Jerusalem and Jerusalaam

In memory of Maria Virhov, self-proclaimed “Queen of Palestine” (1969-2011)  

As I write these lines, I am longing - no, hoping - to return to Palestine. Maybe it will happen; I do not know. I truly – or, rather, madly - hope so.

But let’s start all of this all over.

Sometime in June 2006, I lost my mind - quite literally so. Couple of months after, I was officially diagnosed as bipolar, and underwent a treatment, or, what my psychiatrist called “one of the biggest successes of Bulgarian psychiatry.” This piece of personal trivia, otherwise easily irrelevant, would not be the least intriguing where it not for the disturbing fact that a personal journey to going berserk intersected with the recent political history of Palestine.

Let me untangle this madness. Its elements are political and musical.

Perched on a balcony in a luxurious and hipster quarter of Sofia, gazing as I was at what seemed to me at that moment apocalyptic skies (indeed, there were ominous thunders and incontinent rain), I recall I was summoning some form of higher gnostic force… to punish this terrestrial world for injustices I suffered and other I saw too personally. As if this was not crazy enough, what triggered this odious call to heavenly arms was the then ongoing Fatah-Hamas fratricidal monomania, particularly in June 2006, but more on this below. The feeling that then traversed my psyche had something to do with those thunders: the notion that the torrential rain was, after all, also my doing, was irreversible. In fact, I thought I am this rain; I felt that my body is crying all over the world in the guise of politically charged atoms.

Hissing in the background was the music of Bryn Jones, known to the world as Muslimgauze, and the 23-minute long ambient ouroboros of a composition called “Arab Jerusalem” from his 1996 opus Arab Quarter. It was a dangerous loop for a mind gone wild. Muslimgauze was a non-religious, British, MENA-obsessed iconoclast whose entire musical oeuvre is dedicated to Muslim liberation everywhere in the world, but was particularly enthused with the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Extreme Records, one of his labels, offered him to pay for a trip to the Middle East, he refused to set foot there on the principle that visiting occupied lands is immoral. The odd loop which “Arab Jerusalem” is and the odd significance that it had on me that early Sofian evening is, to this day, somewhat inexplicable, but I do know it had to do with insanity: in my mind, in Jones’ music, in the Palestinian fate. Ever since my mind and soul recovered and become one again, I never stopped listening to Muslimgauze’s Palestine-obsessed work. But I almost never listened again to “Arab Jerusalem”: listening to the track felt like willingly sounding the scenario of an insanity I would rather entomb in the cavern of my past.

All of this was, in effect, a mystical crash course in discovering Palestine. Little did I know that fifteen years later I will set foot on Palestinian land. At times, Muslimgauze’s black-and-white approach on Middle Eastern politics still haunts my decision to come, live, and teach in Palestine. Am I immoral? No. I’d rather be mad not to come. The fact Jones was a Hezbollah fanatic and that I was bipolar made perfect sense in this otherwise unholy union of my biographical concatenation.

As hinted above, the balcony episode was preceded by what constituted my personal introduction to, and thenceforth continued infatuation with, the Palestinian cause. It started sometime in May 2006, after the April elections saw Hamas glorious. Ugly enough, I must admit my understanding of and love for Palestine was triggered by the Fatah-Hamas Conflict which saw some of its ugliest moments in summer of 2006, or, more precisely, the June 25 Hamas cross-border raid into Israel, and the subsequent Summer Rains Operation that ensued on June 28. It is in those fratricidal days that, albeit bipolar and completely mad, or perhaps because of that, I learned the most about Palestine. I had not left the apartment for three or four days, obsessed as I was with news reports and flashes on the situation. It felt as if Muslimgauze’s music was something of a divine soundtrack to this madness. And it was happening in both my mind and Palestine.

When in late July 2019 I arrived at the airport and set my foot on that ground, I began to gradually return to that earlier episode of bipolarity. On the first day I traveled from my new home in Bethlehem to Abu Dis in Jerusalem (I feel uneasy about “East Jerusalem”) I pondered on those personally turbulent Sofian days. I had thought I have made sense of them, but now, being here, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, having to see the wall nearly every day, being among my new Palestinian and foreign friends and colleagues, brought a new sense to that now bygone, but turbid cloud of insanity I had survived. And so I intuitively delved deeper into Muslimgauze’s music. Most of the time I now deliberately - as opposed to the June 2006 episode - listened to his sounds.

Ever since I recovered from my spontaneous and simultaneous acquaintance with both insanity and Palestinian politics, I have always avoided listening to “Arab Jerusalem.” The endless composition and its ouroboros-like structure was perhaps the one piece of memory that haunted my now stable selfhood. But now I could listen to an Arab Jerusalem without Muslimgauze’s sonic specter. Regardless, when I was in Abu Dis, I was listening to the eponymic tribute album of 2000, issued a year after his untimely and somewhat mysterious death. And when I was crossing Checkpoint 300 - this horrid portal of ungodly political theology - I would listen intensely to Jerusalaam, an album originally released in 1998 by Staalplaat as CD4 of the Tandoori Dog box-set, and then reissued in 2016 as a separate album. This album, originally recorded by Muslimgauze in 1997/96, therapeutically helped me close the final chapter of my personal drama with bipolarity and, more importantly, how this biographical and self-made narrative can be now inscribed in the very heart of a love for Palestine whose origin was no longer disturbing. And I gradually started listening to “Arab Jerusalem” at home in Bethlehem during my vespertine sessions of writing. Then, on my second visit to the Old City, I entered via Jaffa Gate with the dirty beat of Jerusalaam’s “All the Stolen Land of Palestine.” A pure aural triumph entered through the gate along with my body.

I now was not crazy, but I had to start walling myself from the craze of the city’s invisible and micro-political quandaries that I had to yet discover. “Dedicated to all Palestinian freedom fighters, victims of Zionist terrorism. The patience in the face of Israeli violence towards them is a great quality they possess, to retaliate is justified,” read the liner notes of Jerusalaam’s reissue. I do not feel necessarily easy about such statements, also because the very first time I saw Jerusalem as a historic topos - which was my second visit - I saw the Old City through the eyes of my Israeli friend, whose name, curiously, also begins with the letter J. Between J.’s stories and Jerusalem was Jerusalaam. In my ears, through the ear-pods, listening in the bus, through the checkpoint.

J in J in J. Jones apparently created and named Jerusalaam as a game of words (city + peace?), but the real Jerusalem is now sadly not a city, much less a peaceful one, but a sad zone of besieging neighborly fantasies of multiple pasts and their discordant crescendos.

There is some sort of banal comfort in the fact that my own bipolarity can be divided in two: between music and politics. I have no illusions about my biographical illusio. To own it means to own myself. I know I am partly making this all up in such a way as to endure the past as sensical one, but I do not feel guilty or insane in crafting my own narrative. Jerusalem and Jerusalaam closed a chapter of a life.

I can now listen to Arab Jerusalem without the quotation marks, minus the insanity, and within its serenity.  

Stanimir Panayotov has recently defended his PhD in comparative gender studies from the Central European University, Budapest. He is currently a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies Sofia, Bulgaria. His writings on music have been published in Altera (in Bulgarian) and Heathen Harvest (in English), and is forthcoming in the journal Metal Music Studies and the volume Black Metal Rainbows, of which he is co-editor with Daniel Lukes.

article by Stanimir Panayotov (July 7, 2020)
Fellow at Center for Advanced Studies – Sofia, Bulgaria

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