Cohabitation in the Old City: Four communities vie for territory inside hallowed walls
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A visit to Jerusalem’s Old City offers a glimpse of the diversity of this culturally rich metropolis and insight into the uneasy cohabitation of the communities that share this sliver of sacrosanct ground.
Entry through Damascus Gate – the portal to the souk and the Arab Quarter of the Old City – requires passing in front of three security stations with a phalanx of uniformed, machine-gun-toting, steely-eyed soldiers at each one. Unconsciously, one adopts an imperceptible protective hunch, the reptilian brain on alert for potential danger.
Even in the morning, the air inside the souk is redolent with the aroma of cardamom, which wafts over tourists sipping coffee at rickety tables. One doesn’t go 20 yards before encountering another duo of soldiers, seemingly hardly out of their teens. With Israel’s policy of mandatory military service for citizens over the age of 18, the peace in Jerusalem is maintained by a very young, mostly male contingent.
The merchants in the quarter are primarily Palestinian, and when they talk about their daily existence in the Old City, the word “occupation” comes up consistently. There is no apparent interaction between the soldiers and the Arabs, who move silently around one another as though each is an invisible obstacle. These merchants say they feel they are treated as second-class citizens by the Israelis and that they have been abandoned by even their fellow Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia.
The narrow covered passages of the souk burst with spices and dates alongside stalls selling every kind of plastic Chinese-made toy and others hawking cheap clothes. Occasionally a merchant calls out to customers in Arabic urging purchase of his goods. An elderly woman sitting on a step peddling grape leaves spread out on a large scarf at her feet repeatedly tells a group of visitors chatting in front of her that they are standing too close and urges them to move, to no avail.
The arteries in the souk are tight, but the claustrophobia lifts slightly when you get deeper into the Arab Quarter. The passageways there are still umbral, but without goods threatening to spill into your path the sense of crowding eases.
The streets leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock have multiple checkpoints and only Muslims are permitted to pass. But by insisting you are going no further than the African Quarter housed within the Arab Quarter you can secure passage. Inside the African Quarter is Ali Jiddah, an Afro-Palestinian who has been dubbed the unofficial mayor of East Jerusalem.
Africans have lived in the Old City for three generations, and most of them originate from Chad, Nigeria, Senegal or Sudan. Jiddah was born in Jerusalem in 1950; his paternal grandfather came as a pilgrim from Chad in 1936.
Jiddah, now infirm, sat with his legs stretched out on a day bed, his gaze intermittently flickering to a wall-mounted television flashing pictures of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Jiddah has a reputation as a Palestinian firebrand, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) who served 17 years of a 20-year prison sentence for planting explosives on Jaffa Street in 1968 that injured nine Israeli civilians. The bombing was in retaliation for an Israeli air force raid in Jordan that left 25 civilians dead. Jiddah was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1985.
Jiddah’s revolutionary feelings were born when he saw Israelis humiliating Palestinians after they took the Old City in the 1967 war. On the other hand, he feels a sense of kinship with some of the early arrivals. “In ’67 I saw with my own eyes Jews come through the Old City asking about their Palestinian neighbours,” he says. “You will still see me sitting with Israelis.”
But Jiddah doesn’t extend that hand of friendship to the Jews newly arrived in the Old City. “All of them are settlers,” he says. Houses throughout the Old City are being bought by Jewish families, and there is resentment against them in non-Jewish quarters.
The second-floor Old City apartment that former prime minister Ariel Sharon acquired amid considerable controversy in 1987 is not far from Jiddah’s. Jewish settlers now also live in the apartment building, and Jiddah said they are in constant conflict with their Arab neighbours, who have to pass through Sharon’s security detail whenever they want to go in or out of their homes.
When asked if coexistence is possible, Jiddah scoffs. “You can never talk about coexistence between an occupied nation and occupiers,” he says.
Now a father of five, Jiddah no longer espouses violence, and he sees the alternative tours of the Old City that he gave for many years as more effective in countering Israeli rule than bombs. “I say to the young generations, don’t hate, because then you teach your children hate.” But he also says, “violence is not a choice”, glancing at the television showing the mounting death toll in Gaza.
Despite his despair at the current situation, Jiddah clings to hope. “I am an optimist about the future,” he says. “Maybe I won’t see peace, but at least my children will see it.”
The Old City is divided into Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters and occupies less than a single square kilometre. In 2007 its population was just shy of 40,000 people, most of whom lived in the Arab and Christian quarters. In recent years, residents have kept largely to their own neighbourhoods and tensions between communities is on the rise.
The Jews were all evicted from the Old City in 1948 by Jordan and hadn’t been able to live there again until after the 1967 war. Much of what is now the Jewish Quarter has been rebuilt since then, giving it a more modern feel than other parts of the Old City.
Shoshana Selavan was born and raised in the US and came to Jerusalem to study 30 years ago. She never left. Today she is head of the Community Council of the Jewish Quarter, and the external stairway to her house gives out onto a little garden with benches, flowering trees and a playground.
The Old City is so tiny that it is impossible not to have some contact with people from other neighbourhoods, and nearly everyone frequents the shops in the Arab Quarter. “I buy my pomegranate juice there, and we smile at one another,” Selavan says. “When you live in the Old City you come into contact with everyone.” Still, there are parts of the Muslim Quarter she says she wouldn’t go into alone.
Selavan says that it’s Palestinian violence and aggression that prevents people from living together harmoniously in the Old City, as elsewhere a viewpoint shared by many in the Jewish community. “I don’t need the Arabs to love me, I need them to want economic prosperity and to realise that when you don’t blow yourself up and stab people you make money,” she says. “I don’t stab you, you don’t stab me. We don’t have to agree ideologically.”
It’s not ordinary Palestinians that are the core of the problem, Selavan says, but Hamas. She says that in her role as a community leader she once tried to organise a joint flower-planting ceremony with the Muslim Quarter community, but they said they couldn’t because they were afraid of losing the funding they get from Hamas. She suggested separate but concurrent flower plantings, and even that idea was rejected, she says.
Every side has its radicals, she concedes, but says the difference is that the Israeli government doesn’t support theirs. “People can’t stand the Jews because we always stand for righteousness,” she says.
Wassim Razzouk, a tattoo artist in the Christian Quarter whose family has been inking visitors to the Holy City since they came as pilgrims from Egypt 500 years ago, is less interested in right and wrong than the practicalities of running a business in the pressure-cooker environment that exists within these ancient walls.
A line of Christian pilgrims, many of them from the US, snakes out the door as Razzouk swipes through art on an iPad, clad in a Harley Davidson shirt with AC/DC blaring in the background and bottles of booze lining a shelf above his desk. “Look! It’s the severed head of John the Baptist,” the woman working with him exclaims gleefully to an American considering various tattoos.
Razzouk says the majority of his clients are Christians, but he gets the occasional Jew and, sometimes, a Muslim, though he usually refuses to ink Muslims because “always, there are regrets”. Tattoos are forbidden by Muslim tradition.
Christians in the Old City find themselves stuck between the Muslims and the Jews, though he finds that it’s easier to mix with Muslims as a Palestinian himself. This is, he says, “mainly because the Jews [in the Old City] are extremists, more like settlers".
Relations between Arab Christians and Muslims are not always smooth. When the political situation heats up outside of the Old City, that tension seeps in. “Then, everybody is against everybody,” Razzouk says. “The whole atmosphere will be electrified.”
He thinks the problems stem from politics. “The nature of human beings is that people want to live in peace,” he says. “If the politicians leave people alone, then people will live together.”
In today’s Old City, politics are hugely divisive. “I had a lot of Israeli friends,” he says. During the 2014 Gaza conflict, “I said, stop killing the children, and they attacked me,” he says. “How can I have an Israeli friend who supports killing Palestinian kids or any kids?”
One might think it would be a bit easier in the Armenian Quarter. After all, they’re not Palestinians and they’re not directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But they are residents of a city that Jews consider holy and want to take back, and this means, for some at least, that the Armenians are in the way.
Annie Dikbikian’s family fled the Armenian genocide and she was born and raised in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. “It used to be comfortable here,” she says. “It has changed too much.”
The Armenians, who are Orthodox Christians, are being squeezed out of the Old City. “We are afraid of the Arabs and the Jews,” she says.
Old City life is particularly hard on the kids who live there. “They have no space, nowhere to go,” Dikbikian says. “I have a son who doesn’t like to go out much because of the situation.”
And with good reason. One day Dikbikian pushed the strapping 16-year-old out of the house because she thought he needed some fresh air. She wound up regretting it. Not long after he left the house, a neighbour from the Jewish Quarter flew a metal plane into his head, leaving a large gash that needed to be stitched up.
It’s uncomfortable for her in the Old City, too. Her style of dress would be unremarkable in most parts of the world, but it doesn’t conform to the conservative standards of either the Jews or the Arabs. “They look at you like you’re an alien,” she says. And that’s the soft side of things. During the Easter holidays, when the Armenians parade through the Old City with a large wooden cross, the Jews come and spit on it, she says.
“They’re closing [in] so much,” Dikbikian says of the Jewish settlers who are buying up houses in the Old City. “Every day they’re telling you to get out of here. If I had the money and the power I would definitely leave.”
It’s a short, winding walk from Dikbikian’s house to Jaffa Gate. Upon exiting the Old City one’s spine straightens ever so slightly, shaking off the protective hunch that had been adopted upon entry. Around the corner is a large plaza where, on this evening, a giant picture of the American and Israeli flags together under the caption “Thank You President Trump” is being projected onto the wall and Jewish kids are dancing to music being played on a loudspeaker. They are relaxed and unworried, as though they belong there.