Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Whose Jerusalem? Microglot & Polytical

Everyday life in Israel is micropolitical in a way that is unfathomable to me and must be extremely wearing for those who live there -- doubly so for residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Territories were not on our itinerary, but flipping through a guide book I had the realization that, in fact, the Territories are not such a terra incognita. There's even a counter-Birthright to take you there. I try to avoid the polemics as best as I can, but crossing the green line will be an imperative for me whenever I can next make my way there.

It's embarrassing to admit that I had let news coverage so completely define my perception of the place. Ramallah to me was inextricably linked with Yassir Arafat's compound and that image had no place for say, these guys (many great links & mpfrees to be had), or the supposedly many hip bars with contemporary Arabic music. Arafat's compound, meanwhile, is a few miles outside of town. I should've known better: I'm originally from the D.C. area and I hate the assumption that everything "inside the Beltway" is the federal government (and not say, hip-hop/go-go fusion like my recent favorite W.A.L.E.).

In truth, I did visit the West Bank, to be precise the Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion. The whole place put me on edge, beginning with the History Channel-esque documentary in their "Gush Etzion Museum" of the history of Jewish settlement there and the battle that took place in 1948. At the end, the screen recedes and behind it lies the underground bunker where the last defenders of the kibbutz there were killed. The very fact that they need a master narrative to justify their presence made me inherently suspicious of the settlement's legitimacy, despite claims that it's not of the same ilk as more radical, most definitely illegal, settlements.

As if to underscore this difference, the largely American-born residents of Gush Etzion prefer to think of themselves as a suburb of Jerusalem, carving out a sense of normalcy precisely by painting it as suburbia, a disturbing slice of the Inland Empire in Israel. West Bank, CA.

12 minute drive to downtown Jerusalem aside, what kind of suburb is it if you have to pass through a checkpoint and along the infamous Wall? (How much is security fence and how much is wall I won't bother getting into here; on the Jerusalem-Gush Etzion byway [bypassing the Palestinian city of Bethlehem], it's a concrete wall, an attractive wall, but a wall all the same.)

Checkpoint at dusk from the bulletproof window of an armored bus.

Upon return to Jerusalem, lights across the city proudly proclaim the 40th anniversary of (re)unification.

Out of sight, out of mind?

Not exactly -- the division between (Jewish) West Jerusalem and (Arab) East Jerusalem along the fault line of the Old City has no pronounced borders or checkpoints, but it's the subtler linguistic distinctions that make me question the proclamation of unity. Polyglot Israel has three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Official signage is very good about including all three.

In ultra-Orthodox West Jerusalem neighborhoods, Arabic is nowhere to be found (no photos out of respect for the community -- they did have large signs in every possible tourist's language asking visitors to dress modestly, not come in groups, and not take photos). Even just a few hundred yards into East Jerusalem, meanwhile, Hebrew script becomes noticeably scarcer. Especially on the buses: On the whole, West Jerusalem (Hebrew/Jewish) buses don't go to East Jerusalem, nor do East Jerusalem (Arabic/Muslim) buses go to West Jerusalem. Disappointing as it is, it's also endemic of the systematic discrimination against East Jerusalem neighborhoods in terms of municipal services. Yet 40 years of being one city has yielded substantial integration, whether friendly or not, and if a two-state solution means dividing East and West, it will require microsurgery indeed.

Even the incredible sensory overload of going to the market was, at times, fraught with reminders of ongoing tension.

How many articles have I read about olive trees destroyed, olive groves cut off by barriers, the bitter taste off the branch, sour in the mouth but so easy to swallow?

The police were watching all the entrances, a reminder of the very real terror of the Second Intafadah, when buying ingredients for Shabbat dinner (I took these photos in the Friday afternoon pre-Sabbath rush) was done at one's own peril. I suspect Arab residents, by choice or by dint of racial profiling, keep to their own market, but that doesn't mean they can't slip through under cover.

A stall selling all manner of religious, secular, Hebrew, Arab, Israeli, Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan, &more CDs was, to me, a triumph of the hot & polyglot multicultural stew that, at its best, the Middle East can be -- and that I believe Israel, as a democratic state, warts and all, fosters better than other nation-states (not that particular cities can't, at the local level, foster them -- Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah, Marrakesh).

The heavy strings in vintage Arab popular music accompany the lilting voice of a great chanteuse, like Egypt's Faiza Ahmed, extremely well. It was a joy to turn the dial on my trusty FM radio while in Jerusalem and come across the rich textures, the fantastic tonal interplay between voice and instrument.

Faiza Ahmed - Set El Habayeb (Al Oum)

All the more reason to learn Arabic and Hebrew for that matter.

Sunset over Har Herzl (Mount Herzl), home to the Israeli national military cemetery -- tombs of presidents, prime ministers, generals, famous Zionists (including Herzl himself), dead soldiers, innocent bystanders. Below this picture, I had just finished hearing the leader of our trip recount the death by suicide bombing of his fiancée in front of the memorial wall to victims of terror on which her name is inscribed.

There is no one side here.

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