A creature, human-like but not quite human, stands before a door.
He struggles to speak but can't. Something has happened to his tongue.
His loins are all bloody.
I've been looking into female monsters recently, but this one keeps barging through instead, uninvited.
I feel this creature's presence lurking somewhere, just out of sight, while riding a bus on the highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
I've been longing to escape Jerusalem, cheaply, even just for a few hours, ever since I landed back here after two months across the ocean, two days before discussions about the status of this city- as-capital-city made international headlines again.
Now, trapped in traffic, I keep checking for new messages on my phone, waiting for people I have reached out to, friends who know people, activists, scholars, experts in Arabic or Islamic culture, to help me answer this question:
Does Jerusalem present as a woman in Islamic texts as well? Or is this gender specific personification of the city, this intertwining of body/gender/space, a Judeo-Christian kink?
I lack the tools to research this myself, so I must ask for help. But the truth is, I don't actually want to talk to anyone these days.
Since I got back, I leave my house only to run in the park each morning, and to buy vegetables at the market, where I'm jostled between human bodies, invisible, not really here. I hide behind large framed sunglasses. I play deaf if someone calls my name.
Since I got back, I communicate mostly through a screen, like right now, with you.
You know this creature.
Anyone out there tonight who knows what it's like to cross from one world to another, or to be stuck, between two worlds.
Anyone who has immigrated or lost their mother tongue or whose language has been wounded somehow through trauma.
Anyone who lives in a divided city.
You know what I'm talking about.
On the bus, I'm reading, off my phone, a book called The City & the City, by China Mieville, about two cities that exist in the same space, but go unperceived by each other. Though they occupy the exact same territory, walk the very same streets, residents of each city are trained from early childhood to unsee each other's buildings, unsee each other's bodies. Any violation of this unseeing is called breach and is severely punished.
Jerusalem is ever-present in this book, and is even named outright, when the main character, a detective investigating a murder, mentions having attended a conference about divided cities.
Certain aspects of this novel, one critic suggested, might be experienced as hallucinatory.
In Jerusalem (capital city / not-capital city) we live this hallucination every day .
Incoming messages slice into my reading. Replies to my question about Jerusalem as woman in Islamic texts are trickling in:
I've never heard of this, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Maybe in mystical texts. Try Sufism.
And then the response that seems most promising, but also, perhaps, dangerous:
Contact this woman, an activist and historian in East Jerusalem. Address her in Arabic or English.
In The City & the City, residents who breach are mysteriously whisked away, never to be seen again.
The very act of seeing makes them, literally, disappear.
I should not incriminate myself by pushing this, says the detective on the murder case, as he contemplates avoiding this fate. I should perhaps just walk away from the investigation and let her moulder.
But ultimately, he takes the risk: It was escapism for a moment to pretend I might do so.
Jerusalem is actually comprised of multiple crosshatched cities, to use Mieville's term. I've breached in various directions between the cities, mostly along religious and secular lines.
There are other, perhaps more frightening ways, of breaching too.
Hi. My name is Amital and I'm doing some research on women and Jerusalem. Can we talk?
Here is the creature who is haunting me.
You can meet him, unintelligible, bleeding, in Paul Celan's poem.
To one who stood before the door, one /evening:/ to him / I opened my word:
Don't be scared. Once you're there, actually looking at him, he might even begin to seem familiar to you. And not only because he reeks of the Golem of Prague, and echoes Kafka's Before the Law parable.
This chittering manikin, this half-baked brother, him with his god- / like loins / all bloody.
But why are his loins all bloody? This is not the same type of castration we've seen associated with MIFLEZET, our female monster. The wound on his body tells a different story.
For this one – / circumcise his word
In Hebrew, circumcision (brit milah) means, literally, a covenant of the word.
It is the ceremony where loins and language and tribalism intersect, where an incision becomes the inscription that tells you where you belong.
But for Celan - poet, Holocaust survivor - no writing on his body could solve his quandary of belonging nowhere.
Living in Paris after the war, he continued to write in German, his mother tongue, despite it being, what he famously called, a deathbringing speech.
His tormented, hybrid existence seems to manifest in the mutilated monster of this poem, whose body says one thing, but whose word remains dangling, in between, damaged.
I wrote part of my thesis on Celan, over a decade ago. As I think today about breaching, it is this creature who suddenly emerges again, his image superimposed, collage-like, stuck in between the cross-hatched alleys, bleeding all over my Jerusalem version of The City & the City.
The air is warm and sticky here in Tel Aviv, although it's already late December.
I've stopped at a café- bakery to work, but instead find myself looking up the blog of the East Jerusalem activist whom I just contacted.
This café is right outside a professional dance studio, and all the customers here, besides me, are dancers. You can tell by the graceful way they order their coffee, and their posture, their messily up-swept hair and their leggings, and the casually choreographed way they move their hands and their chins as they glide across the room with their glass mugs.
And I can't remember the last time I danced.
I'm wearing scruffy heeled second hand yellow cowboy boots that pinch my toes and my back is hunched, unsupported by the stool at the bar where I'm sitting so that I can charge my phone, waiting/not waiting for the activist to respond to my message.
And as I read the blog about her last month in East Jerusalem – the other city – a numbness hits me, to the tips of my fingers clenching the screen. My eyes blur, something in me resists, all I wanted was a tiny sliver of information about a theory, about language and personification, but now everything I've been trained to unsee floods through.
Once you've breached, you've breached. There's no going back.
What happens to creatures who are stuck on a threshold, trapped in the precarious position of straddling various spaces?
By the end of The City & the City, the detective, who has seen too much, must remain forever in Breach, a place which is neither here nor there.
In Before the Law, Kafka's hero lays dying as the Gatekeeper shouts that he is finally shutting the door.
As for Paul Celan, this is the dream I had on the night before I handed in my thesis:
I'm in a dreary Soviet auditorium sometime in the sixties. Paul Celan has just given a reading and I muster the courage to approach him.
His beautiful wife watches from a few feet away as he flirts with me.
Then I'm standing outside in the snow, and his wife is beside me, sharing my cigarette, white flakes glittering in her glossy black hair.
Don't fall for his shtick, she tells me, not without empathy. You have no idea what he's really like.
And I look at her, and don't say, because I, too, have empathy: No, it's you who has no idea. In 1970 he's going to jump into the Seine River.
The fate of Celan's mutilated monster remains less clear.
The poem ends like this:
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
And slam the evening door shut, Rabbi.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Throw the morningdoor open, Ra––
Two rows of black dots: a strange inscription that reads perhaps as a perforated corridor.
Ra: a word that is cut off (circumcised?) (castrated?)
And then an elongated dash: delineating a door that has been slammed shut, or, perhaps, thrown open –
We are left to believe (I'd like to believe) it's not impossible that this creature did actually make it through somehow, somewhere.
That his word has finally broken open.
It's dark when I start heading back to Jerusalem. I scrounge my pockets and the bottom of my bag for stray coins. The Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is an abyss of smog-semen stink. I am part of that stink.
There is only room for ten on the minivan taxi, and at least fifteen of us are waiting, so I charge towards the vehicle as it approaches, pushing and mashing against the other bodies.
Everyone is male, besides one other woman, but gender doesn't matter now. We're all mutilated monsters in this war to get on. Claws sprout from our fingernails, fangs bared. It's kill or be killed. Our Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, and maybe Tigrina disintegrate into wordless growls.
As our bodies, in the taxi's cramped seats, morph back into human shapes, I notice that the other woman has made it on too. She's about my age, and she's a mother. I hear her making noisy arrangements on her cellphone for someone to go pick up her kids.
I'm nearing the end of The City & the City (It occurred as I led Bowden shuffling with me that the breach I had been empowered to pursue, that I was still investigating and of which he was evidence, was still my own) when the woman's voice breaks down.
Something terribly tragic has happened to us, she's gasping into her phone, I can't talk now.
She hangs up and begins to howl in the middle of the taxi, shrill, raw sobs.
I stop reading. I look up. I lean over the man beside me.
Are you okay, I ask the woman stupidly, and she says, No.
I say, Can I help you with something, and she says, I could use a tissue.
I don't have one, I say automatically, turning back to my book, but then realize I should probably do more.
I start asking the men for a tissue, one by one, the same men I just clawed at to get on the taxi. They don't know what I'm saying. I try in Hebrew and I try in English. I try in English with an Israeli accent, memchata, tissue, teeshoo. I point to the woman and mime wiping my eyes and my nose, and one man, age sixty or so, finally reaches into a blue plastic bag, pulls out a worn plaid jacket, reaches into the pocket of the jacket, pulls out a crumpled bunch of beige paper towels. As I hand them to the woman, I hear my phone signaling again.
A one word message from the East Jerusalem activist:
I'm not sure what it means. Is this an invitation, or a brush-off? Should I call her? Should I write her again? Should I wait until she calls me?
I glance around. No mysterious Breach police speeding towards me, as of yet, to make me disappear.
I can feel my toes aching inside my boots. Yes, I'm still here.
For a moment I just want to sit with it, savor it, the word that has slipped through, hello, through a crack in the door, between the city and the city, past the numbness, as our monster-taxi, in a dance both blundering and somehow full of grace, staggers up the hill.
* Celan's poem "Einem, der vor der Tür stand,"quoted above, is translated from German by John Felstiner.
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.