No stranger to fiction

Author Eli Amir retraces the steps he took in his novel ‘Yasmine’ and, in the process, narrates some of his own history.

Eli Amir at the Ambassador Hotel 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Amir at the Ambassador Hotel 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For 19 years after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, a long concrete wall divided Jerusalem in two. This wound in the heart of the city, a source of fear for Jerusalem’s Jewish residents, who were subjected to repeated, albeit sporadic, gunfire from the Jordanian side, came down on June 13, 1967. Huge crowds of residents, from both sides, crossed the boundary, to once again greet familiar landscapes, neighborhoods and friends.
Eli Amir, then 29, was the recently appointed adviser on Arab affairs to the government. On the day after the Six Day War, as he stood overlooking the crowds from both sides, he felt torn between two identities. He was both an immigrant from Iraq, deeply imbued with Arab culture, and an Israeli trying to identify with the Zionists’ young generation.
Some 40 years later, he wrote the novel Yasmine, the story of an impossible encounter between a young Israeli of Oriental origin and a beautiful young Palestinian woman in the aftermath of June 1967 in Jerusalem.
Amir agreed to take In Jerusalem on a tour along the old seam line, intertwining his own life and memories with those of Nuri, the protagonist of his book, and sharing his thoughts on the present situation in the city, 45 years after the Six Day War.
“AT DAYBREAK on Wednesday, June 7, 1967, Asayyed Antoine Salameh, senator of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, peered out of his window and saw a group of soldiers approaching slowly, wearily, as if scarcely able to walk... this must be the vanguard of the Iraqi forces who had volunteered to come to the aid of the Arab Legion.... These soldiers were risking their lives to preserve the integrity of his city... they would wipe out the disgrace of 1948... he felt it was his sacred duty to welcome the brave warriors.... He raised both hands to greet them, and they turned to look at him with curiosity... one soldier, his shirt torn and his left arm bandaged, stood up respectfully, took off his helmet and said: ‘Ihna yahud, min hon’ – we’re Jews, from here, from Israel.’”
These words, which open Amir’s book, convey the shock that befell the Arab residents of east Jerusalem 45 years ago, when IDF soldiers took over the city after two days of shelling and bombing of the Jewish side by the Arab Legion. According to Amir, it took several hours for the Arab residents to begin to grasp the meaning of these Israeli “yahud” soldiers in their streets, and several weeks more to fully fathom the profound change in their situation.
In the novel, Nuri Imari is a young Jew from Iraq, who serves as adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli government. He lives in a small apartment in Jerusalem’s Katamon Vav neighborhood with his immigrant family, who feel totally uprooted but are trying to cope with their new life in Israel. In his capacity as a government official, Nuri often meets the “others,” the enemy, who strangely seem and sound much more like him and his own family than do many of his fellow Israelis.
Nuri’s story – in large part, that of Amir himself – begins during the three weeks of anxious waiting prior to the outbreak of the Six Day War on June 5, the outcome of which forever changed the character of Jerusalem and its Jewish and Arab residents’ lives. As we trace the path from Talbiyeh to the Jaffa Gate, from the Damascus Gate to Sheikh Jarrah, from the Ambassador Hotel and back to the Jaffa Gate, Amir recalls those bygone days and expresses his profound love for Jerusalem, as well as his anxiety – and sometimes anger – about what it has become.
In Amir’s novel, Yasmine is a young, educated Palestinian woman who returns to Jerusalem from Paris after June 1967. She was born in Talbiyeh and fled the country with her parents in 1948. Upon her return, she meets Nuri, and beauty and youth incite passions. But, says Amir, Yasmine is not only a young and beautiful woman; she is also “a metaphor for Jerusalem – always loved and adored but inaccessible; the focus of so much passion that too often has produced hatred and destruction.”
At the corner of Marcus and Pinsker streets stands one of the beautiful villas so typical of the prestigious Talbiyeh neighborhood. Amir, in a black shirt and linen trousers, steps out of his car and smiles broadly as he takes in the sight. Purple bougainvillea cover the outside walls, and a charming little garden can be seen from outside.
In the book, “This is the house from which Abu George, Yasmine’s father, flees with his family in 1948, despite the repeated attempts of his Jewish neighbor to convince him not to do so,” says Amir.
Talbiyeh is not a typical “seam neighborhood.” It was never under shelling or sniper fire. Nevertheless, its beautiful, noble houses and villas were inhabited mainly by wealthy Palestinian families, mostly Christian, who abandoned them following the War of Independence. In a way, this was one of the first “seam spots.”
Immediately after the war, many of the original Palestinian owners went to see their old properties, and many were warmly welcomed by the residents and invited in to look around.
“Abu George at first refused to come back here. He felt he couldn’t face that painful reality,” says Amir.
Talbiyeh remains a well-to-do neighborhood, and some of the villas still bear the names of the original Palestinian residents.
FROM TALBIYEH, we drive to Salah A-Din Street, the economic heart of east Jerusalem, and stop in front of the Justice Ministry building, opposite the district court.
To the left of the court there is a new hotel façade, and Amir looks genuinely disappointed.
“In ’67 it was a movie theater, the El Hamra. They used to screen those terrific Arabic romantic movies that I loved, and still love, so much,” he says.
Until 1972, the building served as the headquarters of the Judea-Samaria military government, while the soldiers’ and the officers’ housing was at the Ambassador Hotel, up the hill in Sheikh Jarrah. Amir recalls how he and his friends serving at the headquarters used to sneak into the theater to enjoy movies featuring the hottest film stars from Egypt.
Today, as in 1967 and afterward until the first intifada in 1989, the street seems to have returned to its former level of activity, with crowds of tourists packing the sidewalks. But the movie theater has disappeared, probably due to the rise of the Islamist zealots, Amir surmises.
The next stop is the American Colony Hotel. In the book, this is where Abu George and his daughter meet Nuri, and the father asks him to help Yasmine establish contact with an Israeli institution for the disabled in order to get a job suitable for the degree she received in Paris. In the story, the two young people speak in English – though they both speak perfect Hebrew and Arabic – for ideological reasons.
Amir says that his knowledge of Arabic was a great help in facilitating his first contacts with the Palestinians right after the war. He still addresses people in the streets in Arabic.
“The fact that I spoke their language immediately eased some of the tension. It was as if I wasn’t a complete enemy, as if I was in some way one of them,” he says.
From the American Colony, we drive along Nablus Road, up to the Ambassador Hotel, which served as housing for the soldiers of the headquarters on Salah ADin Street, as well as offices for some of the military government representatives. Amir’s office was located a few meters behind the hotel in an exquisite little villa. Until the war, it served as the official house for Ahmed Shukeiri, then head of the PLO.
In this neighborhood there are many official representatives of foreign consulates, as well as Christian organizations. It is calm, clean, with very few people on the streets. It seems remote from the fast-paced atmosphere that pervades other parts of the city – no traffic, no pollution in the air.
The Ambassador, whose facade looked terribly neglected during the years it served the military government, has been totally renovated.
For the past few years, the Ambassador has served as a venue for a series of encounters between Palestinians and Israelis seeking ways to advance peace between the parties.
Amir recalls that on the first days after the war, he took his father to the Old City. There they were, the immigrant from Iraq and his son, who was sent to a kibbutz and became part of the Zionist ethos, meeting with Arabs whose origins were so similar to their own.
“They were so close and yet so inaccessible. We were from the same culture and yet, all of a sudden, we were the mighty and they were those who lost everything. And there I was, a young Iraqi Jew, living in a remote, underprivileged neighborhood, Katamon Vav, representing Israeli authority, with my father, speaking with them in Arabic. It was a very complex situation,” says Amir.
He sighs a little, looks over the city down the hill and utters something about the foolishness of war and the desire to impose domination over another people.
“Ben-Gurion, the only one who wasn’t swept up in the euphoria following the victory, was already something of the past; he had no power,” adds Amir, as if speaking to himself. “He said that we should demolish the walls of the Old City. It sounded barbaric, but I think he meant that these walls so dramatically represented the deep separation between the two parts, that as long as they were here, this city wouldn’t have a chance to become one. I think he was right. And the walls were, of course, never demolished.”
Amir says he feels like a stranger in the Arab side of the city, though through his knowledge of the language and the customs, he admits he can never really be a stranger among Arabs.
“Some people here know me personally; some have even read my books, which have been translated into Arabic,” he says. “It does open some doors for me, but I can feel they don’t love us. It disturbs me.”
ASKED IF he felt nostalgia for the Jerusalem of the Sixties, before June 1967, Amir is overwhelmed. He stops the car for a few seconds, right in the middle of traffic, on the road toward the Damascus Gate.
“Oh, I’m dying of nostalgia for that small, intimate Jerusalem I knew. Jerusalem of today is a stranger to me. It has become a city of stones and concrete, huge. It has lost its character. All these new neighborhoods are like added arms to a lost center; nothing really connects them. We have the haredi city, which is advancing from one neighborhood to another, and the new neighborhoods, which are simply dormitories,” he responds.
Amir stops for a moment and adds, “I live in Gilo, which has almost 50,000 residents. It’s a medium-sized city, without even one coffee shop! At night it’s like a dead city. People go back there just to sleep.”
We reach the intersection between the municipality building and the path down to the Jaffa Gate. The bullet scars are still visible on the wall of the oldest building of the municipality compound. The separation wall was highest here, and that is where the first crowds crossed the lines on June 13, 1967. And Amir was there.
“The wall was not so high in general,” Amir points out, “about 2.5 meters or so, but it was omnipresent. The whole area here was a firing zone. Once you got here, you had to pray it wouldn’t be one of those days when a Legion soldier was ‘going crazy,’ as they used to say, and open fire just for fun. Our existence here was based on the question ‘Will we have a crazy legionnaire today or not?’ That was our life.”
Amir recalls that when he was a child at school, he used to visit a classmate in Yemin Moshe to do homework together.
“He lived exactly on the separation line. The wall divided but didn’t offer too much protection, and that was our daily reality.”
Amir says that on the very day the separation wall was demolished, the city opened up. “But that was only for a short period,” he points out bitterly. “We did have a sense of security for the first months. We could move around safely, day and night, inside the walls of the Old City – there was no problem. But it didn’t last long.”
On the Musrara seam line, with the Damascus Gate behind us, Amir looks at the trees along the road and remarks with a hint of sarcasm that they look as if serenity and calm had been there forever.
“Nothing of this was here then – no gardens, no trees, no serenity and no security. It was some kind of gate to fire,” he says.
Amir suddenly realizes that the area of the tunnel to the road under the Jaffa Gate was once a large plot where Arab residents of the Old City and the surrounding villages went to get work.
“It was a large slave market. They came here at dawn, waiting in anguish for the Jewish rais [“master” in Arabic] who would hire them for a day of work, enabling them to precariously feed their family. I describe it vividly in Yasmine – the Arab workers were chosen, taken on the vans driven by Jews to build the Jewish homeland. That was the reality here for many years.”
On Hanevi’im Street, back in west Jerusalem, Amir once again makes comparisons between the Jerusalem of old and the present- day metropolis.
“Yes, I do feel longing for that small, intimate city I knew once,” he says.
Asked whether it wasn’t natural for a city to grow, develop and expand, Amir is silent for a few moments. Then, with a deep sigh, he says, “So what? Should that comfort me that I see how the beautiful young lover of my youth has become an old lady? That the movie star of my youth has aged and looks old and tired? I’m not talking about urban development – I am fully aware of the concrete needs of residents and the laws of development. But I am talking about my love for Jerusalem. I still long for the love of my youth, the city which, like a hauntingly beautiful woman, I held in my arms, like in The Song of Songs. Her bosom was firm and her legs charming, and now she is fat and ugly, and I mourn the lost love of my youth.” •