Pure Slush

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Jerusalem Syndrome

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by Claudia Bierschenk            Trialogue  >
“Jerusalem's psychiatrists expect to encounter, as the millennium approaches, an ever-increasing number of tourists who, upon arriving in Jerusalem, may suffer psychotic decompensation”

The British Journal of Psychiatry (2000) 176: 86-90


I came to Jerusalem in summer 1999, a young political science student seeking adventure, keen to form a hands-on opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Really, I was getting over a neurotic Irishman.

I’d applied for a volunteership with the “Austrian Hospice”. Smack in the historic city centre, you worked in the hospice – a pilgrim’s hostel – for food and accommodation, plus a daily allowance. The sun shone every single day (except winter), with much to do and see! After a year of Irish drizzle and Irish male sentimentality, it sounded perfect.

And before I’d said “Gefilte Fishe”, I was flying to Tel Aviv.

It was pitch dark when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. Walking through the arrival gate, I heard someone shouting, “Claudia, over here!” I spotted an elderly, gold-rimmed glasses-wearing, balding man waving a large printout of my photo. A guy with a huge backpack stood beside him. Every couple of seconds he flicked his head in a nervous twitch. The driver - Abraham - was also the Hospice’s accountant. While we sped along the poorly lit motorway, I asked all sorts of questions, while Achim, the twitchy guy, slept.

I’d never heard of Jerusalem Syndrome. Until Abraham mentioned it. It mostly befell tourists, he said, who’d show up at the breakfast buffet wearing nothing but a towel round their head, claiming to be King David. And it had been getting worse over the last year.

As we approached Jerusalem from the busy motorway a buzzing feeling stirred in my stomach. And then the city appeared out of nowhere, white stone buildings spiked with turrets and minarets, bathed in moonlight beneath a sky dripping with stars.

The hospice was in the center of the “Old City”, on Via Dolorosa, “Street of pain”. Slightly elevated and of cream-coloured sandstone you couldn’t help running your fingers across, with thirty single and double rooms, as well as a dormitory, a chapel and a large café, all were kept in a nineteenth century, royal Austrian style. Ten volunteers shared rooms of two and three.

The first few days I spent my free time on the accessible rooftop, watching life in the old city: masses of tourists and pilgrims squeezing through narrow, cobblestoned alleys, following in Jesus’ footsteps. The street was lined with shops, where you could buy anything from saffron to shishas and live chickens. The array of smells; the babble of languages; the calls of the muezzin five times a day: all were entrancing. To get to the “Dome of the Rock” (the third holiest site for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina) and the Western Wall (the remains of the Temple and the holiest site for Jews) people had to pass the hospice. So it was always busy.

Soon I noticed oddities: Orthodox Jews in groups of three, one behind the other, the first holding a book right in front of his eyes, the others holding on to the predecessor’s shoulder, eyes closed or a hand shielding them. After seeing this a few times, I asked our Palestinian chef what this meant. He chuckled and said: “They do it so they don’t have to look at us dirty Arabs, or at sleazy tourist girls with bare arms!”

Abraham’s words about Jerusalem Syndrome weren’t exaggerated. Every so often someone would cry out on the street, stretching hands up to the sky, chanting “Jesus, Jesus”. When I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where, according to Catholics, Jesus is buried – Protestants think he’s buried in a completely different place) I nearly collapsed. The gloomy atmosphere, the air thick with incense, masses of people squeezing into the nook where Jesus’ body was buried, the chanting, the crying: it’s amazing how quickly you’re sucked into the commotion. And I caught myself thinking: “Yes, the Lord is buried here, he was here!” Sweat pearled off my forehead and I had that tickly feeling in my stomach again. And that’s me – a stout East German atheist! A lot of it was dehydration. You’re supposed to drink at least three litres a day in the dry desert climate: don’t drink enough, you hallucinate.

One morning, called to reception because they needed a French-speaker, I encountered a barefoot older gentleman with the longest, curliest beard, huge sunglasses, a white gown and white cap, with a walking stick nearly as long as himself. He asked if we had a room. But we didn’t, so I walked with him to the nearby Armenian hospice. On the way he explained he’d walked all the way from the island of Martinique, barefoot, only relying on the “kindness of strangers” (OK, I stole this from “A Streetcar Named Desire”, but I swear he said something like that.). Judging from his feet, I believed he had walked all the way, but wasn’t there a lot of water? We said our goodbyes, he blew five kisses on either side of my head, and blessed me, I think.

I was on an outing to Ramallah, in the West Bank, the day a more serious case of Jerusalem Syndrome occurred in our hospice. Returning in the evening, my friend Christa told me an American guest had suddenly turned up wearing nothing but a bed sheet and sunglasses, threatening to kill Christa because The Lord had told her so”!  Our chefs had to restrain her until the ambulance arrived. “Nothing unusual,” said the doctor. “The hospital is full of them, it wears off quickly.” And I’d missed it all!

I met many more people showing signs of Jerusalem Syndrome. The city was a crossroads for everything, and I could see it all from my window. The orthodox Jews who refuse to live by anything other than the scripture rushing past proud, Israeli women soldiers, on their way to the Western wall. Franciscan monks in their brown habits squeezing past scantily clad English tourist girls. The Old City's cobblestones, 2000 years old, only a ten minute walk from the New City, modern Jerusalem, its buzzing high streets, shops, cafés and nightclubs. Was it a surprise this city was a magnet and drove you nuts at the same time? Jerusalem still has its grip on me, even after eleven years. I often retrace my walks home from a night out, walking from the New City, down the steps to Damascus Gate, saying “Hi” to the young soldiers standing in groups of three or four in the shadow of the gate’s huge wooden doors, their cigarettes lighting up like glow worms in the dark, before entering another world.

A few days before I left for home in Germany, a group of American pilgrims led by a short, timid man, with a goatee and swept back hair, came to the hospice. The “leader” – David – was polite, if a bit aloof. I didn’t pay him any more attention than the others.

Back home I bought a “Spiegel” because it featured a long article about Jerusalem, and a group of American Christian fundamentalists whose leader was Jerusalem-based and who’d planned a martyr-related massacre in the Old City come the year 2000.

There was a blurred photo of him. David.

I had just taken a mouthful of coffee. And sprayed it all over the paper.


Editor's Note: you might also like to read Thursday Afternoon in Jerusalem by Joanne Jagoda


published 19 March 2011