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Longings for Jerusalem

Salman Masalha

Longings for Jerusalem

It’s been many a day since first I came to Jerusalem in the 1970s. After all these years I’ve learned that their number can be considered as the blink of an eye in comparison to all the years of the city that falls and rises, falls and rises like a doll whose center of gravity is on the bottom. Jerusalem’s many days are its magic and the curse that has hovered over it ever since its dusts and stones became holy.

I drive to East Jerusalem and I think to myself that this city is so burdened with so much past – how will it find the leisure to think about the future? But it isn’t the city, or the dust or the stones that have made Jerusalem what it is. Only the people who have placed it at the core of their being. And the moment they did so it took control of them. It wrapped itself around them tightly and since then it has given them no rest.

There was a time when I’d walk in the grip of enchantment through the dim alleys of the Old City. I admit that I haven’t done this for quite some time. I go past the Damascus Gate and find that the Border Police who stood at the gate in the 1970s are still standing in the same place. As though the occupation has stood stock still.

After about a dozen years the intifada erupted in East Jerusalem as well and the city that had been joined together by asphalt and concrete, rifle and bayonet, once again went its separate ways, but this time not towards peace. Blood flowed in the streets of Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews lost their lives on the altar of the sanctity of stones and dust, as occupier and as occupied, in the war of tribes fighting over the past.

At one time Ziad Abu Zayyad dreamed about peace and he continues to dream about peace in Jerusalem: “’But first of all the Palestinians should be a liberated people. This is the first thing. That we return to our land. That we return to Jerusalem … Maybe to a distance of 200 meters from the Damascus Gate.’ He says these things to me in the heart of Jerusalem. How strange,” writes Amos Oz of his meeting with Ziad Abu Zayyad in the offices of the newspaper Al Fajr (The Dawn) in East Jerusalem. The newspaper breathed its last and stopped appearing and Abu Zayyad now roams the world with a Palestinian passport in his pocket and flying first class, as an elected member of the Palestinian Council.

The longings for Jerusalem from those days are longings for control of Jerusalem. This is what Ali Al-Khallili, a Palestinian poet and the editor of a literary supplement wrote back then when he dwelt in the ehart of Jerusalem: “In its beginning a cloudy day, / before, and also after, Salah al-Din / like all the people, all of them / again and again we will long / for the Arab Jerusalem / the celestial Jerusalem / the forgotten Jerusalem / and the Jerusalem engraved in every book. / We long and we walk though the magical lanes / Are we here?” (from: “A Cloudy Day,” Jerusalem, 1984).

He walks through the lanes, touches the city’s stones – and continues to long for it. His “Are we here?” is the key to understanding the situation. As long as you don’t control it, you will long eternally for Jerusalem. Every day and every hour, more than it reveals its complexities this Jerusalem reveals the complexes of those who love it, or more precisely – its lovers. When the city responds to them, they turn their backs on it and neglect it. They will always want it unattained, because only thus, when it is part of a fantasy, will they continue to seek it, to plead and pray to it, and to write poems to it.

Some of my best friends are secular Jews. One of them even describes himself as very devoutly secular. A week ago he managed to astound me when he said to me, perhaps seriously and perhaps in jest: “You Palestinians could do a really good deed. Instead of fussing over all kinds of nonsense, go look for the Red Heifer’s hiding place and get rid of her.”

Apparently they want the Arabs to do even this work for them. Of course this is not at all bothersome. I mention his remark as I talk with an ultra-Orthodox Jew on a hill overlooking the Old City. You look to me like someone who pondering a separation from East Jerusalem, I say to him. Why? He asks, puzzled. The Palestinians, I say, are establishing a state and its capital is East Jerusalem. There’s been so much talk of this that in the end it will happen, he replies, without managing to conceal his sadness upon hearing what I say.

He visits the Western Wall, he infrequently passes though the Old City market and he dreams there will be wealthy Jews who will buy a lot of shops in the market. “It’s impossible to do transfer by force,” he says. “It’s necessary to buy houses and do things legally,” he continues. “The country’s leaders are so hapless. Altogether, facts should have been established on the Temple Mount right in 1967, the way they did at the Wall. The Temple Mount is a sore. A very painful sore. All the governments have been wrong since 1967. They have been wrong in that they didn’t establish facts on the ground right after the war. They should have taken control of half the Temple Mount -- this place is the Jews’ Holy of Holies, while for the Arabs it’s of the third rank.”

So what will happen, I asked. Just pray. Pray all the time that the coming explosion catches us in a better position. “The Red Heifer,” he says, “is a sign that we are now very close to the coming of the Messiah. There will be a very strong earthquake, which will destroy everything, and then a Temple, complete and ready, will come down form Heaven.”

Don’t you think you’re crazy? I ask him, and he replies: It’s a matter of faith. And I glance over at the Old City, like a person who wants to get another picture before it collapses under the burden of apocalyptic fantasy. In a region that lives according to myths and sanctifies vanities, the Red Heifer isn’t just another domesticated animal for yielding milk and serving as an attraction for children. A Red Heifer is the pistol that appears in the first act of the horror play. I remember my secular friend’s remark and I think to myself – maybe he has something there.

Everyone seeks his own Jerusalem. The moment he obtains it, he starts to look for it in some other place. A young Palestinian poet, who also returned to Palestine in the wake of the Oslo agreements, had to take himself back to his exile in Sofia in order to write about Jerusalem: “From by balcony / I see Jerusalem at night / paths leading to me. / Prayers in memory of the blood. / Broken longings / silent bells. / Here the soldiers lean / and there is my smell. / Here is the dance floor that was never completed / and there a bird for worry. / From my balcony / I see Jerusalem at night / and I remember my friends / who still dream of return” (Khaled Darwish, from “Scenes” Sofia - Ramallah, 1995).

And today is the first Friday in the month of May, 1997. Fridays in Jerusalem were colored in a wealth of hues as many Palestinians, from town and village, flocked to the city, some to worship at the mosques, some to engage in commerce and some to do both – two birds with one stone. Today, in the wake of the closure policy imposed by the Israeli authorities, the city has effectively been cut off from the rest of the West Bank. Only few are allowed to enter the city and the Palestinian city is fading. Since the intifada the repeated closures most of the institutions have abandoned the city. Only here and there something remains.

Half-way between the place where the Mandelbaum Gate stood and the national headquarters of the Israel Police, on a side street, stands “a stone Arab house,” not far from “the stone Arab house” Amos Oz described. The eucalyptus tree at the entrance rising above the houses of the pastoral neighborhood does not loosen its grip on me. It takes me back many years to the village overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Hills to the east. I remember reaching out with my hand and touching those hills even before I knew Rachel Blauwstein’s Hebrew poem about doing that—“There are the Golan Hills” – for which Naomi Shemer later wrote a popular melody. There too, in the yard of the elementary school I attended, stood a eucalyptus tree under which strictly kosher Arab teachers pounded the Zionist creed into us concerning the key role played by the eucalyptus in the draining of swamps. In the days of the early “pioneers.” Since then they have dried up a lot of water along the Jordan.

This handsome “Arab stone house” has been serving for a number of years as the Al Wasati Gallery where Palestinian artists show their works. This is one of the few cultural institutions established in East Jerusalem in recent years. Suleiman Mansour, a leading Palestinian artist, manages the place. He sits at a desk laden with papers and chain-smokes. He looks a bit worried. I ask him: What’s up? He replies that he has been worried lately about the matter of where he lives. Mansour is a resident of Jerusalem who in recent years found himself living outside the city, like many of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. The creeping transfer policy is putting its imprint on east Jerusalem. Arab construction is restricted and usually this is private construction that over the years went through mayor Teddy Kollek’s sieve. In recent years it appears that the holes in the sieve of his successor, Ehud Olmert, are becoming blocked. When there is a closure, says Mansour, his mother, who lives a few hundred meters away, can’t visit him because she is outside of Jerusalem.

This is the encounter with the occupier that Ali al-Khalili speaks about. The Jews, says Ali al-Khalili, were soldiers. Those were the first Jews he met. And therefore, when he crossed the Green Line after the 1967 war he discovered children and old people, just like the children and old people in Nablus. Now he lives in Ramallah and is in charge of cultural centers in the Palestinian Authority.

I ask him how his world has changed during the past decade and he replies: First of all, there was the intifada and after that the Palestinian Authority came in. These two things, he says, helped greatly in the formation of a separate Palestinian identity. Had the occupation continued, there would have been a danger of the Palestinian identity getting assimilated inside Israel. Now we’re in the process of building the Palestinian identity and state. I try to challenge him and ask: Even though you can’t get to Jerusalem? And he answers me hesitantly: Yes, even despite that. We will talk about Jerusalem, and it will be the capital of Palestine, just as it is the capital of Israel.

I walk though the exhibitions at Al Wasiti in East Jerusalem, and again find myself facing the gate to the city that was joined together, with the mosques at its center. In the background, the voice of Egyptian singer Abdelwahab continues to croon over the Voice of Palestine: “Our paths crossed again and all our dreams came true.”

Today is Friday, and I am on my way to East Jerusalem. And there is not a single scrap of those clouds in the sky that in Alhallili’s poem presaged a spell of dusty desert heat in the city and on the radio they are warning against burning twigs in the forests and the parks because the fire could spread quickly. Since the fire that raged last year, this reminder is repeated on all the news broadcasts. I tell myself there is no danger a fire will ignite suddenly in Jerusalem, because hardly any twigs are left here. The asphalt and the concrete and the heaps of stones are taking over ad closing the city off from all sides.

And if the fire does spread in Jerusalem, it will come from the flame in the dry bones beneath the surface. One tunnel has already ignited a conflagration, and it was put out only with difficulty. There the eternal flame flickers that is destined to devour the entire Middle East. I push aside these apocalyptic thoughts and cross the line that in the past connected/separated the two parts of the this schizophrenic city’s soul.

“The old Arab stone house” where the editorial offices of the newspaper Al-Fajr were located is still standing. The “dawn” that was supposed to break seems to be tardy. The place, not far from the Damascus Gate, is shrouded in gloom. Only the noise from Highway 1 disturbs the slumber that is occupying East Jerusalem at such an early hour of the evening. As though it were a high-tension line that hums in the heart of the city. And it isn’t that it disturbs the repose, it also cuts in half the city that has been joined together. There, near the traffic lights, every morning men stand offering for hire the strength of their limbs, their “porter’s kit” and the suffering in their eyes. Young boys from the Hebron hills ambush the red light in order to peddle their wars to driver waiting for the green light that in minutes will take them to the very heart of the Green Line, straight into the heart of West Jerusalem. This is a different city, they say – lively until the wee hours of the night.

It isn’t simple in Arab Jerusalem. Everyone has their eyes on it. But the moment they touch it, they leave it to its own devices and head for West Jerusalem. “I hadn’t planned to visit Jerusalem, because I knew that for several months now it hasn’t been easy to get there for anyone who isn’t an Israeli by birth, or holds Israeli citizenship. But my energetic sister, who had visited Ramallah a year earlier, was emphatic that visiting the country without going to Jerusalem would be considered an incomplete visit.” He was walking down Salah a-Din Street. “The last street in Jerusalem, ad I immediately remembered our last street in Fakahani, in Beirut. And it seems we are fated always to be in our last street. However, are we destined to lose our last street another time?” And thus a group of visitors goes to the overlooks to gaze at the Old City. They gaze and they tour, but they don’t go into the Old City. Instead they go over to West Jerusalem with the feeling: “How odd and painful it is to enter Jerusalem, fearful. And after all these years, what kind of feeling is it to know that you are the real owner of this place, and here you are going in like a thief in the night!”

He ends the diary: “And thus I found I had intended one thing and ended up at a different thing. I had intended to visit Al Qatza, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to walk on the ancient paving stones of the Via Dolorosa, and I found myself roaming the Israeli pedestrian mall. Does this fact have any meaning?” (from: A Diary: Several Hours in Jerusalem,” by Rasmi Abu Ali, a Palestinian writer, published in Al-Hayat, London, December 21, 1996).

And this Jerusalem looks to Palestinians as though it fell from the Oslo airplane in the middle of the Palestinian night. And God alone can save it. And in God’s holy war games, there will be no winners roaming the streets. More than anything it will look like a forbidden city. Only ruins and stones, the lovers of which decided to pile up as a memorial. Lines and lines of tourists, of all nations, will come to gaze at the city that ate its inhabitants, Jews and Arabs.

I walk around in Jerusalem and it increasingly seems to me like a heap of dry twigs. Or a mythological zoo. Burdened beyond recognition with history. Too much past and history are present in this city. Because of so much past it is impossible to see the future. I take a last look at the city and see the smoke rising over its roofs. Yet again the skies of Jerusalem have gone gray. Rain in May is a rare thing in this city. I wipe the drops off my face and suddenly they seemed to me like tears.

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In the wake of “In the Land of Israel: Essays,” by Amos Oz, 1983.

The article was published in Hebrew the Independence Day Supplement of Yedioth Aharonoth, May 11, 1997
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