Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Old City

Borg al Luqluq -

ESPN probably isn’t going to cover it, but I put aside my basketball retirement for a few hours this afternoon to hoop it up with a couple of 14-year-olds named Mohammed in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. A stone’s throw from the Lions’ Gate ramparts, and with the Golden Dome of the Rock as a backdrop, the Mohammeds beat me 15-14. They also bought me a bright yellow popsicle afterwards.

I spent today at the Borg al Luqluq summer camp with some colleagues from work. The day was billed as a chance to interact with local kids as regular Americans. Summer camps are important here, as they are in any crowded city where kids don’t have anything to do during day-time hours. You’ve likely heard about some of the camps here, the places that offer indoctrination in addition to sports, games, and fun. This place wasn’t like that; it seemed very nice. The staff was committed and young and the hundred or so kids rotated from station to station, playing games like dodgeball, practicing for an end of the summer play about a wedding, learning the history of Jerusalem, and competing in different races and activities.

There was some confusion as to why a group of Americans had come to join the fun. Almost every kid I played with wanted to know if I was going to come back tomorrow, the next day, and the rest of the summer - a legitimate question. I’ll add "camp counselors without borders" to my list of needed unofficial ambassadors. Others wanted to know how long I’d be in Jerusalem, whether I liked America or Palestine more, and if I spoke Hebrew. At one point, a group of seven and eight-year-old boys peppered me with Hebrew words, like “girl,” “boy,” and “bread,” and I translated them to Arabic. They learn Hebrew in school.

Mansour, a cute seven or eight year old with a big scratch on his nose asked me if I liked Jews. I told him, “Yes, I am a Jew.” He almost fell over. I gave him my Depeche Mode line about people being people, regardless of their religion or nationality. The other little boys listening nodded, and Mansour didn’t have a problem continuing to play with me.

There was some weird stuff, too, like a game where kids raced to pull clothesline pins off a line using only their teeth – but is bobbing for apples really much different? I shouldn’t cast stones. There was also impressive diversity, with dark haired kids, blonde kids, and Afro-Palestinians playing together.

One of the camp counselors, an Afro-Palestinian named Hathum, explained to me that his great grandfather had come to Jerusalem from Chad after completing the pilgrimage to Mecca. A community from Chad, Nigeria, and a couple of other African countries settled in the Old City. Hathum told me that the Afro-Palestinians have relations with their “brothers” in Dimona, the Black Hebrews. The Black Hebrews hail from Chicago and claim to be one of the lost Jewish tribes. They came to Israel under the leadership of Ben Carter in 1969 after a two-year stopover in Liberia.

Aside from this relationship between “African brothers,” as Hathum termed it, I’m continually stunned by the lack of connections between peoples living in such close proximity. The behind the walls daily life I shared in today, is absolutely separate from the behind the walls daily life that I witnessed the day before, several hundred feet away.

I spent Saturday evening in the Jewish Quarter. Along the way though, I took some pictures at the Damascus Gate market and ate a bag of pistachios in the Christian Quarter.

The Damascus Gate market, in the early evening, is one of the most photogenic places in the city. Muhajiba women peruse bread and fruit, little kids rummage through toys or hawk goods (depending upon their economic status) and their fathers shop for neckties or shoes. Between it all, orthodox Jews, some speaking Hebrew and wearing black coats, Windsor knotted silk ties, and black fedoras, and others speaking Yiddish and wearing fur hats and shiny yellow or black robes, pass between them, through the market and the Muslim quarter, and on to the Western Wall. As Orthodox Jews bustle past Muhajiba women and an occasional Greek Orthodox priest, it’s like a joke where the punch line is that the world threw up religion, right here.

Over in the Christian Quarter – where an Israeli Palestinian attacked an Israeli security guard on Friday and was then shot and killed – tourist groups from Eastern Europe, Spain, and the Far East move in herds along the Via Dolorosa. Wearing matching hats or sometimes yellow stickers that identify them by their group in case they get separated, they crowd around each other and follow umbrella or placard waving tour guide shepherds. Some wear their backpacks in reverse like armor, as they wade into their battle against the shopkeepers and pickpockets of the Holy Land’s narrow allies.

In the Jewish Quarter, on Saturday, there is a different scene altogether. Stores are shut for the Sabbath and there is no commercial traffic. Young couples wander between each other’s homes for visits. Stroller-pushing women wearing limp wigs and shapeless dresses walk with their small children to the central square. Men aged 20 to 60 purposefully bustle to synagogue for prayer or for a lesson. Some have curly pa’ot or sidelocks while others' pa'ot are straight and flowing. Stylishly dressed teenage girls in long skirts and tight fitting long-sleeve shirts wander slowly in packs and settle in the square. Young men, pass through the square, too, sometimes stopping to talk, their black hats pushed back on their heads, the front rim slightly rolled, and their silk ties, with their bulging knots, slightly loosened around their collar.

As a boy no more than fifteen – about the same age as the Mohammeds that I played basketball with today but a world away – ran by my spot, his sports coat fluttering off his shoulders like a cape, I was left with so many questions. Do men curl their pa’ot, or are those tight curls natural? When does a man get his first hat, is it a Bar-Mitzvah gift at the age of 13? Do men curve their hats in a special way, the way we rolled our baseball caps in high school?

Pondering these questions, I wandered the roofs of the Jewish Quarter and stole a view of the Western Wall and its plaza, filling with white shirts and black jackets for prayer. From my roof-top perch, I looked into a hall filled with place settings for dinner, a pomegranate tree growing in someone’s yard, satellite dishes littering almost every roof, and laundry hanging on a line beneath an Arabic mosaic.

I walked out of the Old City Saturday evening through the Christian Quarter, past a salon I’m thinking about going to, an outdoor restaurant filled with Greek tourists drinking coffee, and several young Palestinian Christian men sitting in front of the New Gate, mixing RC and rum.

"Living on the seam" doesn't do justice to Jerusalem's Old City. The Jerusalem seam is between Israelis and Palestinians. The Old City is something different all together. Putting aside the existence of a basketball court that overlooks the Dome of the Rock or a clothes line filled with blue jeans across from the Western Wall, peoples and lives are scrunched together between history and religion. Surrounded by walls, real and figurative, they touch each other, but only in passing. Perhaps, within our communities, we live segregated lives in the United States, but these guys are literally living on top of each other, just on different planets.


Anonymous said...

"Surrounded by walls, real and figurative, they touch each other, but only in passing. Perhaps, within our communities, we live segregated lives in the United States, but these guys are literally living on top of each other, just on different planets."

Ben, your words are very descriptive of the kind of existence in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians. And I just wonder how can people go on like that, living with such "tunnel vision" about their lives and not understanding that they actually need to form a community and enjoy the diversity that history brings, even if it is rather painful with plenty of sorrow. At some point you must stop and realize that your view is not the only one that is right and long term victorious.

I went to Catholic school must of my life, but I am glad that the last three years of high school I spent it in a public school; it was an adjustment,it was at a time of desegregation of schools in the South (US), but it made me realize that everyone is not like me, and I had to deal with differences in a cordial way.

My kids have all attended public school and they have made friends with kids that otherwise they would have never come across had they gone to private school. It is nice to have them all come over and see their point of view, their likes and dislikes as long as they are respectful to everyone else.

That is what matters. It would be good if mature individuals would learn from the younger generation the need to bond and feel peace with what surrounds them and just connect to others different than themselves.

Maria Ayub

Ben said...

You speak to a positive experience that isn't unique to the United States, it just happens more easily or more frequently there (than here, for instance). It would be worthwhile to look at the environmental factors that enable people from different ethnic groups and religions to co-exist, interact with, and learn from each other as equals. Once we come up with that list of factors, we can take a look at how many apply to the current environment in the Old City.

Anonymous said...


This is a very delicate subject. There are many environmental factors that can make the possibility of diversity with social justice a reality. But it has to come from within, not only governments but from people themselves. Building walls and isolating people is not going to help.

For me the biggest gesture for peace in that part of the world will be to have Jerusalem as an autonomous city-state,with its own government that is representative of the peoples that call that region their ancestral land.

It would be a great thing. Rather democratic given the groups that live there.

Anonymous said...

I was struck by your noting connections between Afro -Palestinians and Black-Hebrews. Any connections between the Afro-Palestinians and Israeli-Ethiopians? Has anyone surveyed Israeli-Ethiopians on the question of Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel in order to see what they think of opening the country to those who reach it via Egyptian Sinai?

Anonymous said...

I sincerely doubt that ANY Afro-Palestinian has warm relations with the Israeli-Ethiopians.
Remember that Afro-Palestinians are Palestinians first and foremost
and are an integral part of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Israeli Ethiopians are a part of the Israeli Army, hence they are the ones who control them, humiliate them, beat them and sometimes kill them.
Palestinian is not a race or a color, it is a strong identity/nationality. Israeli Ethiopians and Afro-Palestinians may both be black, but one belongs to an oppressive military state and the latter belongs to an oppressed people. Most Afro-Palestinians, particularly the ones in Jerusalem have been/are active in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination(just ask Ali Jiddah), and most Israeli Ethiopians are checkpoint-soldiers and an occupying force.
Would YOU have warm relations with them as an Afro-Palestinian?