Everyone comes back to Jerusalem by Matt Rees

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Everyone comes back to Jerusalem. I don’t know why, I really don’t.

It’s too hot. The people can be offhandedly mean, and they drive as though they want to kill you. It isn’t a very pretty place once you look close. Oh and, yes, sometimes it gets violent. With shocking self-obsession, it thinks the eyes of the world are turned admiringly upon it all the time.

Jerusalem sometimes seems like that inexplicably popular idiot everyone knew in high school. Exerting a stupefying magnetism over people with otherwise solid judgment.

I’ve been in Jerusalem 14 years. I’m under no illusions as to what keeps me here. I’ve made a good life for myself with good friends, and the place provides me with the material for my writing.

But I’m rather immune to its other supposed charms. It’s no Tuscany.

Yet all my journalist pals have come and gone – and come back again. I’ve been here so long, everyone to whom I’ve said goodbye ends up dropping in for dinner once more. It wouldn’t happen if I went back to live in Wales. No one is drawn there with idealistic visions of its sublimity…

I spoke to a writing group in the center of Jerusalem last week. Lovely people the lot of them. Mostly young Americans or Canadians, Brits and South Africans who’ve immigrated recently to Israel and want to get together with writers of a similar background. All of them so devoted to Jerusalem.

To some degree, each of them has to live here a while to see beyond the newness. They’re experiencing the same happiness I recall when I arrived at university and discovered a kind of freedom I’d only before imagined. Until then, they’ll write about Jerusalem in the tones of the biblical psalmist, making of the city a personified lover, the object of desire and devotion.

That isn’t how I see the place. I’ve lived through an intifada, seen Jerusalem mangle the bodies of its peoples and accept the spray of hateful slogans on its walls. I’ve been called all kinds of names by all kinds of people and sued by some particularly unreasonable ones. I’ve come close to being run down on crosswalks by angry Israeli drivers and shoved aside in the Old City by angry hashish-raddled Palestinians.

For a while all that made me angry too. Not so angry that it overcame the feelings of creativity it gave me. There’s a certain anger – spun forward and made pro-active, positive – at the heart of Omar Yussef, the hero of my Palestinian crime novels.

Why not? Because I discovered I liked the hash-tokers of the Muslim Quarter rather better than I enjoyed the company of their politicians or their professional classes.

That’s one of the main reasons I write crime novels about this place. Crime novels are the opposite of idealization. They see “the skull beneath the skin,” as Eliot wrote of John Webster (a playwright I recommend to anyone who likes a bit of morbid, cynical straight-talk).

It isn’t that I take a negative view of Jerusalem and its environs. I long ago realized that I continue to live here because there’s something I like about it, and its people. Just not in a romanticized way. It’s simply because I’ve come to understand the ways in which the people and their city push each other to the edge of existence. It’s when they’re on the edge that I find out what really counts for them.

And for me.

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