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Damned, Mad, Holy, Evil, Real: Living in Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock
Photo: Lucy Duncan / AFSC

Note: Mati Gomis-Perez is the director of AFSC's office in east Jerusalem. Here she writes about what it's like to live there, especially now as the tension and violence has heightened in the aftermath of the Gaza bombardment and the confiscation of 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank. - Lucy

As violence spiraled over the summer, tensions rose in Jerusalem. What started in early summer makes its way into the holy city. Many may think that this is another wave of violence that will end in the coming months and things will go back to "normal." The "normal" situation in Jerusalem is already violent as the Palestinian population lives in a constant state of oppression and discrimination. What is happening these days is an expression ot that situation.

Living in a divided city, I have been asked many times what I like about Jerusalem and why.  The list of reasons of why this city is not likable is quite long and I could list them all without hesitation. 

So many “sins” are practiced on a daily basis in this town that the thought of being holy for Christians, Muslims and Jews makes me wonder about the real meaning of holiness, let alone religion.  If this is holy, I don’t want to know what evil is.

After only a few days, even the casual visitor realizes that what happens in this city is about more than religion, it’s about politics and control.  Everything is political, including the most religious days. Fridays start with buses pouring Muslims into the Old City.  For the last months, only women and men over 50 years of age have been allowed to enter the Old City. Reaching our office may take a while as the streets around the main entrances to the Muslim shrines are closed for traffic.  After the clashes between Palestinians and the police and army, Fridays “peacefully” end with counting the injured and the arrested.   The crowds of ultraorthodox Jews enter the gates on their way to the Western Wall.

On Saturday, the streets in West Jerusalem are empty as a reminder of the Sabbath.  More and more restaurants are closed in the last years as the Sabbath is enforced more strictly following the growing religious/political fundamentalism that spreads throughout the Middle East.  And Sunday, the closed doors in scattered shops of the eastern neighborhoods remind me that, despite massive migration in the last decades, there are still Christian Palestinians holding on to their day of rest and their property.

Arriving to Jerusalem from the West (on my way back from Gaza), I encounter relics of old military machinery used during the 1948 war.  The abandoned ruins of Lifta, a destroyed Palestinian village, greet me at the entrance of the city as a reminder of the Nakba.  Approaching the city from the east, after a day of relaxation in the sleepy city of Jericho, I see Palestinian Bedouins being encroached upon by the ongoing construction of settlements and the roads that service the settlers.  The way from the south, from Bethlehem, takes me to the already well-known Christmas Banksy image of the three kings wanting to greet baby Jesus and finding the Wall in their way. 

From the North, I enter Jerusalem through a path of more and more settlements that, like predators, grow and grow eating up mountains, olive trees, water resources, land and livelihoods.  The alternative is through the dreadful Qalandya checkpoint and along the Wall in Ar Ram, on a street that long, long ago, was the way taken by travellers to reach Damascus and Beirut. 

Three times holy and three times dammed: despite this madness, this city gets into your skin and leaves nobody indifferent.   I know people who cannot stand the thought of this place and leave it running away and swearing never to come back.  Others have a physical reaction when they are away from Jerusalem for too many days.  

At night Jerusalem is an incredibly silent city, which contrasts with the disturbing noise of cars, ambulances, construction sites, screaming shoppers, music, clashes, helicopters and, basically, human activity during the day.  The call for prayer from the muezzin at different times of day brings me some serenity during the crazy day. The light of Jerusalem at sunset is a daily gift from nature and during summer, it comes with a cool, humid breeze from the west.  At that hour of silence and calm, we counted the dead during the height of the second Intifada, as if the city would be healing its wounds.  It may be that, soon, we will again. 

One day, coming back from Tel Aviv with a colleague who, I would say, is one of those who cannot imagine living anywhere else, we were talking about Jerusalem and debating the pros and cons of the city and comparing it with other cities such as Tel Aviv or Ramallah (“bubble” cities where one can be oblivious of it all).  At the end of our back and forth, I asked her “So, why do you like Jerusalem?” Without any hesitation, as if the words were bursting out her mouth she said: “Because it is all out there, nothing is hidden, you cannot ignore it.  Because it is real.”