Meet me at the corner of...

After years of neglect, 160 streets in east Jerusalem will finally have names and addresses.

street sign 88.298 (photo credit: )
street sign 88.298
(photo credit: )
"You enter Wadi Joz, turn right, then second left, then go up with the road and stop next to the mosque." This very specific explanation, provided by my mechanic in Wadi Joz, didn't keep me from getting completely lost and wandering for what seemed like forever through the narrow streets of this Jerusalem suburb. Apparently, I took the wrong right and found a different mosque and a different garage. I called again, begging for the exact street address, but I was told that I should refer to the given landmarks since this street, like so many others in the neighborhood, had no name. Residents of east Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Umm Lison, a-Suana, Wadi Joz, Beit Safafa, Shuafat, Silwan, Isawiya, Ras el-Amud, Jebl Mukaber and Sur Bahir are well accustomed to this peculiar situation and regularly manage to find their whereabouts, receive their mail and get to where they have to go. But when it comes to an emergency - such as fires, household accidents and health crises - the absence of street names can be life-threatening. It can take a stranger, including an ambulance driver, precious minutes or even hours to find a precise location. So the heads of local councils, community dignitaries and officials in the municipality of Jerusalem decided that change was needed. A delegation met with Mayor Uri Lupolianski soon after he was elected and asked him to provide street names and addresses. Lupolianski established a special committee to tackle the situation. "Every person should have an address," Lupolianski said at the time. "An addresses is not only important from a municipal point of view, but it also has a symbolic significance. "An address also determines identity and a sense of belonging and helps each and every citizen to feel that he belongs and is wanted - to feel at home. If we as a state want to maintain the unity of Jerusalem, then first and foremost we must treat all residents of this city equally and avoid any sense of discrimination or deprivation." The no-name situation is the result of years of Jordanian and Israeli neglect. "Under the Jordanian rule many streets didn't have names at all, others were forgotten and the new streets that appeared over the years remained nameless. As a consequence we found out that more than 160 streets in east Jerusalem didn't have any name," says Yossi Cohen, the mayor's adviser on neighborhoods and one of the moving forces behind the initiative to naming the anonymous streets. Recently, after nearly three years of sessions, names were approved for most of these streets and some of the street signs have already been attached to walls and buildings. How were the names selected? The process proved to be more difficult than choosing a name for a newborn baby, observes Cohen, who was directly involved in discussing the matter with local mukhtars and the other dignitaries. "You want the name to be appropriate, to match the place and the surroundings and also to be significant. Let's just say that the name Herzl does not exactly fit a street in Umm Tuba. But we were not going to accept the names of Palestinian martyrs, either. So we had to conduct very sound research to ensure that the names would be chosen carefully." Geographer Muhammad Nakhal, also an adviser to the municipality, says that in the process of selecting the names, the council not only consulted with the elders, the mukhtars and the dignitaries, but also examined historical maps and archives and consulted with linguists and historians. The public was also involved, he says. "After all, these are the places they live in. So they decided all together, whether in community centers or in local councils. In other cases their representatives decided," said Nakhal. What about uninhabited locations? "We had to explore archival materials, basically the maps and the city plans from the period of the British mandate. In other cases we went to the elders of the neighborhood and asked them to recall what the area was once called. We got amazing results!" According to Nakhal, most of the streets have been named for important figures in ancient Islamic and recent Palestinian history. Among the ancient names now appearing in east Jerusalem, one can find Imru al-Qais, a great Arab poet from the sixth century; Omar ibn al-Khattab, a caliph of Islam and great conqueror; and Hatem al-Tayi, a famous poet from the pre-Islamic period. The more recent names appear, for example, on a street in Sheikh Jarrah named after Ragheb Nashashibi, mayor of Jerusalem in the 1930s. Another street has been named for Musa Alami, a representative of the Palestinian political parties to the Preparatory Conference for the Establishment of the Arab League and head of Arab Development Society in Jericho. On the other hand, Nakhal says, the people of Jebl Mukaber decided to name their streets after the large clans residing in their area, and each clan will get its 'own' street. Sameer, owner of a grocery shop in Wadi Joz told IJ that he was thrilled with the decision to give names to the streets in the neighborhood. "We often have trouble receiving mail, especially from abroad, and when people come to visit us from different parts of town, they have a hard time finding the place," he explains. Iba, another Wadi Joz resident says that the decision is positive and will benefit the people. The municipality has already put up some of the street signs. Each sign is written in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Some signs also carry a brief explanation about the person whose name is on the sign. And following tradition, some also add blessings ("Prayer be upon him") when referring to Muhammad.