Passion in the Backlands

Passion in
the Backlands

Advertised as the largest open-air theater in the world,
Nova Jerusalém attracts, during the week leading to
Easter Sunday, people from all over Brazil and abroad,
traveling to see the annual `Passion of Christ’ play.
By Habeeb Salloum

For two weeks we had enjoyed the seaside life of Recife—Brazil’s northeastern
resort capital. We had lazed for hours on Boa Viagem, its major but somewhat littered
beach, soaking up the sun. The Canadian winter cold had been virtually forgotten as we
savored to the full the many attributes of this tropical paradise. By the third week, I
was becoming bored with the beaches, swaying palms and nightlife and began thinking of
other activities.

While chatting in a bar with John, an American who had lived in Brazil for years, I
asked, "What tours do you suggest that I take. I want to do something new. I have had
enough of nightlife, sand and sea." John grinned, "There’s no question! It’s
Nova Jerusalém (New Jerusalem)! That’s where you should go." He went on, "The
tour also includes a stop at the picturesque artisan town of Caruaru. It’s the best day
tour one can take from Recife. You should not miss it."

Taking my bar room friend’s words to heart, a few days later, I joined a tour group and
early in the morning we were on our way to that fantasy Jerusalem—the brainchild of a
local landowner. Although, according to John’s explanation it was only a religious symbol
erected in the wilderness, it appealed to my sense of adventure.

Our bus with only open windows for air conditioning, at first, traveled through a
tropical landscape, which soon gave way to a rolling cultivated countryside. Climbing
upward through green hills, we made our way through fields of sugarcane, stretching as far
as the eye could see. It was strange to see sugarcane, usually grown on flat land,
thriving in a mountainous landscape.

Our guide, who spoke passable English, appeared to be inspired by the cane swaying in
the breeze, as he related the history of sugar cultivation in Brazil. However, we barely
could hear what he was saying. The microphone was not functioning and the noise of the
road almost drowned out the essence of his story. With the windows open and his voice
competing with the din of the motor, we could barely make out his words. He had to repeat
his story a half a dozen times before it was understood by the majority of our tour group.

Like most yarns spun by guides throughout the world, his narrative was full of
inaccuracies. When he said that sugarcane was first brought from India to Brazil, for me,
it was the last straw. I broke in to tell him that sugar had been introduced into the
Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs and had been cultivated in that part of Europe for over
five centuries before the Portuguese colonized Brazil. I went on to explain that the name
was pure Arabic—sugar, from sukkar (sugar) and cane from qanaah (reed
or canal). My correction to his story had no effect. He just shrugged his shoulders and
continued his rehearsed monologue.

The sugarcane fields dotted with neat-looking homes began to fade away by the time we
had stopped in Victoria de Santo Antão for a tour of the gigantic Pitú factory. A hard
liquor made from sugarcane, Pitú, about 43% alcohol, is a popular Brazilian drink.
Perhaps its low cost—less than 50 cents a liter bottle—is large factor in its
popularity.

On the other hand, it is not palatable to most European and North American tastes.
During the tour, our guide told us that the plant had an open offer to all foreign
visitors. If a tourist would consent to drink a bottle of Pitú without stop, he/she would
receive a prize and be photographed with the president of the company. He said that no one
of any of the groups he had taken through the factory had ever volunteered. Of course,
there was a reason. A few ounces of this firewater would be enough to immobilize any
tourist.

Leaving Victoria behind, we drove through semi-desert hills until, from a high point,
we could see Caruaru, Brazil’s northeastern center of handicrafts, nestled in the valley
below. Set bowl-like between the surrounding cactus-strewn mountains, its location
resembled, to some degree, the charming setting of Fez, Morocco, which I had visited a
short time before.

Some 130 km (80 mi) west of Recife, Caruaru, a city of some quarter of a million,
situated 600 m (1960 ft) above sea level, has an invigorating climate. Here, where
thousands of peddlers offer their mostly regional-handmade articles for sale, is to be
found one of the largest open-air markets in Brazil.

We roamed the market offering hand-carved articles of wood, costume jewelry, leather
goods, pottery, straw products and other goodies. Even though the prices differed little
from those in Recife, the joy of strolling among the displayed handicrafts was a
pleasurable and exciting experience.

After spending about two hours roaming through the friendly marketplace, we were again
on the move. The road traversed boulder-strewn hills, many of which had the appearance of
being sculptured by human hands, until we reached Nova Jerusalém—the name given to
an extraordinary theatre, edging the village of Fazenda Nova. About 40 km (25 mi)
northwest of Caruaru—in this area of Brazil, Nova Jerusalém has become a tourist
spot par excellence. Advertised as the largest open-air theater in the world, it attracts,
during the week leading to Easter Sunday, people from all over Brazil and abroad,
traveling to see the annual `Passion of Christ’ play. At that time of the year, it is a
Mecca for the curious and religious.

Nova Jerusalém was created by a local Brazilian who had lived in Christianity’s Holy
City for some four years. When he returned to his native land, he saw that in this part of
northeastern Brazil, the climate and countryside were similar to those of Jerusalem. His
admiration for that Holy City inspired him to build a theatre town modeled after historic
Jerusalem. Cashing in on the deep religious feelings of the local inhabitants in the
1970s, he, with their help, built a replica of Christianity’s Mecca.

His theater-city is one-third the area of the old historic quarter in
Jerusalem—the size of city during the time of Jesus Christ. It is surrounded by a
stonewall—a replica of old Jerusalem’s ramparts, incorporating seven gates and
seventy towers. Inside, there are 12 permanent stages, each representing a station of the
Cross.

During Easter week, some 500 costumed, mostly local amateurs, recreate the Passion and
Crucifixion of Christ. As the tale unfolds, a huge number of visitors move in the
theater-city for each scene from one stage to the next, for some three hours, guided by
centurions with torches. For believers, it is a gratifying experience, well worth the
trip. We had come in early winter and the masses of people who would be there during
Easter could only be imagined. In this wilderness creation, as we moved from stage to
stage and the guide explained the scenes in the Passion play, we had to visualize it all.
Yet, even though not as fulfilling as the real thing, it was a unique experience walking
around this man-made replica of history, not found in any other place on earth.

Habeeb Salloum, who resides in Toronto, is a Canadian author and
freelance writer specializing in travel and the culinary arts. Besides books and chapters
in books, Habeeb has had hundreds of articles about food and travel published. Among his
most important works are the books: Journeys Back to Arab Spain (1994); with J.
Peters, From the Lands of Figs and Olives (1995 HB; 1997 PB); with J. Peters, 2
(1996); and Classic Vegetarian Cooking From the Middle East and North Africa, (in
press). You can contact him at salloum@chass.utoronto.ca

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