Jerusalem's Old City 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Jerusalem – Complex city” beckoned the head of the invitation to a recent press
tour I took of the Old City. By the end of the afternoon, I wondered if that
should not be changed to “City of complexes.”
The trip was arranged by
INFO (Mishkenot Sha’ananim Israel Newsmakers Forum) and led by Yad Ben-Zvi
Institute guide Merav Horowitz, and even those of us who call Jerusalem home
discovered new facets to the Old City. Walking its labyrinthine alleyways, if
you look in a slightly different direction or turn down a previously unexplored
side street, you can see things from a new angle. Above is the physical and
metaphysical presence of the Holy City; below are the narrow pathways that mock
the idea of cleanliness being next to Godliness. In between are the people – the
focus of this visit.
Our first stop was the African Youth Center, serving
the small African Muslim community that has lived next to the Temple Mount since
the 19th century. We are met by executive manager Yasser Qous, who explains that
Africans came to the Old City at the end of the Ottoman era, many having
finished a pilgrimage to Mecca. Most served as guards at al-Aksa Mosque,
situated at the end of the street which houses the youth center. The African
Youth Center building itself has been previously used as a pilgrims’ hospice and
Qous describes the community (some 350 families) as
“totally integrated in Palestinian society.” The men, who came from Senegal,
Nigeria and Chad, married local Arab women. Qous maintains that any
discrimination faced by African-Palestinians within Arab society manifests
itself only when it comes to the marriage. “The problem for African-Palestinians
is more to do with social standing than color,” he explains. “Marriage is
generally not between individuals but between families of the same class –
families from Hebron marry families from Hebron, for example.”
father, who arrived from Chad in 1946, holds a French passport; his mother, a
Jordanian passport; while Qous has a Jerusalem identity card and travels on a
“I’m like a coconut,” says Qous: “black outside, white
The idea of the center is to provide local children
with a place to do homework, improve life skills and foster their identity
through programs such as art, drama and music. Qous points proudly to the
African drums made of recycled materials. My Jewish Israeli eyes are struck,
however, by the wall posters – presumably part of an English lesson – where the
words “apartheid” “suffering,” and “resistance” are listed under the banner
“Good Morning Palestine.” Education is the key to the future, but the question
of exactly what future crosses my mind.
FROM THE African Youth Center, we
make our way through more winding alleyways, up and down stone steps, until we
arrive at the Wujoud Museum and women’s community center, located in a
650-year-old building owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, close to Jaffa
Gate in the Christian Quarter.
Nora Kort, the elegant founder of the
museum and organization chairwoman, tells us: “The fact that Christians have
been here since ancient times is often overlooked.”
In rooms with a view
of Hezekiah’s Pool, the museum offers a small display of everyday artifacts of
Arab life in the Old City in the 19th and early 20th centuries – brass pots and
pans, house shoes, elaborate embroidered gowns.
The building also has a
story that it silently tells: It was built during the Mameluke period and later
served as a coffee shop for Turkish soldiers and as residential units during the
British Mandate and Jordanian rule. Kort’s own family, until 1948, used to live
in what is now known as the Confederation House building, close to the King
A trained social worker, she runs a women’s empowerment
project in the rooms above the museum – teaching local residents traditional
crafts such as stained glass, ceramics, wood carving, embroidery and jewelry –
and employs some 15 women in the “sort of deli” where once the Turkish soldiers
Kort’s philosophy is apparent in her remarks: “If you help
a woman, you help the family at large” and “I believe that beauty and culture
transcends all borders.
There are so many similarities between
SARA YOHEVED and Leib Yaacov Rigler, whose home in the Jewish
Quarter was the last stop on our tour, don’t just reside in Jerusalem, they seem
to live Jerusalem. Veteran American immigrants, the nameplate on the door of
their 900-year-old home is inscribed: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem.” Inside,
the Kabbalistic artwork also reflects their passion for the city.
writer, counselor and popular contributor to the aish.com website, feels “it’s
the greatest privilege in the world” to pray daily in the Western Wall tunnels,
at the site closest to the Holy of Holies”; Leib, a musician, relates with pride
the history of the Hurva Synagogue where he says his prayers, close to where
Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son.
“Although the Jewish intellect
knows that God is infinite and cannot be confined to a particular space, the
Jewish heart knows that God dwells in Jerusalem,” he says.
also has a history. “When we expanded our tiny bathroom by tearing down its
meter-thick wall, we found part of a pillar from the sixth century,” says
In the thick stone wall of their modern kitchen, in what was once
the main entrance, a chiseled indentation in the doorpost marks the spot where a
mezuza was once affixed.
“Jews have always returned to Jerusalem,” says
“We’re drawn here by a mystical yearning. It’s almost coded in our
“One afternoon several years after we bought our apartment [in
1988], I noticed an old woman peeking into my kitchen windows,” she relates.
“When I asked her if I could help her, she replied, ‘I lived in this house until
1929.’ “I invited her in, and she told me her story: In those days each one of
our three bedrooms had housed an entire family. They shared a common kitchen in
the courtyard and an outhouse because there was no indoor plumbing. Her father,
like mine, was a pharmacist, and what is now our living room had served as the
pharmacy of the Jewish Quarter. When the Arabs rioted in the Old City in 1929,
they destroyed the pharmacy, and her family fled to the greater safety of
Jerusalem’s new city.”
Sara readily admits you have to be ideologically
motivated to live as a Jew in the Old City, which is barely accessible except on
foot, was the scene of multiple fatal terror attacks during the intifada, and
whose lack of privacy is heightened by tourists in the good times.
our visit, the Muslim residents were readying for Ramadan and the Jews were
marking the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av and the commemoration of the
destruction of the First and Second Temples; it gave the Old City an extra
special aura that somehow lifted it above the dirt and troubles.
three people with different but intertwining stories. They share a genuine pride
in Jerusalem – not the stones and arches, the living city.
indeed, but as all three would probably agree, any thing but