed his name, which began with a less-common letter of the alphabet that he used to sign his emails, written in fluid prose, gradually revealing his temporary residence in one of the sprawling refugee cities that surround Jerusalem, sealed and monitored, to the north, east, and south of the city, feeding it with cheap bodies that arrive by dawn and leave at sunset, the way an ocean surrounds a peninsula, brimming and retreating daily with the tide.
I’m doing a Masters degree at the university, which sits on Har Hazofim, a strategic lookout point on a hill in the east of Jerusalem where land was bought in 1918 to establish a “university for the Jewish People.” Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Buber were on its first board of governors. Buber, a Jewish philosopher steeped in Hasidism, immigrated to Jerusalem in the thirties in flight from the rising Nazi regime. He opposed modern-day Zionism and felt that the founding of the State of Israel was premature in the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people. On his 85th birthday, he received a cable message from David Ben-Gurion that read: “I honor you and I oppose you.” After 1948, the Jordanians took half of Jerusalem, and although Har HaTzofim was in the Eastern side – the Jordanian side – of the city, it stayed in Israeli hands, an outpost in enemy territory, until 1967, when it became part of Israel following the Six Day War.
Today, the university is in the east, surrounded by Arab neighborhoods. Its campus was repeatedly referred to as an “oasis” of coexistence in newspapers, following the bombing of one of its cafeterias in 2001. At the copy center today, a man with a light Russian accent was complaining about the heavy-duty stapler. The man in charge, a middle-aged Arab of sturdy build, told him to wait and then came over – he was a big man with a moustache – and told the Russian to place the stack of papers in the stapler, where he stapled it himself, saying, “You have to push hard, hard!,” and then he said to him, “I’m from Hevron, we have strong hands – You’re from Russia, you’re weak.” Then he said to the Russian, “give me your hand,” putting out his own, and the Russian refused like a small boy—“Lo rotzeh,” he said, “I don’t want to”—and the Arab copy man said, “give me your hand,” and the Russian gave him his hand, and they shook hands, the pale Russian with dark hair and the Arab with a moustache from Hevron, and I smiled, my eyes downcast, a smile of insanity at the strong hands from Hevron and the reluctant hands from Russia, linked momentarily one with the other.
The journalist and I wrote a series of emails. It was a volatile mix of politics, aesthetics, and personal musing – and then suddenly, it stopped. As stealthily as he came disembodied into my world, he disappeared. I put him out of my mind. Blond Taoist of rare letter was another detail washed away by time, and my emails once again flourished with old friends – rants and grievances of the sort of sadness that only those from one’s youth can really hear. On the bus, my favorite site for slipping away into elaborate fantasies, I dreamt of calculating by way of probability the numerical value of my sorrows in Israel. It would be based on a quantitative model that charted my potential for incomprehension due to metonymic vowels and consonants (of which there are thirteen in the Hebrew alef-bet) and a breakdown and classification of social and cultural modes of communication and emotional proximity, along with their values and systemic functions. In my fantasy, I presented this equation, accompanied with an explanation of the method by which I arrived at these numbers, to my anthropology class as a final project, along with an in-depth audio-visual presentation. It was after my last trip home that I began to feel a refreshing transparency between myself and the people around me, as if the wall of language had finally been broken down and my isolation had come to an end. But slowly I saw that my satisfying sense of achievement had been premature. The glass wall was still there and it wasn’t made of English. Like some ephemeral but essential substance—mist shifting lengthwise around hills, up roads and into valleys—it was dependent on innumerable subtle factors, a constellation of elements that made it highly sensitive to variations in environment and yet, at the same time, stubbornly resourceful and adaptable. It followed me everywhere, all the time, like a cloud.
After a week, I received an email from the journalist: “I at least owe you an explanation,” he wrote, and indeed explained that he had been threatened by militants and didn’t want to risk the chance of being found, somehow, with emails from a Jewish girl in Israel. They thought he was a Jew, and a collaborator, “of which I am neither,” he noted with sad irony, for it was clear – at least from the outside – that he is a sympathizer who gave up security and comfort in order to be close to the Palestinian people and their hardships. I worried for the blond Taoist. He had walked stupidly into the furnace of the Middle East without the insanity of religion to give him succor, some desperate logic for why his blood might spill. He was absent the obscure edge of a transcendent narrative to soften the madness around him. I wrote and told him that if he was ever in trouble, he could call me. I included my phone number.
I was surprised, and more than a bit put off, to find a loquacious, thankful email in response. In it, he quoted the last long message I had written before our short-lived correspondence was suspended. His responses were written methodically beneath the duplicated fragments of my letter. It was as if this chatty piece of mail had gotten stuck in the pneumatic tubes of subterranean communications and had now become suddenly, inexplicably unstuck. I imagined this tangle of logistical channels snaking underneath his city under siege.
His sudden reappearance spurred me to set a date to meet. If he was real, he should be in my life; if he wasn’t in my life, then he wasn’t real. Next weekend, he wrote, he would be in Jerusalem on business and he would call me then.
I realize in retrospect that this image of the blond British reporter came from encounters with British expatriates when I was eighteen and traveling in Greece, but it also had more than a taste of Jewish fantasy: the tall European native, freshness personified, the natural grace of a continent come to life.
So when he called, his voice surprised me with its smallness. He called during class; I turned off my ringer. Outside, in the sunlight, I dialed the number that appeared in my caller log. He answered, “hi,” familiar, soft, almost apologetic. We spoke, I remember, of strangeness because I said, half-joking, that I was a strange stranger at the university, “an alien alien, a foreign foreigner,” I babbled. I told him about Kristeva, who I had read the day before and her chapter on being a stranger, which eerily described my own experience, a sensation I couldn’t articulate in class due to my faulty Hebrew that hampered my otherwise effortless articulation and forced me into a state of unnatural muteness.
“Well, you know,” I said, “it’s not a coincidence that the words are related in most languages,” but funny (although I didn’t say this) that in Hebrew, it’s the opposite: the words for foreign (nokhri) and alienated (m’nukar) are from the same root as the word for familiar (mukar) to be familiar with, to recognize and to know (l’hakir).
I babble in the presence of new friends; silence is reserved for those whom I trust, or want to trust. But trust – trust for me is a form of knowledge. We trust because we know, or think we know. It is related to love but distinct from it, for one can know one’s captor and one can know one’s enemy and this is not necessarily love. There is another feeling, though, that is a bit between the two. This is the familiar strangeness of someone who is loved.
In other words, to love someone is to recognize that he is other and strange. The parts that are incomprehensible, the parts that will never be known, are the mark of our trust, for we love those parts too. This is the darkness that exists between people.
I hadn’t been to the Old City in a few months, not since I met a young activist on my connecting flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv, to whom I had offered my help, and shared a cab back to Jerusalem where, I learned, he would met his “contact” before entering the territories. He was bound for a refugee camp outside of Nablus, where he would teach puppetry to Palestinian children, together with other peace activists. He had been questioned for forty minutes by the Polish security at the Warsaw airport. Slight, pale, blond, visibly non-Jewish, he was so benign as to arouse suspicion—a suspicion which was only heightened by his guileless explanations about puppetry. He exuded the particular ambiance of punks, anarchists, and other suburban radicals in his destroyed Doc Martens and paint-splattered work pants, his quiet, nasal, and tentative voice, studying me carefully in the cab like a shy child, his words sparse and reflective. He was so pale, thin, and hunched that he was sickly-looking and appeared to me like a white angel that fluttered on the edges of the continent, like butterflies on the coast, a piece of America that had broken off and accompanied me as I fled. His name was Charles Edwards Roberts the Third, or Chip for short – a name that, if I hadn’t heard it in person, I might not have believed, it was so mythically American. Chip’s mythic quality made him seem precious and I offered to show him around the city before he headed into Palestine. We met the day after at Damascus gate and walked through the Muslim quarter and then into the Jewish Quarter, where we sat in a plaza, spacious and sunlit, surrounded by tourists shops and cafes. We talked about what it might be like for him “over there.” He said that he hadn’t read about the conflict except for one book, “but it was a graphic novel.” I recommended playing soccer with the kids as an easy way to form a bond, but he said that he didn’t play sports because when he was a baby, his skull was soft and doctors warned off contact sports. “Here,” he said, “feel,” and bowed his head downward, running his hand along the roof of his skull. I put my palm against his head and felt a subtle ridge beneath his soft, fine hair. He looked up with a faint, ironic smile. I had been eating a sandwich as we spoke and I folded up the remains, ready to throw it away, when Chip stopped me and said he would take it if I didn’t want the rest. Apologizing, I told him I didn’t know he was hungry or I would have offered him some, but he told me that it wasn’t that he was hungry; rather, that he didn’t like to see food thrown away. He ate the last quarter of the sandwich in quick little bites and threw the plastic wrap in the trashcan at the edge of the square, a small act that reflected the obscure piety that seemed to animate his entire being.
I told the reporter that I almost never go to the Old City, except when showing people around. Later, when I found what he wrote about that night, I learned that he remembered this comment, and related it with more than an edge of accusation, implying that although I live across the street from them, I never mingle with the Palestinians or venture into their world. I didn’t explain to him – like so many things I didn’t explain – that it’s not a chaos I feel privileged to enjoy.
To cross the street a block from my apartment and go into East Jerusalem was to enter another world.
The reporter gave me directions to his hotel, near Damascus Gate, but it didn’t help. I didn’t know which street to take when I stood facing the descending amphitheatre steps that lead to the square in front of that enormous edifice that surrounds the ancient gate. It was abandoned at that hour of the night, dark and gray in the diffuse light from buildings across the street. I stood looking around me, caught in the resonant emptiness, staring at a two-story cafe with a fluorescent sign and floor-high windows, a long counter along the back wall that reminded me of an American fast-food restaurant, but unlike such places, decorated in rich brown tiles and stained glass. It was nine o’clock on a Thursday night and the cafe was full of customers. In front of the double door entrance sat two men at a small table, one in traditional loose pants, a sand-colored vest and a Muslim hat, and the other in jeans and a worn button-down shirt. The pair struck me as the uncanny equivalent of a pair of archetypal Jews that I might see in a café, one in a black suit with a white button-down and the black fedora of the ultra-Orthodox, and the other in jeans and a t-shirt, engrossed in conversation one with the other in such a way that it’s unclear if they’re friends or relatives, or if one is perhaps a Rabbi addressing the spiritual inquiries of the other; and if they are friends or relatives, then one begins to wonder, who started out religious and who secular. How did the one leave the first world and enter the other? Which story belonged to whom? “You’re giving up already?” the reporter asked when I called and told him I was still confused and suggested that he come out and meet me. His small voice was made of full sentences that began and ended with a crisp edge, signs of an exacting intelligence.
He sat in a cafe at the end of the street, not far from where I had started out. He was drinking red wine and reading Virilio. “Do you want to stay here?” I asked him.
“As you wish,” he replied, his face falling ever so slightly as he looked me in the eye with a reticence I was unable to read. His mouth, as he said this, seemed to move as faintly as possible, as if even this modest abstention hoped to erase the intrusive evidence of its existence.
“As you wish”: so unexpected was this response that I was momentarily paralyzed with what I can only describe as a kind of fright.
I suggested we go to a bar in town, one I had already chosen long before, and so he gathered his things and paid, asking for the bill in awkward Arabic. We began walking.
The Old City at night; the Muslim Quarter. I’ve never experienced a space quite like it. The alleys are bathed in an orangish darkness and a dry coolness emanates from the wide stones on which ones shoes slap and skid, smoothed by centuries of coming and going, as from the stones of the buildings, which seem less like buildings than the inner walls of a massive, marble hive in which people live, withdrawn into their cool, dark quarters. As we walk, my eyes are drawn to each opening in the stone walls that enclose us and propel us forward—a window, a gateway, an open door, leading into a covered passageway whose end is lit by a dim light from beyond the turn. Occasionally, our descent is disturbed by a running boy or a few, and in this streaming mirage brimming casually with the density of home and life, our conversation stopped and started as is often the case with strangers, caught in formal chatter and questions, to which he would not always answer but often fell silent, leaving the natural distraction of our surroundings to fill in for what he demurred to insert into the space between us. He was tall and thin, wearing black narrow pants and black blazer, with black leather shoes that hit the stones on the ground with a clean tapping sound. His facial features were small and when he disagreed with something, he would straighten his neck as if he was withdrawing from the conversation and furrow his eyebrows in doubt. I began to understand that although I appreciate silence, and often prefer it, silence was for him a pervasive aspect of his character. It was a silence of caution and observation but also, I sensed, one of aesthetics and a carefully guarded inner space. As with Chip, I ended up taking him to the Western Wall because all the roads I know in the Old City lead there, and as we went through the metal detector at the security check leading through the tunnel that opens out onto the expanse in front of the Western Wall, with its photogenic view of the shimmering dome of Haram Al-Sharif, the Dome of the Rock, he stopped to take the ipod out from his pants pocket and I could feel him stiffen and bristle at the presence of the security guard, ensconced in his bullet proof vest and gun holster, singing a mizrachi love song to himself as he eyed us with an aloof, knowing gaze.
“Fuck,” said the reporter as we emerged, “if only he could know what I’ve seen…” And again, “Fuck,” with soft insistence, and for the first time I saw the edge in him—the intolerance of a moralist, the impatience of an anarchist. He asked some questions about the hats of the Orthodox Jews; I answered him and I gave him the official history of the site, and after a few moments standing and talking, we made our way up to Zion gate, and I told him the story of Purim, which was that night, and I felt a distant sense of embarrassment over the relatively hygienic cleanliness and airiness of the Jewish Quarter. These feelings were rising and descending within me; I couldn’t attach them to any particular comment he had made but could only ascribe them to a vague paranoia on my part. As I gave him a brief history of my life up until then, his discretion slowly gave way. I learned that he had lived in Jerusalem with an ex-girlfriend for four months years before; that he had always felt an intense, uncomfortable pressure upon entered the city; and that now it seemed even stronger.
When we arrived at the bar behind the market, he sat down with a look of awe on his face, having lived in an Arab city for three years before moving to the Territories, and thus having been so long outside of the kind of societies that produce such things as bars named after anarchists, as this one was, plastered with posters for underground shows, album releases and the kind of graffiti devised by art students to arouse the masses. I said to him, “I wanted to take you to the crevice of the crevice of the crevice of what doesn’t exist over there,” referring to the city in which he was stationed. He laughed, leaning forward, a silent, appreciative laugh. When he laughed, his small mouth spread wide into a beautiful grin.
I ordered “the cheapest whiskey,” and he laughed again, the same laugh of disbelief, and said he would drink whatever I drank. We drank slowly and talked about religion and politics. He said, about monotheistic religions that set down patriarchal rules and directed ones attentions towards an abstract God in heaven, “Life is just too fucking beautiful to waste on this bullshit,” squinting his eyes in fervor. I could see that he was trying to approximate the words for a conviction that didn’t quite fit the confines of language. It was too wide or too deep,resting somewhere at the base of his being. I told him about my thesis project studying American born-again Jews who are part of the religious Zionist neo-Hasidic subculture in Israel. I described my most recent interview with A., who had once been a radical activist, demonstrating against the WTO and government confiscation of Indian lands, and who now lives on a small settlement in an area near Hebron, where he’s been learning in a yeshiva for four years. After a pause in the interview, A. looked over at a stack of books on my desk, saw Said’s Orientalism, and remarked, “Ah, Said, he’s great,” and I agreed, only somewhat bemused by the irony of the exchange, and then A. said, “You should read Culture and Imperialism,” a comment that ever since I cannot seem to get my head around. I explained to the reporter that at face value, I can understand how A. might say such a thing, as he was educated at a liberal arts school in the era of post-colonialism and multiculturalism, but still can’t reconcile the obvious dissonance of the scene. After another look of blank disbelief, the reporter tried to interpret what had occurred. He explained that my friend—as he called A.—was starting at one point in history and trying to go backward, to reclaim a certain freedom that he couldn’t find in the world today, at the expense of others; but more than that, he added, this scene that I had described brought an intense feeling of despair in relation to the future of the Palestinian people, a future we had already discussed after I asked him about the people he had met “over there.” He expressed this despair by saying that this radical leftist, who was now living on a settlement in search of spirituality, verified his belief that the Palestinian people were being slowly consumed alive by a multi-headed beast. This inexplicably brought to my mind an image from the New York Times that I had seen when I was last in the States, in an article about a mole whose mouth was ringed by numerous fleshy appendages that extended outward like a star and glistened, pinkish like the inside of one’s lips, which were used to shovel insects into the creature’s mouth, thus achieving through this bizarre physiognomy the fastest known record of food intake in the animal world; although it’s more likely that what the reporter had in mind were the massive Caterpillar bulldozers used to destroy homes in the territories, about which he told me later in the evening that they were nearly as big as the room in which we were sitting.
We sat there for a few hours. At one point, I looked over and his head was small, hung downward, his eyebrows furrowed, sitting upright with excellent posture in his black suit jacket. I could see etched on his face a damp and personal darkness. I didn’t look long. I didn’t want to intrude.
We left the bar after several hours and began walking back towards the city, this time down Agrippas, the street that skirts the market, next to Nachlaot, the neighborhood where he had lived with his girlfriend more than four years ago. He wanted to find the apartment they had lived in, so, although I knew the search through the meandering alleys would be in vain, I entertained his whim and we walked aimlessly among the alleys and stone buildings, homes I was familiar with (although I did not mention this) through the religious community that I had once been a part of, a subgroup of which I was now researching through interviews with people like A. The reporter’s only memory of the apartment where he had lived with his girlfriend was an anarchist sign on the wall across the street. She had taken a picture, with him posing in front of it. For a moment, he leaned against a wall with a grin, the memory coming back to life. “Like this,” he said. After wandering for a few minutes, he gave up and we made our way back out to Agrippas. As we walked, I asked him if he was still in touch with her. He asked who I meant. The ex-girlfriend, I answered. “Oh, no,” he said, quietly. Curious, I asked where she was now. He paused and then told me she was dead.
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
Another moment passed between us and I asked how she died. A car accident, he said. We were still walking and the silence was filled with the rhythm of our shared movement, the white noise of slight drunkenness swirling peacefully around us. Unafraid, I then asked him if they had been dating when she died. I almost didn’t hear him answer, for his words were exceptionally soft. “She was my fiancé,” he said. It fell from his mouth invisible and weightless, precious as a gem for it exposed, in a moment, his guarded silence and his elusive aura. These diffuse qualities seemed to condense like mist into the suddenly very real human figure walking sleepily beside me.
We continued down Yafo, heading past Kikar Zion and its usual crowd of teenagers. Because of the holiday, many were dressed in cheap costumes and colorful wigs. Returning to a subject we had discussed at the bar, he said that the Western world lived at a different frequency than what he had found in the Arab world. I asked him what he meant by frequency but he appeared to be at a loss, as if it was a stupid question. “Like, what frequency is this?” I asked, as we passed some girls screaming and laughing.
“I don’t know…. 96.9…”
When we had sat down at the bar, he had told me about how he had first arrived in an Arab city for an interview at the university there. He had never expected to stay; he had just finished his doctorate and was languishing at a university in England. He was in a taxi from the airport, when in the street, he saw a man and a young boy riding on the back of a bike. The man had a rack of pita balanced his head and, he told me, it was something in the movement of the little boy’s hand, lifting a loaf of bread off the pile of pita on this wooden rack with complete naturalness that struck him as one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Steeped in Foucault, the reporter had paid little attention to Said and he asserted that amongst the Arab masses there survived a spark of human freedom that had long since been lost – or at least mutilated or domesticated – in the Western world. He noted at one point the Palestinians in Palestine never read Said.
Strangely, he understood A. because he was not unlike him in this regard.
Walking back to Damascus Gate, I told him, simply, that living in Israel was like a waking dream. I floated through it, watching, listening, always trying to wake up, trying to see it for what it was, if it was in fact one thing at all—a thing called reality—as it was presented in countless books and newspaper articles, a thing called the Arab-Israeli Conflict, but I could never manage to see it in its entirety, only pieces here and there, reports on the internet, Arab day workers waiting outside of the Old City in the shade, walking tours of straggling Christian pilgrims in jean shorts and visors, the religious hippies in Birkenstocks with a gun in a holster and a radiant smile, some of whom I had even visited with friends out in the settlements where they live with their numerous children and barking dog, in the pure air of the hills. No matter how close I got, I couldn’t make out the reality, it always seemed unreal, like a dream. I told him this directly, handing over the contradictions as I saw them. “I’ll tell you a story,” he said. The story was about two dead Palestinians, reputedly involved in one terrorist group or another, who had been found, murdered and mutilated, on a hill near the city where he lived. They bore signs of violence and torture. There were segments of their skin that had been cut off and one had bayonet wounds around his anus. He had gone to see the bodies in the mortuary. As he told me this, in a calm, heavy voice, he stopped occasionally to point to a part of his body, where skin was missing or where there had been puncture wounds. The gash in the anus, he said, was particularly horrible. These wounds, he told me, could only have been made by a bayonet, the likes of which are found among Israeli soldiers. I listened patiently, understanding that I was supposed to be shocked and affected by this monologue but instead, I was only sad. His “story” was one that I had read in an article he wrote that was published on the internet. Back when he had disappeared, I did a search for his name and found it. I knew that there was enough chaos on both sides to both assume and doubt that this act was carried out by Israeli soldiers. I had read enough disturbing reports; this one shocked and outraged me no more or less than the others. And of course there was the fact that this was the second time I was hearing it, although I couldn’t bring myself to tell him so. I also didn’t tell him that I wasn’t sure this dream I was living in was my own. I felt as if I had been born into a game not of my own making and I was forced to play myself, a role drawn by history, language, and the various ties of affection. Although the mechanisms of this coercion were not clear to me, it was clear that my role was elicited by the subtle gestures of those around me, the rhythm of fluttering eyelashes and the tiny muscles around the mouth that can spell acceptance or condemnation, the pale skin of finely woven outrage that is politely hidden from view.
By the time we said goodbye, it was three in the morning.
I didn’t hear from him. The next day, I ate lunch with my friend and two of her Israeli companions and I told them that I went on a date last night and when they asked, “Az nu, how was he?,” I replied, “Magneev.” I felt as if my mind has been pleasurably exploded by his urbane ranting and lightly trilled rs. Not in years had I had a conversation with someone who imbibed political philosophy until it disturbed his dreams, both awake and asleep. This was the Blond Taoist, in whom I sensed a deep reservoir of poetic comprehension and crystalline rage, a combination I found intensely attractive and intoxicating. As my religious observance continued to spiral into extinction, my political views took a further turn towards the left, influenced by his frank observations and recitation of his experience of life in his city in the Territories. I even started reading The Anti-Christ so I could formulate my argument over Nietzsche, epistemology, and religion that I had left aside because the topic was too irksome and frustrating, and our opinions too contrary. My friend H. came to visit and I said to her as I mopped the floor before Shabbat came in, “We really don’t even know what goes on over there, or we know but we don’t admit it. He was right to wonder, how is it that we can live here, so carefree, when that’s being done in our name?” She had no answer. I made CDs for him, mixes I thought he might like. I wrote an email, and got one in return some days later, a response laden with ambivalence towards his time “on the inside.” I wrote back, asking for details. What was it like over there? I wanted to know. As I had told him long before we met, I’m dangerously curious. I wanted to visit him in the city where he was living. But I was met with silence and I refused to write again.
Though distracted by school, I was occasionally caught off guard by the thought of the reporter’s resumed invisibility and a small wave of loss would wash over me. At first, I told myself he had gone back to silence for security reasons, but then I realized he might just be gone. Arguments, explanations, and disclosures were shelved, cancelled, and forgotten.
For a class in critical theory, I read about the how the pleasure principle—the pursuit of pleasure—is modified over time to become the reality principle, according to which the avoidance of pain becomes the main criteria for acquiring happiness. There are many different methods of achieving this necessary adaptation, writes Freud.
Against the suffering which may come upon one from human relationships the readiest safeguard is voluntary isolation, keeping oneself aloof from other people. The happiness which is achieved along this path is, as we see, the happiness of quietness. Against the dreaded external world one can only defend oneself by some kind of turning away from it, if one intends to solve the task by oneself. (p. 27)
Later, after a second trip home, I bought and read Virilio and saw the basis of many of the Blond Taoist’s ideas. It was as if his pale skin had turned truly transparent and I was able to glimpse inside him, to read the same text as he had read it years ago. Virilio wrote:
We can’t stop everything to give ourselves time for reflection. I believe it’s within the inquiry into technology that we’ll find, not a solution, but the possibility of a solution. That’s why I’m so interested in the war-machine. Holderin’s phrase: “But where danger grows, grows also that which saves,” is very important to me. I believe that within this perversion of human knowledge by the war-machine, hides it’s opposite. Thus there is work to be done within the machine itself, and in my view politics has never done anything other than put it’s hands in the bloody guts of the cadaver of war, and pull out something that could be used—something that wasn’t war…. It’s the question of death: we can’t escape it, we must face it intellectually and physically, as doctors and artists have. (p. 107)
I suspected that he had read this passage, absorbed its meaning, and let it direct the course of his life.
Months later, I was prowling through sites on Foucault for free downloads and some gossip on the matter of his boyfriend, whom he supposedly infected with AIDS without disclosing that he himself was infected. I searched in a forum and opened a message on a whim—there was some remark about the Middle East—where I discovered the reporter’s name at the bottom. The message had been written years ago, when he had a post-doc position somewhere in the States. Through ad hoc calculations, I figured it was before his girlfriend was killed. In that message was a link. I clicked on it, assuming it was an organization he had worked for and instead found a sprawling, exquisitely designed personal website where, in the background, gray on white, hung the words, stylistically looming: but where danger grows, grows also that which saves. I clicked on “live,” hoping to see a live stream of video, but instead I was sent to a branch called “Palestine.” It was his web log from inside the territories. Fascinated, I began reading about his life. There were quotes from articles and interviews he had done for his newspaper, a few with a wanted terrorist leader. These were interwoven with memories in the second person, slices of the past caught, written with painful clarity, along with scenes from today, minimalist accounts of charged encounters with women he loves, students, men on the street. It was purposefully unclear and elusive, like seeing someone’s thoughts through a gauze curtain, wafting in one direction and then another. I scrolled backward until I found the day on which we had met. In his characteristic style—detached and melancholic—he described me in smug, scathing terms. About my rambling explanation of Purim, he wrote that he couldn’t have cared less. How could I live here, he sneered, without having seen or smelt death? “I couldn’t,” he wrote. “I can’t.”
I was overwhelmed with compassion, repelled by his arrogance, and terrified by the force lurking amongst the diffuse atmosphere of revelation and esoteric knowledge. Something about him moved and disturbed me. Each post had a link for comments. I decided to write one, explaining myself, a composition which was a condensed form, more or less, of the story I’ve written here. I told my side: I told him how beautiful I thought he was with his quick, almost-clicking shoes and straight pants, and how wrong he had been. I told him that I couldn’t express how much his words at the café, in their delicacy, were like the anti-matter of Israeli reality, how I was surprised that Israel didn’t fall into the Mediterranean from the force of his simple, beautiful phrase. Lastly, I told him not to think he knew anything about me that I didn’t know myself.
He wrote back not long after and surprised me again by writing, “I’m sorry,” and explained that he had been a “mood” when he wrote the entry and that he doesn’t change what he writes on principle, in order to preserve the truth of each moment. But the most confusing detail of this response, besides the chatty apologetics, was that after his initial explanation, as if by way of endearing himself to me, he included a smiley face with a laughing smile. : D
I didn’t write back. The reporter saw more clearly than I that we stand in opposition to each other. Looking back, I find that it’s his passion for truth that frightens me most, the way he brims with hope, grief, and longing, and sees in this country an ultimate symbol, as he once wrote in an email that Jerusalem should be the one place on earth that is open to all humanity. His morals blurred fluidly into his aesthetics. “Life just too fucking beautiful,” he said.
When words are incomprehensible, the presence of someone like A., my “friend,” as he called him, makes sense to me, but the reporter, whose words I follow but whose presence I stumble to understand, eludes me as I feel his circuitous argument tightening around me like a noose around my neck. His graceful words were unforgiving in their certainty. I wondered if, given the time and space, that delicacy could also flower into spectacular cruelty. He can’t see the other side of his vision, or rather, one could say, our truth doesn’t exist in his translucent eyes.