If things seem better in Jerusalem, it’s because they’re worse

My friend Adina Hoffman, whose biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is a small treasure, has a wonderful piece in The Nation this week on the visit by the Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Jerusalem this past summer.  Though film buffs will read and love the entire piece, it also has a lengthy interlude on Jerusalem that should be of special interest to readers of this blog. (Adina lived in Jerusalem throughout the 90s and the aughts, and now divides her time between Jerusalem and New Haven.) The piece  is behind the paywall at The Nation, which is a shame, but the editors have liberated it for a day (today). Anyway, here’s a taste:

These are strange days in Jerusalem. On the eve of the month of Ramadan and at the height of summer vacation—as, nearby, Egypt seethes and Syria smolders—the city is both more bustling and more bewildering than ever, and Makhmalbaf’s unlikely appearance only underscores the confusing nature of this Middle Eastern cultural moment.

In the upscale Jewish neighborhoods on the western side of town, things are looking surprisingly swank. Petunias have been planted en masse in the municipal parks. A hundred new street cleaners have been enlisted by city hall to sweep up after the hordes crowding the pedestrian malls. The Ottoman-era train station—derelict for decades—has been tastefully refurbished and has just opened its doors as an elegant entertainment compound featuring chic restaurants, an airy gallery, and a pretty, landscaped foot and bike path that runs, High Line–style, along the old tracks. Mahaneh Yehudah, the outdoor market, is booming. Alongside the well-established vegetable and spice stands, funky bars and trendy cafés have popped up; the place is teeming with locals and tourists, old ladies dragging shopping carts and young hipsters taking drags from their hand-rolled cigarettes.

Palestinians, too, mingle easily in this mix, in large part because of the municipal light rail, which has been running for two years now. For almost a decade, the construction of the rail line and its protracted delays threatened to destroy already depressed downtown West Jerusalem by rendering it a dusty, nearly impassible building site. Now, winding like some great electric eel down Jaffa Road, the rail line cuts a sleek, silvery figure that, in the gritty context of Jerusalem, appears almost fantastical. The gentle tolling of the train’s bell adds to that enchanted feel—as does the utterly mixed population riding the train itself.

Twelve years ago, at the height of the second intifada, when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up with scary regularity in the middle of downtown and the very presence of a Palestinian on an Israeli bus was enough to make most of the Jewish riders squirm, it would have been next to impossible to imagine the scene on the light rail this summer: ultra-Orthodox women in wigs and Muslim women with their hijabs, miniskirted Jewish teenagers and young Palestinian men in jeans not only sitting and standing calmly side by side, but often packed together without panic as the train glides its way from stop to stop. They rarely exchange a word, but there they are, shoulder to shoulder, in the air-conditioned slither toward de facto “unification” of the city. Each station is announced in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which in any other town might seem an ordinary nod to the linguistic needs of the various people using the train. But in traumatized, sectarian Jerusalem, the co-existence of these languages, as of the riders themselves, is startling for its sheer normalcy.

If things seem better in the old-new city of Jerusalem, it’s in part because they’re worse. Israel technically annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, but it has taken some four and a half decades to create the infrastructural facts on the ground that make the occupation such a concrete and humdrum state of affairs. The light rail is just one example, erasing as it does the border between the Jewish and Arab sides of town. In the last ten years or so, the notorious wall or “separation barrier” has, in addition, cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank, rendering this once-thriving urban hub of Palestinian life little more than a demoralized and demoralizing backwater. This is no doubt one of the main reasons why so many Palestinians have decided this summer to go west to eat ice cream and shop in pop-music-blasting Jewish shoe stores. It’s a chance to pass through the looking glass that this city often is and spend just a few day-tripping hours on the cleaner, more prosperous side of town.

Systematically neglected by the municipality and battered by the larger political and economic situation, East Jerusalem is home to 39 percent of the city’s total population, though its people receive only a small fraction of the city’s resources. West Jerusalem has forty-two post offices, East Jerusalem, nine; the West boasts seventy-seven municipal preschools, the East has ten; eighteen welfare offices function in West Jerusalem, while the whole of the East counts three. Since 1967, a third of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated. According to Israel’s National Insurance Institute, the poverty rate among the city’s Palestinians is 79.5 percent. Of East Jerusalem’s children, 85 percent live below the poverty line. (The percentage of poor Jewish Jerusalemites is 29.5 percent.) The numbers are at once shameful, slightly numbing and somehow too banal to register with most of the world at large, though this is the way a viable Palestinian Jerusalem ends: not with a bang but a bureaucratic whimper.

Not one to be swayed by such sad statistics, Israel’s public security minister must have felt it his duty to protect the people of Israel from the existential threat posed by a children’s puppet festival that was scheduled to open at the Palestinian national theater in East Jerusalem on June 22. Claiming without proof that the festival was being sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, in violation of the Oslo Accords, the minister banned it and ordered the theater shuttered for eight days and its director summoned for questioning by the Shin Bet. Protests by Palestinian and international organizations did no good, and a solidarity campaign by various Israeli puppeteers—including no less than Elmo from the local version of Sesame Street—proved useless. The theater remained closed, and the impoverished kids of East Jerusalem were left to entertain themselves in the heat.

Back in West Jerusalem, hawkish high-tech entrepreneur Mayor Nir Barkat decided that what the people of his city really needed this summer was a $4.5 million Formula One race car exhibition. Blocking off traffic on the city’s main thoroughfares for several days, the mayor, a self-declared “motor sports fan and racer,” arranged for a flashy parade of Ferraris, Audis and Grand Prix motorcycles to vroom past the old city walls in the rather mind-bogglingly named Peace Road Show. It is, declared the mayor in his American-sounding English, “great branding, great marketing,” and “great for promoting peace and co-existence.”

And about that peace and co-existence: Barkat also found time this summer to bestow honorary Jerusalem citizenship on billionaire casino tycoon and ideological sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli-born wife. Adelson took the occasion of the Jerusalem ceremony held in his honor to dismiss the Palestinians as “southern Syrians” and to claim that Yasir Arafat “came along with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and gave it to everybody to drink and sold them the idea of Palestinians.” At this festive gathering, complete with the reading of a fancy parchment scroll and the crooning of “That’s Amore” by singers wearing Paul Revere–style tricorne hats, Barkat declared the Adelsons “Zionist heroes of the city.” At the same time, native-born Palestinians from the neighborhood of Silwan are not considered citizens at all, honorary or otherwise. They are, instead, “permanent residents,” many of them threatened with eviction by the municipality, which is working closely with Jewish settler groups and various government agencies to demolish their homes and put in their place a pseudo-biblical park and tourist attraction called the King’s Garden. The city has also recently approved plans to construct apartments for Jewish settlers in the heart of another Palestinian neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where families are literally being thrown out into the street. That’s amore.

The mayor is a busy man. In late May, he squeezed in a trip to Los Angeles, where he attended a reception hosted in his honor by the evangelical birther Pat Boone, who long ago did his bit for Israel by writing and singing the lyrics to the theme for the movie Exodus. (“This land is mine, God gave this land to me /This brave, this golden land to me.”) While in LA, Barkat met with Hollywood producers, to whom he offered special tax breaks and subsidies to shoot their movies in the Holy City, where a special department has already been established to handle film permits and logistical matters. It’s “not only good business. It’s good Zionism,” he enthused to The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Which brings us back to Mohsen Makhmalbaf….

“The first thing that shocked me” about Israel, says Makhmalbaf, now dressed in a white shirt and looking slightly subdued the morning after the first Jerusalem screening of The Gardener, is that “it was like Iran. I felt I was in Iran.”…

After today, you can read the article in pdf form at Adina’s website (it’s the piece called “Salaam Cinema”; click on the link at Adina’s site). And while you’re there, check out some of Adina’s other essays, on everything from S.Y. Agnon and Elias Khoury to archives and archaeology in Jerusalem. Or buy the book she wrote with her husband, the poet and translator Peter Cole, on the Cairo Geniza. Enjoy!

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