Friday, July 21, 2006

From our Jerusalem Correspondent

Through the wonderful power of the internet, Northern Light now has a correspondent on both sides of the Lebanon War. In this post Mike S. takes us on a tour of his neighbourhood in Jerusalem where all is quiet, but not quite normal. We can get on to politics later:

"If I'm to write for a blog, I'm thinking it should start personal. So I'm setting off with you on a walk through my Jerusalem neighbourhood. I'm Mike and I'm with the family dog Hertzl, rescued from the streets as a puppy. Theodore Hertzl was the 19th century visionary who promoted a vision of a Jewish homeland. I wonder what he's thinking today. Dog Hertzl, however, has a vision not much past walks, bones, and sleep.

I'm outside our apartment building. Still not finished after seven years, our landlord seems to be waiting for the Second Intifada to finish to access his pool of cheap Arab labour from the West Bank again. I wonder what would happen with a rocket attack. We have a safe room, but, since every fitting in our rented apartment falls off whenever you touch it, I'm not sure. Anyway, there is an assumption that Hezbullah wouldn't rocket Jerusalem: maybe it's out of range, maybe it would just be too embarrassing if they destroyed the Al Aqsa mosque by mistake – although the Jews would be blamed anyway I suppose. Maybe Nasrallah would be concerned about the Arab residents: their nearest community is only 3 kms away, I run there and back many mornings. But then again he didn't seem concerned about hitting Nazareth and killing two Arab Israeli boys the day before yesterday.

I live in Old Kartamon. It's an upmarket area: old Arab houses mixed with uglier new Israeli apartment buildings. The new buildings are at least faced with local stone, a harmonious city regulation set up by the British at the beginning of the mandate. No Arabs here of course: they all left or were expelled (depends on your version of history) in 48.

We continue down the road. It's a bright sunny day, hot with a light breeze. The light is beautiful, the air clean. It's Friday, first day of the weekend, and people are preparing for Shabat, which starts at sunset.. I pass the childrens' park, with a rock I sometimes boulder* on - to the amazement of kids and parents: what's that old overweight guy doing?

Now I'm down the hill and I see a small round tower on the corner. I know it's called a pillbox since I'm British. It was a checkpoint back in the days of the Mandate. Now it's in the garden of Reuben, a refugee from Iran who sells plants. It has, I see, an Israeli flag flying from the top: some kind of historical irony I guess. I notice that there are not many flags around – not like the US, full of yellow ribbons and Stars and Stripes. As a generalisation, I think people here are not feeling belligerent.

Now we're crossing the disused railway. This was built in the 19th century by a French company under a franchise from the Turks. After being rebuilt recently, it ends not near the old city as it used to but at the new shopping mall further out of town. I'm passing a watermelon stand: the proprietor and a boy are playing backgammon. I'd expect them to be Arabs but they look European: I can't tell. Now we are entering Talpiot, where Jews and Arabs meet for mutually beneficial activities like buying food and getting cars fixed.

We've arrived at our destination. We have nine for dinner tonight, so I intend to buy the ceremonial breads for the Shabat meals. This bakery sells delicious western breads and cakes, and fantastic middle eastern breads and pastries. Hertzl is happy to wait outside: he's a fan of their products too.

I'm taking a different route back, via Emek Refaim, the “Valley of Ghosts”. Actually it's a busy street full of cafes. Next to the pizza parlour where my daughter used to work is Cafe Hillel where a few years ago a suicide bomber killed a bride on the night before her wedding and her father, head of the trauma unit at a Jerusalem hospital where he had worked on many victims of suicide bombers. The term homicide bombers doesn't seem to have taken off. The many cafes on this street have armed guards outside, which is reassuring since there is an alert: three days ago a Palestinian was caught nearby with a bag containing a bomb belt.

There's probably more English spoken here than Hebrew. Many modern Orthodox Americans and British live or are visiting here. I buy an English language newspaper, although I think I'm already surfeited with war news.

Hey, that's unexpected! A girl stiltwalker, with long clown's pants. She's advertising a craft and food market next Tuesday. Hertzl freaks out, the girl smiles from 20 feet above me.

This area is called the German Colony, after the German Templars who settled here at the beginning of the century in the time of the Turks. The Templars were a messianic Christian group, but then made the mistake of supporting the Nazis during the rule of the British. The British expelled them and their houses, made of massive blocks of stone and with German inscriptions, are now highly sort after by Israeli yuppies. Now I'm passing the Templar cemetery: closed as usual but once it was opened and I was able to talk to the American tidying the graves.

We turn left towards home. I stop to read a blue sign outside what used to be my daughter's school. Now it's a school for disabled kids. The sign says that the Palmah, one of the Jewish underground groups in the 1940s, camped there. The city council has been placing a lot of these historical signs recently: but their history only seems to cover the War of Independence.

Next is the International Christian Embassy: set up because most countries refuse to move their embassies from Tel Aviv, arguing (rather irrationally in my view) that Jerusalem is not Israel's capital. Now I'm passing my daughter's old school. It has a sculpture of a large fat man under a two-dimensional tree. Maybe it's Jonah under the Kikayon tree: but probably not, it's not a very religious school.

Nearing home I pass the Greek Consulate. It reminds me that the Greek Orthodox church is the largest landowner in Jerusalem.

At home I'm drinking a glass of water and considering watching Cable TV. BBC, FOX, CNN, Sky, or Israeli news? Or Eurosport to watch the Tour de France? I surf to Sky. Rockets hailing down on Haifa, buildings in South Beirut shattered.

I superimpose the pictures of the rockets and of Beirut upon my morning's walk and shiver."

Mike S. 21 July 2006.

I hope sooner rather than later when calm has been restored to Beirut, Marion can take us on a similar tour of her city as well.

*Bouldering for anyone interested is a sub-sport of rockclimbing, where the climber climbs on small cliffs or rocks no higher than she or he is happy to jump off from. Hence no ropes are needed. It is generally seen as training for 'real' rockclimbing, although many "boulderers" hotly dispute this. For some reason it has become a tradition for hard-core boulderers to take their shirts off but still wear a wolly hat. If Mike follows this fashion, it would account for the funny looks.

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