Naked Jerusalem

By Ahmad Kaiyal

Jerusalem, the city I loathe most.

Since my first few days here as a university student, I think, the most striking or most prevailing feature about this city is its grayness. Everywhere is a shade of gray. Even on sunny days the city seems to lay low in solemn gray as if the bricks of the city conspire to outstrip the sun. The whole city sometimes feels like a big jail compound. If you walk through some neighborhoods you would notice the barred windows. That always kept me on edge.  I always thought to myself, “It must be to keep people from plunging to their deaths.” Can I blame them?

I had just finished working. Another day at the office: transcribing, translating, transfiguring my time at the outskirts of the city.  It is evening time on a Friday, naturally, no buses are to be found and I could not or would not wait for a taxi. Kanfei Nesharim was swarmed with Orthodox Jews, going out on a casual stroll or on the way to a synagogue. I turn off my iPod for fear of committing sacrilege. Having been met with some suspicious gazes, I walk a little bit faster.

I am not a religious man. I don’t fear God, but I do fear his people, especially when they come in large numbers. I begin my pilgrimage, destined to my Mecca, a small room in building number sixteen of the French Hill dormitories .It’s a straight line from here to the central station. I’ll probably feel less unsafe there. Once I get over myself and my phobia, my pace slowly subsides and I try to free myself from my prejudice. I try to look beyond the coats. There are families enjoying the fresh air on undiscriminating sidewalks. I should do the same.

Night is almost evenly spread on the city. Shadows of buildings and trees extend and lay down, weary of a long day, for a moment or two before the obscure, inspective street lights beam down on the pavement.

I loathe Jerusalem the most on weekends. It is not a city on weekends, just a silhouette of one. Finally I reach Jaffa Street. I see that it is after ten on the central bus station’s big clock I see how the Via Dolorosa (way of suffering, that is) came to be here in this city. The motion of the city dwindles slowly as I make my way through Jaffa Street heading towards downtown. The city is thinly veiled in yellow lights and fog falls down like a handkerchief wrapping the streets. There is no one on the street, and it feels as if the city is abandoned. Walking for a few minutes without meeting anyone, I almost believed that to be the case. The buildings line up on each side of the street, buildings of no remarkable height with bolted doors. There is hardly any of outstanding countenance. Here stands the faceless homogeny of the city. This, where whatever was melts with whatever is.

On Mahane Yehuda, I notice an old man in rags dragging his feet across the brick road of the old market. His back turned to me, while the arched ceiling of the market embraces his little existence, quite a picturesque spectacle. That`s when I began to notice the architecture of the city. The arched windows, like inverted smiles looking up, the sly cornices elegantly crowning the building’s tops. I can imagine how it might be easy to fall in love with the city when no one walks the streets. The night brought an order that fled with daylight. It was waltz to a shy moonlight. The balconies overhang on the sides of the street, eavesdropping on the sound of the lonely steps that happened to pass. A flower pot, here or there, would occasionally be caught spying on passersby. Being clueless about the technicalities of architecture, I could not name the styles that composed the landscape as I am most certain there is more than one. Not even the roadwork and preparations for the light train could ruin the experience.

Zion Square had no soul in view to offer either. Perhaps it was cold that night. It was a good night regardless. However, this is the part where it gets tricky. I need to get to French Hill. I know where French Hill is but I don’t know how to get there. (Well, not directly). I decide to take a shortcut. I remembered the last time I took a shortcut. I ended up in a neighborhood where mavet la`aravim would be ceremoniously painted on the walls. I actually got lost there and it took me quite some time to find my way out. I had to go through narrow streets, small cramped heavily populated areas. This is haredi Jerusalem, home of the ultra-Orthodox, the area between Jaffa Street and HaNevi’im Street.  It was on a day like today; a Friday. No wonder I hate Fridays. All I remember is me thinking, “Don’t talk! Don’t talk! Don’t talk! Act normal.” Express an interest in that building over there, or this garbage can over here. Don’t act suspicious when a mob of people could pass by. Good times!

Back again, Zion Square, I take a shortcut. All I know is that I should head eastwards or Arab-wards or anywhere-wards just not here-wards. And I do, very silently avoiding eye contact whenever an eye contact was possible. Until I reach the Arab side of the city. It’s dead on this side too. Friday is a holy day for Muslims. Gotta love Fridays. I still feel a need to walk fast. And look around every now and then to make sure no one is following. There is practically no one on the street except for an old tourist couple that I met next to a hotel. Everything is closed. I can even feel the sky closing in on me. The buildings on this side exhibit a rougher terrain. Government buildings are characterized by high fences and blockades on entrances. There is a lurking threat here, a concealed fire awaiting ignition. And everyone knows it. Everyone knows that Jerusalem is a war zone.  That is the tragic irony. The peace “God” bequeathed us with.

I could never feel safe in Jerusalem. With all the mosques, churches and synagogues I know that when someone pulls a knife out and politely stabs you, God is nowhere to be found. I could not help my anxieties and fears when I was outside and for the most of it I like to believe it is only in my head.  I like to believe that there is something I do not see or do not understand which others, obviously, see in Jerusalem. Slowly into the night, I fade out of the city and into my residence thinking…

“There is a certain beauty to this city. There must be. There must be.”


1 Comment

Filed under Issue 6: Creative Non-Fiction, Short Story

One response to “Naked Jerusalem

  1. Ahmad: You capture the atmosphere of the hostile side of Jerusalem perfectly. As I read it I could feel your rising discomfort and trepidation. The disbelieving hope of your closing line is almost tangible. The picture you paint has a solemn beauty.

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