She crushes. She mashes. She squashes. She crumples.
MAYBE: a pregnancy is a loaded gun.
I CAN TELL YOU THIS NOW: For two years, in my early twenties, I worked as a counselor at a secret shelter for pregnant women in Jerusalem. I was relatively new to the city those days.
HOLD UP A SIGN: Welcome to the underbelly of Jerusalem.
THE WOMEN: Rich, poor, middle class. Moslem, Jewish, Christian. Religious and secular. Israeli, Arab, citizens, legal immigrants and illegal refugees. Ages 13 to 36. They all possessed wombs that worked. They all, for mostly ominous reasons, had to hide their pregnancies from the world.
A PREGNANCY IS A SECRET ABOUT A SECRET: the director of the shelter used to say. Beneath the city's mythic cloak of holiness were the stories behind these pregnancies.
THE STORIES: Sex, power, race, rape, religion, money, and sometimes even murder.
CO-STARRING: mysterious shadow figures whom we never saw, including pimps, politicians, professors, rabbis, mafiosos and military heroes.
IN "THE WIRE": (a tale of another city) Detective Lester Freamon says, You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.
AS FOR JERUSALEM, I LEARNED: Follow the bodies of Jerusalem's women and you'll find the city's secrets. Its fears and fetishes. Its DNA. Its dirt.
See that castrated tongue geek, rising from the rubble,
trampling our city.
MIFLEZET: is the modern Hebrew word for monster. It looks like this: מִפְלֶצֶת .
MIFLEZET: is the name of the giant art installation that doubles as a children's playground, which I would pass on the way to my shifts at the shelter. Goofy looking, black and white polka-dotted, with three protruding red tongues that serve as slides, the MIFLEZET was designed in 1971 by French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, according to the Jerusalem municipality's website, as a friendly and unthreatening monster symbol of female fertility. The experience of playing in the MIFLEZET is supposed to recreate the process of birth.
I ADMIT: I was deeply ill-suited for that position at the shelter: naïve, ignorant about the intricacies of the female reproductive system, scared of my own flesh and my own shadow, book smart but street stupid, bad at boundaries, an immigrant myself with little support, my own wounds festering, barely beneath the surface.
BUT I STUCK IT OUT: longer than any of the counselors who had started off with me. On the way to my shifts, so full of dread that I would sometimes toy with horrific fantasies of my bus exploding, I watched children slide out of the MIFLEZET's birth canal -womb-tongues.
OR MAYBE I SHOULD SAY: Follow the spaces left behind by women's bodies.
WHILE I WRITE THIS: I hear word that faces of women have, again, been erased, torn actually, from the landscape, this time from billboards hanging all around Jerusalem. I pause on this act of vandalism because of its purity: A de-facement. The annihilation of a gaze. I touch my face with my fingers to make sure it's still there.
SPEAKING OF VANDALISM: Recently, Ha'aretz newspaper reported that the attorney general came to an agreement with religious parties to soften the enforcement of laws that protect against what is known here as hadarat nashim: the exclusion of women in the public sphere, in public ceremonies, in advertisements.In effect: gender segregation and censorship of images of women.
AS OF NOW: the attorney general denies that any softening was agreed upon, but what seems clear is that hushed meetings on high levels are still taking place about where women's bodies and faces and voices are allowed to exist, and where they may not.
I IMAGINE: what might be offered in exchange for this kind of softening. A vote for or against whatever issue is currently being hashed out, in either domestic or foreign policy? Does it have something to do with the corruption case in today's headlines? Or a recent expansion of settlements somewhere?
FOLLOW THE SPACES: Look for what else is up for negotiation when women's bodies are on the table. You might be surprised where the fuck it's going to take you.
See her fangs drip with freakish fantasies.
WHO'S AFRAID TO SEE WHAT:There is not that much difference between an object of desire and an object of horror as far as the male look is concerned, writes Linda Williams, in When the woman looks.
IN FEMINIST FILM THEORY: women and monsters are often linked by their otherness, by their abjection, by the way they both invoke male castration anxiety, by the way they both demonstrate the terrifying power of a different sexuality.
A WOMAN: might fear monsters too, says Williams, but she also recognizes the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference. This gaze of affinity in horror films, between woman and monster, is a threat to hegemonic male power because it reveals the potency of non-phallic sexuality. And, on screen at least, Williams writes, this mutual gaze seldom goes unpunished.
I ADMIT: They terrified me. Each time I walked into the shelter for my shift, I was swallowed into their hormone-drenched underwater hell, swimming with primordial creatures, behemoth, leviathans. I was a hybrid creature there too. Mother-jailer-doula.
BUT WE ALL KNEW THE TRUTH: But for a twist of luck or fate, our roles could easily have been reversed. There were women there with backgrounds eerily similar to mine. For two years – no, more, I could feel, seething inside my own body, their collective nightmare of possession and entrapment.
THERE WAS A SUPERSTITION: amongst us counselors that you always ended up in the delivery room with the woman who resented you most. One woman called me the worst kind of monster -Nazi- and cursed me that when I get pregnant someday, I'd suffer just like her. But the hand she clenched while pushing out her baby was mine.
I WOULD LIKE TO GIVE YOU: a close-up shot of this birth, an exclusive peek at the faces of these women and the uncomfortably intimate moments we shared. But no. I can't do that. And I apologize for leading you on until now. In order to protect the lives of these women and their children, the stories must remain locked inside confidential records.They are ghost whispers, haunting the city's underbelly. All I can show you are the spaces.
ZOOM IN HERE INSTEAD: On display, at the center of the shelter's living room was one giant dildo named Yossi. He was there, officially, as a birth control teaching tool, so that residents could practice pulling on condoms in their spare time. But Yossi the Dildo's disembodied presence in this context, imprisoned amongst the pregnant women, was also a tragic joke: a symbolic castration, perhaps, or a monument to the petrified gaze of desire and horror.
See how her maggot mouth stretches.
See how her thighs part wide to swallow us whole.
THE WORD MIFLEZET: appears for the first time ever in the bible, in association with a woman.
MEET MAACAH: a monster-ghost from Jerusalem's past. Her name oozes with destruction. It means: She crushed. She mashed. She squashed. She crumpled. Her identity is somewhat murky, but she might have been the granddaughter of King David, and the wife of King Rechavam, who loved her the most, out of all his eighteen wives and sixty concubines.
BUT: what Maacah is most remembered for is the MIFLEZET she created, as a ritual of worship to the goddess Asherah. Rabbis were puzzled by the bible's use of this mysterious word that appears nowhere else. Some connected MIFELZET to the root PLZ which denotes fear and horror. But others saw Maacah's MIFLEZET as some kind of deviant sexual behavior.
MORE SPECIFICALLY: the MIFLEZET was a male sex organ that she would engulf every day, as one rabbi put it.
A SEX TOY: a dildo.
WHATEVER: this MIFLEZET really was, it made Maacah's son (or grandson) Asa, then king, so angry or so scared of her involvement with this object and its powers, that he stripped Maacah of her role as Queen Mother, chopped up her MIFLEZET, and burned its remains at the bottom of the Kidron River.
THE WORD MIFLEZET: was picked out of the rubble much later, in the early 20th century, by the revivers of the Hebrew language, who are the ones, according to language-history researcher Elon Gilad, who determined MIFLEZET's meaning would now officially become monster, cementing the enmeshment of terror and sexual difference in modern Israeli society to this day.
THIS SECTION MIGHT GET MESSY: because I’m writing it by hand, in pen, in my notebook, as I sit in a waiting room, in line to take a test called Ovarian Reserve Fertility, to see how many eggs are left in my ovaries, how many bullets are left in my barrel, if any at all, my fingers, they're sweating, gripping the pen, and I never would've imagined, back then, when I worked at the shelter, when the woman cursed my supposed-someday-future-pregnancy, that I would find myself here today, fifteen years later, wondering when don't you want to have kids shifted into why did you decide not to have any kids, wondering when I began to feel like my uterus is part of some not-so-secret demographic war, wondering why it is that I refer to my own body in militaristic terms at all.
MAYBE: the gun does not always go off in the third act after all. Maybe it gets stashed in a drawer, forgotten till after the audience has gone home. Maybe the doctor will tell me my gun's too rusty, I've missed my shot, I've gone Winchester. Maybe I really should stop using this metaphor.
NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE: who created Jerusalem's MIFLEZET, was obsessed with shooting guns. She made performance art in which she would shoot bags of tomato and paint and shampoo at blank canvases and she invited artists to join her in shooting sessions filmed for television.
WATCH THE VIDEOS: You see the canvases exploding, dripping pseudo mucus-semen-blood. You see Niki de Saint Phalle with a cigarette, hair bobbed, saying excitedly, arms waving, It's creating something which has to do with you, which has to do with now, which has to do with BOMBS and EVERYTHING EXPLODING, and the end of the WORLD – BAAAANG! She later said she became addicted, like a drug addict, to shooting, and that's why she eventually stopped purging her rage with phallic symbols, and turned to creating female monsters/fertility goddesses like the MIFLEZET – large, containing creatures you could crawl in and out of.
HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN: Far off, in some parallel Jerusalem, underground, or underwater, in its sewers perhaps, someone else, say, a woman, or a group of women, are those who sit council, interpreting texts, making policy, creating language. There, I'm sure of it, the word MIFLEZET means today not monster but object of pleasure.
I CAN TELL YOU THIS MUCH NOW: because the shelter was shut down, only a couple of years after I stopped working there. This came as no surprise. The shelter was government funded, and though the director would gather and present, as ammunition, news stories about pregnant women who had been murdered or committed suicide or killed their babies because they had nowhere to go, there was always someone high up itching to prove that the shelter had no place in this city.
BEFORE I LEFT: I told the director of my tentative plans to go back to school and study social work. She shook her head firmly no. You need to find a job that makes you happy, she said. It took me a long time to figure out what that might be.
MY LIFE HAD STOOD – A LOADED GUN: wrote Emily Dickinson. Maybe life holds so much possibility, still. Maybe my warm gun is this pen.
START DIGGING: Artifacts will emerge. Not the kind archaeologists are usually looking for. Fragments of a dildo shattered during the Judean dynasty, camouflaged inside the fertility monster- goddess-playground that reigns over the city since 1971, reincarnated in a pregnant women's shelter in the early two thousands, morphing into the ultrasound stick that is awaiting me now, in 2017, right here in this clinic.
FOLLOW THE BODIES OF WOMEN: but beware. You will find yourself face-to-face with the ghost-monster-demons who lurk within the city's mythic infrastructure, inside the spaces. And you won't be able to look away.
Amital Stern writes theater, film and more in Jerusalem. She earned an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Hebrew University, and studied screenwriting at the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television. Her 6-month installment on Corporeal Clamor, "MIFLEZET / Notes towards a performance," is a series of "experiments from Jerusalem, searching for meeting points between body, place and language; women, monsters and demons."
Amital's plays include: In Waiting, winner of the Fred Simmons Arts Prize; Hunger Artist, performed at the Theatronetto Festival, Jerusalem Fringe Festival, Arab-Israeli Theater and other venues; Aliza, a site specific theater production now haunting abandoned buildings in Jerusalem. Her writing has appeared in Guernica. She is currently working on her first novel.