Real Israel: Jerusalem's stones and stories

‘Jerusalem – Complex city” beckoned the head of the invitation to a recent press tour I took of the Old City.

Jerusalem's Old City 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 Turkish prison.
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.”
His 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 laissez passer.
“I’m like a coconut,” says Qous: “black outside, white Palestinian inside.”
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 David Hotel.
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 sipped coffee.
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 cultures.”
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.
Sara, a writer, counselor and popular contributor to the 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.
Their home 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 Sara.
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 Sara.
“We’re drawn here by a mystical yearning. It’s almost coded in our DNA....
“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.
During 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.
We met three people with different but intertwining stories. They share a genuine pride in Jerusalem – not the stones and arches, the living city.
Complex, indeed, but as all three would probably agree, any thing but Godforsaken.