Posted December 8, 2006
[Editors’ Note: We present this personal account here because we believe it helps to convey what Jerusalem means, not as a shrine but as an actual city in daily life and living memory, to its people.]
IF YOU HAVE never been to Jerusalem, you might not know what I am talking about.
Jerusalem is not like any other city; I do not think there is any place like it in the whole world. Jerusalem has its own colors, its own noise and its own smell–and I love it all.
I love the walled city of Jerusalem, or the old city as we the Palestinians call it. I love the Palestinian peasants and the way they guard their own niche.
The women with their tanned faces (even in February) fill the entrance to the city. They have been coming here, day in and day out, for generations.
They bring their fruits, vegetables and other produce; they bring their children too. They sit on the sidewalks with their colorful embroidered dresses, their large, bright, pink and blue wool scarves, protecting them from the wind and the cold.
I love the noise of the crowded city, the vendors, the men with their headdresses, the playing boys and girls. I love the smell of freshly baked bread, the spices, the olives and the zaater.
And I love the blend of all these colors, noises and smells: They make me experience my senses in a unique fashion. They give me a sense of security, of belonging; they reaffirm the identity of the city. They reassure me that Jerusalem is still an Arab city, a Palestinian city.
Whenever I go to Palestine I can’t wait to go to Jerusalem. I go there almost every day. My sister who lives in Ramallah, the only connection our family still has to our land, does not understand my lack of creativity. She keeps telling me about other beautiful places in Palestine.
“Maybe tomorrow I will go there,” I say. Tomorrow comes, and I go back to Jerusalem. I hurry there as if I am going to my first date, which I do not want to miss.
In Jerusalem I walk the streets of Sheikh Jarrah, my childhood neighborhood. I try to locate our home, where I lived between the ages of three and six.
I remember the house very well, but I cannot locate it. I know that I come very close, but never quite there.
In that home I had my earliest memories: beautiful memories and sad ones too. There I had my first lesson about life and birth. From the balcony of my bedroom I watched the birth of a baby goat on a warm spring morning.
There, I remember the joy on my father’s face when he got me a baby lamb that I had been asking for. I was frightened by it but would not admit it. Instead I would say, “Take the lamb away, it is scared of me, God will punish me if I scare it any more.” That was my father’s favorite story about my childhood.
In that house I explored with the neighbor’s son the differences in our bodies as we played doctors. I felt very embarrassed when my mother caught us. Somehow I knew that was not the right thing to do.
And in that house, when not quite five, I learned more about gender differences: Boys are more valuable than girls. I learned that when my brother was born. I do not remember how I learned that, but I did.
In that house I learned my first lesson about love and violence, when my sister and I suffocated our pet chicken. We had left it in a bag, afraid it would fly away if it were free.
I often wonder if I really want to find my childhood home. If I did, I would ask my mother. I would ask a relative or a family friend. But to find my childhood home is also to find my childhood memories. Happy ones and sad ones.
I do not ask, I do not find the house, but I come very close by walking the streets of Sheikh Jarrah.
I leave Sheikh Jarrah and my memories, heading to the walled section of the city. I always enter, as in a ritual, through the Damascus Gate. There is something majestic about this gate.
I keep entering the city this way, though I was almost shot right here not so long ago. That was in 1989, when I came to participate in the International Peace March.
Peace–or do I mean the peace march?–was shattered as the Israeli bullets filled the place. I got very scared. An Italian woman lost her eye. I felt bad for her. She came all the way from Italy chanting peace; she left with one eye.
My routine first stop in the city of Jerusalem is the falafel stand. If I manage to get to the city early enough I would instead go to Zalatemo, the ancient restaurant. There I get the mutaba (cheese turnover).
My father used to bring us to Zalatemo for breakfast on Friday mornings before 1967. It was a one-hour drive from Amman, Jordan, where we lived then. As a child I was fascinated by the place rather than the food. The people who worked there looked as ancient as their place.
My father must have loved Jerusalem too– kept coming here on Friday mornings. Then came 1967; we could not visit Jerusalem any more.
I became an American citizen. Now I can go to Jerusalem, my childhood city. They have occupied it, annexed it, suffocated it with their ugly high-rise settlements, but the color, the noise and the smell of the city are Palestinian.
In the old city of Jerusalem I buy gifts. Here I buy Palestinian pottery. I carry it by hand across the Atlantic Ocean. I bring part of Jerusalem and its beautiful colors to my home. Also the smell: I bring zaater.
In the old city of Jerusalem, too, I bought my Palestinian dress. In America, I wear my Palestinian embroidered dress. I wear it to the big parties, to the special celebrations.
I get lots of compliments. I proudly respond: “I bought it in Jerusalem. It is a traditional Palestinian dress. Peasant women in my country still wear it.”
On my last trip to Jerusalem, I bought myself a Palestinian wool scarf. It is bright pink and I love it. I get as many compliments on it as on my dress, although I do not wear them together, like the peasant women in my country.
It was a cold day in Washington, D.C., as cold as it was in Jerusalem. I put on my Palestinian wool scarf.
“I wonder how many compliments I will get today,” I think to myself. I can always use some, especially on a cold day when I am heading to my accountant to figure out how much I owe Uncle Sam.
In the accountant’s office a young woman approaches me, smiling. “I have a scarf just like yours, and I just love it.”
“Where did you get it?”I ask.
“From Israel. A relative bought it for me as a gift.”
I am furious, but do not say a thing. I just walk away. Even the scarf! What have you left for me? What have you left for my people?
The land is yours, the country, the falafel, the hummus, my father’s house in Jaffa, and Jerusalem. Can’t you at least leave me the scarf?