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Notes from an author: Jemma Wayne

Israel’s capital is many things to many people, but Jemma’s first encounter with Jerusalem as a child has led to a life-long fascination with this complex city

Notes from an author: Jemma Wayne

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In 1989, my father was selected to play tennis for Great Britain at Israel’s Maccabiah Games. In size, the Maccabiah is the third largest sporting event in the world. In talent… well, it’s the Jewish Olympics. I was nine, and it was the first time my family had visited Israel. We were determined to see everything, so with a tour guide at the helm we leapt from Jaffa to Tel Aviv to Masada to Jerusalem. What I remember most about the guide is that he had a gun. I can still see him pocketing it as we leaned against the wall overlooking the vast Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, right before my grandfather quipped, “I bet they’re just dying to get in there.”

My grandfather was the American atheist grandson of an orthodox rabbi from Russia. He loved to question. So does my father. So do I. He had never been Bar Mitzvahed. Yet, that day, after taking in the rows upon rows of simple stone slabs, we made our way down to Jerusalem’s Old City and to the Western Wall. Here, we split. I went with my mother, sister and young brother to the women’s section, where my lasting sense is of encountering a great mass of energy, and of a visceral thrusting forward to the wall — an uplifting.

We spent a long time deciding what prayers to write on the scraps of paper we then folded and placed into the crevices. I don’t know what we were wearing, but I remember feeling hot while we waited afterwards for our men. It was then that our gun-wielding guide appeared and pointed out two men bedecked in prayer shawls, standing with a rabbi, heads bent before the wall. Moments later, my father and grandfather emerged. “We’ve just been Bar Mitzvahed,” they grinned. Perhaps this first encounter with the city is why Jerusalem feels complicated to me — heavy, somewhere a gun is needed, but also a place for new beginnings.

I didn’t go back until 1997. This time, I was taking part in the Maccabiah myself, in the hurdles. My father was competing again. And my brother was being Bar Mitzvahed. Unlike his predecessors, he had learnt a proper Torah portion and his ceremony was held on the roof of the Hebrew Union College. I remember spending a long time just looking. Aged 17, I was now viewing the city through different eyes — aware of some of the politics, but optimistic and romantic. (On this trip I met my future husband.) I noticed the cobbled streets, the gold of the Dome of the Rock, the ornamentation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the narrow, arched alleys of the Jewish Quarter, the ultra-modern museums and hotels, the dynamic interactions of the locals, the way that with the frenetic construction it’s often hard to tell if the city is half-built or half-crumbling, whether one is moving forward or back.

By 2005, I worried that Jerusalem was moving back. The Second Intifada had only recently come to an end, and although I had visited Israel a few times since 1997, I’d stayed on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, in areas less likely to be targeted. Returning to Jerusalem, to the place I was now acutely aware of as the heart of everlasting conflict, felt dangerous. But it was the Maccabiah again, so we went.

Escorted by police cars, our group was bussed to the entrance of the Old City. A number of the roads had been closed for us and these extra security measures felt at once reassuring and frightening. But we soon found ourselves at the Wall again — again split by gender, which this time struck me as antiquated and repressive. We were dressed modestly, weighted with long skirts and sleeved tops despite Israeli heat, but still many of us were accosted by the self-appointed modesty police — a brigade of orthodox women reprimanding anybody not conforming to their standards of dress. I felt rankled by this. Insulted and unwelcome. Suddenly I was intensely aware of the dust everywhere. Of the soldiers. Of them standing at the edge of the Muslim Quarter. Of tension.

And that tension persists: Jerusalem was the main site of this year’s spate of terrorist attacks; the staging ground even for internal Israeli discord, embodied this spring by Women of the Wall. Yet, it remains magnetic.

Breathe through the heaviness and there is culture, spirituality, and beauty. In my novel it is the location for forbidden love. For me, Jerusalem is a city imperfect. And endlessly complicated. But so irresistibly alive.

Jemma Wayne’s new book, Chains of Sand, is a novel set between Israel and London, published by Legend Press (RRP: £9.99). jemmawayne.com

Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)