O Jerusalem — please forget me

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It’s 25 years since I was a student at Hebrew University and I’ve just arrived to do some research on how West Jerusalem has changed.  I’ve come with my husband, Kyle, who has never been here.  He’ll be with me for a week and then I’ll stay another week on my own to work.  My last two visits here were organized as Palestinian solidarity trips all over the West Bank; I haven’t seen West Jerusalem in years.  A friend tells me I must show my husband Tel-Aviv and West Jerusalem as I research the changes, “so he can see the apartheid society they have made for themselves.”

We spend one day in Tel-Aviv before heading to Jerusalem.  Our driver, Eldad, (a friend insisted that his friend’s friend drive us) is excited that it is Kyle’s first time here.  Eldad takes road 443 because “it will be much faster than highway 1.”  When we get into his car, I see several Israeli flags on the dashboard, and I anticipate his reaction when he asks specifically where we are going in Jerusalem.  I tell him the name and address of the hotel we’re staying at in East Jerusalem.  He looks at me strangely and asks, “You said you used to live here?”

I’ve never been on road 443 before, and he narrates as we make the slow climb up to Jerusalem.  It doesn’t feel like much of an ascent and I wonder if I’ve misremembered the steep climb I used to feel when going up to Jerusalem.  Later I learn that road 443 runs more smoothly along the ridge line, whereas Highway 1 goes up and down through mountains and valleys and is a much more dramatic ascent.  As we make our way on 443, Eldad points to Givat Zeev on our right.  He explains to Kyle that the “city” has grown tremendously.  Kyle knows it’s a settlement, but neither of us say anything.  Ramallah is on our left, and we see Ofer prison.  “Israel takes very good care of its prisoners,” Eldad says.  “The prison was built close, so the families can easily visit the terrorists.  Nowhere else in the world are terrorists treated so well.”  For a few minutes, we see the wall Israel has built, cutting Palestinians off from their own land.  Eldad explains that there have been hardly any attacks since the wall was built.  “It’s much safer now,” he says, looking at Kyle in the rear view mirror.  We pass seamlessly through the checkpoint.  We’ve come at Jerusalem from behind, and it’s too fast.  I’ll tell Kyle this later, and he’ll tease me, telling me that I needed more foreplay with Jerusalem.  It’s true.  I was expecting a slow entry, and now I’m trying to get my bearings as we enter quickly.  I see the sign for Pisgat Zeev.  Later, I’ll see signs for Maale Adumim.  I’ve noticed a change in signage here.  The signs for the settlements appear to me more seamlessly a part of Jerusalem’s geography, as though they’ve always been a part of the city.  Finally, I recognize the road towards Mt. Scopus.  Now I know where we are.  When we arrive to the hotel, Eldad shakes our hands after we pay him.  He looks at me like a concerned father to his daughter. “Be safe,” he says.

Later, we walk to Kikar Zion in West Jerusalem.  I can’t find Jaffa Road.  A few minutes later I realize that we’re standing on it, as the tram goes by and young yeshiva girls walk in the middle of the street.  I’m embarrassed that I don’t recognize things.  I had promised Kyle I’d be an excellent tour guide.  “Are you sure you know the city?” he asked me weeks before the trip.  “It’s been a long time since you were there.”  “Of course!” I replied.  “I remember Jerusalem like the back of my hand.  I haven’t forgotten.”  Now he has to wait for me to get my bearings; he has no point of reference.  I remember Jaffa Road as an actual road with sidewalks and cars and buses.  It’s become a pedestrian mall like so much of the downtown.  I don’t recognize it.  Kyle doesn’t quite understand my meltdown.  “All cities change,” he says.  “It’s not just that,” I try to explain.  “Jerusalem is different,” I say, even though I know that sounds like Jewish exceptionalism.  The change of the physical geography of the land has caused an internal change in the mind.  The result is a colonization of the hearts and minds of Zionists everywhere and manifests itself with the new landscape appearing ancient and permanent.  This is not the West Jerusalem I recall in my mind.  But the one I remember had been colonized as well, and I know now that my memory of what I remember as the “original” was also a manufactured colonization of Palestine, 1990’s style.

Mamilla Mall
Mamilla Mall

We walk through Mamilla Mall towards Jaffa Gate.  It’s a beautiful outdoor pedestrian mall with fancy shops next to “ancient ruins.”  Mamilla was the name of the neighborhood in Jerusalem founded in the late 19th century just outside the Old City near the Jaffa Gate.  (Mamilla is also the name of the Muslim cemetery at Yoel Solomon and Hillel Streets, upon which the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of “Tolerance” is being built.)  As I’ve walked through hotel lobbies in West Jerusalem the last few days, the phrase I’ve heard repeated over and over at the concierge desk is American Jews asking, “How do you get to Mamilla Mall?”  The mall has seamlessly connected West Jerusalem to the Old City at Jaffa Gate with loads of shops.

Jaffa Gate as seen from Mamilla Mall
Jaffa Gate as seen from Mamilla Mall

Later, I read about how Mamilla Mall was reported in the Israeli news.  Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am’s article from The Times of Israel (“Mamilla, the Jerusalem border neighborhood that rose from the rubble,” November 21, 2015,) celebrates the new mall–perpetuating the myth that Israel has once again restored something that had been destroyed by its enemies.  Mamilla is “an incredible story of destruction, division, unification, renewal–and now shopping,” the article states, and it “begins at Jaffa Gate a century ago.”  The article emphasizes that West Jerusalem was always connected to the Old City, and justifies the “rebuilding.”  “Mamilla was a tiny neighborhood located on the seam that connects Old and New Jerusalem,” the article says. “In the early 1900’s, dozens of shops, consulates, banks and guesthouses completely covered the area from just outside the gate to today’s IDF Square.”  The article tells the “story” of the “incensed” Arabs after they learned that “the United Nations approved a plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The country’s Arabs swore “to prevent its formation with the last drop of their blood.”  The Arabs screamed “slogans and armed with knives and iron bars, they began looting and ransacking Jewish shops. Then they set them on fire.”  The article also states that plans for “restoring” the mall began in 1967:

After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and the eye-sore that was No-Man’s Land was removed, plans began to form for rehabilitation of the ravaged Mamilla neighborhood…Decades of conflict between architects and planners ended when the first stage of the Alrov Mamilla Avenue opened in 2007.  An open-air mall, it was designed by architect Moshe Safdie, and developed by the Alrov Group.

The article mentions some of the buildings in Mamilla Mall that date back to 1870 and 1886.  “From sing-alongs to an open museum on Independence day, Mamilla hosts all kinds of events,” the article concludes, “An all-around smashing success, Mamilla Mall unites Old and New Jerusalem–just as it did in the past.”  Mamilla Mall seems like the most brilliant form of colonization and apartheid.  The wall that separates Palestinians from access to their land and keeps them from their loved ones is a dehumanizing daily reminder of their restricted life under occupation.  For the Israelis and others visiting Jerusalem, apartheid is the Gap, North Face, American Eagle, Clarks, Timberland, Nine West, spaghetti, steak, and pizza restaurants, and, of course, the jewelry store Padani–“Jewelry for Connoisseurs”–all of which connect the West to the East and keep the shoppers busy.

Shabbat morning, a few days after Kyle returns to the U.S., I walk down Jaffa Road towards the Old City to visit Tavit, my ex-boyfriend, an Armenian, who lives in the Armenian Quarter.  Orthodox families walk in the street.  A little boy walks along the train tracks.  A few homeless people sleep on benches, the smells of urine and feces waft around them.  I meet Tavit and we drink coffee.  Then we walk and he shows me the house he bought in the Old City that is on the border of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters.  I’m happy for him.  I joke and remind him that when we dated 25 years ago, I never saw his home.  He was always at my apartment.  He never told his parents about us because they wanted him to marry an Armenian.  I’ve recently read some of the letters from him when we were together.  “Thank you for making me a home in Jerusalem,” he wrote.  He doesn’t remember this when I tell him.  I confess to him that I used to walk by his parents’ house on an Armenian road whenever I was in the Old City.  I’d see the red and pink roses that he’d planted for his parents, and over time I watched the way that they grew out over the wall of their house.  Now, we drink tea in his living room.  His wife and kids are in Lebanon for a few weeks visiting his wife’s family.  He married an Armenian, he tells me.  “My parents got what they wanted.”  He’s recently planted rose bushes in his garden.  There’s a lemon tree too.  I tell him I married a Buddhist, show him pictures of Kyle and me in Jerusalem a few days ago, and he laughs, knowing it was unlikely that I’d marry a Jew.  He says he wishes he could have met Kyle.  It’s quiet in his house.  There’s a wonderful breeze coming in through the window.  I remember our time together 25 years ago.  Looking at our lives now, I can hardly imagine that our paths crossed so intimately.  It seems unlikely now that they ever would have.  They probably wouldn’t, in today’s Jerusalem.  The bar we met at, full of secular ex-pats and internationals, closed down 20 years ago.

In a little while, Tavit talks about his shop on Salah Al-Din Street in East Jerusalem, and the work he does in West Jerusalem.  I’ve always loved his perspective on Jerusalem.  He lives in both worlds of East and West.  He tells me his mother’s family has been in Jerusalem for 900 years; I didn’t know.  I ask him about Mamilla Mall.  He says that his great-grandfather used to live in the Mamilla area alongside Palestinians.  His great-grandfather had his first shop there.  He’s sick of Jerusalem, he says.  “The Muslims are becoming more Muslim, and the Jews are becoming more Jewish,” he tells me as he rolls his cigarette.

Jerusalem saxophonist
Jerusalem trumpeter

Walking back from Tavit’s house in the Old City later Saturday afternoon, I decide to walk through Mamilla Mall again.  An old man plays Sinatra’s “New York, New York” on the trumpet. A small group of American Jewish college students lock arms and kick their legs up in rhythm as he plays.  They’re loud and unselfconscious.  They look like they might have been up all night.  I think I must have looked and behaved like they are now when I lived here as a student 25 years ago, but I can’t remember.

As I exit the mall, I look back at the Old City walls.  It’s late afternoon and the light is hitting the stone.  This I remember.  But it’s a colder kind of light now.  I used to stare at the warm golden rock at this time of day when I lived here, and I’d think of Psalm 137:5, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”  I would never forget.  But I have forgotten so much.  And now I think Jerusalem wants me to forget her.  “Please forget me,”  I think she is saying.  Or it’s in my mind.  I’m not sure.  Her walls look tired.  The people inside her walls look tired and frustrated.  She has been forced to change too much by those taking advantage of her, raping her, changing how she looks, and leaving nothing for those who were here first.  The palm trees sway in the wind and look tired too.  I have to admit to myself that my own mind has been colonized as well.  I realize my folly.  I wanted to show my husband a place that doesn’t exist, and I’ve realized it only after he’s returned to the U.S.  My memories were bigger than the truth.  Even though I am an anti-Zionist, I have done the very thing that I have criticized Zionists for doing–believing the mythology of Israel over its reality.  I’ll share this with Kyle when I come back to our home.  I want to believe that the purest, truest sense of home is only in our minds, created with our loved ones and not in a physical place.  But Israel and Palestine is all about place: open-air prisons, apartheid walls, restricted access, advertisements for the privileged reminding them that they are “home,” and life under occupation, reminding Palestinians that this is not their home.  And the things that I think I remember, like light and stones and love and roses, exist only somewhere in the back of my memory, if they were ever really there at all.  Only if I’m lucky will those I shared memories with, like Tavit, remember them too in their own way.

When I’m on Jaffa Road once again, after exiting Mamilla Mall and walking a bit, a young man approaches me.  He’s holding a map of Jerusalem.  He’s wearing a white t-shirt with red and green writing that says, “There is no such thing as Palestine.”  It’s his first time to Israel, he says. What he sees now will become truth for him, as true as the writing on his t-shirt.  I feel like I’m in a haze.  He asks me if he keeps walking straight through Mamilla Mall, will he end up at Jaffa Gate?  “You sure will,” I say.

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A very moving, powerful, graphic, and honest memoir. Thank you, Liz.

I was there in that enchanted place eons ago, and now I see it again through your eyes. It seems it is just as I feared.

Not really O/T: “Israeli right-wing outraged over construction plans in Jerusalem-area Palestinian town BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Right-wing Israeli politicians denounced on Monday a decision by the Israeli government to approve construction plans in the Palestinian town of Beit Safafa in occupied East Jerusalem, claiming that the move, despite a spike in illegal settlement construction plans, represented a focus on the Palestinian community to the detriment of Jewish Israelis. Israel approved the construction of 600 housing… Read more »

“Mamilla is “an incredible story of destruction, division, unification, renewal–and now shopping,” the article states, and it “begins at Jaffa Gate a century ago.” That’d appeal to the Valley Girl/Boy in all the american expats, no? As the little known 11th commandment clearly states: After thou hast destroyed, pillaged and plundered all in the name of some god that isn’t the Lord thy God, thou must shop till thou hopefully drops and pillage, plunder and… Read more »

Can’t help but seeing the author as the frog in the pot who gains awareness at the last moment.
Maybe I’m thinking of the moment evil becomes banal.

Another leftie…