After a few long days behind my computer in the intense effort to edit a short film I am producing about the Baptismal Site in Jordan, I needed a break. At 7 PM I headed down the hill from Mount of Olives to the Old City, about a twenty minute walk through the Qidron Valley. While this place was in the 4th century A.D. ascribed to the location of the biblical prediction of the last great war between the gentiles and the Jews, it now seems unlikely to harbour much more than a battle between kids on either side of the trash lined street.
Empty buildings smell of stale urine, dumpsters overflow due to lack of effort by the Israeli garbage collection services in East Jerusalem. I walk past an auto repair shop, fire station, food warehouse, and several, residential homes comprised of stone foundation, cracking walls, and warped tin roofs.
I arrived to the Jafa Gate of the Old City, pleased to find a generous crowd surrounding a small stage on which a minstrel show was about to commence. Highly animated figures adorned in what we ascribe to the clothing of the Middle Ages moved in theatrical fashion with exaggerated movement, facial expressions, and speech. While entirely in Hebrew, I understood the context. A king and queen were about to enjoy a performance put on for their own, personal fascination. We the silent audience were given privileged to look on.
A man and woman, whimsical in their staged drunken form performed truly inspiring feats of strength and balance as they stood on each other’s shoulders, hips, hands, and feet, twisting, turning, and moving as though gravity ceased to exist. A small, local Circ du Soleil production at the Jafa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Around the corner a large red dragon floated slowly over the heads of families. Children with dull wooden swords attempted to pierce its belly high overhead. A drum troupe stomped an intoxicating beat affecting the most stoic of the crowed while a gasoline soaked framework in the shape of a serpent was brought into the open. In the grand finale a mock hero fought its flaming form as black smoke billowed into the faces of those standing too close.
After the movie at the Cinemateque, I walked down and through the green park below the theater and then up the winding walkway back to the Old City. Coming in the opposite direction, in the shadows of the poorly lit walk, I met several groups on foot. I pay attention to movement as I learned to do in Phoenix and Chicago as a volunteer with the Guardian Angels citizen crime fighting organization. Not just here, but whenever in a city, anywhere in the world. I take notice of posture, gate, and stride. I look for the placement of hands in pant pockets, in jackets, or at the sides. I make eye contact with passers-by, offering salutation when possible. Even the most stoic faces usually relax when I offer a genuine smile.
I found myself open and without fear when a man and woman couple strolled side by side. But when approached by three, four, or a half dozen men in black top hats, coats, pants, and shoes, I found my body tensing. There was a tangible barrier to interaction. What would happen if I was to accidentally make contact?
I realized I was more comfortable approaching a group of Arab men than orthodox Jews. I asked myself, Why? Am I racist? To find the source, I pictured the Arabs in the clothing of the Jews and the Jews in blue jeans and sneakers, even with curly sideburns and facial hair. Immediately, I relaxed.
The uniform, the gang sign, the color of their tribe is both a means of uniting them and telling others, “You are not one of us.”
I was taken back to my month in Chicago where I was exposed to the very real threat of gang violence. I had seen Sergie get beaten by a local gang, fists, feet, broom sticks and weight lifter belts pressing him into the ground while I could do nothing but run. To this day I carry the burden of not being as courageous as he was, smaller than me but willing to fight to defend himself and his friends.
We wore red berets, white T-shirts with the Guardian Angel logo and black pants. There is tremendous power in uniform, to both give courage to those who wear it and fear to those who do not. Similarity in numbers is imposing, unifying, instilling both confidence and fear.
I moved to find purchase at the foot of the Old City wall, sat, and watched people go by. I closed my eyes and let go. I did not wish to carry prejudice any further that night. In their place, I knew how good it would feel to be surrounded by my friends, dressed like me, walking like me, believing the same things as I do.
In that moment, I regained comfort in myself and let go of fear.