A lesson in ‘authentic’ Jerusalem

A Jewish bus line, driven by an Arab driver, listening to a Jewish Army Radio broadcast while transporting Arab and Jewish passengers.

bus no 23 jlem 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
bus no 23 jlem 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Many years ago, when I was a student, the No. 23 was the most popular bus line among Kiryat Hayovel residents. It took us from there to Mahaneh Yehuda and the city center – where real life could be found.
It was also the line that connected one of the most underprivileged sections – the asbestos-insulated buildings – to the rest of this rather proletarian, secular neighborhood of predominantly new immigrants. The “asbestos” houses – Jerusalem’s last remnants from the ma’abara period – seemed to us university students in the dorms or young tenants in the small apartments of Kiryat Hayovel to not really belong to the rest of the city.
Not that we were unaware of poverty and underprivileged neighborhoods in the capital; but we all had a crush on Nahlaot and its “authentic” residents, with their colorful traditions.
But that was long ago.
Recently, while on a visit to Mount Scopus, I decided to give the 23 a chance after all those years.
The first thing I discovered after the bus pulled up next to Hadassah-University Medical Center was that it was the driver’s first day on that line. When asked about his route, he told the passengers, with a big smile and a heavy Arabic accent, that he wasn’t sure, suggesting that they ask another passenger. Sitting behind him, I noticed that he was listening to Army Radio.
Vice President Joe Biden was in town and a stormy debate between left-wing and right-wing spokesmen was raging on the radio. While keeping an eye on the road and an ear on the radio broadcast, I noticed that the rare passengers – eight in all – were Arab residents, at least judging by their clothes. There were three young female students, two middle-aged women – all wearing hijabs – and two men, one of them holding masbaha (prayer beads) and a child.
It occurred to me that I was experiencing one of these fascinating situations only Jerusalem can offer: a Jewish bus line, driven by an Arab driver listening to an Army Radio broadcast while transporting Arab and Jewish passengers.
I, for one, would have preferred he switched to an Arab station with some Umm Kulthum songs, but this driver was definitely more interested in current affairs than old-fashioned music.
I soon realized that this line was not going to be the fastest way to reach my destination: the bus pushed its way through a congested Sheikh Jarrah, then continued to Salah A-Din Street, which was just as packed. Because of the noise coming from the construction work, the driver turned up the volume, making the atmosphere inside the bus more surreal.
The radio debate became more vociferous, and at least once, when one of the participants on the air yelled, “And what about the Arabs? Yes, the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Do you care about their plight?” – I could swear I saw smiles fade from the lips of the two young girls sitting to my right.
The driver, listening intently to the debate, showed no reaction atall. By now we were already reaching Geula and Mea She’arim; still mostof the passengers had covered heads, but sported a very different look.
Rehov Straus, the Davidka, Mahaneh Yehuda, and again the roadwork. OnArmy Radio the debate was over, and with the first notes of some popmusic, the driver turned down the volume.
The bus was by now fairly full, including a proliferation of shoppingbaskets and strollers. By the time we passed the Central Bus Station,the passengers were mostly middle-aged Jews. After an hour and 36minutes had gone by (according to Egged schedules, it should have beenafter one hour and three minutes, but Egged’s Web site is apparentlyunaware of the light-rail construction), we reached Rehov Olswanger innorthern Kiryat Hayovel, the Mifletzet (as the enormous playgroundstructure and city landmark is commonly known) and headed toward IrGanim.
Line 23 runs from 5:30 a.m. to 11:40 p.m., starting at the HebrewUniversity’s Mount Scopus campus and ending at the Israel Arts andSciences Academy.