Jerusalem Between Walls

There is something I don't like about travel writing (especially in Turkish): They reproduce the already existing tourist guides! What I want to get is a not repeatable tour schedule but impressions of travellers, what's left behind with them. That's why, I would like you to read these travel notes knowing that they are mine.

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We went to Jerusalem for a long weekend since my husband had to be there for a work meeting. As we live in Jordan, it took us -together with the border controls- 4 hours from Amman to Jerusalem by car. I tell this to point how close the countries in the Middle East are to one another. And after passing the Allenby Bridge, we said shalom to a new country in every sense of the word.

We spent our fist two nights in an amazing hotel in East Jerusalem, the American Colony, where there are mostly Palestinians. The hotel hosts many who come to the city for high level work visits. The staff are Arabs so if you happen to be a minister, whether you can stay here or not depends on your country's Israel policy.
Our hotel is very close to the Old City with holy places of the Abrahamic religions. The first night we just take a stroll around. I learn how to get from the St. George's Cathedral to the city walls rebuilt by Sultan Suleiman I and then to the Damascus Gate guarded by the Israeli police with their machine guns.
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The next morning is a bit chilly outside and we cannot eat our breakfast at the breathtaking yard of the hotel but I keep a brochure presenting the various plants there. After sending my husband off to work, I go to the beautiful garden of the St. George's Cathedral. There is a fruit hanging from the branches that I've never seen before. I get to learn that it's a type of yellow citron used by the Jews during the holiday of Sukkot.

Inside the cathedral, pillows embroidered with the names of different Anglican churches and a prayer catch my attention. The prayer of a Palentinian Christian goes like this: Pray not for Arab or Jew for Palestinian or Israeli but pray rather for ourselves that we might not divide them in our prayers but keep them both together in our hearts.

After this message of unity, I take the Nablus Road to the Damascus Gate. Between the narrow streets of the Old City, which is divided into four as Muslim, Christian, Jew and Armenian quarters, there are elderly ladies selling spinach, mint or grape leaves and many small shops.

What I want to see the most is Qubbat as-Sakhra (the Dome of Rock) where Muslims believe that Muhammed ascended into heaven, that golden symbol of Al-Quds (Jerusalem). I grab a pomegranate juice near the Cotton Market. Palestinians are famous for their juices but the streets of the Muslim Quarter are almost fully empty. I wonder if it's because it's a weekday. I get this answer: "Most tourist guides are Israeli and more often than not they do not take tourists here." After my juice, I ask the way to Haram ash-Sharif (the Temple Mount). "If you are a Muslim, you can go up through the Cotton Market."
As I well knew that I had to prove my Muslimness in order to enter Qubbat as-Sakhra and Al-Aqsa Mosque, I had prepared myself to recite the opening chapter of the Quran, al-Fatiha. The police at the entrance only said "eshedu en...", the very beginning of Shahada (the Testimony) to declare the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammed as God's prophet. Out of pure excitement, I only declared that God is one but you cannot be a Muslim unless you accept Muhammed as your prophet, as well. I continued with the testimony, passed the test and there I was! But my tourist look caused uncertainty among believers and I was asked again and again (almost 10 times!) if I was a true Muslim which I responded "I'm Turkish and al-hamdu lillah (thanks to God) Muslim". Yes, I lied, I don't believe in any religion or god. But this place, compared to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, made much more sense to me, mostly due to the years of obligatory religion (Sunni Islam) courses as part of the Turkish education system.

Here you can see kids who come with school tours running around, people resting on the grass or taking selfies among those who pray. But, unfortunately, I couldn't see any information or brochures about this very special place. I think that is the main difference when you compare it to the Western Wall.

The Wailing Wall, or the Western Wall -a small segment of the Second Jewish Temple- hosts a much wider crowd. Once you pass the security control, you see hundreds of people in the area which is actually an example of urban transformation. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israeli forces had razed the Moroccan Quarter near the wall. Those who lost their homes now live as refugees in another part of the city, between the walls.

Then I go to the Christian Quarter. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a holy place for Christians where they believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. I heard that especially Easter and the previous three days is when everyone fills up the streets here, whether they are believers or not.
The Armenian Quarter has a more modest yet decorated face with its mosaics. Here you can also see posters commemorating the Genocide Centennial that read "I Remember and Demand", leaving me sorry as a Turk for all the lost lives and continuing discrimination. In this quarter, I only take a look at a few taverns because I got really tired.

It's March 8 and I'm reading the daily Haaretz with my coffee-shisha. There is an article in the front page explaining how the "security" policies of Israel make it harder for Palestinian women to participate in the workforce.

And, in the evening, we meet a gay rights activist Essa. He added me on Facebook after reading that I nominated the Kaos GL Association as the Guardian's LGBT Change Heroes 2017 and took us to an exhibition opening. He told us about the video the LGBT organization Al-Qaws is currently working on. I especially liked the idea that they want to use different Palestinian dialects in their work.

"The Discord" by Benji Boyadgian reinterprets the Palestinian mosaics in Al-Ma'mal art foundation which happened to be an old mosaic factory. He watercolored what lies beneath the traditional patterns that went worn out and mutated in this passage point for all, Jerusalem. A kaleidoscope that runs through four floors takes the mosaic experience to a completely different level. Curator Basak Senova, whom we met at the exhibition, told us that the book they work on about the exhibition will be released from the website
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The next morning I wake up feeling devastated. The city ran over me! I need to stop for a second and digest the impressions from the day before. After some time, I head to the Yad Vashem. There you face various angles of the Holocaust, walking in zig zags under a triangle corridor made up of concrete which feels like it will fall upon you. 

The Hall of Names is a tribute for those whose stories are erased. The concrete triangle corridor opens up to a forest view, leaving me feeling some hope for life - a cold comfort though. What I remember the most is a quotation at the beginning of the corridor: A country is not just what it does -- it is also what it tolerates.
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On Friday, we get up, again in East Jerusalem, but this time in a modest hotel, and take to Az-Zahra Street. Next to "Stab. The Intifada of Jerusalem," there are new graffitis. It reads "gay, lesbian, bisexual" and "we are all children of this country."

We meet up with Abu Hassan to listen to the story of Palestine, surrounded with walls, dismissed and forced to lose its identity. It's only me and my husband in the car. Our guide gets angry as the other three does not show up and not even bother to call him. "Be honest," he says, "I don't expect anything else."

First, he tells us the tram line and how Israel built tram lines and roads on the Green Line, violating international agreements and connecting its colonies to expand its territory. He explains that Palestinians with a permit to live in Jerusalem lose this permission if they marry another Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza, that they need to document that their kids attend school every year in order for them to have this permissions yet that there are no enough schools being opened for them.

We look at an area surrounded with walls, our guide gets mad at me taking pictures all the time: "This is not a sightseeing tour, don't distract me, let me explain you what this is about first." Here we learn that the Moroccans sent away from near the Wailing Wall live in a refugee camp, that there are checkpoints to leave this open-air prison, however, it became harder to get an exit permit, that what's in Jerusalem might very well be in the West Bank with some new wall, that families living in adjacent apartments break apart by such walls, that kids living there are, of course, not normal, dealing with anxiety and depression.

A real-estate advertisement for Jews in Jerusalem

Last year, we came across with Purim celebrations in Tel Aviv but only this year we learn how Purim affects Palestinians. We've been told about people who cannot turn back to their houses as the checkpoints are closed during Purim. Having beers at the restaurant of Jerusalem Hotel, we see a waiter who couldn't turn back to his house in Ramallah for the very reason. Caterpillars carrying people over the wall for 70 shekel is the proof why "security" cannot explain the existence of the wall.

Don't think that it's far away when I mention the name of another city. It's like 15 minutes drive. Despite paying equal taxes, Ramallah, just like East Jerusalem, is an underdeveloped place. Most of the water is under the Israeli control, it's told that the water sources could be tracked down by following the wall along the West Bank. The water issue gives you an idea to know whether Palestinians or Israelis live in any given apartment. Because Palestinians have a black tank on top of their apartments in case of water shortage.

Abu Hassan does not accept the "solution" expressed more and more by Israeli politicians. "Alright, let's be one single state, let's call it whatever you want but how can we talk about equality if Palestinians will not have the right to vote?" He is no longer hesitant to call Israeli state "fascist."

Abu Hassan was put into jail for a stone he never threw at the age of 13. When he was out again, he couldn't feel like his peers anymore, still sorry for his childhood stolen from him. When 16, his brother was shot dead by the Israeli police and he joined the youth movement. The Palestinian Liberation Organization activist served 12 years more in prison and released with the Oslo Accords. Alternative Tours, which he founded in 1997, is a very small initiative compered to hundreds of touristic organizations but gives invaluable information, especially for peace activists.

After this political tour, we meet my husband's colleague from 10 years ago, Pauline, who has fought for peace for many years. "The woman who introduced kinoa tabbuleh to Ramallah" tells us how everyone got radicalized over the last decade. Showing his son, she says "his generation will never know it but in my childhood Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs were one. Now everyone is trying to show that they are superior." She tells that she cannot wear sleeveless tops in Ramallah anymore, that she gets harassed in her every step. We tell her about the graffitis we saw in the morning, she gets surprised. She mentions the US marriage equality law and how the Palestinians are divided into camps over it: "Let people do what they want, no one forces you to marry someone of your own gender, khalas."

In our last night, we go to Mihbash Restaurant to listen to a 70-year-old oud player. Abu Hassan and his friends invite us over their table and we drink several Taybeh beers with them. In the middle of all that suffering and pain, seeing him still enjoying himself makes me feel good. "We keep on resisting. We've been through everything but we can still smile", he says. He pokes those who are too busy with their smartphones, mocks me saying "Ömer, you stayed in the toiler for too long", asks us to get up and dance. "You're drinking with the terrorists," he says and I say "I'm considered a terrorist in my own country, too." I remember once again that both the struggle and resistance are only for life.

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