How Not to Write a City That is a Myth
MIFLEZET is a product of shame.
The shame is inside you.
MIFLEZET is standing on the corner, beside a stone arch that leads from the marketplace to the narrow alleyways of the neighborhood in which she lives.
We zoom in on the long raggedy red sweater she's wearing, thrown on top of ammonia stained sweats, basically (admit it) her pajamas.
She has just bumped into an old friend.
In the background, as they catch up, loudspeakers blast words of mourning, perhaps for the illustrious rabbi who died yesterday, and whose funeral procession will depart from just down the road.
Tens, no, hundreds, of ultra-Orthodox men and boys, are - she wants to think of a more neutral word, but this is the one that emerges: swarming- through the arch, towards the procession.
As they pass by MIFLEZET and her old friend, the men and boys remove their black hats and cover their faces.
Let's watch them for a moment.
They might as well wear blinders, MIFLEZET says.
The old friend tells her that's not a nice thing to say.
We must look for the humanity in everyone, the old friend says.
MIFLEZET says that when they turn away from her like that, she feels ashamed.
Like a monster.
Then the shame is your problem, the old friend says. It's inside you.
The shame is inside you.
MIFLEZET will look, staring very hard at the black felt of the hats as they flit past her, until she can see, through the threads, fragments of face or skin or humanity, until the blackness pixelates, disintegrates, filling the screen.
It turns out you can live in Jerusalem for one year or even one month, or even just visit once or twice, long enough to get your laundry cleaned and delivered to your room by the hotel butler, or even never visit at all, you can just read about Jerusalem in holy books, or on the internet, from your armchair across the world, and have enough material to write about the city for a lifetime.
Too bad we never knew that, says J., a writer who lived in Jerusalem for thirty years.
MIFLEZET and her friend Y., who was born and raised here, joke about how easy it is, actually, to write this city.
You don't really have to make an effort to create something new at all.
Just stick in some rabbis or maybe only the hats. Just steal words from ancient texts and call them your own, or mash up some poems by Yehuda Amichai, like this:
the child yelling
ascend ‘You step off where
Or better yet, just string together the names of some Jerusalem streets:
The 29th of November /Rachel our Mother/ Jonah the Prophet / distributors of water/ cliffs of salvation / return / return/ return to Zion
What not to do: Do not write a female character who trudges around the city in pajamas and in existential crisis.
Nobody wants to see a woman like that.
I repeat, do NOT do this.
Not unless you want to be told by advisors, mentors, committees, and executives things like:
Can't you at least sex her up?
Sex her up:
Wear a synthetic dress from the 1970s that you bought for forty shekels from a woman selling clothes on the street. The dress is unflattering and kind of dowdy but it will suit you in some odd way and it will cover your collarbone and your arms and your legs, which is exactly what you need, because when you stand in front of strangers in an art gallery in Jerusalem and read the scene you wrote in which you inhabit the body of the prostitute who was used as a political tool in this very city, you are going to want to look the least slutty possible, when you say the word cunt on stage you will want everything, fur and tail, all covered up, maybe even erased or neutralized, yes, you might not even take off your coat, and none of your friends will show up, and that's okay, really, it's okay, but you will feel very lonely and wonder who you're writing for, and you'll ask members of the audience to pull up their chairs and read with you, so that you won't feel so alone, and at first your voice will tremble and crack (you didn't rehearse at all because you didn't really believe you would go through with this) and you will sweat through your synthetic dress from the 1970s and through your coat, and you will swallow the last lines, because you won't be able to gauge where the audience stands (to your surprise the word viagra is the one that will get a laugh) and you will not be splattered with tomatoes or curses, but you will be faced with a tense silence and then some scattered applause, and your words will remain hanging, heavy, in the air for a moment before they evaporate, or blend in, spinning around one sunset, one mosque, stepping off where past generations arch you down into prayer.
The laundromat is full.
MIFLEZET crouches, loading her dirty sheets, towels, pajamas, panties, socks into the machine.
She feels strangers' eyes on her, she wishes she could hide the signs of her monstrosity, but there they are, all on display.
Beside her, on the wooden bench, sits an old man. He begins to speak, telling her that he used to sew pants like the ones she is wearing, when he was a teenager in Morocco.
Those are pants for men, he informs MIFLEZET.
His voice is weak, like its batteries are running out, and between the droning of the washing machines and the traffic outside, MIFLEZET can barely hear what he is saying.
He keeps going, telling her the whole history of his immigration to Israel, how he was forced into the army though he barely knew Hebrew, how though he has diabetes he's allowed to eat dates, how he doesn't trust the laundry service in his old age home.
It is painful, the scratchiness of his voice, like listening to a coyote slowly dying.
MIFLEZET nods, pretending, counting down the minutes, red numbers on a screen, until her laundry will be done.
On the other side of her on the wooden bench sits another man, lanky, thin as a string bean, white hairs like wires woven into his black beard.
He is a man MIFLEZET has seen around the neighborhood for years.
They acknowledge each other, but do not speak.
The old man has taken a thermos out of a plastic bag, and is pouring oily broth into a cup.
But this doesn't stop him, he is actually singing now, a song they used to sing at the pants factory in Morocco.
And as he sings his voice gets louder and louder until all of them sitting in the laundromat realize together that the washing machines have stopped working.
A call to the manager informs them that the water has been turned off for the next two hours, and MIFLEZET is trapped there, along with her soggy clothes in the machine, along with the singing old man and lanky bearded guy beside her, who now turns to her and says:
I know you, he says.
He asks her where he knows her from.
Should she tell him?
You go to such and such kabbalist yeshiva on such and such street, MIFLEZET says to him.
He nods, surprised.
And so and so, who died ten years ago, was your rabbi, she says.
How do you know my rabbi, he asks, emphasis on the you.
How much, MIFLEZET wonders, should she tell him, of the story that for fifteen years she's been trying to find a form and a language and a space to convey.
Which she writes, but then stops halfway, erases, puts aside, starts over, fails.
The story, which didn't plant the seed, but made it grow, sprout fangs and fur and horns and tails out of various orifices in her body, the shame is inside you.
There was a story, she says, and doesn't say anymore.
He looks at her, as if perhaps he might already know her story, or other stories like it about immodest women.
We're not all bad, he says, with a shrug.
She shrugs too, or something approximating a shrug, as if she cares but doesn't care, as if this little exchange with him both matters deeply, and doesn't matter at all.
They turn away from each other, stare ahead at the paralyzed machines, both silent.
And the traffic roars outside, and the old man, who has, meanwhile, dozed off, now jolts awake and goes back to humming his song, and they sit there on the wooden bench, she and these two men with whom she is imprisoned, as they wait, clothes in limbo, neither dirty nor clean, for some movement, underground, in the sewers, where the city's demons plot and scheme, to kick in.
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.