2 July 2009 0 Comments

Photos of the Jerusalem you don’t read about in the newspaper

My friend Ilan Mizrahi has published a wonderful book of his photos about Jerusalem — not the conventional Jerusalem of suicide bombs and the Dome of the Rock and praying Hassids (though he covers that, too). Ilan, who was born just down the road from where I now live and is as “Jerusalem” as they come, aims to capture a side of the city populated by the poor, the drug abusers, the beggars: the scavengers who make it a real place, one that’s more interesting than anything you’d ever imagine from the cliched nuthouse of the tv news. My favorite is of a man playing violin on the street for small change, while another man urinates furtively against the wall behind him. Look at some of Ilan’s photos here. Ilan also asked me to write an introduction to the book. Here it is:

Jerusalem is a rumor, fed by the whispers of centuries, until its echo returns distorted from its tittle-tattle travels, unrecognizable to those who live in it. Like all rumors, it is unreliable and somehow more broadly accepted than the reality.

I arrived in 1996, drawn by my relationship with a woman, rather than any particular fascination with Jerusalem. Of course, I had heard the rumors like everyone else; they crept out from the Bible and the histories of Rome and of Islam, on through my two great-uncles, who rode into town with Britain’s Imperial Camel Corps in 1917. But I came with few preconceptions, and that’s how I stayed. Though my business at first was the news, I was under no illusions about the uselessness of newspaper and magazine formulas for unveiling the truth of a place. I tried to travel the neighborhoods of Jerusalem with an anthropologist’s eye. It turned out I was attempting, as a writer, to do just what Ilan Mizrahi has been able to do as a photographer.

When I arrived, journalists were busy writing about the dull mechanics of the Oslo peace process. Lots of stories about the first Palestinian beer, the first Palestinian Olympic team, Palestine’s acceptance into FIFA, and the first joint patrols between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers. None of these developments amounted to much in the end, except perhaps the beer, but foreigners were so preoccupied with these pointless milestones that they were slow to see the danger signs. When I joined Time as Jerusalem bureau chief in 2000, the magazine’s editors had been considering hiring a business writer, because they believed that peace was on the way and that Israel’s high-tech industry would become the center of the story. Then came the intifada. Which only goes to show how little editors know.

I wasn’t as surprised as many by the violence which engulfed the second half of the period covered by Ilan Mizrahi’s book. One morning in 1998, I awoke in my Abu Tor apartment to discover 300 East Jerusalem Palestinians protesting on my street, where one of their compatriots had been stabbed early that morning. It wasn’t the fact that they turned out to chant and throw their fists in the air that shocked me, but that ready and waiting they had a massive Palestinian flag, five meters by three, which they had draped over a wall. This was supposed to be a neighborhood where the Arab residents weren’t militant and yet this flag materialized. But I heard something else in their cry, choking them less with politics than with the dryness of the old desert traditions of blood feud. So it was no surprise to me four years later when a Jewish woman was stabbed in the woods abutting the same street.

Since then, the Jerusalem of the newspapers has been the realm of endless suicide bombs and clichés about an “intractable conflict.” But the intifada revealed so much more, if you only looked. In 2002, 45 percent of small businesses in Jerusalem went bankrupt. That, in a city already stricken by some of the worst poverty in Israel. A city with a Palestinian refugee camp within its municipal boundaries, and another “camp,” Mahaneh Yehuda, where junkies shoot up at night.

When I came to write my nonfiction account of life here, Cain’s Field, I went to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods around Mea She’arim to write about the conflict between the burgeoning religious population and the old inhabitants, mostly from Morocco, being shoved out because they weren’t religious enough. As I walked through these streets, I noticed that schoolchildren stopped to stare suspiciously at me. I felt more foreign than I’ve ever done wandering a Gaza refugee camp. To me it was an important lesson about Jerusalem: its alienness comes to you when you least expect it. The sights and sounds to which you’ve been attuned all your life — the Bible, the news, poetry and art — can inspire, so long as you let them. With repetition, they dwindle into inflated half-truths for which you feel contempt or anger or boredom. But in the places where you’d expect Jerusalem to be drab and rotting, the places which aren’t the subject of scripture or famous songs, there you find the timeless moments of enlightenment. There, the city is no longer a whispered rumor. Instead, it speaks to you, loudly, berates you, until you’re forced to acknowledge that it isn’t what you thought it was. It never will be.

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