Sunday, April 16, 2006

Traveling Jerusalem Without Leaving

NYTimes Jerusalem Bureau chief Steve Erlanger must be getting really antsy in Israel these days. What with Sharon's coma, suicide bombings being few and far between (thank God) , and Ehud Olmert's BORING election, there's not much to write about in the world's most newsed-about city. How else to explain why the paper gave the greenlight for this tired travel piece on Jerusalem? Oh, how I wish they had sent him on a vacay to Dubai.

Erlanger's mind-numbing hook, "Jerusalem is a city built on struggle and rivalry among gods and tribes and those who misuse them," is so obvious, so uninsightful, it sets you up adequately for the yawning to come.

His central thesis, that Jerusalem is a city in flux, an epicenter of tension and change and therefore a compelling place to visit, is composed so clunkily that the LAST thing you'd do is board a non-stop to Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem is at peace, but not with itself. There is anxiety on the streets; every ring on the cellphone thrums with alarm. When I travel between West and East, especially on a Saturday, the city feels fragile, its anxieties cloistered by the wall that surrounds most of the city and cuts through part of it.

For many travelers, that fragility is a compelling reason to visit Jerusalem now to experience an extraordinary city at an extraordinary time, and to see it as a modern city of contention, not just as a Biblical Disneyland.

Yeah, sign me up for a trip to contention-ville. What about a little journalism trick called "color"? You know, the sights, the sounds, the smells, what you observe walking through the alleyways, the fruit and spice markets, even the suburban shopping mall? You're still in the Middle East, buddy, there's more than just politics and archeology to write about. Here Erlanger's lack of talent betrays him. Over and over again he falls prey to the worst thing a writer can do in a travel piece - he tells rather than shows. Especially in a place where there is so much to show, these pedestrian observations are pure laziness. Here's an illustration:

Farther down the hill, you can also see evidence of the extensive dam and tunnel system dug by King Hezekiah in 700 B.C. to ensure that water from the Gihon Spring could be brought inside the walls of the city when the Assyrians besieged it, and to hide the spring itself from enemy eyes. The huge cistern appears to be Caananite, and it is oddly moving to hear the water rushing as it did two millenniums ago. I note the irony of the Palestinian workers, who see themselves as descendants of the Caananites, laboring for the Israeli Antiquities Authority in a tourist area controlled by a foundation that wants to implant more Jews in their neighborhood, Silwan.

It would have been nice to get oh, I dunno, a QUOTE from one of those aforementioned Palestinians. You know, one of those methods by which a reader knows you've actually spoken to the "natives" and recorded their point of view.Embarrassingly the only poetry in the article comes by way of an astute tour guide:
The Romans, like Americans, says Avner Goren, an archeologist and guide, had their vision of how best to organize human communities— in cities of a certain design, with sanitation and walls and straight streets. "They brought their one truth to this place of many truths and faiths," he says, pointing to the site of the new Roman city they built, now the "Old City." The Roman effort to eradicate the early Christians lasted about 250 years. Eventually, Constantine decided to take the religion of what had become the majority of his subjects, and his mother, Helena, and he built a new church where Jesus had been crucified, where Hadrian had put a temple to Aphrodite.
This article had me yearning for the days of James Bennet with his graceful phrasing ("bouquet of microphones") and coverage that truly tackled the complexities and imperfections of this contested land. Even on his slow days we had elegiac pieces on Palestinians children flying kites in Gaza, conversations with young soldiers criss-crossing the country on bus rides home, quasi-comical renderings of almost being kidnapped by Palestinians. Sure, he had his flaws, but reporting from Jerusalem is both the best and worst assignment for any journalist. Both sides will inevitably find fault with the ways the "facts" are presented. But at least JB was entertaining.


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