Saturday 21 April 2018

'This land is just dirt': A rooftop view of Jerusalem

For its Season of Culture, the ancient capital has thrown open its rooftops to encourage residents to see beyond their blinkered boundaries. But the reality is a city where the divides are growing deeper, writes Hannah Ellis-Petersen in the Guardian. Read on:

The rooftops of Jerusalem can be deceptive. From up here, the domes and towers of the hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues glimmer on the skyline in what seems like peaceful coexistence; the neighbourhoods below come together in a unified sprawl.

But down below, it is a city defined by barriers. They may not be as tangible as the towering security wall that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories a few miles east, but they are just as divisive and inviolable. Living side by side in Jerusalem are communities who exist with no interaction with one another – kept apart by fear, nationalism and religion.

To some extent it has long been thus, and not just between Israelis and Palestinians. There is also segregation along secular and ultra-orthodox lines, and the residual hierarchy between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that emerged when Israel was created in 1948. Of the 900,000 residents of Jerusalem, 37% are Palestinians, 32% are ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest are made up of secular and religious nationalist Jews and the tiny Christian population.

A view of East Jerusalem and the separation barrier, taken from the tower of the Augusta Victoria hospital church
While Israelis typically live in the west and Palestinians in the east of Jerusalem, mixed neighbourhoods do exist. In the winding alleys of the old city and the streets of downtown, the diverse inhabitants peacefully cross paths every day. Yet as rightwing nationalism seeps into the culture, and technology threatens the traditional ultra-orthodox way of life, the fractures of Jerusalem are growing deeper. Today communities live, not entwined, but in isolated parallel.

“Fear has become a fact of life here,” says Pnina Pfeufer. “There are many places in Jerusalem I know nothing about, and I’ve lived here my entire life. And I think that’s true of every person who lives here.”

Pfeufer is looking out over the city from atop the Bikur Cholim hospital, where she is a participant in a new city-wide project to open up rooftops, from west to east Jerusalem, that are usually private or inaccessible to the public. Some are art installations; others are the homes of interesting figures, both Israeli and Palestinian. Initiated by Mekudeshet, the Jerusalem Season of Culture, the project aims to encourage people to look beyond their blinkered boundaries and see their city afresh.

Orthodox Jews pass Israeli Defence Forces soldiers in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City
Yet nothing in Jerusalem is apolitical. The foundation that runs Mekudeshet is Israeli, opening Palestinians who take part to accusations of normalising the occupation. What’s more, the only rooftops of Palestinians that were made accessible are in the old city; there are none in east Jerusalem.

“In the mind of many Israelis, there is a black hole called East Jerusalem,” says Mekudeshet’s executive director, Naomi Bloch Fortis. “Nobody knows where it is, what it means, where it starts and ends, what its status is. In the national consciousness, East Jerusalem just means fear. We are on a journey to collaborate with Palestinians, to get to know East Jerusalem and remove that fear. But it is a long journey and very delicate, and to use a rooftop in the heart of East Jerusalem, well, we cannot.”

The project traces a line across a divided city via its rooftops. And the stories of the volunteers who have opened their homes to strangers, regardless of ethnicity or creed, speak to a multi-layered Jerusalem, one rarely seen in a conflict-obsessed news cycle: a colourful, fractious and potent city.

We visited six.

The view from Koko Deri’s roof in Musrara in West Jerusalem
The Israeli Black Panther: ‘I smell the scent of destruction’
Koko Deri’s rooftop is a cornucopia. Piles of chairs, teapots, jugs, masks, stools and carpets obscure every surface. On one wall is a vast oil painting of Napoleon and Josephine, adorned with diamante gems and stickers. “I added in the stuff the artist forgot,” Deri says with a wink.

It is a monument to a lifetime of collecting, and a reflection of the colourfully camp personality of a man in his 60s who has lived in the same house his entire life (“not counting my three times when I lived in jail”). Yet in the 1950s and 60s, when he was growing up here, the building was derelict and Deri’s family had no possessions at all: “Not even underwear.”

His parents were among the millions of Moroccan Sephardic Jews who moved to Israel in 1949 for the promise of an abundant life; instead, they found themselves ghettoised. “The European Ashkenazi Jews lived in the comfortable apartments and decided how the country would be run, and they treated us Arab Jews as suspicious, as the other, almost like slaves,” he says. “We lived in this jungle, the 60% of us, and then there were the 40%, the European Ashkenazi Jews that lived in beautiful apartments, who went to good schools, who lived a totally different life, who were just a mile away. That was the segregated reality of Jerusalem – and it was there right from the beginning of this new society.”

Koko Deri on his rooftop in Musrara
This rooftop once looked out over the barbed wire fence of the green line and the Jordanian sniper watchtowers. After the six-day war in 1967, the green line fence came down – and the view of Jerusalem changed radically. Instead of barbed wire and sniper towers, Deri could see for the first time into life in East Jerusalem, and finally crossed paths with Palestinians, “who we realised were not the monsters we had been told”.

It was here that Deri and 10 others formed the Israeli Black Panther movement in 1971, which fought against the prejudice against Sephardic Jews, most of whom had emigrated from Arab countries. It was inspired by its US namesake: “We were the black Jews, you see.”

Their street protests in the early 1970s, which attracted crowds of over 10,000, would often end in clashes with the police, but “it was not only violent”, says Deri. “One of our first actions was in the Ashkenazi neighbourhoods, where they would all get their milk delivered at 3am on their doorstep. We would go round and leave notes on the milk bottles, saying: ‘The milk that you are giving to your cat could feed 10 people in Musrara.’”

Indeed, the Israeli Black Panthers initially felt more closely aligned to the Palestinian cause in their fight for equal rights. Deri went to Paris to meet with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and was invited to the US to meet Malcolm X and Angela Davis. After the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the movement fractured, but the battle lines are still present.

A shot taken from Deri’s rooftop
“Back then, we were fighting about human rights, not religion,” says Deri. “Now, when I look out, I smell the scent of destruction in Jerusalem. This society as we know it in Jerusalem and in Israel has about 20 years left and after that it will implode. And that’s not because of outside enemies, it will be what we have done to ourselves with religion. Even in biblical times, that’s what happened; the settlers are the modern-day zealots. It’s already starting – you can feel it in Jerusalem right now. Today it is a city filled with hate.”

The view from Abu Yehia’s roof in the Old City
The repentant jihadist: ‘The angels sit with me on this roof’
As a young Palestinian man, Abu Yehia was “filled with anger and hate”, he says, as he pours lemonade afloat with fresh mint leaves and the call to prayer rings out across the rooftops.

His Muslim Quarter home, which his family has owned for hundreds of years and once served as a bathhouse, is so close to al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City that you’re almost perching on top of the black dome. Like Deri, he too served time in jail for violence and protest – but on the other side of the conflict.

“Thirty years ago, I was part of the Islamic jihad,” he says. He would roam the streets of Jerusalem, blinded by loathing for his Jewish neighbours. “They were my biggest enemy. But I ended up in jail for five years – and there I saw everything. I realised my life was being wasted. My wife divorced me, I lost my house, I didn’t even have my own clothes, I’d lost everything. And I just thought, ‘What was it all for? Why did God send me here, in this cell detained with 10 other people?’ It made me realise the path I had chosen was wrong, that I needed to find another path.”

Abu Yehia: ‘I ended up in jail for five years – and there I realised my life was being wasted’
His rooftop sits at a symbolic crossroads: it overlooks not only al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock but is also situated in a holy triangle between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (one of the holiest sites for Christians) and the western wall (one of the holiest sites for Jews). Here, in the shadow of three of Jerusalem’s most religiously significant monuments, Abu Yehia follows his new path: he invites strangers of all religions to come and share dinner.

“From eating together comes conversation and understanding,” he says. “All three religions are here on this roof. It is a holy place. Sometimes I sit here and I pray to God and I feel that the angels come and sit here with me. Up here it does not matter if you are a Muslim or a Jew: we are all just human beings. Real peace will only come when we remember this. And I’m talking about real peace – not the peace that politicians speak about – and that’s why I open up my house, to bring people together with food.”

He gestures to a vast platter of yellow rice, then to the heavens. “My real place is up there, and there is only one question when you go: what did you do? Were you a terrorist or did you create peace?”

Pnina Pfeufer on the roof of Bikur Cholim hospital
The Orthodox Jewish feminist: ‘The Haredim, they build walls’
All Jerusalemites stay within their communities to some extent, but none more so than the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population: the Haredim. Standing on top of the rooftop of Haredi hospital Bikur Cholim, Pnina Pfeufer looks down at the people bustling below, riding bicycles or pushing prams, recognisable by their distinctive clothing: men in long black coats and wide-brimmed black hats, their faces framed by two ringlets of hair; the women dressed modestly in long skirts, most often wearing headscarves or wigs, with their real hair shaved off.

Pfeufer has lived in this city all her life, but until three years ago she had never set foot in East Jerusalem. She is not unusual. “The Haredim have less and less need to go out of our own neighbourhoods,” she says, “and that creates more separation.”

In Jerusalem, they have practically built their own city within a city. In order to cloister their way of life from the corruption of secular modern society, they have their own schools, shopping malls, sports clubs, parks and hospitals. Smartphones are outlawed in all schools and most homes, as is the internet. (There are sanctions if you use a smartphone without a rabbi’s permission, or if a student is found to have a computer at home.)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in West Jerusalem

Women in particular face an endless list of restrictions. In 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court had to ban signs instructing women not to use the main street in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood, and ultra-Orthodox leaders lobbied to omit women’s faces from adverts on buses. The Haredim also happen to be the fastest-growing population in Jerusalem.

Pfeufer, meanwhile, is the rarest of gems: a feminist who was raised ultra-Orthodox with aspirations for political office. “The things about being ultra-Orthodox is that you’re meant to fit into a box very neatly,” says Pfeufer. “The Haredi community was created 200 years ago in Europe as a counterculture to the reform movement and emancipation, and it still is a counterculture today. The one thing you can say about all Haredi groups is that they build walls.”

Yet, as the world becomes ever more reliant on technology, the Haredim’s entire way of life is under threat. A lucrative market has emerged in Jerusalem creating tech that caters for the ultra-Orthodox, including smartphones with filtering software. “But rejecting technology isn’t working,” says Pfeufer. “The younger generation are accessing the internet, they are using technology. And it’s becoming impossible to live and function in the world. There are Haredi people who one day opened the internet and suddenly, boom, the entire world came at them in their early 20s. That can be very unsettling. For some people, it’s a trigger for leaving the community entirely.”

A Haredi woman in West Jerusalem
Pfeufer is a testament to the fact that not all Haredim live within these confines. More ultra-Orthodox men and women are taking degrees and entering the general workplace. Yet a Haredi woman has yet to take political office, which makes Pfeufer’s ambitions to be elected to the Jerusalem city council highly provocative. Moreover, her politics lean to the left, directly opposing the rightwing nationalist shift in the Haredi community as a whole.

She also began a Haredi feminist group, which has hundreds of members, and fights for women’s access to education and media debate. But she feels the segregation of the city acutely. “More hardcore traditional Haredim see the fact that I’m a woman as more of a threat, and working people who tend to be more rightwing nationalist, more Zionist, see my opinions as more of a threat.” She offers a sad smile.

A view from the roof of the Clal Centre on Jaffa Road
The artist: ‘In the end, this land is just dirt’
The Clal Centre encapsulates the strange contradictions of Jerusalem. Inside, a shop selling Torah scrolls neighbours a lingerie emporium. It is home to Jerusalem’s only sex shop, yet the top floors of the building are occupied and owned by an Evangelical Christian group who sing songs of worship non-stop for days. It’s in a mixed cosmopolitan area, but the rooftop – where artist Sharon Glazberg is hosting a live installation – overlooks ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, including the Prima Palace hotel favoured by the ultra-Orthodox for going on escorted dates.

Glazberg chose to use its strange neutrality as a place to bring the most contested and holy soil in the city: a vast pile of red earth, dug up from beneath al-Aqsa mosque, the place the Jews call Temple Mount and the Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif, which contains what she calls “the ashes” of the Jewish temple destroyed in AD70. Glazberg has animated the soil: it moves up and down as if it is alive and breathing.

Sharon Glazberg on the roof of the Clal Centre
“When you isolate things, take them out of their context, you can look at them a little bit differently,” she says of the soil, which she obtained from an archeological project. “And a new perspective on Temple Mount is definitely hard to find in Jerusalem.”

Indeed, it’s a provocative idea in a city that just three months ago was rocked with violent clashes over the holy site, fuelled by the stabbings of Israeli police and the installation of metal detectors at its gates. A couple look at the installation with disbelief and amusement. “This is just the sort of thing that will spark the third intifada,” says one with a wry laugh.

Yet she feels her audience’s harmonious reaction says as much as the violence.

Glazberg’s installation on the Clal Centre rooftop, which features 2.5 cubic metres of earth dug up from under Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif
A footprint in the earth
Seven people aerate the mount’s dirt for seven days
“It’s really beautiful how people come here and treat it completely differently. Yesterday, a Haredi came here and prayed for an hour with closed eyes, so intensely, and when he left he just took a bit of the ashes. And a Christian woman asked if I could leave some of the earth here, because she wanted to come here again. People have left me songs they wrote about Jerusalem, really beautiful things. Someone even played the flute.”

Glazberg laments that few Palestinians have been able to see the work, typical of a liberal Israeli echo chamber. “There has not been enough of a Muslim audience, to my disappointment,” she says. “It is definitely the weak point of the work, of so many things that happen in this city.”

Hyperventilation – an installation by Ayela Landow on the roof of the Clal Centre
Nor has the reaction been uniformly positive. An ultra-Orthodox friend raised objections. “I asked him: ‘We live in a wireless age, why are you placing so much importance on this physical earth?’ And his reply was: ‘Yes, but where does the router sit?’ You see, all the people that fight over this place, they really believe that this earth is the router and from there you get all the best reception for the spirit of God.” She laughs as a wind whips up a layer of the fine red soil into the air.

“To me that’s the problem. Everyone in Jerusalem puts so much on this land, on this soil, which in the end is just dirt.”

Palestinian boys practice parkour on the Galizia roofs, opposite the Dome of the Rock, in the Old City
The parkour gang: ‘The police don’t bother us on the rooftops’
As audiences gather to view an earnest installation involving flags on a rooftop in the Old City, something much more interesting is happening nearby. A group of young Palestinian boys do backflips, jump across the uneven surfaces and vault from dome to dome. On the streets, they get stopped constantly by Israeli police. Up here, the city is theirs.

‘I feel so much more free on the rooftops. The IDF and the police also bother us a lot less’
“We are not as free in a playground as we are on the rooftops, because here people don’t see us. A playground would feel like a trap,” says Mahmoud Shaladi, 13.

Majd Abuattduan, also 13, butts in. “I feel so much more free on the rooftops. The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and the police also bother us a lot less on the roofs, though they do still come round here to tell us to stop. Most of us who are doing this sport are trying to keep it healthy and clean – no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking.”

The boys, between the ages of 13 and 17, first saw parkour videos on Facebook, and were given clothes and some tools for practising by a local NGO. Now they come here almost every day.

‘We’re not afraid of the police or the army because everything we do round here, someone will try and stop us anyway’
Even here there are restrictions. “A few of us were arrested because the police told us it was an illegal sport for us to do on the roofs,” says Ahamad Shalodi, 14. “And Israeli families round the neighbourhood are also giving us a hard time. We used to have mattresses around here to practice on, which we used to hide, but they got burned. But we’re not afraid of the police or the army because everything we do round here, someone will try and stop us anyway.”

They look with bemusement at the art that has temporarily taken up residence in the rooftop domain they have long claimed as their own. Soon it will be gone, and they can reclaim their training ground. “I don’t know what those flags are,” says Hamzah Salem, 17, casting only a glance over at the work. “We’ve been seeing it for a few days, but no one has explained it to us. It’s not for us and we’ve been told to move.”

The view from the roof of the Citadel youth hostel in the Old City
The hostel owner: ‘The inequality is getting worse’
October 2015 was the last time Jerusalem was really convulsed by violence. But for Chris Alami, a Palestinian who has lived in the Old City all his life and runs one its most popular youth hostels, it is not religious violence that splinters Jerusalem but economic inequality. The Israeli government is pushing to make its mark on every corner of the city, he says – but it only invests in neighbourhoods without Palestinians.

“The face of the city is changing, architecturally and in terms of infrastructure, but not to benefit us,” says Alami from his hostel roof, where as part of Mekudeshet he is inviting people to sleep overnight for free. “Everyone pays the same exact taxes, but you go to Damascus Gate [in the Muslim Quarter] and you see fewer street cleaners, fewer garbage bins and fewer street lights, but more soldiers.”

He grows angrier. “And it’s even worse in Palestinian neighbourhoods like Silwan. You don’t see paved streets, and there will be just one big garbage bin overflowing with rubbish. That tells the Palestinians who live here: ‘You are not welcome here, we don’t want your streets to be clean, for you to be comfortable.’ And that inequality is getting worse.”

Hannah Ellis-Petersen takes in the view from the roof of the Citadel youth hostel
While the current consensus is that another intifada is unlikely anytime soon, Alami says the tensions of the city are palpable. “I’ve been fined so many times, been prosecuted for things that were so unreasonable, even jailed for one month,” he says. The poverty and police harassment has led him to believe Jerusalem is “a slingshot that is getting stretched and stretched and stretched, and one day soon it’s going to be launched”.

Alami’s family have lived in Jerusalem for more than 700 years, since the times of the Crusades. From his roof, which offers one of the best views over the Old City, he points to the churches, mosques and synagogues that are monuments to regimes past and empires fallen. “Look, nobody here lasted,” Alami says. “Not the Romans, not the Turks, not the Christians, not the Muslims, not the Jews, not the British. No matter how powerful they were, no matter how great they were, no one has lasted in Jerusalem. In the end, Jerusalem has always belonged to Jerusalemites only.”

A final shot from the roof of the Citadel youth hostel
Note: All photographs by David Levene

No comments:

Post a Comment