Extracts from Jerusalem, the COMA Trilogy by Michael Ford
The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven.
Regard the sky above Jerusalem, reflecting the best of times and the worst of times. We live in an age of little faith ever clashing, colliding, and converging with disbelief, fluctuating between hope and despair. A blessed summer briefly illuminates heaven and earth, divulging the meaning of human existence; life itself, as we choose to live it, an odyssey not yet completed. Our journey always begins with a small step. Then a stride and yet another. We have just set out; regarding the sky above Jerusalem.
A month or so has passed since I, John Doe, was discharged from the National Hospital in Copenhagen; a short while after having emerged from yet another coma, I was present at the successful signing of the first peace treaty between Israel and Palestine at Fredensborg Castle. Now our journey once again takes us to the Middle East. Next stop Arafat. Then Jerusalem.
The sky above the city of agelong contention affords an excellent view of the world below; the people on the ground resemble small lead soldiers arranged for a game of war and peace; the holy places are teeming with Jews, Muslims and Christians, all claiming the ancient blocks of stone as their indisputable heritage.
The helicopter hovers above the Temple Mount, revealing a sense of uneasiness in the bustle of the madding crowd, mixed with a seemingly disproportionate number of heavily armed Israeli soldiers, vigilant and on guard against the slightest suggestion of unrest. The Wailing Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock appear on top of this glorious mount climbed by so many civilizations before us, and together with the Church of the Resurrection, these sacred rocks mark the holy inheritance of three monotheistic creeds.
Ours is truly a sad and ill-fated age. Nevertheless, we refuse to feel wretched. In the wake of an assumed global cataclysm, an induced coma of the collective will and mind, we live among the ruins, and we begin to imagine new dreams, to believe in small hopes again. It is an arduous task, there is no easy path into the land of our humble expectations, and when we stumble and fall, we pick ourselves up and claw our way up the next mountain of obstacles. This is essentially our position. We’ve got to keep on breathing, no matter how many angels have fallen.
But does mankind, in a cataclysmic age like ours, possess the humility and the meekness, the volition and the ardent desire necessary to end a thousand-year old holy war? Do we have the stature to take on and commit to a hard but durable peace? The sky above Jerusalem displays no answers. It just is, watching over the City of Peace, the Celestial City. And the sun shines without mercy on the ruins of times forever gone by.
I have begun recording items of interest in a little black book lest I should forget matters which must be remembered. After my latest stay at the National Hospital, I lack confidence in my memory and in my ability to distinguish dream from reality. Has the very nature of my coma urged me into a parallel existence where I wander about in a waste land of my own imagination? Has the world as I knew it already fallen from my grasp into some fatal abyss? And when will this festering universe ever awake and display accountability to someone for past sins and transgressions? I am painfully aware of the limitation of my own life and wish to leave behind a mark of my intentions and efforts made together with others in the service of peace in this troubled world.
- What are you doing, John? Karen’s voice echoes from within.
- Keeping a log, I reply.
My wife appears on the veranda; she leans against the rail and takes a casual glance out across the lake, then turns around and focuses her attention on me. Her inquisitive look tells me that she is still coddling me, forever the head nurse, even though it has been well four weeks and then some.
- Why? You have never kept a diary? And on a Sunday? she asks in an airy attempt to disguise her prying tone of voice.
I notice the nervousness in her clear blue eyes, opened wide in haste like a peacock spreading his plumage. I want to say something that will calm her down.
- The better the day the better the deed, I reply.
But as soon as the words leave my throat, I know that this response is grossly inadequate, perhaps even glib, and will only serve to underpin her anxiety; this completely intelligible fear of losing me which I shall never be able to erase from her mind. I give it another go.
- I just wish to jot down the important stuff, so I don’t forget, I say.
- You never forget anything, John. What are you afraid of? That your memory has been impaired by your latest coma? she inquires with a touch of reproach in her voice.
What have I now let myself in for? My beloved is like a Rottweiler with a fresh bone. She won’t let go. And I’m not focused enough. Karen is entitled to my full attention, my presence in her urgent now.
- Is that so strange? I reply, unable to be anything but dead honest.
She reflects on my honesty for a moment, eying me with poorly disguised suspicion, but then I realize that she has decided to grant me the benefit of the doubt, at which point her eyes brighten in a girlish smile.
- Okay, some other time, she says casually and retreats into the house on the lake in the wood from where our world begins and most likely will end.
We leave tomorrow. For Arafat in the Beqaa Valley. We went by the National Hospital yesterday and I was given a clean bill of health by the chief surgeon. Returning to the Middle East to continue my work on the peace process no longer presents any medical restrictions. I take a rapid glance across the lake to the other shore and up along the Wide Avenue. My eyes fasten on Fredensborg Castle where a little more than a month ago, standing on the stately parterre, I was struck by a fragment from a shell launched by mercenaries of the caliphate. But as luck would have it, I survived the assassination attempt and proudly returned to the royal venue for the signing of the peace treaty. I hastily withdraw my glance back across the lake and let my eyes rest on one of my security officers standing his post on the pontoon bridge, carefully surveying the lake and its immediate surroundings. That was from where evil struck, and today and for the rest of my life, he and three other security officers will be guarding my sorry old carcass, for the good of my fellow human beings I hope.
- Do you want your coffee out here?
It’s my wife’s somewhat nettled voice recalling me to the present and to reality. Thanks to my situation she is now also exposed to the grisly threats and scare tactics of terrorism and therefore likewise protected for life. Mea culpa.
- You’re too good to me, Karen, I think out aloud.
- I know, she replies and sends me a loving glance.
The helicopter is approaching the secured area of Atarot Airport. I share a smile with my two travelling companions and get ready to resume my job as peacemaker in the longstanding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Khaled makes that familiar sound with his tongue and lips which I shall always associate with my best friend. Monsignor Luccese is still dozing in one of the comfortable armchair-seats aboard the papal helicopter. Until the end of the peace process, we shall have at our disposal the Holy Father’s state of the art airborne hardware which is a blessing. Karen and I were flown from Copenhagen Airport to the small airstrip in Arafat in the luxurious Lear jet, nothing less would do. We are now about to touch down in the Holy Land. In a matter of seconds, we will be on promised territory, in the City of Peace, in Jerusalem.
I distinctly recall our memorable arrival in Arafat. We had taken off from Copenhagen Airport well on into the small hours and had witnessed a glorious summer sun rising from the sea surrounding Denmark. During the flight above a Europe fast asleep, we talked very little. Karen and I have said what needs to be said. She is understandably concerned about my role as peacemaker in a part of the world where so many wish me ill. However, she won’t stand in the way of my life and my destiny which she still wants to share and wholeheartedly supports. She is proud of me, and I am proud of her. We sat silently in the Holy Father’s jet, held hands and focused on the job ahead waiting for us in the desert sands. And at that very moment, when Il Papa’s technological wonder cleared the peaks of the mountain range Lebanon and eased down for landing in the Beqaa Valley, a hopeful smile hovered about my beloved’s lips.
When Karen and I got off the helicopter on that fine summer’s day in Arafat, we were met by Khaled and his men at the head of a crowd consisting of almost every living soul in the village. There were jubilations and shots fired up into the air, the children in their pale blue school uniforms rushed forward towards me and my wife and almost knocked us over with their enthusiasm and rejoicings. Khaled made his way through the boisterous crowd, while his men formed a protective wall around us. A smile the width of the Suez Canal spread across my old friend’s furrowed face as he embraced me and planted the traditional Middle Eastern kisses on both of my cheeks. The fervour of his greeting told me the story of a man who had very nearly lost a brother, but who was now counting his blessings over such a narrow escape.
It was the exact same feeling as when we met on the parterre in front of Fredensborg Castle for the signing of the treaty, only a short time after I had awaked from my coma. Then my old friend had tears in his eyes; now it was my turn. Khaled kept patting me on my cheeks, then paused and raised my right arm and shouted my original Arabic name to the assembled crowd. Three times the call of the 13th Warrior echoed from his mouth, and each time the people shouted my name like a sacred ritual, after which shots were fired up into the air once again; and there was fire in my old friend’s eyes.
Later that evening, he and I and Karen withdrew to the memorial grove and reminisced all the events that have taken place in our lives during the last few years. We are now part of the same story, we have life and experience in common, and in the clear light of remembrance, we shall keep on reliving our shared adventures across a humble camp fire in the foothills of the mountain range Lebanon, with the silence of cedars watching over our souls.
And then there is the future, unknown and hazardous, enticing us with its unanswered questions. Will Israel and Palestine succeed in signing the second part of the peace accord? Will we be able to persuade them to divide up the Promised Land so they may live as good neighbours in peace and tolerance and with understanding and acceptance of each other’s dissimilarities?
These were and still are the questions to which Khaled, the monsignor, and I must try to find answers, now that our helicopter has touched down on the sacred soil of Jerusalem. We step down onto black asphalt which today covers the reddish-brown earth once trodden by the man from Nazareth, at a time when he was preaching his simple message of love and charity to the hearts of men and women. The welcoming committee is led by a woman who I believe commands part of the answer to our questions. Together we shall now try to cut the Gordian knot. I interpret her smile as a good omen.
- Shalom, John, she says and embraces me like a mother whose child has returned from the kingdom of the dead.
- Shalom, Golda, I whisper in her ear and enjoy the delight of recognition at the sound of her husky voice.
- Khaled, shalom, she says and reaches out her hand to my friend.
- Salam aleikum, Khaled replies and politely shakes the hand of his arch-enemy.
The assassination attempt at Fredensborg, my coma, and the chain of events surrounding the resolution of that dramatic affair are not mentioned during our discussions which focus on a timetable for the second half of the peace process. I know that Khaled has worked in collaboration with Mossad on various clean-up operations in the region, something quite unthinkable just a few months earlier. Thanks to the peace process a whole new world of possibilities has opened-up, a world in which good forces are permitted to work with and not against each other. This does not mean that trust between the parties goes any deeper than a shallow cut; everyone is on guard and rather ill at ease in these new circumstances. Perhaps it is just a dream, but perchance a dream that must be dreamt, a daring venture demanding cautious execution. A small step has been taken, and so the journey begins.
Monsignor Luccese initiates the proceedings with a personal greeting from Pope Francis who through his emissary wishes to convey his sincere hope for unprejudiced negotiations concerning border adjustment and security agreements. The plump Jesuit monk also carries with him his employer’s advice regarding the future status of Jerusalem. The Holy Father thinks it wise to wait with the discussions on the Celestial City until there is agreement on the general terms of the final treaty. Furthermore, he wishes to take part in the deliberations on Jerusalem on equal terms with the heads of the other denominations and their various ramifications.
The little Machiavelli then leans back with a cunning smile hovering about his lips. I quickly seize upon this surprisingly concrete request from one of the currently most popular persons in the world.
- I believe we should be able to comply with such a reasonable request. It is well in line with my own thoughts on the framework of the process. How say you? I ask and look directly at Golda and Khaled.
- Will you unveil some of your plans? asks Golda with a neutral look in her eyes.
Khaled and I have not yet talked about the peace process, only about topics pertaining to our personal relations and issues concerning the situation in the Beqaa Valley. We have spoken as friends. Now we are here at the negotiating table in Jerusalem in our official capacities as peacemaker and Palestinian negotiator respectively. I avoid the veiled stare of the monsignor and look straight at the two negotiators before I reply to Golda’s diplomatic query.
- My proposal is straightforward and as follows: Meetings to be held at convenient intervals in the tent in Arafat with the participation of the working parties. In phase one we shall want to agree upon a framework for the talks, after which we can set up timelines and preliminary targets that must be met before we can embark on phase two which is Jerusalem. Phase three consists of border adjustment, security agreements, and referendums in respective countries. Phase four is the formal inauguration of the new two-state territories, combined with the signing of a final peace treaty. The fifth and ultimate phase is the implementation of the agreement, no doubt a logistical nightmare, which will probably last a couple of years, I suggest in a low voice.
Both Golda and Khaled look carefully pensive. It is Khaled who speaks first.
- Sounds okay. What do you mean by referendums? he asks.
- The two populations must be allowed to approve or reject the final draft of the two-state solution, I reply.
- And what if they say no? Golda asks with a hint of scepticism in her voice.
- It will be up to the two of you to convince your respective people. If I were you, I would keep it simple by continually stressing the advantages of a yes-vote; they are overwhelming, in comparison with the untenable disadvantages of a no-vote. I would also recommend a coordination of elections and referendums in Israel and Palestine and run both campaigns on the peace treaty and on your personal commitment and integrity. Believe me, people are fed up with two-faced politicians, and they want an honest and transparent peace now, I reply in my most persuasive tone of voice.
They both seem to be turning my advice over in their minds when the monsignor speaks.
- I couldn’t have said it better myself, he says and sends me a paternal smile.
A brief pause ensues, while we tear ourselves away from our own inmost reflections and react to the words of the little monk. We look at each other and then at the monsignor, and suddenly the three of us burst out in a laugh that breaks the tension. I’m not quite sure why we are laughing, perhaps it is due to the monsignor’s unintentionally astonished facial expression, perhaps it is simply our simultaneous realization that the Pope’s chief apostle has discharged his primary function as midwife in the birth of these negotiations.
From the skyabove Jerusalem, the rays of a scorching midday sun shines upon the Temple Mount like a divine neon light; people hurrying along down there, harassed lives on an age-old plot of land, still the apple of discord after thousands of years. And now it becomes our task, Golda’s, Khaled’s and mine, to conjure up a magical solution to end this strife once and for all. I had better write down the things I must remember, in order not to forget. In short: My plan has been adopted. I have given them food for thought. Next weekend, we meet in Arafat. The monsignor has accomplished his purpose for the time being.
He looks relaxed nodding off in his comfortable armchair-seat. His work is done for now; mine has only just begun. Nevertheless, the first tiny steps of this exceptional journey have been taken. So far so good; marching to the beat of the same drummer.
The last rays of a setting sun are reflected in the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock; they send us northward up across the West Bank towards the Beqaa Valley which we reach in the encroaching evening dusk. Descending in between twin mountain ranges, I peer out the side window of the helicopter and recognize the evergreen contours of magnificent cedars of Lebanon, standing as sentinels in a few scattered clusters on the mountain slope leading down towards a village shrouded in the glittering twilight.
In the village of Arafat, in both calm and stormy weather, we quietly let things take their course. Camp Beqaa Valley has been a valid response to our hopes and ambitions, and now in other spots on a planet torn by strife and war, attempts are made to learn from our effort; in places where an unfortunate and lamentable multitude of souls for some reason or another have been forced to leave their homes and flee into the reservations of despair.
We must realize that they seldom or never, owing to the calamity of war or global warming, will be able to return, which creates an acute need for relocation. They will require solid and trustworthy accommodation, dignified living conditions not far from reasonable places of work, gainful employment, and good schools for the children. These outcasts from earth’s crumbling and failing societies cannot just be fobbed off with being stored in tents at a mere subsistence level, they must be offered the opportunity to create for themselves new lives full of substance and significance in the place their flight has taken them. We must implore the most fortunate of countries in the world to outsource production capacity to those areas where the wretched and the miserable are left stranded, but, nevertheless, constitute a willing and apt workforce. It is quid pro quo, give and take; it is common sense.
On my first tour of inspection in a long while, I witness the fruits of our intentions and the arduous labour of many hands in the Beqaa Valley; despite an unprecedented heatwave, people in the many settlements toil on under a blazing sun, and everywhere I come, I am cheerfully greeted by thankful refugees in the fields, in the small enterprises, in the schools, and in the infirmaries. The fields are divided up into patches which are irrigated and tended to; the small businesses, which did not exist last year, are up and running, producing and making a profit on goods and services, which in time will create a healthy self-sufficiency in the valley as well as lucrative exports intended for nearby markets.
And from the schools, enthusiastic voices ring out, stimulating the pursuit of knowledge and learning, which will lay the foundations of the students’ own lives in a future they now dare to visualize on a brighter horizon. It is a vision based on hope and faith in man’s unique capacity for never giving up, along with his persistent urge to see the possibilities in all things. It is this vision and this approach which I shall carry with me to the negotiating table inside the large Bedouin tent in Arafat.
And there it will manifest itself to what extent Golda and Khaled also possess this decisive ability to recognize inherent opportunities and not just back down when confronted with conspicuous obstacles. I perceive it as my most essential duty to get both parties to view the future through my kaleidoscope. And among those images they will see a universe of possibilities, not a world of restrictions – a pristine order where the glass is always half full and never half empty.
I am interrupted in my thoughts by Khaled who is pointing to a small boy half-way up the hill adjacent to the dusty road. We get out of our bulletproof vehicle and make our way up the ragged slope surrounded by heavily armed security guards. We are merely a stone’s throw from the nearest village and its refugee facilities, and it is obvious that the little shepherd ought to be in school, not out here playing truant with a flock of sheep. Khaled greets the little mite with a smile and asks him if he knows who we are. The boy sticks a dirty finger in one ear and digs around for a moment, obviously playing for time, while his eyes take in our guard detail of fierce-looking warriors. Then, like a rifle-shot, the crafty little beggar’s reply rings out in a rather cocksure tone of voice.
- That one is the 13th Warrior, and you are the boss of all us Palestinians.
Khaled smiles, I smile, the soldiers smile, soon we are all roaring with laughter. All except the wee shepherd who does not seem to appreciate the humour.
- And why are you not in school, young man? Khaled asks when the laughter subsides.
- It’s boring, is the boy’s prompt reply.
- What’s boring? I ask.
- History. We Palestinians always loose. Big surprise. I’d rather tend the sheep. Someone’s got to, replies the dirty little boy in a laconic tone of voice and lands a well-placed clot of spittle between two circular rocks further up the slope.
Khaled raises his eyebrows and sends me a languishing look signifying all and nothing but the plight of generations of Palestinians. The little boy can’t be more than ten years old, and already he has the perspicacity of an old man.
- Then we had better write some new history and make the Palestinians the winners, Khaled replies.
- Can you do that?
- Yes, we can! we both reply, emphatically and with one voice.
We give him a lift into the village school where we are met by teachers and students elated by this unexpected visit. The rumour of our presence spreads like a wildfire in the small community, and soon the schoolyard is filled with excited people eager to hear news which might affect their lives.
Khaled climbs up onto one of the lunch tables while our detail quiets people down. My old friend with the weather-beaten face begins talking to the crowd, and even if I do not understand his words in Arabic, I can see that they fall on fertile ground. Now he mentions my Arabic name, grabs my arm, and pulls me up onto the table, after which people go crazy and shout my name again and again like an incantation. I embrace my old friend there in the middle of a small schoolyard in the Beqaa Valley, and at that very moment we both realize the soaring expectations resting on the shoulders of two old men and their female counterpart in the upcoming peace negotiations. In dry times, men have tasted the sparse droplets from a trickling fountain of hope; they now wait with bated breath for the age of miracles, when the waters of redemption will gush out from a multitude of fountainheads in their Promised Land.
Two mornings later we are abruptly wrenched from our sleep by a deafening explosion emanating from outside our tent. I can feel the blast wave and open my eyes to a dense cloud of smoke permeating our sleeping quarters. A second later my four security guards burst in with weapons drawn and surround me and Karen covering us with their bodies. The next person I see is Younes, Khaled’s heavily armed lieutenant, towering in the doorway with an intense look in his eyes. He rapidly surveys the premises and lets my security detail know that all is clear. The smoke is settling as a sticky membrane everywhere in the room as I feel Karen desperately gripping my arm and notice our guards relaxing and applying the safety to their weapons.
It is early morning, and in just two days the first meeting of the peace talks between Israel and Palestine is set to take place right here in our large Bedouin tent in the small village of Arafat in the Beqaa Valley.
We step outside to inspect the damage caused by the impact of the bombshell. In the fragile light of daybreak, the coolness of the air is still pervaded by a thick and evil-smelling blanket of gunpowder smoke. The shell has hit the large open space next to the school where we usually celebrate festivities. A crater the size of an unearthed mass grave is staring me in the face. Khaled comes running towards us together with his detail of warriors and I can see the look of pain in his eyes. I am standing in a stony trance on a suddenly erupted battlefield next to an ominous crater halfway between the tent and the school. Everything is chaos, people are running back and forth like headless poultry; no one knows whether the bombardment is over, or if this is just the beginning.
- Are you okay? he whispers in my ear.
- Not really, I reply in a daze.
None of us thought that peace would be easy. But this is too close for comfort. Even for my friend the old warrior. I can see it in his angry eyes. Luckily, no one seems to be hurt. Thank God. So, this is naked fear. This is what god-awful dread of death from above feels like. We are all citizens of Guernica, Srebrenica, and Aleppo. We stake our lives for a cause, a worth-while and honourable cause; the quest for peace in the Promised Land between two nations under God…
Michael Ford | Lergraven 5, DK-3140 Ålsgårde | Tlf.: +45 48717071