Last night, Friday night, I asked my sister if she’d heard news of violence in the Old City, which flares up reliably on Fridays, after Muslim services, and especially in this period of Ramadan. Young people emerge from Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock and throw rocks down at Jews praying at the Western Wall. The police arrive, violence ensues. This is flaring up again, after the respite afforded by covid.
She looked up the news and said “Shit!” There were hundreds of protesters yesterday, with many arrested and getting hurt, including policemen.
The focus this time is not on the Temple Mount but the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah close by, which is mostly Palestinian and well known in my family as the place to go to get your car fixed. Regardless, nothing happens here that escapes the shadow of land ownership and occupation.
In some ways (not all), I feel when I’m here that I am reliving the Europeans’ take-over of Turtle Island hundreds of years ago. Court orders and judicial decisions provide but a thin legal veneer to what in essence is a land grab. Sometimes it’s for religious reasons (This is our city!), but more often it’s economic in nature. Young people like my nephews and nieces, priced out of living in Jerusalem, see in the surrounding hills of the West Bank potential for big American-style homes, suburban living with cars, back yards, and barbecues smack in the middle of the desert hills.
“We’ll leave if there are ever peace accords,” they used to say. “We won’t stand in the way of a peace process.”
Not anymore. As the years go by they become more entrenched and prouder than ever of the lifestyle they’ve created; they love this place even as the air-conditioning has to be kept on almost year-round. Their small children can’t imagine that these generous schools and kindergartens with parks and safe streets all around, aren’t their true home. They live on top of the hills with a great desert panorama outside their living room windows, looking down on the Bedouins herding their goats in the valleys. They’d be astonished to hearr that their parents had once been slightly uncertain about building their homes here, that once there had been a question about whether this area in the West Bank belongs to them. Of course, it belongs to them—now and for eternity.
It’s sad to say this, but the government’s plans have worked out. They incentivized the settlement of the West Bank. A few settled here for religious or idealistic reasons, but the majority for the lifestyle, and by the time their children go to school picnics and birthday parties, the old questions don’t even arise.
But in the long run, I wonder? What did we win in America? What has happened to the common-sense relationship of human being to land, desert, trees, to other species? What is the loss we begin to realize and acknowledge? I can’t compare that loss to the suffering of the Native Americans—or the Palestinians, for that matter—but I can’t help noticing that losses and gains tend to change over time.
For now, the Occupation has won. Jerusalem is ours forever! say the signs. But what’s forever?
On Thursday my sister and I ventured into the Old City so that I could make my regular pilgrimage to Hagop Karakashian at Jerusalem Pottery. The shop used to be on Via Dolorosa, which we might have avoided in these times, but it’s now in the Greek Orthodox section of the Old City, right opposite the enormous Patriarchate, just a few minutes’ walk from the Jaffa Gate.
We walk through the fancy shopping arcade of Mamila, stopping enroute for a quick lunch, then climb the steps towards Jaffa Gate. Groups of Israeli school youth surround us, out to celebrate the anniversary of the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, but once inside the old walls I don’t see them, and I wonder if, for caution’s sake (never mind Palestinian sensitivities), they don’t even go inside the Old City.
Jerusalem Pottery was founded by an Armenian artisan who came to Jerusalem a century ago to hand-paint the gorgeous tiles on the outside of the Dome of the Rock. He and his descendants maintained their artistry of hand-painted Armenian ceramics and pottery all these years.
In the 1940s they hand-painted Armenian tiles with the names of the streets in the Old City in both the gorgeous Arabic calligraphy and also in English, which were the street signs back then. In 1967, after the Israelis conquered the city, its new mayor, Teddy Kollek, asked them to add the name in Hebrew, so they added one tile with the Hebrew lettering over each tile of English and Arabic. You can see these tiles all over the Old City, so much more beautiful than the Jerusalem Municipal printed blue street signs.
The history of the city curls through their tiles, you can’t fake it, just as their many imitators try to copy their results but can’t replace hand-painted ceramics with mass-produced goods made in Hebron factories (or maybe even China, for that matter). Usually, I peer in back at the workroom where they paint the cups, saucers, plates, framed mirrors, platters, tiles, and tabletops which are then shipped all over the world. None of what they sell is cheap, but it’s the real thing.
I buy gifts: 2 coffee cups, a small vase, a serving plate, and a few other small items. I love the symbols they use: the peacock for abundance, the gazelle and pomegranate, and even the Jewish Tree of Life.
And I like talking to Mr. Karakashian. Handsome and courtly, he never seems to age. We both recognize each other even with our masks on. His are the aristocratic brow, nose, and dark eyes, unwavering Armenian features that seem to mock the passage of time even as he answers my questions all based on time: Yes, business was terrible during the time of corona, hopefully it will improve now as things open up; his family is well but his brother-in-law in Los Angeles got very sick, was in ICU for 10 days, and then recovered.
“Can I take a photo?”
“Of course, you can, and please add a link to our website.”
Regardless of what’s in the news, when you are in Jerusalem you participate in timelessness. I feel that more here, with the sound of buses, cars, bicycles, children’s shouts, trucks and construction, never mind battles, than I do in my quiet New England woods. I don’t need to visit the Wailing Wall or the Temple Mount, too much historical blood there for my taste. In Hagop Karakashian, all three tenses meet.
We walk back to Mamila and encounter the high school groups again. They ask us to take their photos, they nibble on premium ice cream cones or else crowd into a store that is an Israeli version of Claire’s, full of cheap jewelry and knick-knacks. Their teachers have had it up to HERE! they say, pointing to their foreheads.
HERE! is never up there, I want to tell them; it’s far lower down.
My 12-year-old great-nephew, Avishai, who daily practices judo with his judo-champion father, informs me that the Japanese word for stomach is hara. Everything comes from there, he informs me with a sweet, bashful smile.
I don’t ever give up hope. If anything, slowly, slowly, I feel like I’m falling in love with this place, finally.
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