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The lost city of David

There is a new Jerusalem and it's place of deep despair. Easter and Passover coincide this year, so the holy city should come alive. But Middle East correspondent PAUL ADAMS scours the streets and finds them almost empty, haunted by the intifada's 18 months of death and destruction. `Celebrations are not on my mind,' one woman confesses. `Life is worry and more worry'

March 30, 2002

A typical scene for the Mea Shearim Quarter.
Photo: Dinu Mendrea/The Globe and Mail

`The city is crying," the Palestinian taxi driver says as we approach Jaffa Gate, once the main entrance into the Old City of Jerusalem.

Even six months ago, in the little cobblestone square inside the gate, rug sellers and tourist guides, most of them Arabs, would yank at my sleeves as I emerged from the cab. Like many of the people of Jerusalem back then, they had yet to realize how completely things have changed.

Nowadays, the hawkers sit listlessly, drinking tea and playing backgammon, barely noticing the arrival of a stranger.

It has been nearly a year and a half since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada - from an Arabic word meaning "to shake." It is a good description of Jerusalem, the city that three faiths call holy and two peoples consider their capital. Everything has been shaken here: hopes, relationships, the economy and the routines of daily life.

The Lost City of David

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  • Jerusalem has always been a holy city, but seldom a peaceful one. The very stones of the Old City tell a long, cruel tale of religion, power and conquest. Piled on top of one another are those of Herod's palace, the crusaders' churches, Arab and Ottoman mosques, British colonial offices and Israeli synagogues and fortifications. Many have been stained, again and again, with blood.

    Although one of history's great cities, Jerusalem is actually no bigger than Winnipeg, even with the far-flung Jewish suburbs built on conquered Arab land. Its greatness resides in its physical beauty, its myths and its history. According to the Scriptures, Jerusalem is where God found the dust to create Adam, where Solomon built his temple, where Jesus preached and was crucified, where Mohammed climbed to heaven on a stairway of light.

    It is also a place where, for millennia, rivals have fought bitterly, where Jewish settlers sandbag their windows to protect themselves from Palestinian sniper fire and military roadblocks leave some Arab residents cut off from the rest of city.

    This week's so-called "Passover massacre" killed 19 people and injured more than 100 in Netanya, a coastal resort town. But in the past year, constant suicide bombings and other terror attacks have claimed no fewer than 80 lives here in the city that a famous Islamic geographer described 1,000 years ago as "a golden basin filled with scorpions."

    What has all this violence done to Jerusalem and the lives of its 662,000 residents? With Easter and Passover approaching, I walked the tortured city's ancient streets - through all its neighbourhoods and past the wreckage of its bomb sites - in an attempt to find out.

    Click on map to zoom in

    Not far from Jaffa Gate behind the Old City's high Ottoman walls lies the Christian Quarter. Its centrepiece is the gloomy Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to contain the sites of Christ's Crucifixion and burial.

    In more tranquil times, the coming of Easter would find these narrow alleyways decorated with candles and filled with pilgrims. Instead, shops selling frankincense and kitschy pictures of the Virgin Mary sit empty. "For nothing, we open the shop," Amira Karam says as her mother drinks tea with Sister Anastasie, an elderly Lebanese nun.

    She, like many Christians, is tired of being trapped between the Palestinians and Jewish Israelis and wants out. "It is so difficult for us to live in Jerusalem. It is better to go to Australia."

    For the Ammar family, Easter used to be cause for great celebration. "Before the intifada, preparations for Easter involved a lot of work," says Im Elias, the overweight, raven-haired matriarch. She has lived here just off the Via Dolorosa, the route that Christ supposedly followed on his way to the Crucifixion, for more than half a century.

    "We would colour eggs. We would use dates and nuts to make ka'ak [a sweet in the shape of Christ's crown of thorns]."

    Now, she says, her far-flung children no longer return at Easter from America and the Gulf states. Pilgrims no longer room in her house, one of the beautiful, old stone structures that fill the Old City, during the festival. Even the traditional Easter march up to the Mount of Olives will probably be cancelled, she said, for fear it will offend Muslim neighbours.

    "Now, I'm sick just watching the news," she admits, sitting amid pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. She frowns a little each time the wailing sound of the Muslim call to prayer penetrates the closed windows. "Celebrations are not on my mind. Life is worry and more worry."

    Her daughter, Nina, nods. "We have pressure from both the Muslims and the Jews. We are in the middle."


    A few minutes of walking through the narrow alleyways leads to the Jewish Quarter, where the buildings are newer, if only because the area was razed during the wars of 1948 and 1967. Today, it is home mostly to religious Jews who want to live close to the "Wailing Wall," the last vestige of the Second Temple, which the Romans destroyed 2,000 years ago.

    A surprising number of Arabs still work here, most restoring buildings and hauling merchandise to shops. An elderly man, obviously Palestinian, approaches, offering to serve as my guide. Daoud al Ayan says he is 75 and has spent his whole life in the Old City. "I was born during the British Mandate. I have seen all the changes here."

    The Old City fell into Jordanian hands during Israel's 1948 war of independence. In 1967, the Israelis conquered it. Today, its fate is at the centre of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, who each claim it as their own. In fact, the Palestinians call their uprising the "Al-Aqsa intifada," after one of the great mosques here.

    All the same, Ayan insists that he is perfectly comfortable. "Inside the Old City, we are all together, Christians, Jews and Muslims." And it is true that this intifada, unlike the one a decade ago, has largely spared the area.

    But times are bad. Although his bearing is dignified, Ayan wears a jacket, tie and dress shirt that have seen better days. He says he once taught history and has supported his family of eight by working as a tour guide since retiring 15 years ago.

    Now, however, "there are no tourists here. There haven't been any in a year and a half."

    When he finally realizes I really don't want a guide, he simply begs: "Help me and my family." I give him the few shekels in my pockets, worth a dollar or so. "That," he says as I walk away, "is nothing."

    My destination is the Temple Institute near the Wailing Wall. I have been meaning to visit it ever since a Catholic archeologist described the people there as the "craziest in Jerusalem." (Quite a claim in a city where they say, "Throw a rock in any direction, and you'll hit a madman or a saint.")

    The institute is run by religious Jews preparing to give the Temple Mount, which looms over the Wailing Wall, its third Jewish temple. I'm greeted by Rivka Speiser, who seems relaxed and forthright, not crazy at all, though she describes reconstructing the temple as a "commandment from God."

    Inside the institute, a little museum displays the work of craftsmen who have been enlisted in the cause - exquisite silver trumpets and gold menorahs, jewel-studded garments and a golden altar for burning incense. All are copies of ritual objects used in the Second Temple, crafted to designs derived from elaborate archeological and scholarly research.

    The project's financial supporters include wealthy evangelical Christians from the United States who share some of the institute's apocalyptic views. According to an "educational" video, "the Temple Mount stood in desolation for 2,000 years. The Temple Mount became a place of worship for strangers."

    A newcomer might not realize that these "strangers" are Muslims, who call the mountaintop the Haram al-Sharif and count it as their religion's third most holy place. For more than 1,000 years, this scene of desolation to the people at the Temple Institute has been the home to some of the most magnificent religious buildings in the world, including the shimmering gold Dome of the Rock and the great Al-Aqsa mosque.

    From time to time, fanatics plot to destroy them to clear the way for the Third Temple, but so far have failed. Speiser says she doesn't know when the temple will be rebuilt. "Right now, it is impossible."

    In the bookshop, I come across a chubby, middle-aged man wearing a floppy cap. He is Lester Kasten, formerly of Toronto and Baltimore.

    "You're a journalist," he says, noticing my notebook and pen.

    "We're about the only ones left around here," I joke.

    "Well," he replies, "I just moved here."

    Kasten left the catering business in Maryland to set up a restaurant here with his wife. "It's never a good time to come to Israel," he chirps. "If you wait 'til the good times, you'll never come."

    Back in North America, he was not especially religious and didn't always wear his kippa, or skullcap. But Israel is "the ultimate goal. If you believe in the coming of the Messiah, eventually you want to be here."


    From the Jewish Quarter, I walk along King David Street past vendors hawking an ideological kaleidoscope of T-shirts: some sporting Christian crosses, others Israeli Apache helicopters, and even a few with pictures of Yasser Arafat.

    It's easy to see why the impossible fervour Jerusalem breeds prompted those who first dreamed of a Jewish state to shun the city. "The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and uncleanliness lie in the foul-smelling alleys," Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, wrote after a visit in the late 19th century. He wanted Israel's capital to be on the Mediterranean coast.

    At that time, Jerusalem had, thanks to an explosion of immigration, just begun to sprawl outward into neighbouring valleys and hillsides. Today, most of the city lies outside the walls. Going from the Old City to the New means leaving the picture-postcard Jerusalem, the mystical Jerusalem, for a grittier, and these days grimmer, place where the possibility of a terrorist attack never quite goes away.

    Once through the Jaffa Gate, I head for Rehavia, a prosperous Jewish area, passing several of the flamboyant fibreglass lions that have popped up on the streets here, just as moose did in Toronto and cows in Calgary. The lion is the symbol of the city and no stranger to its public décor, but the festive colours and patterns of the new arrivals look strangely out of place in these dark days.

    I pause at the residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a large, bleak, bunker-like building surrounded by young people wearing headsets and carrying automatic weapons. Scores of metal barricades are stacked on nearby street corners, ready for the next demonstration, and Peace Now, which advocates withdrawing from the Palestinian territories, maintains a small installation.

    The Prime Minister, apparently, wasn't home on the night of March 9, when a suicide bomber walked into the trendy Moment Café, just a hundred metres away, and blew himself up. Besides the bomber, 11 people died - all 22 to 31 years old - and dozens of others were injured.

    For safety reasons, most of the building has been demolished since the attack. Only some low walls remain, with a few of the café's chairs strewn on the rubble. There is a pile of wilted flowers, with a few fresh bouquets laid on top. There are scores of small "soul candles" in little tin cans, a few still flickering gently. Pedestrians slow down as they pass, but few stop. Someone has put up a banner: "The People of Israel Live."

    The attack shocked this neighbourhood, which is liberal and somewhat secular ("End the occupation," demands graffiti in Hebrew). At the nearby Filter Café, which once catered to the young, cosmopolitan spillover crowd from the more popular Moment, I find Noa Greenbaum, a pretty 32-year-old music teacher, eating a sandwich and drinking mint tea with her friend, Zohar Yirmiyahu. "Since the event at Moment, I haven't gone out in the evening," Greenbaum says. "I'm frightened."

    She says she and Yirmiyahu, a 31-year-old graduate student with an olive complexion and two days' growth of beard, have come out for lunch because it's a beautiful day "and you have to breathe."

    But she also outlines the weird negotiation with fate Israelis now conduct as a matter of course. Her friend wanted to sit on the terrace, but she insisted on being inside, and now has her eye on a rear door through which she hopes to escape if something happens. "I'm the sort of person who thinks 20 steps ahead."

    Even so, neither of them plans to leave. "I just broke up with my girlfriend," Yirmiyahu says, "because she wanted to move to Canada because of this situation. But my life is here."

    "Maybe we should have left earlier," Greenbaum adds, referring to all Jews in Israel. "But I can't see leaving the country now. We've made a long history here."


    Leaving the large, elegant homes of Rehavia, I walk north into a warren of narrow alleys, hemmed by rough-looking three- and four-storey apartment buildings. These are the homes of working-class Jews, many of them immigrants from Arab countries.

    Eventually, I reach Jaffa Street, the city's main commercial avenue and now known as the "street of bombers." It houses a mixture of small, family-owned shops and fast-food outlets, one of which - a pizza place called Sbarro - is where a bomber killed 15 people last August. Its name has been added to the lexicon of the intifada, like that of some battle. You might hear someone say, for example: "Before Sbarro, I used to go down to Jaffa Street all the time."

    Restaurants now post security guards to check customers' bags. That is how shopping malls have succeeded in largely insulating themselves from attack. But there's not much you can do to stop people from blowing themselves up on the street. One did so last week in front of the Aroma Café, killing three people as well as himself. In fact, in the past four months, there have been four suicide bombings and a machine-gun attack within a 200-metre radius.

    Across Jaffa lies the Makhane Yehuda, Jerusalem's main outdoor market. Until recently, you could hardly move here at the height of the day. No longer.

    At the entrance, Violetta Rappaport, a petite 18-year-old who came to Israel from Ukraine five years ago, stands at a metal barricade. She wears the pea-green bomber jacket and beret of the Border Police, and has a pistol strapped to her hip.

    She is a draftee and says her job is to watch for "suspicious people" eight hours a day. What looks suspicious? She shrugs. "It's not really possible to know. If they look nervous. Nowadays, terrorists don't carry their bombs in bags. They wear belts around them."

    Inside the market, it is quiet. These days, the customers are mostly Filipino domestics, Romanian construction workers and people who can't afford to shop anywhere else.

    Rachel Shoshani, middle-aged and originally from Syria, is shopping for Passover. "Every time I come to the market, I'm scared," she says. "We can't say we're not scared. I come because I know it's cheaper and I like the atmosphere."

    At least five times during our 10-minute conversation, she invites me, a perfect stranger, to share Passover at her house. Her son's family lives in Gilo, a Jewish settlement on the edge of Jerusalem that often comes under fire from a nearby Palestinian town. "Sometimes they come and sleep at our house with their child."

    When the shooting starts there, she can hear it from her place. Recently, she noticed the gunfire on a Saturday, but as a religious Jew, she doesn't use the phone on the Sabbath. "I had to wait until sundown to find out if they were all right."

    Around the corner, Murad Hamad, a 27-year-old-butcher, squats on a step and smokes a cigarette. A self-described "Israeli Arab," he works for religious Jews, but living with his wife and three children in East Jerusalem makes it "harder to get to work. There are more roadblocks. We wait, we show our ID and then we pass. Even in the market, there are checkpoints."

    Business at the shop isn't quite as slow as it appears, he says. Customers who used to walk in now phone ahead. "They wait outside the market in their cars, and we bring them the meat."


    Not far from the market, Mea Shearim is the home of Jerusalem's large ultra-orthodox community and a study in black and white. Men wear the same black coats, white shirts and old-fashioned hats their ancestors wore in the Polish shetl. This time of year, when it still rains and can get cool in the evening, their costumes do not look quite as outlandish as they do in the desert heat of the Israeli summer.

    Until recently, the ultra-orthodox were spared the ravages of the Palestinian terror campaign. Historically, they have supported the Israeli state, which many consider secular and even heretical. Some refuse to pay taxes to a government they reject.

    But this month, a suicide bomber blew himself up in nearby Beit Yisrael as ultra-orthodox women pushing baby carriages waited for their husbands to leave a synagogue. Ten people were killed, including four children, one of them an infant.

    It was a shock, but Yitzak Gabai, a grave 16-year-old student, blames Jews themselves for the attack. "God could stop these attacks and, if we overcome our wanton desires, then they won't happen."

    Not everyone is so stoic. Avraham Burstein sells music and religious goods from a stall in the middle of Mea Shearim. A member of the Breslov sect, known for its good humour and joyous approach to life, he is quick to smile and discuss the beloved klezmer music blaring from his speakers.

    Ask how the government should respond to the terror, however, and a cloud passes over his face. "A snake has to be killed and not wounded. When you have the family of terrorists supporting him, you can't just injure, you must kill. Right now, we are just injuring."


    Finally, I head for East Jerusalem, where most of the city's Arabs live. There are many clues that you have crossed its invisible boundary line: the clothing people wear, the little rundown buses they ride and, of course, the garbage. Israeli nationalists like to see Jerusalem as an undivided city, but that does not seem to apply to government services, with one important exception.

    With unemployment high, Arab Jerusalem depends heavily on Israel's social-safety net, an extremely generous one by Middle Eastern standards. The welfare office, a few blocks from the Old City, looks like a military base, with a four-metre-high fence and elaborate gates and railings to control the long queues that form whenever the place is open. A few old men with ancient manual typewriters make a living by filling out application forms for people right on the sidewalk.

    At the magnificent Damascus Gate leading back into the Old City, I meet someone for whom welfare must seem an impossible dream - an old woman in ragged peasant clothes and a soiled head scarf squatting on the sidewalk with boxes of mint and grape leaves for sale.

    She says her name is Immousa and she lives in a Palestinian-controlled village near Bethlehem. Her children used to work in Israel, she says, but have lost their jobs since the intifada. Now, with no welfare to turn to, she rises each morning at 3 to reach Bethlehem by 4 and buy her produce from farmers.

    She then hauls 15 kilos to Jerusalem, a trip that takes three hours and in all yields about $15 a day. "My profit is only from God," she says.

    The contrast between conditions in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and the Palestinian parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not been lost on Arab Jerusalemites, many of who view the intifada with a skeptical eye.

    Hatim and Jihad live down a dark street, not far from the entrance to the Haram al-Sharif. They have six children, but Hatim's heart condition rules out meaningful employment. Each month. they collect about $1,000 in welfare, enough to keep them in a kind of ragged comfort.

    Like many Arabs here, they are not entirely happy with their lot, but do not relish the idea of rule by the Palestinian Authority, with its reputation for corruption. "What will they give us?" Jihad asks. "They haven't provided the Palestinian people with anything. They are taking from them.

    "As long as the [Israeli] soldiers don't hit us, we don't mind them," she adds. "If they hit us, we get angry. But we are not affected, like the people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."


    According to one interpretation, the ancient name Jerusalem may have the very word "peace" embedded in it - echoed in the modern Hebrew and Arab words, shalom and salaam. But that has not been Jerusalem's history; nor does it seem to be in its near future.

    In the Muslim Quarter, I notice how roughly the boys play with one another, and how indifferent to it the adults seem. Parents, I'm told, feel the boys have to be tough, given the life that awaits them.

    Strange as it may seem, I also spot some Jewish youngsters, the children of "settlers" who make a point of setting up house where they aren't wanted. These kids are accompanied between home and school and playground by thuggish-looking young men with pistols jammed in their belts.

    How can children like this imagine peace? For that matter, not one of the dozens of people I met in Jerusalem expressed any hope for peace. So many bombs have gone off, so many lives lost, that for most people here, such hope long ago gave way to grim determination.

    Noa Greenbaum, the young music teacher pondering her escape route as she sipped tea in the Aroma, captured the mood best: "After a lot of blood from both sides, it will make people think deeper."

    Then, perhaps, they will take to heart Psalm 122, words attributed to King David, sung by Jews at Passover and included by some Christian churches in their Easter liturgy:

    Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
    They shall deserve quietness that love thee
    Peace be within thy walls
    Calm within thy palaces

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