In light of this week’s violence in Jerusalem, I’m remembering my former home in the old city at Mar Michael convent.
In 1994 I lived in one of those limestone houses at the back of the Greek Orthodox community off the Via Dolorosa (with an image of the Virgin Mary over my single bed), nestled into the edge of the old city wall.
I wrote for the first post Oslo-accord joint Israeli-Palestinian monthly magazine The New Middle East with one Palestinian editor, Maher Abu Khatr (of Fajr) and one Israeli, Erwin Frenkel (formerly of the Jerusalem Post).
I lived in the old city and worked in West Jerusalem at a tiny but hope-filled office. I was taken for Israeli or Palestinian, depending on what kind of hat I wore – or not – and which neighbourhood I passed through on my daily walk to work. No one suspected my secret Canadian identity (which allowed me easy access then to Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere.)
It was great for about six months, and then things began to deteriorate as the wider situation did. A few months before Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist, the funders backed out and the magazine died (although it lives on in archive form.)
I went back a decade later and wrote and photographed a magazine feature for Saturday Night magazine on the “peace process” ten years on. I found my old editors Maher and Erwin – living very separate realities in very different times. Erwin had left Jerusalem for the Galilee and seemed hardened, embittered by the last decade. Maher, now in Ramallah (because his wife lacked “Jerusalem ID”), seemed wounded, like an abandoned child. I managed to unite them briefly by telephone and felt for a moment like the offspring of divorced parents, rooting for hopeless reconciliation.
In 2005, I retuned for a CBC radio documentary on the disappearing Christians of the “holy land” – and ended up meeting a distant cousin, Sami Mussallem, the then mayor of Jericho, on epiphany. He was trying to build peace and community through a National Botanical Garden project that bloomed wildly for a moment, before literally withering as illegal settlements flourished. As the garden died so did the dream of a viable Palestinian state.
In 2007 I returned again and tried to recreate my old city memories by booking into a hotel near Zion Gate. But the situation post-Wall was very tense: overcrowding, crime, and even Israeli tanks patrolling outside made it impossible for me to sleep there, and I ended up returning to the relative tranquility of Beit Hanina on the outskirts of Ramallah (where the owner of a toy store had just been murdered by local, unemployed thugs, as the Palestinian economy languished.)
My friend Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, a member of the inter-faith Jerusalem peacemakers group was still valiantly working for peace and dialogue. He died of a heart attack in 2010, as settler attacks against Palestinians increased and his own family was threatened. Today his son and widow continue on from their old city Uzbeki Cultural Centre.
That same visit I also met Zeev Ben Arieh – a Jewish Sufi, one of the few Israelis to be inducted into the Mevlevi order, who took me on a journey to the Lebanese border. We looked across to Lebanon and the village my Greek Orthodox Mussallem great-grandparents fled for Canada in 1908 (when it was under Ottoman rule and part of Greater Syria). Around the same time Z’eev’s grandfather was walking from Budapest to Jaffa to become a “new Jew” and seek spiritual renewal.
The only difference between the landmine-strewn landscapes was that the Lebanese side was scrubbier, while the Israeli side was much greener (thanks to anti-goat-herding laws). The Sykes-Picot frontier felt like the fakest border in the world. I wanted to drive to Beirut for lunch with my old filmmaker friend Ouday Raad, and instinctively rang his mobile from the border – even though technically the lines were scrambled. Miraculously I got through – but after he found out where I was calling from he hung up, concerned about his safety.
Later we visited the beit Mussallem (House of Mussallem) in Jerusalem’s old city – that belonged to some distant cousins.
I travelled to the Golan Heights with Z’eev and ended up meeting one of the two Christian families in the village – who turned out to be the Syrian uncle of a my friend Abdullah Chhadeh in London, himself a musician from Damascus.
I also had my computer confiscated at Ben Gurion after a lengthy interrogation that made me miss my flight back to London, so I never got to call Abdullah and tell him about the visit – as his number was in my laptop.
I did get an extra night in Jerusalem out of the experience though. My airline put me up in a West Jerusalem hotel, where I was mistaken for one of the many Jewish Americans staying there. This extra night allowed me to go back and visit Mar Michael and see the old Palestinian couple who had rented me the limestone house. They were now in their 80s and in fragile health – but very glad to see me.
“All the young people are gone,” they told me, “there is no future here for them. We are all alone now.”
Since that last visit to Jerusalem, so much has transpired in the whole region, that it’s hard to imagine the relative innocence of that brief euphoric moment in 1994, when it seemed like peace would prevail.
I wonder what the future would have held for 18-year-old Fadi Alloun, chased by an angry mob of settlers and killed near Damascus Gate by Israeli police as he tried to flee? If he had not met such a terrible fate, would he too have become one of the young people to emigrate somewhere with a future?
Would he, like my Mussallem great-grandparents did a century ago, have tried to reach Canadian shores?
In some ways, borders were more fluid then, identity politics less deadly. And yet now, as walls and fake looking frontiers separate us all from one another, regional realities spill into global ones and digital distance means nothing.
I remember now a Jerusalem where hope shone brightly for a few moments, before the darkness returned, and I mourn for her children.
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