The morning of the tour I awoke just as the following dream began (I may never know the outcome): I was with my mother Pearl, she outside our house, me inside. It was a major anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee and the suicide of Vincent van Gogh. She had arranged some sort of commemoration and was bringing materials for it. As she approached the door, I locked it, and opened a small panel thru which I could announce my action. I said, “Mom, don’t be alarmed, I’ll open the door momentarily, but today is truly auspicious, not only the massacre but the suicide.” I meant to explain the connection when my alarm rang—time to get Rick up.
The Arab house tour. Magnificent, more than fulfilling, surprising at every turn, I only pray I’ve been able to express some of this in my photos and writing. The idea is that prior to 1948 Arabs lived throughout what is now called West Jerusalem, sometimes among Jews, sometimes separate. I’d guessed this on one of my first trips thru this area in 2004, noticing the elegant Arab style houses. Who lived here? I thought to myself. And could guess the answer. I did research, confirming my guess: Arabs, now expelled. Edward Said’s family had lived here, maybe him himself. This gave currency to the sadness, the tragedy of expulsion. Ilan Pappe, in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, courageously and honestly calls it ethnic cleansing and documents the process and the intention profusely.
Now with us on the bus were 5 people who either once lived in some of these homes or whose families had. One, a young man, was the great grandson of a leading Ottoman era governor. He brought us thru the Mamillah cemetery and to the gravesite he and family had recently renovated. They’d placed a large slab bearing the name and dates of his ancestor. Within days someone broke it. They cemented it together. Much of the cemetery remains, threatened. The pattern—and this is how Independence Park was created—is for the municipality to regularly deposit soil and vegetable debris on the area, slowly building up the land elevation until the graves and stones are all covered. This man shoveled the deposits away to reveal the sites.
In the cemetery area 3 other sites of note: a Muslim shrine and the Herodian reservoir, known as the Mamillah Pool. The man claimed the city had blocked up the shrine entrance with cement blocks and placed a sign in Hebrew claiming it as private property. Across the street sat an old Arab building under renovation by Israelis who were preserving only the façade. Apparently Arab architecture is in demand and preserved whenever possible, primarily for pecuniary reasons. The reservoir had colleted rainwater and may have been one of the primary supplies for ancient Jerusalem. In 614 CE, during the conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians, Jews killed some 90,000 Christians and threw their bodies in the pool, a little known part of Jewish-Christian history. And finally the Israelis are building the Museum of Tolerance on this site. When excavating they discovered some 800 corpses. Litigation currently delays the project but it’s expected to move forward, a high irony: tolerance museum on an Arab burial site.
We visited homes, one belonging to Mona Halaby’s family along the abandoned railroad tracks between Jaffa and Jerusalem. (Mona teaches conflict resolution at the Ramallah Friends School.) All owners used the phrase “this house belongs to my family” not “this house belonged to my family.” This is key: the houses were stolen, they were not purchased. They were illegally confiscated and like most peoples the Palestinians have long memories. Occasionally someone from a home would poke a head out to examine our crowd of about 25 people. No one visibly objected altho Huda Imam, the tour leader and founder director of the Center for Jerusalem Studies who coordinated this tour, told us that from time to time when she attempts to show the outside of homes, someone calls the police. Most residents seem to have accepted these periodical tours. What do they think about the ownership? Who owns these homes? How is the right of return applied here? Once again, the curious parallel between how Jews have been treated and are treating.
Our tour climaxed at the home of an elderly woman who’d been outspoken during the entire trip. When the bus stopped in front of her home she raced out, ran thru the gate, all of us in tow, and began picking grapefruit. “This is my tree,” she exclaimed loudly, “these are my grapefruit, my father planted this tree.” She gave a fruit to each of us, tart, near sweet, juicy. She showed up photos from her dilapidated album made at locations she now pointed out: gate, fence, front steps, porch. The past became the present, the present the hazy future. Time blended together, time stopped, hearts stopped, eyes teared up, not only hers. We were home.