The other side of the tracks

Shuafat residents anticipate the launch of the light rail in their neighborhood with a mixture of excitement and indifference.

Halal butcher 521 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Halal butcher 521
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Ahmed, 18, and Zaher, 20, run a small supermarket on the main street that leads from Shuafat to Beit Hanina. It is just 50 meters from where the tracks recently laid for the new Jerusalem light rail take an abrupt right turn towards Pisgat Ze’ev. The Abu Khudeir market isn’t the most thriving place, and the young men are eager to talk about the new tram.
“It will be harder for people with cars, I think, but easier for people like us who use public transportation,” says Ahmed. He thinks the train will have problems but can’t pinpoint what they will be.
“It is for Jews, not for Arabs. It was built here only because this is the shortest distance from [Jewish] Pisgat Ze’ev to central Jerusalem,” explains Zaher. “Look, it’s obvious. That is why there are only two stops in Shuafat. It isn’t really political, that’s just the way it is.”
The reality is slightly different. The shortest route for the rail would probably have been for it to follow the highway that winds around Shuafat to the south and leads from Pisgat Ze’ev to central Jerusalem. The light rail is scheduled to have three stops in the Arab neighborhoods – Shuafat Central, Shuafat South and Beit Hanina. The planners deliberately wanted to include the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
However, in general the Arab community is happy with the new opportunities the light rail will bring. “This is the first time that we have a tram. People will definitely use the new service because it’s faster,” says Zaher.
The way it stands now, the residents of Shuafat and Beit Hanina who don’t want to use a car have two choices to get to central Jerusalem. They can walk to French Hill, which is about a kilometer away, and take the Egged buses that run throughout Jerusalem. Or they can take the east Jerusalem buses that cater to the Arab community. Those buses, however, take them only to the central bus station in east Jerusalem. The buses don’t go into west Jerusalem, which means another walk to an Egged bus stop.
Amina, a sprightly Christian woman, is excited about the new service. “Inshallah [God willing], it will work and start soon. It can’t be soon enough. It will make our lives easier.”
She works assisting the elderly in Ramot Eshkol, a neighborhood near Shuafat. For her, the positives are not just ease of travel.
“The buses in Ramot Eshkol are full of religious people [Jews].
I’d rather be on the tram, where there will be fewer of them.”
An unspoken issue is the employment opportunities the light rail has provided.
Besides the hundreds of residents who were employed in constructing it, many are also employed now as crossing guards for the train as it completes its testing phase. Some are also employed in other capacities. Ahmed, 54, looks like a tired man. He has worked for five years for the light rail and is now employed as a crossing guard. “I’ll lose my job when the tram actually starts running, but that is God’s will,” he says. “It is the same as Egged. Sure, I’ll try riding it. But it has caused some problems, not only with the traffic but also with the shops, especially along Jaffa Road in central Jerusalem.”
Those with cars have less interest. Muhammad, who lives in Beit Hanina, says he won’t use it. “The traffic won’t change. No one who has a car is going to say, ‘Oh, today I’ll take the tram.’ No, it’s ridiculous.”
Talal, a halal butcher, and his son Munir are even more skeptical.
“If you had your own private jet, would you fly commercial?” He is more concerned about harm to his business. “No one can park outside my store now; they made the road narrower to build the tracks.
Not only that, but it is dangerous. There are so many schools here, and the children behave like sheep. It will be dangerous for them.”
Evidence of his comments are readily apparent. It is around 3:30 p.m. and children are going home from school. They climb over the mesh nets that are supposed to divide the street from the tracks. They dash across them, and there are no crossing guards around to say anything. Le’en, a teenager from the Rosary Sisters Catholic School, is more law-abiding. She looks both ways and crosses tentatively over the tracks.
“The school told us it will cost NIS 1 for students, and our parents will encourage us to ride the tram to school.”
Muhammad, a 52-year-old taxi driver from Abu Tor, is not impressed. “It is scary, this tram. Most trains in other countries run in tunnels, but this one is above ground with dangerous electric wires above it. It isn’t like a regular train, and it will make the traffic worse. Already my business has been hurt because I can’t drive on Jaffa Road anymore. And these workers you see everywhere, they cause even more headaches. Anyway, I’ll never take it. I have a car, and I don’t even live in Shuafat.”
Majd Dowani thinks there are more important ramifications.
“What about security – will that be an issue? It is going to hurt the business of the Arab buses from east Jerusalem? And there are only two stops for us. Maybe we won’t even be able to get on the tram.”
There seems to be an unspoken question about whether there will be tensions with the Jews from Pisgat Ze’ev who will ride through Shuafat.
Talal is upbeat. “There are Jews who come here, not at this moment, but they come to my shop to buy food. In the old days, the 25 bus line used to run here, before the intifada, and there were no problems then.”
Most of the residents In Jerusalem interviewed didn’t feel there would be any problems between the two communities.
Everyone agrees on one thing: No one will attack the light rail or its infrastructure during the protests that are a yearly occurrence in Shuafat.
Given the experience the city has had in Mea She’arim, where annual protests result in the destruction of city property, the assertion that the train will not be affected seems to be highly optimistic. However, the comments reflect an apparently widespread positive attitude, for now, in this part of east Jerusalem.
Arabic translation by by Majd Ashhab.