Life on the seam

Longtime Musrara residents recall life in the neighborhood, from the sniper fire before 1967 to today's demographic changes.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'It was, and still is, the closest thing to the Garden of Eden," says Avi Elzam, 56, a lifelong resident of Musrara. "For me, nothing can compare to this place." Elzam, who was a city council member in Teddy Kollek's administration and is the director of the community center in Shmuel Hanavi, spent his childhood in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Jerusalem in the years before the Six Day War "We used to have a very regular Shabbat schedule," he recalls, while pointing to highway No. 1, which was the no-man's land between Jordan and Israel from 1948 to 1967. "The morning would start with an encounter with the Arab Legion snipers. They shot at us out of sheer boredom. Then we would rage a war in the streets - the kids of Musrara against the kids of Mea She'arim. The young Kurdish boys from Mamilla would join us, to play ball and to support us, the Iraqis and Moroccans from Musrara against the Ashkenazi boys of Mea She'arim. Then we would come home for Shabbat lunch, and after that we walked to the YMCA soccer field to watch the Betar game. That was the schedule on Shabbat, for years." Musrara, on the line between west and east Jerusalem, had a hard time during the years between the creation of the state and the Six Day War. It was a neighborhood on the seam, and with Jewish houses only 4-5 meters from the Arab houses on the other side of the demarcation line, Musrara suffered more than any other Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem from snipers and other manifestations of the tense stand-off in Jerusalem. "We had a wonderful mulberry tree, in the middle of no-man's land," recalls Elzam. "It was the most beautiful tree you can imagine; its fruits had the real Garden of Eden taste. Children and adults alike, from both sides of the border, couldn't resist the temptation to pick the fruits, even though we all knew it could be very dangerous." Ayala Sabbag, who today lives in the Katamonim where she is known for her social activism, was born in Musrara. "My parents arrived in 1947 and set up home in one of the Arab houses on Rehov Musrara, which later became Rehov Ayin-Het. Our house was the last one on the street, and until 1948, my parents had very close relationships with their Arab neighbors, whom they met right after the Six Day War." Sabbag, born in the early Sixties, recalls the frightening moments of sniper fire: "We didn't have any shelter. Whenever they started to shoot, my mother would, in great panic, gather all her children - we were 11 - and carry the youngest ones up the street to the building of the Voice of Israel, where we would hide ourselves. The Voice of Israel's building was in range of the shots, but at least they had a shelter inside." "The fire from the Jordanian soldiers was a part of our everyday life in Musrara," adds Elzam. "Their favorite time was on Shabbat mornings, I don't know why, perhaps because we were all at home or in the yards down on Rehov Ayin-Het , so close to them. They managed to kill quite a few of us, but somehow, [and] I really cannot understand that now, we stuck to the place and didn't even think of going elsewhere. Those were different days." In 1966, the shootings became more frequent. One Shabbat morning Yaffa, 12, was shot in the head and killed by a sniper while standing on the balcony of her home A few minutes later, her neighbor, a middle aged woman named Allegra, was also shot and seriously wounded. The only two schools in Musrara had no shelters either. The primary school was located in the house that now contains the Musrara School of Photography. "It's another aspect of the changes that occurred here," Elzan explains. "The neighborhood is closed from all sides. There is nowhere to expand [into] Mea She'arim, the Arab part of Musrara, or Rehov Hanevi'im. It's too small, we cannot develop and it will never become like Nahla'ot for example, where new residents merged with the veterans and created something old and new together." For Ayala Sabbag, things look a little different. "Right after the Six Day War, when it wasn't dangerous to live there, rich people began to show interest in our old Arab houses. We didn't have the money to restore them - they did, and they usually bought the beautiful houses for peanuts, as our parents had no idea of the real value of their dwellings, or that [such things] were becoming fashionable. Even I had no idea, and I sold my house for almost nothing because I needed the money so badly then. I still bear the injustice. No one from the authorities came to help us or to advise us. In fact, it was like in Yemin Moshe, where they took all the residents and relocated them into ugly and small block apartments. I don't think I will ever forgive that." In the '70s, the Black Panthers, a Mizrahi-oriented protest movement, came forth from Musrara and spread to the Katamonim and beyond. The Panthers, taking their name from the American Black Power group of the same name, were instrumental in revealing to the public the endemic poverty, joblessness and lack of education among many Mizrahi Jews. Later, artists and Bohemian figures started coming to Musrara, buying gorgeous Arab houses at relatively low prices and transforming them into beautiful, modern residences. But according to both Sabbag and Elzam, this was without any connection to the local population and its needs. Over the past decade, some haredim have arrived in the small neighborhood. There are now two yeshivot, a few families and a Bratslav synagogue, adding to the diversity while making some residents uneasy.. "I don't think that in Musrara there will be a real haredi invasion," says city council member Meir Turgeman, who also sits on the Planning and Construction Commission. "The houses there are really too expensive for them, but real plans of development, despite all the efforts made by the local community center, have not been successful in truly improving the neighborhood." "My house doesn't exist anymore," says Sabbag, "It was demolished for the construction of a road, but I still remember exactly how it was, and my parents' house, and running under the bullets. I cannot forget what it was like to live in Musrara. After all, I was born there."