May 1, 2011
Toine van Teeffelen
Jerusalem: unbearable lightness of being (2)
Mary went to Jerusalem. She had luck, she got an Easter permit to enter, her sister and mother didn’t got one. In the early morning she nervously checked her shoes. Which would beep in the X-ray? Jara joined her. Although 13 years, and so in principle not in need of a permit (16 years is the borderline) it happened lately that permits were printed out for her class and herself. Nobody understood why. What a permit, I said seeing all the details on the elaborate form. It looked as if it was a birth certificate. I had a special interest. Together with colleagues at the Arab Educational Institute we are working out the idea to prepare a small “exhibit” of permits on the Wall here. The Wall is ugly in preventing people to enter, but also ugly in case you are allowed to pass.
Mary wanted to go to Jerusalem to buy some medical items for her aging mother. In the new mall near Bab al-Khalil, Jaffa Gate, she did not feel at ease. She wanted to go back to Bethlehem as soon as possible. The title of Elias Chacour’s book, “We Belong to the Land”, stuck in her mind. “We belong and we don’t belong,” she thought. Stranger in the homeland. Was it the buildings, the expression in people’s faces. There was a kind shopkeeper who asked her in a relaxed voice, “How often do you come here?” “Maybe once a year,” Mary said. “How is that so?” Mary: “Well, I need a permit, as I am from Bethlehem.” “Oh, from Bethlehem, yes, I have heard about that problem. We also cannot go to Bethlehem. It’s a pity.” Mary chuckled when she told me this. Making the situation symmetrical is a way to keep the conversation shock-free. Back in Bethlehem, a person at the flowershop empathized with Mary. He also felt that Jerusalem outside the old city slowly becomes a place where you feel alienated as a Palestinian.
An acqaintance, who lives in Ramallah but works in Jerusalem, told me that he lately had problems with his Jerusalem ID. In the morning he is now used to take a detour with his car in order to drive together with the settlers into Jerusalem. By looking well, he learned how to drive while approaching the Jerusalem checkpoint. A main trick was not to lower speed. That’s how you show that you are an Israeli. You need to show assertiveness. Palestinians usually have the inclination to lower speed and even fully stop – what you never should do, he warned – and so they betray themselves to be Palestinians. Like in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Was this an easy, handy way for him of entering Jerusalem and then to start normal work as if nothing had happened? No, of course, not at all, he said, this masquerade takes energy. More than a stranger, you feel like a fugitive in your country. He tended to avoid Jerusalem during the weekend if there was no direct need to be there.
Lately he went out with colleagues to a café in a quarter in which you still see those grand Arab mansions whose inhabitants had fled during the 1948 war and could never return. Also here, the café owner was nice. He did not make a grimace when my acqaintance and his companions were talking Arabic among themselves, and he even made a joke. But right at that moment, my acqaintance felt this feeling of alienation which Mary also felt. To be a fugitive in your country is such an overwhelming experience that it is difficult to allow yourself to feel relaxed in the first place, but then: How is it possible that you are put at ease by somebody whose people are making your life difficult?
For him and for Mary, and many others life in Jerusalem has this unbearable lightness of being. As a Palestinian you are yourself and not yourself in Jerusalem. The apparent Israeli aim is to disconnect Palestinians from the city. That’s the aim of this ridiculous permit system which everybody in Bethlehem and elsewhere is keeping busy all the time and which is changing all the time. Who knows, maybe Jerusalem will be recognized by more than 100 countries as Palestine’s capital later this year. However, many Palestinians will barely recognize it themselves as the Jerusalem they hold dear.