At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden
by Yossi Klein Halevi
Pages: 336; $25.00
Chapter One: Ramadan
I lived on the border of Jerusalem. My apartment was in the last row of buildings just before the desert hills of the West Bank. In the distance lay the quiescent Dead Sea, in summer only a blurred extension of an indecisive sky, but emerging in the winter light as a distinct patch of blue, transforming the desert into an extended shore.
Between my porch and the sea, a handful of Arab villages were scattered through the hills. The tallest structures in every village were spare white minarets, bridges of longing from the desert toward heaven. The three monotheistic peoples all loved this land for the same reason: This was the place where heaven and earth mingled. The Divine Presence descending on the Temple Mount, Muhammad ascending from the Temple Mount, Jesus transcending death at nearby Golgotha -- for me, those weren't competing claims but mutual reinforcements of the same insight. Islam and Christianity strengthened my Jewish faith in the holiness of this land, and I was grateful for living at this fitful place where God had repeatedly tried to contact humanity and would, perhaps, try again.
When I first moved to the edge of the desert in 1986, I would awaken at dawn to pray. I sat cross-legged on a rug, covered my head in a prayer shawl, and wound the tefillin strap around my arm, trying to bind myself to God's will. As I began the prayers thanking God for invigorating the weary and straightening the bent --avoiding the unbearably archaic prayers thanking God for not making me a gentile or a woman -- the call of the muezzin would rise from the minaret in the village of Anata just across from my porch. Though amplified, it was a soft, melodic voice, gently nudging the faithful awake. And though the muezzin certainly didn't intend to include me among the faithful, his call couldn't be confined to his hill alone, and it urged me not to squander this moment of intimacy with God. I didn't understand the words of his chant, but I came to know its melody so well that, even if I tried to sleep in, it would penetrate my dreams and stir me.
Through the day I tried to note the muezzin's periodic call, cutting through the cacophony of daily life to affirm a purposeful creation. Each new call seemed to grow less melodic and more emphatic, a spare voice from the desert urgently intruding on my city obtuseness: "Brother! Have you forgotten God so quickly? At any moment this dream can end!" Responding to his call, I would suspend activity and try to evoke God's presence, closing my eyes and visualizing the four Hebrew letters of His name imprinted on my forehead until they throbbed. Even without his consent, the muezzin became my partner in prayer. n
For me, connecting to the muezzin was an expression of becoming an oleh, literally an "ascender," an immigrant to the Land of Israel. At those moments when my devotion merged with the muezzin's, I knew that I, an exile by way of New York and Hungary and places beyond that I couldn't even name, was a returning son, and that this landscape of prayer recognized me and welcomed me home.
Those were the only moments of intimacy I experienced with my Arab neighbors. The Jews of my neighborhood, French Hill, and the Arabs of nearby Anata and Isawiyah never visited each other's homes. We lived in estranged cultures with conflicting histories and saw each other's daily lives as a threat to our very existence. When we built new houses, our Palestinian neighbors feared us as usurpers intent on expelling them. When groups of white-kerchiefed women from Isawiyah strolled through French Hill and teenage Arab boys gathered in our parks, we wondered whether they were demonstratively staking a future claim.
Our only common language was devotion. Real peace, I felt, depended on reconciliation among the region's believers, however improbable that might be; religion, after all, was the Middle East's language of extremism. Despite the peace process, the Arab world still didn't respect the legitimacy of the Jewish return, while Israel hadn't learned to respect the culture of the Middle East. Both insults, it seemed to me, could be eased by an encounter between Judaism and Islam. I fantasized about entering a mosque and joining the prayer line in prostration to the one God, that confession of ultimate human helplessness. But mosques were off-limits to non-Muslims during prayer time, so I had to settle for my illicit dialogue of prayer.
For many of my neighbors, the muezzin was relegated to background noise, an unpleasant reminder that we lived in the Middle East, with its frightening passions and implacable feuds. Once, while walking along the French Hill promenade overlooking Anata, I overheard an Israeli woman, probably an academic, explain to a foreign visitor that the minaret on the next hill was obviously a phallic symbol. In her easy dismissal of centuries of Islamic devotion, I felt my own faith being mocked. I belonged to that woman's world of democratic values and voted for secular parties because I opposed theocracy and saw Israel's role as protecting the Holy Land from fundamentalist madness. Yet at that moment, I felt more connected to the muezzin than to my fellow Israeli. In her spiritual ignorance, she was condemning herself to foreignness, exile in the Middle East. Ultimately, it was not our Jewishness but our intransigent Westernness that would prevent our acceptance by the Arab world. I wanted a Jewish state that was politically Western but culturally hybrid, nurtured by both West and East. I feared a Jewish version of Iran, but I also feared for an Israel that would become like Tel Aviv, the secular city on the sands, without roots, facing the sea with longing.