Before we go any further; a disclaimer. This is a repeat. From another frowsty journal of yesteryear – Homily – which has lain untouched for almost two years and is now the stamping ground of spiders and hunched women in black shawls with trembling, claw-like fingers. So gradually, step-by-step, we will surgically remove the better organs from a dead body and transplant them into a diseased, but nonetheless living one. If only for archival purposes. If you’ve tried reading this previously and dozed off or wandered away for a wank, you might want to resist the urge to try again, unless you’re sleepy and need of the Sandman’s touch. The piece is perhaps slightly relevant, because Selwyn is currently on sabbatical in North Africa, which looks a little bit like the Middle East and also has souks and Muslims, although significantly less Jews and Christians, and almost no tajine.
November 13th – shuffled sheepishly through Israeli immigration, enduring a 30-second staring down by an Aryan young lady in army fatigues. Last time an attractive girl looked at me like that I was wrapped in duct-tape and breathing through a piece of conduit. Why do I already feel like an imposter on this journey, that at any moment somebody will point and bellow ‘What’s HE doing here?’ and the grim crowd will turn …? Last night’s El Al adventure was disconcerting, as if I had boarded the wrong plane; that the one on which people watched movies, slept and read books had departed from a different gate and I had stumbled onto the one where everybody got tarted up in Nativity Play costumes, strapped boxes to the tops of their heads and disappeared under sheets to nod and mumble like residents of Bedlam. No sign of my special-order bacon-wrapped-scallops and only a sad shake of the stewardess’s head when I bemoaned the absence of Lexi Luvavich’s She Fiddled Me On The Roof on the in-flight entertainment menu. What has First Class come to? Grey beef like a poached hand, spheroid potatoes scalded into floury eyeballs, ashen green beans that dissolve on the tongue. Syrupy wine redolent of prunes. Almost made me feel guilty for having coerced 200,000 frequent flyer miles out of Micheal McLaughlin, spinning a fable of mercy-missions to cleft-palate godchildren in Tegucigalpa orphanages with unholy hybrids of pig, bird and ass flu. He would be disappointed with these beanstalk-seeds, bartered for his hard-won mileage, accustomed as he is to the pan-seared Bengal Tiger steaks and complimentary analingus of China Air’s Tycoon Class. Minibus to Jerusalem was scant improvement, squeezed into the wheel-well by a gentleman whose panoply of loin-fat threatened to overwhelm the entire van, passengers and all: had the journey had been longer I would surely have been absorbed into its slavering food vacuole. Staggered free a half mile short of the Old City, wandered timidly around what revealed itself to be Palestinian East Jerusalem, grimacing, frantically waving off assistance lest my sparrowy chassis be blown to smithereens before I’d even squeezed my buttocks through The Damascus Gate. Eventually found rest at the Austrian Hospice; funereal guesthouse-come-convent with Berchtesgaden undertones, scampering nuns and a drizzle of pallid Christian pilgrims in teal fleece. Appealing floppy-haired boy at the desk – clearly straight off the cable-car from Innsbruck – with missionary zeal in his eyes; might have tried to unholster the old 5D but I suspect the Lord would have come between me and his coveted weisswürst, staying my trigger finger in accordance with the Abraham myth. And anyway, wasn’t that ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me!’ I heard him humming as he photocopied my passport? Second floor chamber looking out onto a wall. Bed, upright chair, 60-watt bulb. Larkin would grin; though not at the bible, squatting there like a toad. Succumbed to godless and lamentably sober exhaustion.
5.30 am – What in the Aching Arse of Allah is that!?! Black as pitch outside and in. The crepuscular silence is shattered by a sudden but sustained metallic wail, not unlike John Lydon in his Flowers of Romance phase. But very much louder. And more enduring. Did I change my iPhone alarm to Muezzin Cry last night and accidentally stuff it in my ear? Listening more carefully I begin to discern the presence of a second, similar wail, more distant, then another … and another. I lie on my twin bed in the dark, picking out each wail as it undulates in-and-out of the whole; breaking, recovering in a kind of soaring, plaintive harmony. It is part lament, part din, part incantation. I’m getting a dose of Paul Bowles Arabian Magic here, I want to hubble and I want to bubble, to ride camels over dunes with Debra Winger in nothing but a winding-sheet of diaphanous muslin. This is Jerusalem. Alone in a Christian Sanctuary built on Jewish bedrock listening to the Muslim call to prayer. Then just as the voices had staggered one-by-one into being, so they cease; the song quieting by degrees to silence. The first blush of dawn rinses the walls of my cell, and I ooze backwards into the ragged embrace of jet-lag.
Late Morning – Totter shabbily down the steps of the Hospice and almost derail a caravan of pilgrims advancing in an imperious pavane down the Via Dolorosa. These are resolutely not the pilgrims of yore – clad in plain religious attire or sackcloth-and-ashes – but Americans and Russians in cargo shorts and XXL Sweatshirts that proclaim ‘Jesus Died for MySpace in Heaven’ and ‘iGod – Who Are You Listening To?’. Their taxonomy divides neatly between the pink/porcine and the sallow/bespectacled/studded-with-acne. They are united by fanny-pack and that shade of raised-nosed sanctimoniousness culled from The Evangelist Handbook on How to Look Pious. At the head of the group is a buttery fatso wielding a mighty, modern cross, doubtless a talisman for warding off unclean Arab traders who line the route trying to flog pairs of plastic praying hands to the suety flock. If there was an inter-faith stylathon played out on the streets of Jerusalem the Christian Evangelists wouldn’t make it over the first hurdle. Those willowy, fast-moving Hasidic boys in their sharp frockcoats and fedoras leave these asthmatic manatees jiggling in their wake.
The Fourth Station of the Cross, where Jesus purportedly bumped into his Mum (an encounter sadly absent from the Bible) is conveniently situated opposite the front door of my hostel allowing me to watch the burlesque whilst munching on the arse end of a croissant. A puddingy hermaphrodite with a ginger comb-over edges to the front of the flock and falls to his/her knees, blubbering “We adore you O Christ and we praise you!” over-and-over, whilst attendant freaks nod in agreement and massage his shoulders as if commiserating with him over a lost pencil. This behaviour is neither alarming nor distressing, merely morbidly embarrassing. Regathering his sullen composure, he is assisted to his feet with grimaces of sympathy and treacly mutterings of “bless you, bless you”. It is the kind of infantile exhibitionism that causes one’s innards to spontaneously jellify. I find myself trying to make eye-contact with nearby Arabs to apologise with my eyebrows for Christianity; but they seem unperturbed. They have seen such idiocy before and are impervious to it. I fall into line as the lardy procession trundles along the cobbles to Station Five (the otherwise-unheard-of Simon of Cyrene asks Jesus “Can I give you a hand with that ?”), Station Six (Jesus asks Veronica for a turkey sandwich) and Seven (Simon the Lisper reveals the sandwich-maker hath no turkey, will corned beef do?). The whole thing is, naturally, an utter fiasco. There’s as much chance that Jesus plodded down this mediæval alleyway with or without half a tree on his back as there is of Golda Meir being retroactively elected Pope. But the theatre is delightful and the trinkets are going like hot cakes! I disembark the Ship of Fools and head straight to Station Ten which naturally – it’s where Jesus had his underpants pulled down – turns out to be in a Catholic Chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. To get to this point one is forced to dodge gaggles of peroxided Ukranian women hurling themselves on all fours and snogging the Stone of Unction, an unctuous slab of hanky-panky set in place a full 1800 years after the Good Shepherd was purportedly oiled-up for posterity.
If the fictional melodramas of the Via Dolorosa seem a bit bananas, the constellation of fairytales that litter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre render them bastions of Kantian Reason. It’s a complete, wonderful fucking madhouse, my dears. Cave upon cave of sanctified fabulism and goggle-eyed voodoo. We have yer actual Rock of Golgotha, fingerable through a greasy hole in the glass: we have a hunk of yer authentic True Cross, now under lock-and-key since the ever-kissing pilgrims starting nibbling off pieces to take home under their tongues. For those leery of ecclesiastical herpes we have yer verifiable Adam’s Tomb, yes madam that Adam, handily situated directly beneath the spot where Our Lord was crucified; and if you look carefully through that little window there you’ll see the crack made by the earthquake that spontaneously erupted at the moment of his passing. There’s even a spooky Treasure Room, not in this instance filled with gold doubloons and a parrot squawking “Pieces of Eight”, but sweetmeats as rich as St Agatha’s toenails, the tongue of the infant St Barnabus, John the Baptist’s loincloth and the elephantine scrotum of St Thomas the Doubter. It is nothing less than a phantasmagorical Mediæval Christian theme park, complete with creaking sound-effects, annual pyrotechnics and splendidly costumed and bearded attendants. One almost expects to ride the water-flume into an underground depiction of the Immaculate Uterus. Furthermore, it suppurates and crumbles under the weight of centuries of neglect and internecine rancour. Each pocket of this rotten old Christmas cake is under the rabid protectorate of a different orthodoxy and is jealously coveted by all the others. The Greeks loathe the Armenians who scowl at the Franciscans who kick the Coptics who piss in the chalices of the Syrians. The poor fucking Ethiopians have been exiled to the roof, where they subsist in a couple of lean-to’s. I swear as I passed through their diminutive chapel I heard a monk whisper “you wan’ buy ganja, man?”. The Copts have set up what appears to be a fleamarket booth, glued to the rump of the Holy Edicule, seemingly fashioned from wrought-iron gates, brocade curtains and plastic sheeting. It groans with liturgical tchotchke, manual typewriter bodies, Pong consoles and those rubber shower attachments that fit onto hot-and-cold faucets. Inside sits an ornery old witch, hacking and passing gas. One false move by any of the bewildering array of combatants and all hell breaks loose. As recently as 2008 the Greeks and Armenians went at it in full vestments over the issue of a monk standing in a funny way. In 2004 the Greeks and Russians tag-teamed the Franciscans because somebody left a door open. Both cases involved the exchange of ecclesiastical kicks and punches, throwing of artifacts, blood-letting and police intervention. Most wonderfully, in a 2002 reinterpretation of the Christian precept Do As Thou Wouldst Be Done By, the Ethiopians opened a can of whoop-ass with the Egyptian Coptics on the church’s roof after a monk moved his chair into the shade on a sunny day. Iron bars and paving stones were put to good canonical use, resulting in several hospitalizations. In the run up to the 1989 Feast of the Holy Cross it was rumoured the Armenians had engaged the services of the WWE’s Jim (The Anvil) Neidhart in false beard and cassock to man the dodgy corner by the stairs to Calvary.
All the competing attractions within the Church, however, pale into insignificance in the face of the eponymous Holy Sepulchre itself. TripAdvisor gives it four-and-a-half thumbs. At the core of a peculiar, dusky, public lavatory-sized crypt, not unlike a rococo rendering of Doctor Who’s Tardis, held together by metal girders stamped Bombay Metal Company and isolated at the centre of a chasmal rotunda, lurks Jesus of Nazareth’s one-and-only, honest-to-God tomb (not to be confused with his other one-and-only, honest-to-God tomb, half a mile away, imagined into being by General Gordon of Khartoum whilst sipping Singapore Slings at the American Colony in 1883). Within its marble confines, Gentle Pilgrim, beyond its Hobbity doorway, lies the final resting place of the Lamb of God. Well, that’s not strictly true, what with him hopping the moonbeam to Heaven and all … but still … the ultimate, sacred repository of his corporeal bits and bobs. Christianity’s innermost sanctum. Having diddled the Rock, licked the walls, made out with the floor and sniffed St Sebastian’s leathery foreskin I’ll be damned if I’m leaving without a trip inside Christ’s Big Kahuna.
And so I fall in line behind a beautiful girl and await my turn for rapture. As the queue shuffles forward I cannot help but cast repeated sidelong glances at her. She really is beautiful: clear, unpretentiously elegant, radiating calm and poise, her hair pulled back from her face and tucked sweetly into a headscarf. Albanian? Azerbaijani? I’m already envisioning under-the-table no panty shots when I am struck by a dreadful realisation: that isn’t a headscarf. It’s a wimple. She’s a nun. I’m about to duck into Christianity’s Holiest of Holies and all I can think about is a nun’s vagina? As I crouch to pass through the doorway, she turns, smiles and places her palm on my head, shielding it from glancing contact with the stone lintel. And I want to weep. I’m inside the Holy Edicule with an actual Saint and my mind is just one, vast stinking reservoir of turd. I’m sure they can smell it in Tel Aviv. I want to beg her forgiveness and retreat from the crypt, but the space is miniscule, she’s facing away from me now and there’s a leopard-printed Ukranian woman pressed against my buttocks trying to get her iPhone to work in the funereal gloom. A couple of seconds and we are propelled forward through the low gap in the antechamber wall … and we’re in the tiny, candlelit Sepulchre itself, three of us squeezed together like pilchards. My heart is pounding: this is all wrong. And she’s down. Down at my shins. Crumpled, on her knees, her cheek on the small, smooth slab, her hand tenderly stroking the stone, eyes closed, lips mouthing little supplications; pure, transparent, radiant ecstasy. A hundred-thousand secular, snorting mockeries evaporate in an instant. And I am an enormous, hapless Stinkosaurus, annihilated in the presence of such Love.