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Ticket to God© Jens Harder (Detail)

Jonas Engelmann on "Ticket to God"
Stuck in a traffic jam. An encounter with the 'strange city' of Jerusalem

It is a ‘strange city’ that Jens Harder and his readers head for in his story "Ticket to God". A city that unites yet also divides like no other. Destroyed, disputed and divided, yet home to three of the world’s major religions that coexist here: Jerusalem.
 
"A city whose residents have not yet lost their faith or have just rediscovered it," is how the artists summarise it on the opening pages. The panels on these two pages contain realistic drawings that capture snapshots of the city: the traffic jam as you enter Jerusalem, religious sites, the military presence, tourists, the faithful. The opening panel, the view of Jerusalem from a sherut or taxi stuck in a traffic jam, the combination of stillness and motion, highlights both the complexity and ambivalence of the city that unfolds in the following 30 odd pages.
 
‘Next year in Jerusalem’. Given its long history, Jerusalem has also become a place on which to project longing and hope, expressed in art, literature, film, theatre – and in graphic novels. Comic book artists have repeatedly turned to the city and the state of Israel, have sketched their impressions of the region, often defined by their own religious and political viewpoints and by the specific historical situation.
 
A good 10 years before the creation of Israel, Tim and his dog, Struppi, were drawn to Haifa in 1939 where they conflicted as much with the British mandate authorities as with Jewish freedom fighters. Israel’s own tradition in graphic novels, that was able to counter these alien images, did not develop until the 1990s. Jen Harder’s "Ticket to God" is also an indirect record of an up-and-coming scene. As part of a project initiated by the Goethe-Institut Tel Aviv, the Israeli artists Rutu Modan, Yirmi Pinkus and Guy Morad were invited to Germany to translate their impressions of the country into images. In turn, Tim Dinter, Jan Feindt and Jens Harder were invited to Israel.  
 
When engaging with the city, Harder opts for the perspective of an observer with a keen eye who tries to record each and every detail, address every single aspect. Graffiti and murals, the faithful affected by the Jerusalem syndrome, market stalls and construction sites: the accuracy of his eye and his love for detail are impressive.
 
Yet how can the most beautiful images be of any use without context, which leads us to Harder’s key observation: there can be no understanding of a city’s present without knowledge of its past. And so the opening snapshots are followed by a brief historical overview that must necessarily remain fragmented, given the city’s complex history.
 
Starting with Solomon’s Temple and King David, Harder rides through the history, shows the oriental armies that conquered the city, right up to the British who were entrusted with the mandate for Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. "The survivors of persecution and the Holocaust were divided and allocated. Ultimately united after new wars, agreements and compromises, yet still attacked by the rebel bands of the Intifada,’ is how Harder describes the period from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 until today.
 
Here itself we can see the difficulties involved when one tries to approach the city: the use of the word ‘rebels’ – which usually has positive connotations – to describe that the Intifada activists will not be endorsed by all readers. And other readers might object to other perspectives, wording and viewpoints. Jerusalem as a city of contradictions – "Holy City? If one could put a roof over Jerusalem, it would be a closed establishment," says one observer commenting on the unrest between Muslims in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Orthodox Jews. By way of commentary, Harder compares the absurdity in the Monty Python film, ‘The Life of Brian’, with the lines of conflict arising from religions that coexist and oppose.
 
Harder, the observer, can barely comprehend the role played by the differences between the religions that determine all aspects of life in the city: "The representatives of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are perched on the Holy City like three gigantic hens on a golden egg. They speak different languages, use different symbols, live in different eras."
 
Just as the views of the city from the outside are vastly different, the view from the inside is more controversial and fragmented than in virtually any other spot on earth. Walls are towering up even within the religions themselves and appear to be at least as difficult to climb as Israel’s barrier that was being erected at the time of Harder’s visit.
 
For instance, the Orthodox Jews living in the Mea Shearim neighbourhood live a life that is completely cut off from mainstream society. "Many here do not recognise the state of Israel. They pay no taxes, speak Yiddish, are exempt from military service, adhere strictly to the Laws of Moses and observe the Sabbath so rigidly that they cannot even switch on a light or radio."
 
All religious representatives are in agreement only on what they do not want: when Christopher Street Day was to be celebrated in Jerusalem, a press conference was called: "Two chief rabbis, an imam, a sheikh, the bishop and the patriarchs – they all came. To the plan of having a parade in Jerusalem, they had only one answer: Please do not incur the wrath of our Lord!" Harder leaves his readers with the irony of religious freedom in the rejection of the ‘godless’.
 
While ‘Ticket to God’ started with a traffic jam, it ends in solidarity with the world religions – ‘if only for a few minutes’. Because the city of Jerusalem will never rest for more than five minutes. Jens Harder’s visit to the city is already almost two decades old; a trip to Jerusalem today would look completely different: the new conflicts instigated by Hamas would play a role, the difficulties of government formation, the marginalisation of the Sephardi Jews and routine racism... A visit to Israel represents only the absolute present, the threats to society and the debates are in a constant state of flux. At the same time, nothing much would have changed in the 20 years. One would still come across the traffic jams at the entrance to Jerusalem, the religious sites, the military presence, tourists, the faithful. And yet it could all be so simple: "One enters the world as an innocent child. It is our upbringing and education that form us. At birth, we are all equal."

Cargo: Comicrereportagen aus Israel - Deutschland (Deutsch) Gebundenes Buch – 1. Oktober 2005.

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