Who belongs in Jerusalem?

People ask me all the time about what it’s like to live in Jerusalem.

It is a hard place on a day-to-day basis because you really have to work to find people you can relate to. As a white, American, female, non-Jewish, non-Christian, I had to really work. I found that some of the most accepting residents are also the most marginalized.

JerusalemEven if you are only visiting Jerusalem, a trip to a place like that will make people ask themselves: “Maybe I should think about living here?”

The Jerusalem residents I have had the chance to meet all have one thing in common: they have a sense of humor about the absurd. The more time you spend there, the more you realize how absurd it truly is. Absurdly beautiful.

A couple of years ago I encountered this group of teenagers who do parkour in their spare time. That’s the sport where people use urban settings to jump around.

These parkour athletes were as young and reckless as teenagers you’d find anywhere: they didn’t care that they had no protective equipment or significant training. They let me photograph them for hours as they jumped dangerously off and over some rooftops in the Old City. I never stopped to think that we might be running on the rooftop of people’s homes. When you’re inside the Old City it feels like normal life is somehow suspended. And normal rules, like running on people’s rooftops.

When the kids were leading me up to the rooftop they raced through the streets of the Old City like they were running through their backyard. It was for some of them.

“Ah, the smell of the Old City,” one of them said with a certain sense of nostalgia far beyond his age.”All the incense and spices! It makes me think of my childhood.”

I could tell that he had been taught to love and treasure the place and everything inside its walls like you would a sweet old friend. No judgement for its many, many flaws (keep in mind the Old City is a flashpoint for violence, particularly in times of regional unrest). I hadn’t even noticed a smell until he said something. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. That afternoon photographing those teenage boys as they leapt in the air like superheroes while taking time to admire the heart of their city was better than a top-dollar tour.

That is the beauty of crazy Jerusalem, she has the ability to truly surprise you.

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Embassy vs. consulate

20160303_130813If you are embarking on travel to Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank and you’re politics-averse…then maybe consider changing plans. Or buying earplugs or one of those sleep face-masks. It is a place where politics is life. The impact of policy decisions and international agreements has an often almost immediate impact.

Take the embassy vs. consulate debate that has long raged.

At a very basic level, there are good reasons for the debates. There is good reasons for all the uproar about the American embassy being moved from Tel Aviv, where almost every other embassy is located. A couple of less powerful nations followed suit when the current administration made the dramatic choice to relocate the embassy.

The basic facts you need to know on this debate so you don’t get the wool pulled over your eyes or sucked into a conversation in which you’re just getting brainwashed:

  1. A foreign embassy location is significant in that it demonstrates a recognition of a certain status of national political life vis-a-vis international norms and laws. For embassies of most nations to be located in Tel Aviv signals a tacit support for a future two-state (Jewish-Palestinian) solution. We can dream, right?
  2. A foreign embassy located in Jerusalem is a very intentional move meant to send a message: that Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel. Make no mistake – the message itself is rhetoric.
  3. Jerusalem’s history is long and winding and full of hidden corners and untold stories that lend context and relevance to modern debates like the American embassy location. But one thing is for certain: Jerusalem is a city (more like an entity) that belongs neither to Israel nor to the Palestinians and any future state they might form.
  4. As best I can tell after years of living and working in Jerusalem and writing about its people and dramas and history – my conclusion is that Jerusalem belongs to herself.

Travel writing on the Middle East

I once reported and wrote a story about street musicians in Jerusalem for a publication based in the Middle East that publishes in English. Not one word in the story had anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The street musician world of Jerusalem is prolific, varied, talented, and extraordinarily interesting. They have no politics to espouse when they perform. Violinists, guitarists, singers, all play because they want to. Many perform at some of Jerusalem’s open mic sessions at different places in the city. Their performances are free, unless you want to tip. It’s some of the best local color that the city has to offer.

AdiHowever, when the story was published, words had been added to make it more dramatic, more interesting, more violent. Words that evoke fighting and conflict were added, and a photo of a religious man was made the lead image.

There’s nothing wrong per se with framing a story about street musicians in the context of the geopolitical situation. Whatever works for that publication, really. But there are times when it gets to be ridiculous. This was one of them.

Music is music is music. Yes, it can be used to influence and incite. But not in this case. One street musician, a close friend, told me that he plays in Jerusalem on the streets because he simply must. In his case, there is a spiritual connection to the city that motivates him.

I wish editors at that publication would have emphasized that – spiritual connection – instead of what they did – social disconnection.

Jerusalem: Why Bother?

A gate in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood. Photo by Genevieve Belmaker, republication with permission.
A gate in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. Photo by Genevieve Belmaker, republication with permission.

People are always asking me what the big deal about Jerusalem is. I always ask them how long they have to talk about it. Jerusalem is one of those places that is like no other place, and the only way to begin to understand such a place is to experience it with your own eyes and ears.

Even after you see it, you won’t understand it, though. Nobody does. The best you can hope for is to understand part of this place which is more historic entity than city.

Check back here throughout the rest of 2018 as I work on the second edition of Moon Handbooks’ “Israel and the West Bank” for insights into Jerusalem (and way beyond) – the people, and clues for how to understand it.

Smart People at the Mercy of Idiots

There is this fantastic group of book stores in East Jerusalem on Salah Al-Din Street  called the Educational Bookshop. It’s a little oasis of intelligence, humor and free speech. Actually it is three oases – one location at 19 Salah Al-Din Street, one just across the street and one at the American Colony Hotel. I would call the folks who run and work at the book shops renegades or rebels, but they are among the most intelligent and well-spoken people I’ve met in these parts.

Run by generations long-established Arab Jerusalemites, the owners of these shops are highly aware of local current events. They are always interesting to have an intellectual conversation with, even if you don’t leave one of their shops with a book. They sell mostly English titles that emphasize politics, geopolitics, current events, and regionally “controversial” subjects. Whatever that means when you’re in a region that nearly every opinion, big or small, has the potential of being controversial.

The Educational Bookshop also often hosts or facilitates author events. While in their American Colony Hotel location last week, I asked one of the owners, Mahmoud, about the lag time for announcing events on their email list.

“Why is it that you so often only send out event announcements the day of the event?” I asked, annoyed. “I mean, it makes it impossible to just drop everything and go to the event or book reading. And I’d really like to go to some of them.”

“Oh, that’s simple,” answered Mahmoud, a sharp-witted man with strong opinions and perfect English. “The authors who come from other countries sometimes have trouble passing through customs if the Israeli authorities know in advance about their plans. So they ask us to keep it quiet until the last minute.”

I paused, incredulous. For a journalist who has covered this region on and off for the last six years, it seems I am still naieve about the reality of life here. This is a place where Palestinians can be thrown in jail – for a long time -for doing something like writing poetry and clicking like on a Facebook post. Case in point is the story of Dareen Tatour.

“Are you serious?” I blurted out. “Nice freedom of speech. What a joke.” I was having one of those days where I just wanted to go home to America.

“Yes,” he answered, completely deadpan. He had the look of a man who got the same three questions about fifteen times a day from foreigners about “the situation” in Israel.

Luckily for me and everyone else, an upcoming author boldly decided to announce his arrival one week in advance. The author, Toufic Haddad, has written a book called “Palestine Ltd, Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory“. Mahmoud described it to me as “the most important book of the year” and it retails for about NIS140 at their shops (a special rate they negotiated). Toufic will be giving a talk at the Issaf Nashashibi Cultural Centre in Sheikh Jarrah, above the Gallery Cafe, at 6:30pm on Wednesday December 7. It’s free.

Bring the Doughnuts

If you’re anywhere near Israel or West Jerusalem during December, you are going to come across at least one doughnut. These tasty, beautiful little monsters can be found everywhere – in coffee shops, at the mall, wherever your heart desires. It’s all part of a Jewish tradition of eating fried foods to commemorate a miracle at the Temple. The story goes that there was only a small amount of oil left to burn the wicks in the lamps, yet they kept burning for 8 nights – thus the roundabout connection to Hanukkah.

The rest of the year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Jewish Israeli (or anybody else) who is in love with the idea of donuts. Certainly nothing approximating the general cultural reverence they enjoy in America. A doughnut shop that sells almost nothing but deep friend pieces of dough with a missing middle and mediocre coffee you can drink on the road? Not happening. In my neighborhood in West Jerusalem, which is chock full of Americans, the best I can find is some semi-stale specimens stuck in the back of one neighborhood grocery store next to the tortillas and loaves of bread.

Aside from the obvious issues with doughnuts and tortillas being sold side-by-side, the doughnuts aren’t covered and I often see store workers tossing them about with their bare hands. I’d love to introduce those dainty, thin plastic “self-serve” grabbers to Israel, but I don’t think it would catch on.

So in the meantime, here’s to avoiding the calorie binge that one doughnut represents until after Hanukkah has passed. Thankfully, I will be in Europe until after the New Year. I hope they enjoy treats that are less caloric for Christmas and New Year’s.

Sounds on the Wind

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Monday morning and I’m up early to get in a couple hours of work before the family awakens. As I stand in front of the coffee machine in my kitchen to make a strong brew, I hear a faint sound drift in from the small, sliding window that’s been left open. It sounds like music. Or singing. Maybe someone talking. I’ve been away on vacation in the U.S. for a few weeks, so it takes a moment to register that I’m hearing the Muslim morning call to prayer. I strain to hear it, but the sound wafts away on the light Jerusalem breeze. Something about the sound is a comfort, or an intrigue. I go to the floor-to-ceiling sliding windows in the living room – the windows that face in the direction of the holy city of Bethlehem – and open them toward just enough to put my head outside. A lone stray cat sits docile next to the street. The three-quarters moon shines clear and bright over the mostly sleeping city. The only other sound are a few loud air conditioning units rattling away, but I quiet my mind and focus on the sound and this time I can hear it. The singing voices of men fades in and out, weaving its way mysteriously into the subconsciousness of the city. I breathe the cool night air that is coldest just before dawn, and let my heart swim in the beauty that is Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Old City Ramparts Walk

Scant information exists on the Ramparts Walk around the perimeter of the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the most popular tourist sites in Jerusalem, the Old City is filled with exotic smells, flavors, and history. The Ramparts Walk is a way to see the Old City and the new city from a high vantage point. You can start at multiple locations, though the easiest to find is at Jaffa Gate.

Entrance fee is NIS16 for and adult and NIS8 for a child (at least 8 years old is recommended) and the hours are 8am-4pm Sun.-Thurs., though you can enter right before 4pm and still get out at your leisure.

Just to the right of the entrance to Jaffa Gate is a small sign with an arrow:

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The southern entrance to the Ramparts Walk at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

Follow that alongside the outer wall of the city until you reach a tiny metal gate and a staffer who will take your money.

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The entrance gate to the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

If you come at the end of the day just before closing, your ticket is good for the following day. Taking the Ramparts Walk about 1 hour before sunset is an incredible way to see east and west Jerusalem. Really sturdy shoes are a must. There are railings, but take your time and don’t rush as the stones can be uneven and slippery at times.

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A portion of the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

All along the way there are historical markers with explanations of the area. You can descend at several different points, though the closest from Jaffa Gate is about 25 minutes.

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A portion of the southern section of the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Genevieve Belmaker/All Rights Reserved)

Open House Jerusalem Offers Glimpse at Old and New of Ancient City

As Open House Worldwide continues to roll through some of the most dramatic cities on the planet (everywhere from Dublin to Athens to New York), one of its 31 locations not to be missed is Open House Jerusalem. Founded in 2007, Open House Jerusalem literally open a window to let in some light on the often cloistered atmosphere of the ancient city.

This year’s showcase catalog of local historical monuments, homes and public buildings includes some of the city’s most intriguing locations. Who hasn’t walked down the streets of Jerusalem and thought to themselves: “I wonder what’s in that building?”

Open House Jerusalem is a chance to find out.

The tours for Open House Jerusalem are increasingly popular, particularly among locals, and take place this year from October 22-24. That’s a Thursday through a Saturday. The start of the workweek in Jerusalem is on Sunday, so Open House Jerusalem is mostly on the weekend. For those not familiar with the rhythm of the very religious city, the weekend in Jerusalem means less vehicular traffic. There is also no public transportation and fewer taxis (at a higher rate) from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

American Colony Hotel via Wikimedia Commons by Magister.
American Colony Hotel via Wikimedia Commons by Magister.

Aside that one small complication, some of the tours for Open House Jerusalem have limited capacity and fill up quickly. All tours are free, but some require registration in advance, which begins on Friday, October 16. About 100 sites are covered, so it is possible to find more than enough to entertain and fascinate even if a first choice is unavailable.

The Open House Jerusalem website describes experiencing the collection tours as something akin to time travel:

“As a holy city to three religions and one of the oldest urban environments, Jerusalem offers a fascinating and unique Open House experience that can take you back and forth in time and launch you on a multiple century time warp in only 2 days.”

Jerusalem’s urban architecture reflects its role as home to about 1 million people and with a history that spans thousands of years.  The Open House Jerusalem tours only go back to the 19th century, but feature some of the most modern architecture the city has to offer.

Some highlights from the 2015 Open House Jerusalem catalog include the neighborhoods of the German, Greek, and French Colonies, Baka, the Old City, East Jerusalem, City Center, and more. While tours in the neighborhoods afford glimpses into private homes and a wide variety of architectural styles, the Old City’s ancient offerings of massive buildings are always a huge draw.

The “Preservation Issues in the Old City” guided tour will lead people through the various problems that the Israel Antiquities Authority faced when working on projects in the area near Mount Zion and Jaffa Gate. There is also a discussion with an architectural firm planning for the Arab population in East Jerusalem, and tours of various well-known buildings in the area including the iconic American Colony Hotel, the Rockefeller Museum and more.

Subscriptions for the Open House Jerusalem email list are available by contacting hfw.israel@gmail.com.

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