Friday, August 15, 2008

From Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem...

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

These two cities somehow belong together:

Beirut: Sexy, vibrant, pretentious, fed by sea breezes, a city of Mercedes cars and Cohiba cigars, sophisticated restaurants, electronic trance music and a cosmopolitanism that speaks of Babylon - a place for food and fun, a city to drive and dance in, and get very tense in.

Jerusalem: Elegant, quiet, inspiring, covered in a cool mountain breeze, clearly lit, surrounded by golden stone city walls, cypresses - yet also oppressive in its cultish heaviness, its worship of rocky monuments and odd ritual gear - a city to walk and converse in, and get very tense in.

In these two extremes, the very nature of the Middle East is expressed. On one hand: a worldly cunning where all is possible, all can be bought, the give and take of the bazaar, a love of food, talk, and smoke.

On the other hand: a sense of spirituality, profundity, magnetism, the land of prophets and ideals, of reaching transcendence and unity, of overreach, self-obsession and of a grace embodied in the very hills of the Holy Land.

The two belong together because they complete one another.

The social psychology of the Middle East is very much like these two cities: a daily friendliness and form mixed with a brutal pursuit of dreams, a toughness in business mixed with a fatalistic submission to the future. The surface and the depth are not always in harmony and the schismatic labyrinthine Easterner is difficult to understand for the much more linear Westerner.

This schism can be found within the borders of each Middle Eastern nation: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel, Cairo and Mount Sinai in Egypt, Beirut and the Cedars of Lebanon, each exposes the polarity of the other. It is most profoundly exhibited between Beirut and Jerusalem, these two cities seven hours apart by car. Yet, the border between Lebanon and Israel has ruptured them. Except for Israeli soldiers and the few Lebanese who had access to Israel during the latter’s occupation of the South, plus a few UN workers, the great majority of Israelis have no access to Beirut’s ample charms, nor Lebanese to the grace of Jerusalem.

The two cities are only 250 km apart, by highway only 3 hours apart, and in between are the great old Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre, the Crusader Keep of Acre, Mount Carmel and the bay of Haifa, the valley of Megiddo, and inland, off the beaten path, Nazareth and its olive groves, and the hills rising to Jerusalem. Each stop, a station in mankind’s history, the places of battles that formed the world, or thinkers and prophets whose words echo still today in our laws and morals, of potters and merchants who moved wares from Assyria to Rome, or from Baghdad to Venice. Throughout the trip, the Mediterranean accompanies you, with the possibility of the setting sun, or the olive groves of Galilee creating a corridor of travel.

Beirut and Jerusalem would be better off in connection with each other and the rest of the region, for they work together, balancing each other, finding what is missing in the other. Not through politics but by the very movement and interaction of people with all their wares and vices, their sweat and illusions. This movement, now interrupted by national projects, is the very core of a healthy Middle East – in this way can the various peoples find balance to their local excesses.

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