Time and Tide

Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv

The American accent was so pronounced, and elaborate, the man was surely not American. He stood with his tour group in a shaded corner on the cobblestones before St. Peter's, on top of the rise of Old Jaffa. "From here, St. Peter set sail," he said, drawing each word the farthest he could. "And to which famous city did he go? Can somebody tell me?" The unmistakably American crowd before the guide sank into deep silence. "To which famous city?" It was clear to all who could hear him that the man wouldn't proceed without an answer, silence be damned. "Athens?" Someone drawled finally, tentatively. "Rome!" cried the guide after a pause: "To become the first pope!"

I looked toward the unremarkable St. Peter's near them. I thought of the carpenter who turned preacher, and of his disciple the fisherman who supplanted one gilded empire with another and became pope. This small place clad in sandstone seemed somehow a likely place for a carpenter and a fisherman to engage in large, epochal conversations--in this place so bare and so lacking the sheen of the churches and cathedrals it spawned worldwide over two millennia. I went across the cobblestones and into the church. A service was in progress for not more than fifteen, twenty devotees. I folded my hands in a namaste and bowed and came out, not wanting to intrude. In the noonday sun I turned and walked up the slope into a Napoleon.

On the corners of the alleys that criss-cross Jaffa, molded Napoleons point forefinger to points of interest. In a while I gathered why Napoleon is given the onerous task to serve tens of thousands of tourists all year round in Old Jaffa. The great conqueror made an excursion to Israel in 1799, after he'd taken Egypt. His men pillaged Jaffa and hung around the place for a time afterward. They shouldn't have messed with a place so holy as this. The plague got them and wasted a third of their numbers. Anyway, the memory of another empire's visit is thus preserved.

I spent two hours among the narrow lanes and alleys in that very small place. There was a breeze playing up and down the stairs and slopes, and I joined in, seeking the cool breeze, anticipating it. I didn't pause to buy a thing in any of the shops selling expensive artifacts, didn't even enter. In the end, I went into a little cafe and sat by its shutterless windows and watched the green blue waters of the Mediterranean, stretching the time contained in a single-shot of espresso. Not taking my eyes off the sea, I wondered at how the waters were relentlessly rolling and pressing time down unto their depths, right there below me.