As a city that is compact together

Whenever I come back to Jerusalem, I notice all of the things that have changed since my last visit and inevitably compare things to the way they were when I was growing up: old buildings torn down or renovated, new ones put up, changing demography, greater sophistication alongside persistent provincialism, shifting mores and moods. I can’t say I like the changes but, as the expression goes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Jerusalem is not a big city. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (2004), the city’s inhabitants number 706.4 thousand, “thereof Jews and others” 469.3 thousand and “thereof Jews” 458.4 thousand. The CBS document includes the following explanation regarding the category “Jews and others”: “As of 1995, the data relates to the "Jews and others" population which incl. Jews, non-Arab Christians, and those not classified by religion.” Europeans and Americans who have never been here often envision Jerusalem as a kind of throwback to Berlin, Belfast or Beirut in the bad old days. Various kinds of barriers have been erected on the outskirts of the city, separating Al-Quds from its Palestinian hinterland, but there are no checkpoints or barbed wire in the heart of the city. Nevertheless, “my” Jerusalem – with the exception of parts of the Old City – has always been a “thereof” city with a population of under half a million (under three hundred thousand, when I first arrived).

Until yesterday, I had never been to Salah ad-Din Street, East Jerusalem’s “Main Street”, or its immediate surroundings. I’d been to Wadi al-Joz once or twice (US consulate), had coffee at the American Colony, passed through Sheikh Jarrah, visited the Rockefeller Museum and the Silwan tunnel many many years ago, and attended demonstrations against Jewish settlement in Ras al-Amud, on the Mount of Olives, but I had never actually gone for a stroll or shopping on Salah ad-Din. It was on my list of things to do this trip, in the reassuring company of Palestinian friends (as I had done in Ramallah). But yesterday, I found myself on Prophets’ Street, in sight of an old mosque and mausoleum (Nabi ‘Akasha?) that had once made an impression on me, and decided to walk down toward Sultan Suleiman and cross over to the “other side,” all on my own. Decades of fear, amplified by Israeli education, government, media and society, made me a little apprehensive (should I hide the bag of Hebrew books I had just bought, prominently displaying the logo of an Israeli bookshop?), but years of interaction with all sorts of people, including Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, reassured me that Salah ad-Din was just another street, filled with ordinary folk going about their everyday business.

On the way, already in East Jerusalem, I passed fortress-like symbols of Israeli presence – a courthouse, the Justice Ministry. Their heavily guarded entrances were hardly reassuring. Salah ad-Din itself was decorated with strings of coloured lights – in honour of Ramadan, I presumed. The street was dominated by women in long cloaks and hijab, signs were mostly in Arabic, with a generous sprinkling of English, and the odd Hebrew brand name. There was a beggar on the sidewalk, dressed in full niqab (including gloves). I immediately spotted an English bookshop cum internet cafe. It was thoroughly western (the coffee was Italian, of course), air-conditioned, and had a wonderful selection of books on I/P, including many authors and titles unavailable in Israeli bookshops. I browsed, bought some books, and got a new “Palestinian” plastic bag to put my purchases in. As I left the shop, I felt more comfortable, and started to enjoy my walk. I bought some freshly-ground Arab coffee to take back to Italy with me. The man in the grocery was speaking Hebrew on the phone, but I spoke English (also remembering a request a Palestinian friend had once made, that we speak English in his Jerusalem neighbourhood). I didn’t want to be an Israeli on Salah ad-Din.

I then started to explore the semi-deserted side streets. I saw the notorious National Insurance Institute building, where Palestinians must wait for hours and days and even pay people to hold their place in line, in order to enjoy some of the social rights to which they are entitled as residents and taxpayers, rights taken for granted on the other side of the city. I saw the headquarters of the Al-Quds Arabic daily and the modest campus of Al-Quds University. At a certain point I realised how familiar these streets I had never visited before actually were. The topography, architecture, courtyards and gardens looked just like those in the older neighbourhoods in “my” Jerusalem – Rehavia, Talbiye, Mea Shearim, the Bukharan Quarter. I don’t know what I had expected. After all, Jerusalem was once, not so long ago, a single – albeit diverse – city, neither “unified” nor “reunified.”

About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a Canadian-Israeli translator living in Italy.
Posted in Israel/Palestine | Tagged , , , ,

{ 8 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. jan_gdyn says:

    The streets on the eastern side are nowhere near like the ones in Rehavia or Talbiye. I don’t recall seeing any tree-lined streets there, or gardens, as you mention, or decent parking lots. Also, not all women there were dressed conservatively when I looked..

    You need to do more than one nervous walk to get a feel for a neighborhood!

    • JG,

      I was referring to the architecture, winding streets and gardens within the courtyards (many very well tended). Some of the houses I saw were magnificent, and as nice or nicer than those in Talbiye, and many of the simpler stone or stone-faced buildings could easily have been in Rehavia. Of course the streets were dirtier and there was no municipal gardening to speak of, but the similarities were unmistakable.

  2. James North says:

    Shmuel: Thanks for a valuable report. I remember being quite astonished that my taxi driver at Ben-Gurion airport was too frightened to take me over the green line into East Jerusalem, where I planned to stay. He apologetically dropped me in West Jerusalem, after finding a Palestinian taxi for me.
    Is it normal that many/most (Jewish) Israelis have not been or only rarely been to Salah-ad-Din Street? The settlers aside, how much territorial de facto segregation is there?
    I sense this is one of the under-reported features of Israel/Palestine today, and thanks to you I have a better idea of just how apart the two peoples are. Which is quite surprising when you consider that there were no checkpoints on the green line itself, no green yarn or other indication that you were crossing over into another world.

  3. RoHa says:

    “Palestinians must wait for hours and days and even pay people to hold their place in line, in order to enjoy some of the social rights to which they are entitled as residents and taxpayers”

    But let us remeber that Israeli Arab citizens have full and equal rights and live lives of sybaritic luxury unparalleled in human history.

  4. VR says:

    Isn’t it quite amazing how we are able to isolate ourselves from the “Other?” Even within areas of close proximity, and especially in an environment of settler colonial oppression. They cannot afford to allow the victims humanity, so from the very youngest age they try to poison the minds of their own children. Depending on where the child was born, if he/she was born on the colonial plantation, they know nothing else except the steady diet racism and the power of force to get what they want – there is little to no objectivity. The seed of fear is either discerned and pushed away, or it is enhanced, embraced and becomes the excuse for every atrocity. All of this even within the same city.

  5. Elliot says:

    VR – absolutely. It’s actually easier to have some interaction with the “Other” in Israel than in some American cities. How many white, Middle class Americans have visited the non-touristy parts of Harlem, or Chicago’s South Side, or LA’s ethnic neighborhoods?
    Nice, suburban kids don’t spend any time at all in the city, except for select bastions of whiteness such as the famous museums.

    In I/P, the sense of separation has intensified over the last two decades. Until the first Intifada, twenty years ago, many Jewish Israelis did visit some well-defined Palestinians areas freely: the Old City, parts of East Jerusalem, Bethlehem etc. They went shopping for bargains and looking for a cultural experience.
    In the last decade, Ehud Barak’s terrible separation policy has taken East Jerusalem Arabs off the streets of West Jerusalem, or, at least made them invisible. There may be no walls and barbed wire in the heart of Jerusalem but years of massive security operations have made the streets of West Jerusalem, mostly, Arab-free.
    Today, in Jerusalem, there are no opportunities for regular Jews and Arabs to be together in the normal course of life.
    Regarding the Arabness of Jerusalem’s upmarket, Jewish neighborhoods: The denizens of Talbiyeh have an amazing ability to marvel at the craftsmanship of the masonry without giving a thought to the former, Palestinian, inhabitants.

  6. David Samel says:

    Shmuel – Thanks for taking the time to write so descriptively of Jerusalem.