PsychoGeography #22: Dodgy directions on the road map to peace

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The Independent Online

It's difficult to imagine the point at which you would begin find the road sign "Sodom 60 kilometres" unremarkable, or even banal. Still, I suppose if you drive the road out of Jerusalem and down towards the Dead Sea enough times in your life, the decision on whether to turn left ("Jericho 10 kilometres"), or right - to the aforementioned Sodom - will be dictated by purely prosaic considerations. "Oh, I always do the food shopping in Sodom," you might be subject to saying, or "Got to go, I have to get the kids from school in Jericho". It would be nice to think that these resonant names, encrusted with the most ancient and powerful of associations, were none the less being smoothed by the stream of time and usage, to become merely quotidian pebbles.

It's difficult to imagine the point at which you would begin find the road sign "Sodom 60 kilometres" unremarkable, or even banal. Still, I suppose if you drive the road out of Jerusalem and down towards the Dead Sea enough times in your life, the decision on whether to turn left ("Jericho 10 kilometres"), or right - to the aforementioned Sodom - will be dictated by purely prosaic considerations. "Oh, I always do the food shopping in Sodom," you might be subject to saying, or "Got to go, I have to get the kids from school in Jericho". It would be nice to think that these resonant names, encrusted with the most ancient and powerful of associations, were none the less being smoothed by the stream of time and usage, to become merely quotidian pebbles.

Nice but untrue. Far from the supplanting of one Palestinian population by another burying these place names in semantic sands, the ingathering of the Jews has invested them with new and troubling vigour. Rigorous Biblical scholarship and increasingly scientific archaeology, rather than demoting Bethlehem, Nazareth, Beersheba et al from their quasi-mystical status, have instead invested them with still more messianic fervour.

Of course, disputing the ownership of a place is bound to make its name resound. In his great anecdote "The Night the Bed Fell", James Thurber recounted how, while lying in bed one night, he found himself repeating the place name "Perth Amboy" (a town in New Jersey), over and over again until the syllables began to have no meaning whatsoever; worse, Thurber felt himself being sucked into a vortex of meaninglessness as the world was voided of its referents. You can try the reverse thought experiment for yourself by imagining that the place where you live is the flashpoint for the Third World War. Picture the headlines of newspapers: "Ethnic Cleansing in Little Snoring"; "Chemical Weapons Used on Little Snoring Village Hall"; visualise the howling populace, the snarling soldiery, the canting politicos. Before too long I'm pretty sure the words "Little Snoring" will become synonymous in your mind with Iwo Jima, or Sarajevo, or Golgotha for that matter.

On my sole trip - so far - to Israel, I visited quite a few of those resounding places and even took a dip in the Dead Sea. This latter activity I cannot warn you against too strenuously. True, any sane person understands that such saline fluid is bound to smart if you have the slightest abrasion anywhere on your body, but what I didn't reckon on was that this minatory pond (how can a sea be below sea level?) would even manage to create new fissures in my skin and reduce me to a whimpering wreck. Buoyed up on a Lilo of pain, I stared up at the escarpment to the west, where the zealous Maccabees held out against the Romans, until, maddened by starvation, they committed mass suicide.

It occurred to me that those of us who live still further to the west misunderstand the countervailing pressures on contemporary Israeli society. On the one hand you have the fundamentalists, who in seeking to establish a vast Eretz Y'Israel rely on a bowdlerised version of their own history, cooked up by priests in the 7th century BCE; while on the other you have the secularists intent on founding a kind of über-Milton Keynes, complete with Judea Crescents and Samaria Avenues. The Israeli settlements in the soi-disant Occupied Territories are merely the outposts of this troubling exercise in garden-city planning.

Neither approach has anything to offer the Palestinians, whose own, few remaining place names have become synonymous with pain, dispossession and state-sanctioned murder. Deprived of a nation of their own, these people are reduced to residing in a "strip" and a "zone", scrag ends of territory chopped off from the body politic. It's very hard to imagine these Emmenthal cities, bored through again and again by bulldozers, artillery shells and mortars, becoming merrily commonplace: "I think they've got potting soil at the Jenin garden centre" is not a phrase that is easy to form.

Credulous visitors to the Holy Land are notoriously afflicted with "Jerusalem Syndrome". Overawed to be walking the self-same cobbles as Lord Jesus, they fall victim to the delusion that they too are anointed, and have to be hauled off for a generous shot of Thorazine. I myself suffered the exact reverse of this affliction, finding such sacrosanct sites as the Wailing Wall and the Via Dolorosa, to be respectively: a large pile of breeze blocks and a rather smelly alley. It was while musing on all of this that I found my bus passing a sign which read "Sodom 5km", pointing back the way we'd come. Damn it! After all that I'd missed the place - presumably there was a bypass.

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