O Jerusalem (1999)
Each Tuesday during this spring’s Twenty Weeks of Buzz, I’ll be posting about a different one of my twenty books, with remarks, reflections, and information about the writing process. (Click on the photos below to enlarge.)
A historical mystery would appear to be a contradiction in terms: If something already happened, where’s the mystery in it? But more than merely the event in question, working in an historical setting permits the author to poke at the edges of then-and-now, and to find the reverberations of the present in the past.
I once read a memoir about early twentieth century life in Jerusalem, which presented the image of a city cheerfully united under the oppression of the Turks. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian: equally poor, equally oppressed, equally squeezed by the Ottoman grip. The children of the three communities played together, the men worked together, the women marketed together—the author, a Muslim, recalled the tradition of the milk mother, when women with children of like ages would nurse the other’s infant, as a form of insurance in those pre-formula days. Life was far from idyllic, but the concerns that stemmed from the difference in religion were among the lesser barriers to peaceful life.
And then came the Great War, and Allenby presenting his victory to the bled-dry British people as a Christmas triumph. The Ottoman Empire was gone from Palestine, leaving the British to extend their own, very different understanding of fair rule to a land with an entirely different history.
O Jerusalem was written well before the events of 9/11, but even then it was clear the direction in which the world was moving. We have come far since Muslim and Christian women in Jerusalem nursed one another’s children. And sadly, a big step of that path was under the hand of the well-meaning British.