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This is Marc Porter Zasada with The Urban Man for KCRW.
This month the Urban Man is taking a summer sabbatical from cheerful L.A. to occupy an apartment just a few blocks from the latest bulldozer attack in Jerusalem. Like every visitor to this Holy City, I try to pretend such stories have nothing to do with me. By day, I mingle with the international crowds; come sunset, I sit safe on a high balcony and listen to competing stories bump against each other down in the city below.
In Jerusalem, everyone wants to tell his tale. At sunny archeological sites, serious Israeli guides explain Jewish history. In dark Old City streets, Greek priests walk gaudy in black robes and silver crosses. Muslims sing from their neon-crested minaret. And each afternoon a wind rises to howl among the bright new buildings of the Western city.
Anyone can tell you that the moral teachings of the major religions don't vary much, one to the next. No, the difference is the back-story: the who, what, when, and especially how each narrative gets told.
Every now and then, a terrorist tries to make his story the uber-story, the overriding high concept of the day. These are crimes beyond reckoning, but surely, the pornography of violence has a narrative power any Angeleno can comprehend—I mean, back in L.A. both street gangs and movie directors plumb increasingly brutal depths to make their point.
Billboards for Hollywood releases can be found here too: Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
But in this context, they seem the work of children, slight distractions from the enormous narratives running on the streets below. And even the Urban Man thinks, "What a modest thing is a Hollywood movie. In Hollywood, the tale is molded to please the audience. Here in Jerusalem, the audience is molded to please the tale."
I visited the Western Wall the day after Barack Obama, a man whose canvas is just now being painted by everyone but himself. I too pushed my way past fervent tourists and urgent black-hatted men. I too pressed my hand against the story-smoothed stone and tried to tell my private tale to G-d. I tell you, it's not easy for anyone to pull that off, not where everyone wants to speak for you, to make you part of their tale.
Yesterday, I drove around the West Bank, where I saw uncountable histories painted and repainted on the desert: ruins of terraced fields one atop the other, shabby Arab villages of boxy gray cement, bright Israeli settlements of red tile roofs. Come night, I couldn't help imagining everyone huddled in their brief strongholds, passing indisputable narratives to their kids.
I figure folks in the Middle East expect America to bring them peace not because we're a global power, but because we are the global masters of "starting anew" and "getting over things," the experts in putting indisputable narratives into the past tense. Surely, over the years, we have shown an uncanny ability to turn anyone's back-story into a safe PBS documentary or Disney classic. Maybe, I think, we still have that power: maybe even now, we could pull that off...even here.
But it's nearing sunset and the Urban Man is back out on his balcony listening for that howling breeze. Out between some new apartments, I see the dusky outline of Biblical hills, and I keep my eye on the golden stones and dusty olive trees lining the street below. At any moment they may speak, and of course, like everyone in Jerusalem, like every resident, pilgrim or tourist—the Urban Man is 100% certain he knows what story they will tell.
For KCRW, I'm Marc Porter Zasada.
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