IT IS SAID that Jerusalem is the most important city in the world, holy to the three great monotheistic faiths and home to some of the truest believers of modern times. Yet, as an Israeli architect suggested to me on a recent trip, Jerusalem's geographical situation--one must climb the surrounding ridges and hills before entering the city--demands a certain humbleness, a sense that one must lower oneself before entering this closest spot to heaven on earth.
In recent times, with the onslaught of the Palestinian intifada and the increased tensions between Arabs and Jews, the submerged situation of the city might even recall the heart of an eternally smoldering volcano, whose eruptions are as unpredictable as they are frequent, and whose walls prove unable to contain the violence of the contrasts, the anguish of its center.
As I approached the city from the north, the light of the setting sun was reflected off the Jerusalem limestone of the old walls, offering a warm embrace which took me by surprise. I had always framed my thoughts about Jerusalem within the context of the ugliness of its religious wars and its atmosphere of fundamentalism. The color of the limestone, though, remained a constant source of comfort and companionship in its seeming refusal to surrender its morning glow and evening softness to the tensions of its surroundings.
I DECIDED early on to walk freely, yet carefully among the four quarters of Jerusalem's old city: the Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian. "Be bold, but not too bold," a professor of mine had told me. With his advice in mind I spent the first few hours of every morning trekking above and through the labyrinth-like quarters of the old city.
I would enter through Jaffa Gate and walk through the narrow market on David Street dividing the Jewish and Arab quarters, and then decide whether to explore the recently renovated Jewish neighborhood or to brave the suspicions and hostile gazes of the Arab section.Ever since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, this quintessentially inter-mixed and inter-woven city has become increasingly segregated, with less and less Jewish-Arab interaction. As these eternal inhabitants of this city have become more and more distant, suspicions and hostilities have grown, with no interlocutor to explain misunderstandings, no middle ground in which to find compromises or agreements. Arabs only meet Jews when they are in military uniforms, carrying weapons--ordinary Jews have ceased to meet with their neighbors of a different creed.
"Two women were stabbed in my butcher's shop only last month," my host insisted, "so how can you expect me to take my young daughters into the market? I now have our help, who is Arab, shop for me. I had always insisted on maintaining relations with these people who live just down the street from me, but I am afraid now, and I have simple stopped visiting that part of the city. You know what my butcher told me when I went back, briefly, the other day?" Well, we wouldn't stab you, you know.
"I left him in a state of terror, feeling betrayed and bewildered, shocked that he could utter the words with such ease, such normalcy, as if they had lost meaning, or maybe spelled something very different to him--I don't know."
It is this normalcy of violence, this "banality of evil" which the Palestinian uprising has brought to the surface of Jerusalem life. The cyclical violence between the shootings of Palestinians and the stabbing of Jews has given an air of acceptability to the loss of life, and as a consequence, the Jews have chosen to separate themselves as much as possible from their Palestinian neighbors. The result has been a schism so deep and so pervasive in Jerusalem's daily life that neither side views the other as an equal, much less a fellow human being.
The Jewish and Arab quarters which in more (yet not entirely) peaceful times were infused with members of each other's creeds have now become fortresses of ethnicity, bastions of faith. Hybridization has given way to puritanism, and an ideal of co-operation has given way to a belief that Arabs and Jews are best advised to stay within their own self-imposed enclaves.
ONE GETS THE SENSE, on a first impression, that some great power has asked all Jews to step over to one side of the hall, and all Arabs to the other. This great overwhelming power, one soon realizes, is a fatal combination of fear and suspicion. Fear of the other which is so close, so apparent that no amount of segregation or discrimination can free a person from its presence.
JERUSALEM IS, then, in a very real danger of fulfilling the prophesies of its worst critics as the fundamentalism of both Judaism and Islam is engulfing the city in an impossible atmosphere of demands and absolutes. "We will never surrender Jerusalem," my taxi driver explained. "Maybe part of the West Bank, but give them our holy city and see them burn down our quarter as they did in '48--no, surely you must be joking."
I did indeed feel somewhat foolish in attempting a rational discourse over the possession of a city which has always been won by bloody conquest. No leader in his right mind, whether Jew or Arab, would voluntarily hand over control to the enemy, I began to conclude, as a massive disillusionment set in.
The most lasting impression from this city of domes and spires, synagogues and mosques was the sight of the Temple Mount, surely one of the most overwhelming plazas anywhere. Rising above the narrow, cramped quarters of the city, the open areas surrounding the A1-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques provide freedom of space and a breath of fresh air. Up here, one is allowed the tranquility to wonder how, if ever, peace will come to Jerusalem.
It seems naive to think that a conflict as old as human civilization could be resolved within our times, yet if Jews and Arabs can once again begin to interact as they did before the intifada, the process of intermingling and interaction will be allowed to resume. Herein lies the only hope, for it is always the meeting of contrasts, the hybridization of cultures which brings newness and change to the world. And in Jerusalem, any change will be for the better.
Nader A. Mousavizadeh '92, a Crimson writer, spent six weeks in Egypt and Israel last summer.