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Kazim Ali

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A Walking Guide to the Heart of a City

Posted: 08/17/11 01:05 PM ET

What is a city? A city is what has fallen. Been built upon. Or covered over.

Myths of cities: Troy. Jerusalem. Persepolis. Petra. These ancient places that are always built on top of one another.

My favorite sightseeing destination: cities that have excavations of the ancient cities underneath the ground. One can walk the old streets on plexiglass platforms sometimes, or other times among them as ruins.

Often the ancient streets match the patterns of the existing streets above: Barcelona. New York City. Nazareth.

Excavations are also used sometimes for political purposes: just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, excavations commence in the Arab town of Silwan, believed now to be the actual ancient city of David, his capital. Under this pretext, Arab families are evicted from their homes, expelled from the land.

Every Friday the women gather in the public square. Can you see what a city means?

What is a city but the gathering together of people in geographic proximity, In order to create energy, synergy, vital communication created by the closeness of bodies and the layering of history on top of history?

Cities teem.

The old city of Jerusalem was the heart of intense fighting during the battles in 1948, called the "war of independence" by one group, "the catastrophe" by the other.

Twin narratives of history. It isn't a conflict between "right and right" because no one has defined "right." To whom does the land belong? And not just that: to whom do the farms belong? To whom to the stone houses, their silverware and furniture belong?

A city has multiple definitions, and in this case every street has three different names. So how do you find directions from one place to another?

In the old city of Nablus the historic soap factories -- its primary industry -- are reduced to rubble in the siege during the second uprising.

On every street corner are photographs of the fallen. But "martyr" only means someone who has died as a result of the occupation. In custody. By stray bullets. Sometimes by white phosphorus. Bombs in the strawberry fields. In hunger. In an electrical fire in a tenement in a cold city years later and across the world.

In Bil'in, Bassem -- nicknamed "Fil," or "elephant" -- dies when a tear gas canister is shot directly at him during a non-violent demonstration. It hits him in the chest. He dies of internal bleeding.

You want to believe a city is real, that Abraham and Jacob and Isaac and others really are buried in the holy building, called "mosque" by some, "synagogue" by others.

But if they are buried, they are in a cave beneath, inaccessible. What is revered by the worshipers is only cenotaphs, constructed only a little while ago.

The myth of a city draws settlers after thousands of years. And the conflicts of the past erupt in the present moment.

The museum of tolerance is being built on top of a Muslim graveyard. The graves are disturbed.

City ruptured: Hebron. A cut across the middle of it rendered as "Zone C," under control of the Israeli military. Sidewalk with a green stripe down it to clarify on which side the Arabs must stay.

For their own safety, it is said.

Two boys bumping chests. They exchange words in English.

One, 16 years old, dressed in blue pants and a red shirt, says, "I was born in this city. You can't tell me what to do." The other, 18, dressed in army fatigues and a flak jacket, says, "Get out of here or I'll beat you down." He shoves the other boy back and hefts his gun. "Go ahead," says the younger boy. "Do what you want to do. See what happens."

The soldier says something in Hebrew that the other boy seems to understand. He steps back a foot. Our guide is incensed. "What did he say? What did he say?" we beg him to translate. He won't translate. An elderly woman, a member of the Christian Peacekeeping Team, drifts over to the two boys and asks them how they are feeling. The soldier walks away. She accompanies the other boy down the road and out of sight.

Later, our guide takes us across the line down one of the alleys to show us a house in which a blind Palestinian woman still lived. Her door is bolted from the outside, and she must knock for the soldiers to permit her to exit.

A young Jewish man sees us. He tells the soldiers to arrest our guide.

"I am lucky you are here," says the guide. "Usually they throw stones at me." The soldiers approach, calling our guide's name.

We cluster around him tightly and move back to the main street. The soldiers try to maneuver their way into our group, but we huddle closer. I press against our guide. He puts his arm on my shoulder, and we walk on. "What did the soldier say to the other boy earlier?" I whisper. He is ashamed. He doesn't want to say. I keep looking at him. "He said, 'Get out of here or I will beat you and then violate you and then who would you tell about it?'"

On the side of the school building in Nablus is spray painted: "The University of Hip-Hop." And "Existence Is Resistence."

What do you have when your historic buildings are leveled and factories destroyed? Nablus was emptied out by war. Hip-hop floods the streets, and the children dance a scintillating mixture of breakdancing and dabka.

And Hebron emptied out. By ancient history. When one says, "It's ancient history," one usually means something is "irrelevant." But in Hebron, all the lost children return. Some after millennia, or some after only a few decades, but in any case, violence is paid with violence, and all deaths are used to keep score.

The man from the settler community who meets us to talk about it has a gun strapped to his waist.

All the small reasons people fight have accumulated like acid in the rain.

In the fighting of 1967 most of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem is leveled, including the Rabbi Nissan Bak Synagogue, which stood over it for years and years.

When the Israeli army fights its way to the Western Wall, their immediate action is to level the Moroccan Quarter that abuts it. They complete the action before the ceasefire is signed. Does one leveling always equal another?

Though still a part of the Occupied Territories according to International Law, and not part of the U.N.-recognized State of Israel, over the next 10 years the old city is annexed to Israel and is surrounded by new settlements, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank.

The Israeli people commemorate the reunification of the city each year with a festival.

How is a city occupied? You can't tell when you wander the streets of the Muslim Quarter, filled with vendors hawking, worshipers going to and from the mosques, workers, tourists, students.

The Jewish Quarter, by contrast, is quiet, staid, the streets weirdly desolate. Where are the bustling and energetic crowds? There are only a few people wandering around -- American students, some black-clad Jewish families, a Moroccan Jewish mother and her two small children, the older one scraping along on his roller skates. But otherwise nearly empty. Destroyed in the war, it was nearly entirely rebuilt. In one section the old Roman street has been excavated.

The Armenian Quarter: behind walls and a gate. We did not see it.

Jerusalem hovers in space, so strangely removed from itself and its life as a city, you can nearly see through it. Though each stone and surface may have its ancient history, it does not feel like an actual city existing in the world; it seems instead a representative of itself.

A cipher for a city that really doesn't exist any more. Or, if it exists, it exists tucked away in the alleyways and energetic souqs of the Christian and Muslim Quarters and in East Jerusalem, north of Damascus Gate, where the streets still teem with life later into the night.

But every angle of Jerusalem seems to exclude every other. Rather than seen as whole and vibrant unit of human expression, it fragments and shatters. Such vision, refracted, broken, splinters the actual place itself.

How does a city stay alive?

Cities can come to stand for themselves. The ghostly, ruined streets of the old city of Nablus. The emptied out heart of Hebron. Quivering Jerusalem, which knows not which way to turn.

A people came to the Mediterranean shore searching for a lost nation, but how do you put pieces together again unless you embrace the real earth, the joy of it, the sun-love of it?

Or Jaffa, one of the most ancient cities in the world, disappeared into semiotics, emptied out of its population, absorbed by the urban sprawl of Tel Aviv, and turned into a little artists' village for Israeli artists and craftsmen.

A small theme park village along the lines of the stiff dioramas of Native American life in museums in the United States. As if the people who were taken from the buildings no longer exist, had receded into stone and rock themselves.

From the neightborhoods to the east where they were relocated, Palestinian Israelis still watch.

In the hills above Ein Hud, an unrecognized village of those who once lived there hovers.

Ghosts follow the ancient routes of their cities wherever they find themselves, in a strange town, transplanted, dreaming at night of the other strangers who live in the house that was once their house, stir their coffee with spoons that were once the spoons of others.

Some Palestinians keep the keys to their old houses that their parents or grandparents left behind. As did the Jews of Toledo and Cordoba once.

And then the people who remain become divorced from the energy that makes a city and become invested in only its stones and the yards of real estate.

A city that is an idea of itself is only an idea, not a city anymore.

Jerusalem, once dreamed of over an eternity of exile, can be a tiring place -- full of museums, relics, tourist traps, coffee shops, strip malls and the thick air of apprehension and fear. Sometimes when you look at it you do not even see it.

It is entrapped by all of history -- the many narratives of history, the songs of it, the claims of it, its prayers, paintings, poems, its lies.

I met amazing and vibrant people on my journey through both sides of Jerusalem -- painters, poets, professors, scholars, students, workers.

So how can such a city truly live again?

Maybe "next year in Jerusalem" should be a prayer for all of us. It means we can put the city back together. But a city cannot be "unified" by armies or states, only by the people who live inside it.