In early November, I visited a climbing gym in West Jerusalem for the second time. Again, it was a bit of an endeavour to find my way there, even with my friend Lukas who is more well versed in the mass transit system in that area.
In late September I had stood waiting at a bus station on Kind David Street for over an hour, asking several people which bus arrived to the Jerusalem Mall or Teddy Stadium. I found the recommendations were mostly countered by the next person, “No, no. That won’t work. The buses have all changed after the light rail. Now you must take …” and so I waited for that bus too, but ultimately, it would never come. In the end, it was the #17 (which had come and gone a dozen times) which wound its way through neighbourhoods and down narrow residential streets to finally arrive near the climbing gym, some estimated fifteen kilometers from the Old City. This time, the #17 changed routes and it was the #18 we needed instead.
As Lukas later discovered, much simpler and faster to just ride a bicycle.
Who cut the rope?
Following two and a half hours bouldering, it felt good to have my fingers ache and shoulders strain at the weight my body imposed beneath the roof or on an extended overhang. Ultimately, I did well, and am pleased by my ability to come back after such an extended break. However, I was quickly reminded that after six weeks with only limited upper body workout (yoga, pull-ups on the door jam in my apartment), my days of climbing strong are behind me with hope for a renewed sense of physique in the not too distant future.
As we prepared to leave the gym, I engaged the woman at the counter in a conversation about outdoor climbing. The most local, recommended crag was a good one hour from Jerusalem by car. I inquired as to climbing in the valley between the southeast corner of the Old City and the Cinematheque.
“Where?” she responded.
I added “The green space, with trails for walking … just below the Cinemateque.”
“Ah. Yes. I know this place. I have climbed there.”
“Oh? Good. There is some bouldering, I think.”
“No, it’s not good for this. The rock is too slippery. So many people have climbed there and it is now too … [she hesitated to recall the word] like plastic … smooth.”
“Yes, limestone is like this. Both sharp edges and smooth faces. But it is close to where I work, just a ten minutes walk. I am thinking to purchase a used crash pad—” (she cut me off)
“It is not a good place to climb. They cut your ropes.”
I was caught off guard, “Sorry, but who cuts your ropes?” as this is taboo in the climbing world.
“The Arabs. They cut your ropes.”
“When? If you leave them overnight?”
“No. While you are climbing. They cut them.”
I pictured someone near the top of a climb, suddenly free-falling only land on her back. But that just didn’t sound right, not in this particular location. With an obvious tone of disbelief I responded in a factual progression, “They cut them. While you are climbing. Really?”
“Arabs. Why would they do this?”
“I don’t know. They don’t like us climbing there I guess.” She returned her stare to the keyboard at her fingers.
It is possible, of course, for climbers all over the world have had bolts cut or ropes stolen by locals who either recycle or resell the materials, or simply do not like climbers on their land. But to cut a rope while someone is climbing is unheard of.
I continued, “This doesn’t make sense. The wall is only six, maybe seven meters tall. At the top is a three to four meters stone wall which sits right at the edge. There isn’t even a place to stand. To cut the rope, while you are climbing, well, the person cutting would also be on a rope, just hanging there, waiting. You would see this person before you even left the ground!”
She saw my logic and produced an uncomfortable smile, “Well, it has never happened to me. I have climbed there several times. But I have heard this story from friends.”
I shook my head and smiled back, “And your friends are ok, right?”
“It seems to me people like to tell stories.”
She continued, “Well, anyway, the rock is not so good for climbing. There is better climbing to the North, where the land is higher and the rock is better quality.”
She proceeded to tell me the name of two places I had read about on-line.
“Yes. I hope to go there soon, maybe this weekend. Thank you.”
Monte Python’s Flying Sheep
Many years ago, a business associate stated he had never and will never leave the U.S. for fear of being killed, believing the rest of the world despises Americans for the freedom they have and do stand for. More recently, a Jordanian manager at Avis car rental in Aqaba was concerned for his pending holiday in Mexico, worrying he might be robbed. A German exchange student in Wisconsin told me Americans never travel abroad and eat only white bread. A Polish man in Bangkok insisted all Americans own a house on wheels. I shook my head but he was completely confident for he had seen it on television. I learned he referred the U.S. trend in the early ’90s to living in RVs. He had extrapolated several thousand Snowbirds to a nation of a few hundred million fifth-wheels.
After hiking from a Bedouin Village outside of Taybeh, Palestine, down through a beautiful Wadi and up again to an Israeli settlement to hitch a ride back to Jerusalem (which is a great way to experience both sides of the situation in one day) we were warned by a woman, “You went walking down there? You should be careful, there are Arabs with sheep!”
I do not intend to belittle the very real pain suffered on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor the lives lost. But in that moment, the Monte Python “Search for the Holy Grail” scene in which the killer rabbit attacks the knight came to mind. Otherwise docile, grazing sheep on ancient hillsides suddenly leap through the air to attack the unwary hiker. I nearly laughed but found just enough composure to assure her we were quite unharmed, and to her dismay, that combined, our group spoke ample Arabic to get by.
We tell stories to give warning, to educate, and to pass on tradition. We also tell stories to justify our own assumptions and fears, to justify our actions.
I recall clearly in my childhood the water colour depictions of the Biblical battles in which King David drove out the idol worshipers, the evil people whom God would destroy. Depicted as hunch-backed and filthy, clothes torn, with thick, bushy brows, they could have been mistaken for Neanderthals rather than the people of Canaan (Oddly enough, Neanderthals might have been rather attractive while modern archeology gives evidence for the people of Canaan to be the ancestors of the Israelites.)
In my child’s mind, this was easy to believe. I yet recall the sensation of grandeur, the opening scene of an epic film when the bad guys prepare to do really bad things even when we know the good guys will win in the end. Why would God smite an entire nation unless they were all evil? (Which begs the definition of “evil” but I will save this for another post at another time).
All creation stories, all recollections of battles in both poem and prose, the recounting of love gained and love lost are shared in this exaggerated manner. This is imperative for any story oral, written, or in film to survive the constant transition of cultural evolution. If a story is to live for two thousand years or more, it must be both relatively simple in concept and powerful in form.
If we were to tell life as it really is, if we embrace the truth of the people we have deemed our enemies, then we could not possibly bear arms against them for only in that place where we define them as something less than ourselves, even sub-human are we able to justify our actions against them.