The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

Today FO° Books features an excerpt from The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer, a personal account of a very special travel writer’s quest to discover the secret of peace in the places different societies have associated with paradise. Pico Iyer has been called “a secular writer with an eye for the spiritual.” In this excerpt he shares his first impressions of a not very peaceful land deemed holy by the three great monotheistic religions.
The panoramic view of the ancient citadel "Tower of David" in Jerusalem, Israel. Ancient city walls

The panoramic view of the ancient citadel “Tower of David” in Jerusalem, Israel. Ancient city walls © Nina Zorina /

April 09, 2023 22:25 EDT

I was born in a city partly founded by monks. But Oxford, by the time I entered the world, was a gray and ghostly place, its fires long extinguished. Yes, my little friends and I played “I Spy” games using Christian picture books and sang of “a green hill far away”— Calvary— on damp winter mornings at school. All of us knew that it was just up the street, on the thoroughfare named St. Giles’, that the believer from Belfast had dreamed up parables of a talking lion who spoke for Jesus, not many feet from the central Martyrs’ Memorial, recalling the three sixteenth- century bishops who had been burned there for their refusal to renounce their Protestant faith.

Yet even as we sang our hymns of affirmation, Empire was coming apart and the country was losing its faith in more or less everything, starting with itself. The philosophers who were my parents’ colleagues devoted their energies to “denoting phrases” and niceties of logic; the prayers we recited every morning were turned into singsong incantations as rote as nursery rhymes. We inched through the Gospel of Matthew in the Greek, but only with a view to learning about aorist tenses and irregular verbs; the verses about praying in private, “in the secret place,” the reminder that “if your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light” were all obscured by grammar.

So how could I not catch fire in Jerusalem? Everything was at stake here. And the lines were so clearly drawn that almost everything constituted a trespass. My first morning in the city, I was told I could not take notes on the Sabbath at the Western Wall. A Greek woman upbraided me in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for standing with my hands joined behind my back. When I’d tried to walk up to the mosque on Temple Mount, the “Noble Sanctuary,” I’d been stopped by guards and told that visitors could no longer enter. Even Muslims, I was reminded, had to answer detailed questions on the Koran before being granted admission.

Nothing was taken for granted here, and everything had significance. This was so unlike what I knew that I quit my comfortable hotel, a safe fifteen- minute walk from Damascus Gate, and walked through that crowded entrance again to post myself in the midst of the conflagration. Around me, as I settled into a room on the Way of Suffering, bells seemed to be tolling through the day; every time I stepped out of the hospice, the smell of sweetmeats made me feel I was inside a ceremonial feast. On all sides, the ageless cries of Jerusalem encircled me, celebrating the mingling of sacred and profane. “Hey, Russka! Buona sera! I sell you this for three euros. Three dollars. Hey! This is the six-and-a-half station of the cross!”

The Old City seemed a riot of merchants and pilgrims, each one advancing his own vision of salvation. But even when I went out into modern West Jerusalem, whose shopping malls brought me back into a New World suburb, I had only to turn off a main street, and I was again in a holy turbulence.

One bright afternoon, I found myself, by mistake, in Me’a She’arim, the ultra- Orthodox quarter, where men in the black and white clothes of eighteenth- century Europe were pushing along babies in supermarket carts. Above us, in the displacing streets, signs announced, JEWS ARE NOT ZIONISTS — ZIONISTS ARE NOT JEWS, ONLY RACISTS. WE PRAY TO G- D FOR AN IMMEDIATE END OF ZIONISM AND THEIR OCCUPATION. I was all set to draw conclusions from this when I learned that there were nineteen factions within the ultra- Orthodox community alone, so anything I could say about one person was probably disproved by his neighbor.

I headed back to the Old City and found myself in front of a “Map of the Armenian Genocide”; the museum nearby gave me the decapitated heads and slaughtered children of the savageries of 1915. Minutes later, I was inside the “Chamber of the Holocaust,” looking at sacred scrolls that had been defaced and Torahs drenched in blood. A pilgrim, very often, is traveling in search of the past; but Jerusalem was the center of a thousand clashing pasts, and all of them made up the nightmare from which it was longing to awaken. When I traced my way back to the Austrian Hospice that evening, I couldn’t rest for all the voices crowding in on me.

Jerusalem, I was coming to think, was the place where everyday morality and religion part ways, on grounds of irreconcilable differences. The scriptures that had come to light here were essentially a training in how inadequate all human logic remains. A prodigal son is feted while his loyal brother is ignored. A lost sheep is worth ninety- nine others who remain safely in the fold. Poor Job proves his devotion to the Lord again and again and is rewarded with ever more baroque punishments. Right and wrong were as beside the point here as cause and effect, if only because heavenly justice is, by definition, impossible for mortals to follow. It was no surprise that Jerusalem had made as many skeptics of believers as it had made believers of skeptics.

Unable to turn my mind off, I got out of bed again and put on my shirt and jeans. I stepped out into the long, silent corridor with its copies of old maps and texts along the walls. I walked up to the rooftop of the hospice. As I stood there in the midwinter dark, looking out at red crosses, the moon, the green lights of minarets, everything seemed blessedly untroubled, a paradise of calm.

From high above, all the dissenting parts made for a kind of whole. Up here, you could forget distinctions between the sects; the narcissism of small differences made little sense at all. I thought of what I had felt on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: bells are most moving when you don’t know where they’re coming from.

Then, since it was almost daybreak, I went down again, and out, into the chill alleyways, almost deserted now. A faint light began to show up between the buildings and I almost walked into a large Greek Orthodox priest— thick black robes and heavy beard— leading a group of believers around his sanctuary. Hooded figures, hands pushed into pockets against the cold, were passing under a cobbled archway to attend the day’s first prayers at the mosque. In the warm, illuminated cave next to the Western Wall, dozens of Orthodox Jews were already in full chant, banging their heads against the stones and intoning verses from the Torah. One of them, wild- eyed, with flowing ringlets, pushed into my hands a copy of a book on Emunah, the kind of faith that leads to righteousness.

I might have been walking through Jung’s diagram of the subconscious, in a city made up only of inner lives, always in full throat. And the question at the heart of everyone was as simple as it was unanswerable: how to make peace and passion rhyme?

[Excerpted from The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer, published by Penguin Hamish Hamilton.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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