The City of a Thousand Hopes

Jerusalem was a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present. Its people, with rare exceptions, were characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through.
—Lawrence of Arabia

On Christmas Eve, as our taxi drove to the bridge across the River Jordan, we passed a convoy of fifty pick-ups, vans, ambulances, and tractor trailer trucks. They bore the flags of Palestine and Turkey, were filled with waving men and desperate supplies, and honked in return to welcoming Jordanians. The murals called them a “Lifeline to Gaza.”

The obese Palestinian man sitting next to us in the taxi said they were sent by George Galloway, an Englishman. They would drive to that Red Sea corner where Jordan, Israel, and Egypt meet at Aqaba, Elat, and Taba, and then cross Sinai to the Gaza Strip, and cross the sealed border at midnight on New Years. Several thousand volunteers planned to walk across the same border at the same time, bearing school supplies. They would celebrate with milkshakes instead of booze.

It was a complicated situation! The Gazans had nothing but what Israel would allow them, and that little was not enough. Egypt had buried an iron curtain along their border to stop the tunnel diggers. Humanitarians were putting themselves at the prows of boats, Titanic lovers in supply ships, and steering their craft at the blockaded shore. The zealots of Israel that had marched through the territory waited for trials that might never come.

What can I say, about this or any other facet of the Road to Peace, but what people tell me? The man seated next to us had gone to Jordan to visit his mother, who could never visit Palestine. He hoped he would be allowed back into his own country. We had our own hopes: Our visit to Syria, and the accompanying stamp in our passport, made us immediately suspect in the overtaxed eyes of Israel's border guards.

Now, due to political happenstance and war, a Syrian stamp raises red flags at the Israeli border, but won't exclude you from that country, so long as you say the right thing. You're just there as a tourist, and have no intention of visiting the West Bank. Say the wrong thing—like the man who, when asked about his visit to Iran, said, “It's a nice place, you should go there”—and the stone-faced Semitic Cerberus will slam a big black mark in your passport that bans you from the Nation of Israel for ten years.

Of the countries that do not recognize Israel's rite to exist, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Libya take the added measure of refusing entrance to any traveler with an Israeli stamp in their passport, or with an Egyptian exit stamp from the Israeli border. Israel will stamp a piece of paper if you ask, although they'll ask you why and accept only a very good answer; but those hostile nations of the Axis of Evil look for gaps in your passport dates, where you may have slipped unstamped into the territory of the Jew, and they look for the detritus of the sticker that the Israelis put on your passport at the border.

Only at the King Hussein Bridge can a traveler escape this black mark. There, the Jordanians and Israelis stamp a piece of paper, and it looks, to any intervening eye, as if you had been in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that entire time. First, though, you have to wait in line for a long time, and then you have to ask them, “Can you stamp a piece of paper?” and endure their shouted questions, “Why? Why? Why?”

They berated the couple ahead of us for asking and sent off a bearded Palestinian man to wait for special attention. I asked him how he was when filling out some form. “I'm fine,” said the man. “Nothing more than normal. I was watching you, though. You should be careful about what you say. And that kefiyeh you are wearing is the Palestinian colors. You should take that off.”

I did what he said, then and in the interview I had with a young Israeli woman. I told her I was going to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to see touristy things and party, and that I had no interest in West Bank. “I've seen Syria and Jordan and Egypt,” I said, “so I'm not really interested.” “Can you even get in the West Bank?” asked Amelia in her independent interview. She said she wanted to go shopping in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the Israeli lit up and wrote down the names of choice shopping malls.

By the time we got out of there, it was five in the afternoon and dark, and although we hoped to get to Bethlehem, we had nowhere to stay, only the tenuous offers to assist of some CouchSurfers already hosting full groups of pilgrims. We sat on a bench considering this, and an old man in a red checkered kefiyeh approached us. “Hi, where you go?” “The bus station,” I replied tersely, tired, and wary of trouble after pledging to avoid the Palestinian West Bank where Bethlehem lay.

He was also on the bus to Jerusalem, that short man with a sparse beard and a weak chin, approaching sixty but still animated by work and family and an inexplicable energy. He said his grandfather lived to be 140 with 75 grandchildren, and he showed us an interview in the 1959 National Geographic to prove it. “Everyone says, I don't believe it,” said the man. In his half-senile, digressive way, he told us stories of talking with Prime Ministers and dignitaries and cult leaders, most recently with the same George Galloway who had organized the Lifeline to Gaza convoy, and he had visited Portland and Melbourne. He did not even have a passport, just a sort of international card. “I am not a citizen of any nation,” Ibrahim proudly declared.

I first mistook Ibrahim Ahmad Abu El-Hawa for the Wandering Jew, but he was a Bedouin Arab, though his family originated from the Turkish Black Sea. The international advocate of peace in the Holy Land invited us home to stay with him, and we said, Of course. We got out of the bus at the Herod Gate of Jerusalem and got into his son's taxi, that took us up around the walled city to the Mount of Olives where he lived, just uphill from the Garden of Gethsemane and down the street from where Jesus ascended, in a big five story fortress he designed himself. Ibrahim had four sons and four daughters and 28 grandchildren—“Wait, one was born before I left. Twenty nine!”

Two of these families and 23 of these grandchildren lived in the house with him. We sat in the family room with Ibrahim and his wife, who he called his honey, and his wife's deaf-mute sister, who howled intermittently, and the young children piled through to see their laughing grandfather. One girl started crying, and she clung to the old man's presence like a shy kitten as he showed us through the rooms of his house, surprised at the new kitchen, and onto the balcony that looked out over the Bethany Gate in the Wall that wound across the hills about Jerusalem. The City of Peace is not on the flat arid plain where it commonly appears in Hollywood, but clasped within a circle of steep and verdant hills.

“My cousins live there,” said Ibrahim, pointing across the Wall. “There is Palestine, here is Israel, and there is Jerusalem. Three states, all right here. And everyone who lives here,”—he waved at his fortress and his neighborhood,—“is Muslim. No Jews live here. None at all. And everyone there,”—he pointed toward the other side of the Wall,—“is Muslim, too, but that is Palestine, and they cannot come here.”

Ibrahim dismissed the iniquity with a joke and a wave and led us downstairs to a deep open court between his house and the rock of the hill. His grandchildren rushed about, excited by the observance of strangers, and one of his daughters rushed inside to get a headscarf. We talked to a few people, at chicken and salad and bread and Coke, and then Ibrahim and his son Mohammed drove us off to the Peace House.

“There is room for twenty people,” said the old man. “I do not even know who is staying there. I don't know how I know them! I will have to ask, How do I know you?”

In the crowded kitchen of the three-story house, he posed that question to a group of Ecuadorians visiting from a kibbutz near Gaza, where they plucked defected Hamas rockets out of the sown fields, and to a few other lodgers who had found the place by accident or recommendation. He sat us down around the table and a Maori woman named Irene served us all rice with vegetables and corn beef, and a chocolate cake for Ibrahim's 68th birthday.

One Californian woman on one of many visits. Mohammed had seen her in the airport looking lost. “I was supposed to pick someone up,” he said, “but his plane was cancel,” and he told her about his father's open house and offered to take her there. “I don't trust you,” said the woman, “but I trust God. Lead on!” Her trust was not misplaced, as it turned out. She was there with the Israeli husband, a hairy bucktoothed fellow, whom she had met in that same house and their newborn daughter. It was a very strange company, and a very strange Christmas Eve.

In Bethlehem, 15,000 pilgrims crowded about Manger Square and lined up to enter the Basilica of the Nativity through the low Door of Humility, and within that chapel a Franciscan midnight mass broadcast itself all across the world.

On Christmas morning, Amelia said, “Presents?” We had each received money from family and notes from friends, but real presents are different. I gave Amelia the book and bottle of arak I'd bought her, having gifted her the wool socks a few days preemptively. She had told me that the present she bought me was weighing down her bag—“Doesn't it look bigger?”—but that it was something I would surely use while traveling, and so I was surprised when she put a slim leather wallet in my hand, to replace the duct taped Oyster card wallet I'd been carrying since I first stepped into the London Underground eleven months before.

We left the Peace House that morning with two other lodgers, both about my age—Josh, an Iranian Jew and Los Angelene come to the Holy Land to learn the craft of wine-making from its Israeli vintners who have in recent years outgrown the sweet stigma of manischewitz; and Janina, a golden-haired German girl in a yellow Indian scarf with a red right hand, who volunteered on the same kibbutz near Gaza as the Ecuadorians, but needed a break from her constant companions—and took a bus to the Damascus Gate.

Old Jerusalem has seven gates: Damascus, Herod's, Lion's, Dung, Zion, Jaffa, and the New Gate. The eighth, the Golden Gate, was sealed in the sixteenth century—according to prophecy, God will come through that door at the End of the World, so the worldly Jews blocked the door to keep out the Rapture. The Damascus Gate leads into the largest of the Holy City's four quarters, that of the Mohammedans, though those busy markets were not as crowded as on most days. Friday is the Muslim holy day, though this has little bearing on business in Jerusalem; Saturday is the Jewish Shabbat, and they shut down most everything in its observance; and Sunday is the Christian day of rest, so no beer is available. Thank God for the differences in His religions, that these don't all come at once!

At the Jaffa Gate, past the yellow ranks of a Falun Gong protest, we saw a sign for the Free Tour company that offered a free guide for gratis at the end of the trip. Our diminutive guide walked us up to a rooftop at the center of the four districts, and under the window of Samuel Yosef Agnon, who wrote, “Jerusalem is connected by its rooftops and divided by its inhabitants,” we looked out over the calm strata above the crowded streets. The Muslim Quarter was a vast covered souq surrounding the Temple Mount; the quiet and posh Jewish Quarter showed signs of its recent renovations; the Christian Quarter was a skyline of steeples and towers and domes and crosses; and we had walked through the empty stone streets of the Armenian Quarter to get there.

Jokes and history ensued; we saw a street where Life of Brian was filmed, a new synagogue, and the Wailing Wall. The Jews lined up to pray against it, and they stuffed it full of their notes, and would not turn their back on it when they walked away. Obama had put a note in the wall on a visit of state, and it appeared in the paper the next day. Above on the Temple Mount stood the supreme golden dome of the Temple of the Rock, over the stone where Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac and the spot from where the Prophet ascended. A prayer there, properly performed, was worth ten thousand normal ones; a prayer in Mecca is worth a hundred thousand. To prevent violence, non-Muslims were not permitted inside the mosque.

One Rabbi came up to me while I stood ruminating over the and led me over to the last of the Second Temple wall. He kissed it and had me do the same, and then prayed for me: “Married? Then I bless your luck with ladies, your family, your business, your America.” He gave three Amens, three Hallelujahs, and three more Amens, then asked for a donation from this simple traveler. I thanked the Rabbi and wrote out a note to place in that sacred rampart. Every three months at 2 a.m. cleaners come around with a giant vacuum and empty the crevices. Until then, may God grant me my wish!

Our tour ended where it had started, and we four turned back to see in greater detail the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is a Byzantine church, sacred to the multitudes of Christian faiths, and strange in its devotions, and beautiful in its complex blend of designs; indeterminate and irresolute, like a candle's flickering flame, and yet seemingly eternal in its heights and paintings and rich themes.

There is the stone where Christ was anointed, and there is the cave where Adam was buried, and there are the nails from the Cross, and there is where the Cross stood, in that Rock of Golgotha; there a procession of Armenians chants, and the singers prostrate themselves before a priest in a crown and another in a silver cape and black cowl; there is where he was imprisoned, in that dingy burned room; there is where he was buried, in that great shrine beneath the high dome, painted with stars and rays like the firmament, all Calvary carved away around it; and there are stranger crevices, burned black with soot from candles; and stranger processions from all over the globe: Italians and Spaniards, severe Muscovites, Indians chanting in Urdu, Nigerians in states of religious ecstasy.

What can you say to that place, five Stations of the Cross in such a line, the site chosen three centuries later by Queen Helena and the original church built by her son Constantine, Emperor of Rome? Of course it is not Authentic! But, it is Earnest, and a powerful conduit of the spirit of a persecuted religion of unmarked graves and secret meetings in the catacombs of Rome, a goal of Crusaders and Knights Templar, a wonder for the pilgrims of the earth. No wonder this is called the Center of the World! A city so over-pinned with dreams, it is like a dead insect on a mantle and under examination.

Our Christmas dinner was a travelers pot luck—Chinese noodles by Irene, and boiled potatoes, vegetables, and rice by Ibrahim and his honey—accompanied by tea and good company. Amelia and I had a bed downstairs in a long sitting room with four couches, all of them occupied—two Ecuadorians, a Quebecois, and Joshua the winemaker. There was a well-kept kitchen, a bathroom, a hallway that Japanese visitors kept disappearing into, and two bedrooms, one for a Born Again Orange County girl named Dawn, and the other for David and his wife Karmel.

The older couple happily received us in the kitchen and told us stories of the House and Ibrahim. David was a Jew and an Englishman and a medical psychiatrist and a whole lot of other things. He had a goatee to go with his frazzled gray hair, and the paunch that all old men are entitled to bear. He told us, in his soft, erudite voice, that “there are more poor Israelis here than there are poor Palestinians.” There have always been more Jews in Judea, and the Palestinian Arabs are Syrians and Jordans who flooded in after the creation of the State of Israel, before those two nations attacked Israel. “The truth is not what you think it may be,” said David. Obama had read his book and said, according to David, “That's fine, I agree with everything you say, but—I have to remain President.”

The following day Amelia, Josh and I went back down to the Old Town and looked at the Austrian Hospice and climbed a fence onto the ramparts, which we followed from Lion's Gate to Herod's. We got lost in the warren of streets and received directions from a short woman who spoke like a newsreel during the Second World War. We had arranged to meet David and Karmel at Jaffa Gate at 2:30. Both our parties were late, and David's included a pretty Moroccan woman named Jamila, who was volunteering at an agency for Palestinian settlements. Josh walked with her, Amelia with Karmel, and I with David, who strolled like an Englishman in a beret and red sweater, swinging a cane at his side, and talked about history and travel as he took us through the crowded streets of Jerusalem to Queen Helena's Cistern under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Cistern was a rock cave with a deep pool, reached by stairs in the back of a small chapel, and dimly lit by electric lights and the well shaft of a cloister of the basilica. The curved walls and flat water echoed sound sacredly. Josh, who sang in a choir, set a sort of Gregorian chant from near where the stairs slipped into the water, and David sang “Come Bird of Paradise” and told us to listen close for its lyrical symbolism. Karmel asked us to sing something. “I can't sing,” said Amelia, and I added that, “I'm also inept.” She ran us through a simple Hebrew La-e-la-a-ill-la-la.

A Brazilian man listened to our haunting songs from the stairway. “I heard that Brazilian women are very pretty,” David told him. “My son told me that, and my wife won't let me go there. They're supposed to be very pretty. So why are the men so plain looking?”

David took us to a Syriac Orthodox Church of Saint Mark in the Armenian Quarter that claims to be not only the first church but also the site of the Last Supper. The three black-robed priests were holding a service, chanting in Aramaic and waving censers before the altar, so David led us down some steps to the room where Jesus shared body and blood. It was a dingy space, and Jerusalem had risen above it on layers of construction. In the chapel, there was a famous Icon, which we viewed by candlelight, of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by Saint Luke. The historian evangelist did not know what the infant Christ looked like, so he painted Jesus as he knew him: a babe with the face of a man.

When the service had ended, a old nun, plump but active, came in to see us. Justina wore black clothes with a wrap on her hair and her sleeves rolled back. In twelve years overseeing the chapel, the ex-math teacher had witnessed five miracles—cures for cancer, the illumination of the dining room of the Last Supper—and one only a year ago. She told us the story:

“That day, I can't forget it, a man from Russia, his job policeman in Tel Aviv, came to the Church for tour. No language between us. He spoke Russian, he spoke Hebrew. I speak English, I speak Aramaic. No language between us. For one hour I talk to him. I spoke English, he hears Hebrew. He speaks Hebrew, I hear English. For one hour, nothing strange between us. I thought he spoke English. He thought I spoke Hebrew. He says to me, 'Justina, I feel peace in this place. I never felt it in any other part of Israel. I feel the Holy Spirit in this room.'”

Three months passed. The Russian man returned and spoke to Justina, but this time, she did not understand his Hebrew. The man got angry, but Justina could not ken the source of it. The priestess lit a candle and prayed before the Icon, asking Merciful God to send a translator. After ten minutes, a guide who she knew entered the chapel, who spoke English, Russian, and Hebrew. “I became happy,” said Justina, “because Alex translate between me and that man. I say, 'Alex, My Lord sent you to me!'” Alex told her that his wife had a vision and demanded he take a taxi into town to see Justina. Another miracle!

The policeman told Alex how Justina had lectured him in Hebrew three months before. He was sure the old woman was trying to get rid of him by pretending not to understand. “At that moment,” Justina explained, “I feel power. Something put it in my brain. I understand what happened exactly.” The Lord had allowed her to speak to the Hebrews, his first children. “Glory to our God!” she exclaimed, and she waved her hands towards the sky.

After this epiphany, Justina went back to talk to Jesus through Saint Luke's picture. “Why did you wait three months to show me the miracle? Why, why why?” She received an answer in “five days only.” A French professor, who had been there before, arrived and said he would translate for his companion, another Frenchman who spoke no English. The two Franks set at it, and Justina remembered that she had a book about the church in six languages, which would make an excellent addition to the professor's library. On returning with the book, she heard the guide speaking in English! “Why you lie?” she said. “Why you say your friend no speak English?”

Then, as before, she realized what had happened, and to avoid appearing crazy, she “shuts up.” “I turn to Jesus and I say I am sorry, I will never ask you you must do something for me. Glory to our God!”

We thanked Justina for the story and went to a place called Miguel's just inside the New Gate, owned by a Christian who served us plates of food and a fine Palestinian microbrew called Taybeh. David told stories to make us laugh. He talked about holistic remedies, and then said that he sometimes had prophecies or saw the spirits of the deceased around their surviving loved ones. On Amelia's shoulders, he saw a shadow of grief. “There is some sadness in your past,” he said, “isn't there?”

“Everyone says that,” she replied. I made a joke about seeing the spirit of my beer and got another Taybeh.

David and Karmel went to a lecture on medieval Muslim treatment of Jewish subjects, and Josh and Jamila to smoke cigarettes at the Wailing Wall; I walked off to the bus station with Amelia, still exhausted in the wake of a cold. Alone in the basement kitchen of the Peace House, she asked me, “So, do you believe it was a miracle?”

“What do you think?”

“I don't disbelieve her,” said Amelia. “She may have experienced something, but I can't believe in miracles until one happens to me.”

“Well, I believe her. The world's a much more magical place if you can believe in miracles.”
Anything old, you want to see it, you must go down.

Amelia's eye infection was getting worse. What started in Cairo as a swelling of the right lid had now spread to the left, and the drops she got from the eye doctor in Amman had run dry.

David recommended the world-renowned Eye Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, on Mount Scopus, and we took a bus there the next day. The doctors checked her vision and told her that some sort of eczema had blocked one of the tear ducts above her eye, which was swollen with oily tears (perhaps that is the specter of sorrow that David saw looming). They prescribed warm compresses and gentle massage, and a minor antibiotic gel for the infection.

The Order of St. John was originally a crusading order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. They ran an institution of medicine on Rhodes, which doubled as a fortress against the infidel Turk, and was a steadfast thorn in the Sultan's side. The Sultan tried but could not take the fortress of Rhodes, and so he concluded an agreement with the Christians that allowed them to leave with their swords and their dignity. The Knights sailed off to another island, became the Chevaliers of Malta, and renewed the fight against bacteria and Turks. The Eye Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem bears their noble crest, and signs of donations by the Knights Templar.

While Amelia and I were waiting in leather chairs in a sunlit hallway, for a doctor to print a receipt and certificate for Amelia to show to her travel insurance later, I said, “In the last two days we've seen knights and miracles. This is a pretty remarkable city.”

“Knights and miracles,” she repeated quietly.

Ibrahim brought to the table of the Peace House that night heaping plates of food cooked by his honey. There was buttered rice, tender chicken, mounds of vegetables in gravy, fresh bread, and tea with sage and mint. Our host shouted, “Welcome!” “Food!” “Eat!” and, “Thank you!” to everyone who passed by the open door of that merry room, and with words like those, made the world a better place.

He felt sorry for the capitalist way of life, those houses rich in possessions but poor in love—like Tom Waits sings, “A house where there's love is a palace for sure.”

Poor, noble Ibrahim! His Peace House attracted some strange characters, the characters that travelers often talk of on their way out of the Holy Land, people with Jerusalem Syndrome who think they are Saints or Christ himself, and Ibrahim told us stories of some of them.

A man once stayed at the House who called himself Jesus. He was an American Jew and wore only a rice bag with holes cut in it. He stayed for twenty days, and every morning at 5:30 knocked on the door of Ibrahim's apartment and said, “God has given me a new name. Call me this.” “Okay,” said the Arab. “I don't care what you're called.” One day the pilgrim said, “Ibrahim, God has asked me to move, and he wants you to give me a tent, a mattress, and a sleeping bag.” He took these items to the King David Hotel, where Presidents and Kings stay on visits to Israel, and set up a camp in the garden, and lit a fire, and left.

Ibrahim received a phone call. “Ibrahim, come down here or we will collect you.” The Arab raced to a taxi. Jesus had taken a stack of Ibrahim's business cards with him and put them in the tent for the police to find. “Ibrahim,” they said, “What are you doing? You have houses all over town. You are welcome all over the world. Why do you pitch your tent here?” Ibrahim explained who it really was, and the police asked, “So what is his name?” “In twenty days he has twenty names. Which do you want?” “Well draw him.” “I couldn't draw myself!”

A great many of Ibrahim's guests, most of them Christians, attempt to convert the old Arab to their faith. He said he was Ibrahim, and Ibrahim would never change. And they fought, the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and Ibrahim told us they should “Do what you want outside this home. Go kill each other outside this home.”

The Peace House set the stage for a clash of self-righteous egos, men who consider themselves holy by the mere fact of voluntary poverty and hardship. Those braggadocios and self-proclaimed messiahs spoke only in the first person, and had serrated conversations, looking for openings in the other guest's holier-than-thou parables to tell a related tale about themselves and some spiritual conference they attended.

“We're human beings who sometimes have spiritual experiences,” said Irene, the Maori woman who thought that her race was a lost tribe of Israel. “Nay!” spake the Bulgarian holy man, tangled beard on his chest, who was off on a three year walk to India, “We be spiritual beings, and sometimes we have human experiences!”

In truth, the pompous fools (who I called religious nutters and nutbags and nutjobs and worse things on most occasions) began to wear on Amelia and me. We retreated out into the sitting room to hover around the light of a laptop, or down into the basement where David and Karmel held court. Josh and Jamila were usually down there, and David told great stories around his kitchen table.

“This is a true story,” he began, standing over us like a king. “There was this old fisherman who sailed the waters of England, and I asked him, 'Aren't those seas rough?' He told me, 'Oh, yes, they are. The first time I was out, I went down below for dinner, and I was at the end of the long table, and the Captain, he looks down and says, “You going to eat that soup son?” and I says, “No,” so he says, “Well pass it up.” Well all the hands worked to pass up the bowl of soup, and the Captain eats it. I say, “Can you keep it down sir?” He says (patting his belly), “Well of course son.” “Good,” I says, “cause I couldn't.”'”

Once David was walking with a group of pilgrims from London to Assisi, living entirely of what they could earn from begging, in emulation of the original Saint Francis. They would stand outside a cafe with wooden bowls for hours, until they had enough for a cup of coffee, and then go in and sit. When some rich Frenchman or Latin lady left an expensive sandwich half finished, David or one of his acolytes would ask for the leftovers. They received support in some places and even met Mother Theresa on the road through the Alps. However, it was hard yakka, as the Aussies say, slow and hungry work, and David got fed up.

“And I'm a Jew,” he said, “and we Jews talk to God, so I said, 'Saint Francis, won't you send us any help?'”

Following this outburst, a mangy dog appeared in the road from around the hedge row. It had no collar and would not be chased off, but followed the company doggedly, exemplifying all the “sagacious kindness,” to use Melville's phrase, that canines can possess. The dog set point a few meters ahead of the band, begged with them, shared their privations, and would not be parted from David. It whined outside his window and put its head on his knee. David, being a sentimental man, developed an affection for his dog. He named it Leo, after Francis' own constant companion, and found himself tugging sandwiches out of the hands of zealous waiters so the mut could eat.

One day, just up the road from Assisi, Leo scouted up ahead. From that direction there came the horrible, alarming noise of squealing tires. David ran up ahead. The dog was vanished. The Jew looked everywhere. He waded through the ditches and pushed out into the thickets, calling, “Leo! Leo!” but saw no sign of his dog. It reduced him to tears, and he never knew what happened to the animal.

In Assisi, a priest of the Church met their group. He said, “Go to the hotel and get a room. Don't worry about a thing, I'll pay for it. And you look hungry. Go to the restaurant and order as much as you want. I'll pay for it all.”

David had an interesting biography. He lived in the West Bank until some of his friends received calls from Hamas: "If you let that Jew into your house again, we will blow it up with you inside." Some of his genius progeny forced him to move, and he and Karmel had set up a sort of Japanese garden as a meditative retreat in Turkish Cyprus. As a medical psychologist, he developed a new field: Psychoneuroimmunology, preventing cancer by preventing the neurological shock of depression and disillusionment. He was like a faith healer, and trusted alternative medicine in concert with the practices of his mentor. He had told off the Prince of Wales and knew the Dhalai Lama and the President of America. He had survived an attempted poisoning by Kashmiri separatists.

David believed that old guru saying that there are many paths to one Truth. Under the name Baba Dovid, he wrote a book of New Age teachings called The Leaves From the Tree of Life. He gave a copy of this to Amelia and to me before we parted ways, along with copies of a pamphlet called "The Universalist" and an article about himself from Healing Today, titled, "Son of Nostradamus, Mystic Prophet of our Time." As a journalist, I feel obliged to quote it.

"Like Nostradamus," writes Anna Betz and Colin Vernon, David is a Jew. "Though recognized as a Jewish mystic, he is a Master of the occult with links to numerous esoteric groups world-wide. Known to the Sufis as 'Shaykh Dawwud Ysuf al-Haqqani'; and to the Sikhs and Hindus of Northern India as 'Babaji'; he has been recognised as a 'Teacher' by Buddhists, is a 'priest of Isis' and on the death of the chief Druid of Cornwall, was offered his robes by the widow."

"Like Nostradamus," the repetitious article continues, "he has made many predictions which have been fulfilled; Israel's invasion of Lebanon; the Gulf war; the dismantling of the Berlin wall. His prediction of a loss of a royal partner was fulfilled in the tragic death of Princess Diana, written in a letter to Prince Charles, three years before it occurred." The abilities come "through him" and "not from him," says the humble prophet. The authors continue that if you should ever meet Baba Dovid, "you will not doubt that the spirit of Nostradamus is still very much alive."

On Monday Amelia and I went off to Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall in the West Bank. The festivities around Christmas had ended. The police were stacking up their metal barricades and the garbagemen piling the refuse of ten thousand pilgrims. Through the souq we came to the Square of the Manger before the great church. Alleyways spoked off with other holy sites for the various faith, including the Church of the Lactation, where a drop of Mary's sacred breast milk had splashed on the rock of a cave and turned to venerated powder.

The Basilica of the Nativity was a small thing over the grottoes where Jesus Christ is said to have been birthed. The marble square and silver star that a line of Nigerians prostrated themselves before failed to impress Amelia. “I thought he was born in a manger!” she said. “What's with the marble?” There was a little manger on the other side of the cave, with a plastic Jesus nestled inside it, and the whole town was a cottage complex of woodcarvers who dealt Nativity scenes in olive, the same wood as the Cross to which that babe would be nailed.


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