Friday, March 20, 2015

No Longer My Holy City

I'm the kinda person who gets physically sick every single time I have to go through Qalandia ziftpoint (checkpoint) , like thousands others, and it's nauseating to me that I actually have to go through it just to get to Jerusalem. I'm not metaphorically speaking here, it really happens. 

The thought of having to get over there, stand in line, get my ID (residency permit) ready, and wait till some adolescent Israeli soldier, who's just recently celebrated his 18th birthday and is carrying a rifle in one hand and playing with an iphone in the other, to give me his majestic blessings to pass through the ziftpoint makes me want to vomit. 90% of the time when this happens I retreat and go home, specially if some ashkenazi Israeli soldier "orders" me to take off my shoes or jacket because I kept on "beeping" every time I went through the metal detector machine. I just hate it, HATE HATE HATE it. And soon after going through this a lot, I started hating the city I went through all this trouble to get to; Jerusalem, or let's be more specific, East Jerusalem.

Let me explain how all of this started.

My grandmother lives, alongside my two aunts and two uncles, in the Old City of Jerusalem, to be more specific, she has the house right on top of Bab el-Silsilah. Growing up there, since we used to go visit Grandma Um Ghassan every Friday and sleep over a lot, I never knew the historical importance of my grandmother’s house. Sitti Um Ghassan preferred I call it Beit Sidi Abu Ghassan (grandfather), allah yirhamu, but to me it was always her house. My grandfather, Abu Ghassan, died when my father was almost 16 so I never got to meet him, but I always knew how much Sitti appreciated, respected, and loved him; that’s why she’d prefer I refer to the house as his not hers, out of respect for him, and because of the patriarchal up-bringing of hers.
I loved everything about that house. How ancient it felt, the split-up tiles and slabs of its floor, how big it was, the view which was the Dome of the Rock and Alaqsa Mosque, the fifty-five stairs reaching to the house, the old man that was always resting next to the big ancient door downstairs, the square shaped green-painted iron bars of the windows that never felt like prison but it didn’t stop us as kids from pretending to be imprisoned and play the scene of pressing our fingers against the bars as if longing for freedom, Sido’s piles and piles of books scattered everywhere, and the roof that revealed the entire city with its mosques, churches, and synagogues. There at Beit Sitti Um Ghassan I felt nothing but love, happiness, and freedom. Then as I grew up and the invisible walls that I refused to see as a child started emerging and blocking all these feelings away from me, I couldn’t feel the same anymore.

This is another story we’ll reach shortly, but what I can tell you right now is that Beit Sitti turned out to be among the most famous schools of the Mamluks. It’s called “ Madraset Alashrafiyyeh” which translates into the “Honorary School”. Its last Mamluk owner was Prince Qaitibai, my favorite alongside Qutoz among the Mamluks, and his name was even carved on its door (which is the same hugely-gorgeous-breathtaking-ancient-decorated-historical door to Sitti’s house), and that was somewhere between the years 1476 – 1496. It was described by Mujir Aldin Hanbaly as the most beautiful and luxurious Mamluk School in Jerusalem, and as the third jewel in the Haram al-Sharif after the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. And my family was the lucky family to be living in this amazingly historical place right now.

One of the main reasons I loved Jerusalem as a city was that house and my family living there, after it was partially taken away from me I started to resent it.

As a kid I never knew that Jerusalem wasn’t one city, that it was actually divided into West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. I never knew there was a part of the city where I wasn’t welcomed, even though it was filled with Palestinian houses with “Absentee” owners taken over by the Jews who came here in 1948, or not even only during that year, but as it feels to me, they were coming here all the time and they still do. So Jerusalem to me was basically a small part of East Jerusalem, smaller than the image I had of it in my head as a silly little oblivious child.

Jerusalem (I’ll keep calling it that, it’s difficult to refer to it as East or West, it’s just stupid to me) was like one huge playground for me and my twin brother; at least the Jerusalem I knew as a kid. When we went to visit Beit Sitti we’d usually go through Bab Al-Amoud (Damascus Gate) or Bab Al-Asbat (Lions Gate), but my personal favorite was Bab Al-Amoud because it had these huge stairs that my brother and I would challenge each other to see who can go through them all without falling on our heads; which happened way too often. Also when going through Bab Al-Amoud we’ll have the chance to have another challenge of not falling while walking on these huge slippery slabs; their surface was way too soft like glass, and they were sticking out of the Old City’s floor.

The path they were located on is called “Tariq al-Wad”, which is another reason of why I love going through Bab Al-Amoud so we can go through this route to Grandma’s. The slippery huge camel-colored slabs -I've mentioned before - were extremely fun where we’d try and walk on them quickly without falling. These slabs were right next to one of The Via Dolorosa entrances, and right next to it there was this old building with nice stairs that reach to it, and Israeli soldiers were always there sitting or standing or chatting on these stairs. And every time my brother and I would go racing towards these rocks we’d fall, and every time these soldiers would laugh. It never really looked right; them being nice guys laughing at dallying silliness of two little Palestinian kids while carrying these rifles and completely covered with their vomit-green-colored equipment and gear from head to toe. Nonetheless, we always laughed back as well, at least we continued to laugh with them until we realized that these rifles could someday be pointed at us where laughing won’t save the day.
After getting up and dusting our cloths we’d march towards our next challenge which was to walk on the old tiles and slabs of Tariq Alwad without crossing on any of the lines separating them; we used to pretend that if our feet stepped on one of the lines it’ll burn, so you see how challenging that was. Then we’d reach ammo Abu Shukri’s restaurant where he sells the best Hummus ever, but we were always scared to go there and ask him for a plate of Humus and a bag of Falafel because he never laughed. I still ask Sitti Um Ghassan why he never laughed, and till this day she’d only respond with wordless laughter, I never got my answer.

Then finally we’d reach Bab Al-Majles, and the only reason I know its name was because once Sitti asked me what was the name of the gate I use to enter al-Haram Alsharif to which I had no answer, and I got scolded and never forgot its name ever again, as Sitti said to me, “If you don’t even know the name of your gate, how will you know your city and its history? You should know the names of these gates now as a starter, and then when you grow up ya tatta you’ll be able to know their history and then the city’s history, and finally your country’s history. Knowledge ya tatta, knowledge is your strongest weapon, don’t lose itShe raised ten children, two daughters and eight sons and all of them were educated and ravenous readers, that’s why me being clueless was not an option for her.

Eventually we enter either Bab Almajles or Alsilsila or Al-Asbat to Al-Haram Al-Sharif and then automatically we transfer to a timeless place where, I used to believe as a kid, peace was first generated. Words could not describe how beautiful it was. You could see the sky so clearly you could almost touch it, catch its beautiful white clouds, and enjoy a ride on them. Everything was ancient and everything had its own story to tell and I was always fascinated by that. It had its own magic, and knowing that this place had this much history always fascinated me, that the spot I was standing on right now had many great men and women stand on it too throughout history. I always assumed that in my own way, since I was standing there, I was part of history as well. I felt legendary. When I say Beit Sitti, I don’t usually just mean the Honorary School; to me this entire place was Beit Sitti, with the clouds, the sky, the ageless stones and palm trees. I felt home, I felt power, because I believed legends were made there, and I was lucky enough to be born there.

Then I grew up.

Then I knew in this place many things were generated like blood, torture, wars, violence, vengeance … anything but legends and peace. And that this place wasn’t really my home, it might have been at some point or the other, but now it’s being taken away from me slowly and forever.

Up until 2011, we used to live in a small town in one of Jerusalem’s (East Jerusalem) many neighborhoods, called Beit Hanina. I loved it! Growing up we always moved around a lot but Beit Hanina was home, at least the longest home we stayed at that I remembered. We stayed there for ten continuous years. Then, long story short, with all the pressures of being Palestinian Jerusalemites under Israeli Occupation we had to move out, or practically run, to live in a different neighborhood called Kufor Aqab.

Now this neighborhood is very special, Israel just digs it. It’s, sort of, illegal. On maps and blueprints this neighborhood is part of the Jerusalem municipality borders, but when they built the Wall they left it out - or actually in. It was practically part of the West Bank, and right next to this neighborhood was Qalandia Refugee Camp and the infamous disgusting Qalandia Checkpoint.

So you see, in this neighborhood laws weren’t applied, not Israeli or Palestinian (if such thing exists) laws. Meaning, you don’t need permits to build houses, you can build houses illegally without paying thousands and sometimes millions of Shekels for permits and what would the result be? Hundreds and thousands of Skyscrapers – in the Palestinians sense of them being ten-storey buildings- on top of each other, accompanied with horrible sewerage system, unmaintainable phone and internet lines for security reasons, and –for some reason- a lot of stolen cars and scooters. It doesn’t end there, the fact that this neighborhood is “lawless” also means that when a fire erupts or any sort of medical case that needs an ambulance occurs; no one will come to the rescue.
This place doesn’t exist to Israel, it only exists in terms of it being a place for Palestinian Jerusalemites to run to in order to escape high living expenses while maintaining their “residents of Jerusalem status but give up some sense of a good life, which isn’t that great under occupation anyway, but hey, we accept the best we could get and Kufor Aqab was not it.
That’s not the only perk of the quality life we have there, we also have to go through Qalandia checkpoint on daily and hourly basis to get to Jerusalem, and that’s where my resentment towards Jerusalem started. I could not hate the Israeli Occupation for this, I mean, that was their job: to make our lives more difficult. I could hate us for allowing all of this to happen in the first place. We let this happen, yes Israel is a colonial power that is occupying our lives and land but when the Wall was built we showed little resistance. Only after it was completed we paid attention to its existence. The checkpoints too, we allowed them to happen, I remember when I was little Qalandia Checkpoint consisted of two cement blocks and three soldiers, now it’s like the security check we go through in airports; with metal cages and gates and metal-detector machines, and schedules! It even felt weird the first time I went to JFK airport and had to go through the same process I go through on a checkpoint back home to go from one city to the other. I was in awe why people weren’t offended; going through that “security check” while being treated like a terrorist was disgusting, how people played along beat me.

But Qalandia checkpoint was never like this, this “sophisticated”, we let it happen. We are not the soldiers who stand there to “inspect”, nor we are the ones letting people go through machines and take off their cloths and boots to make sure they’re not “security threats”, but we accept it.

But still I couldn’t really hate us, not alone, I hated the city that I went through all of this just to reach. I hated Beit Sitti for being part of this “glorious” Holy Land that had so little to do with holiness. I hated Tariq Alwad for not having checkpoints and allowing for a checkpoint to exist in order to reach it. I hated how those green metal bars of windows I used to love so much as kid were actually just the bars of one big prison with the same color of the soldiers outfits

I resented those old ancient slabs and blocks since most of them were taken away anyway and replaced with concrete, and then used instead to “decorate” old houses in West Jerusalem to imply that these houses were originally Jewish property and they have the ancient rocks to prove so, while these rocks and slabs showed little resistance just like their people. 

I hated Jerusalem for being Jerusalem. For being this important city that everyone wanted a piece of but no one could really have. I hated how Israeli policies made life there unbearable where people like us would have to run to live in ghettos. Where shops couldn’t stay open for more than two months, where taxes were paid day and night and no services in return simply because we were “the Arab – wouldn’t even acknowledge we’re Palestinians- inhabitants of the city, where there weren’t bike lanes and not even enough space for people to move, where life for Palestinians in Jerusalem wasn’t really life, just merely making it through the day. A city of ghosts, that’s what Jerusalem (East Jerusalem) was. If you cross to the “other side” of the city you’ll have the complete opposite. You’ll have wide streets, bike lanes, parks, and – well- life. A sense of a normal life that I had no idea existed. So I hated it, and I will continue to hate it till I can make it my own again. PS: The old huge-slippery slabs and the small tiles that spread through out Tariq Al-Wad are now in the Israeli Knesset Building, the "Israel Museum", and on the modern walls of the Mamilla Mall that was originally built on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery. It's not new for the Israeli authority to "steal" such ancient and historical pieces under the name of "renovation" and "modernization", or to legitimize the existence of Israeli Jews in old Palestinian (Arab) houses in the West side of Jerusalem.  

Israel has taken everything from us, our country, our history, our traditions, our houses, our rights, and even took away the old slippery slabs of my childhood and the the love I used to feel towards the city of my upbringing. Jerusalem is no longer my holy city, it became a constant reminder of our passivity and lack of adequate and consistent resistance. I hate it now, and I'm going to continue feeling this way until I could make it my own again. Until I bring back its stolen slabs and tiles, until it's soldiers-free, and until I no longer have to go through hours of humiliation and limitation to reach it. Someday I believe, hope, to be reunited with my holy city chains free.

Um Ghassan, my grandmother

The view of one of the windows of my grandmother's house

The entrance to my grandmother's house