East Jerusalem is both an intriguing city and a tragic city. In this scene from Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides I  accompany a Palestinian who tells me the history of his family in this city.

East Jerusalem is an exotic blend of ancient East meeting a more modern West. It is older women in chador or head scarves, a younger generation in tight jeans and form-fitting sweaters; it is men dressed in suits and toes; old timers in baggy pants and tarbouche (red cap); it is donkey-driven push carts alongside automobiles on congested, narrow streets; it is the biblical Old City; the Al Aqsa mosque with its golden dome; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the Western(wailing) Wall; streets lined with graceful umbrella pines, the sound of their fine needles trembling in the light breeze; it is gardens lush with rosemary, jasmine, fuchsia and pink laurel.
It was a place where knowing how to haggle in Arabic–whether over a kilo of tomatoes, a carton of cigarettes or a spool of thread–is a must; it is neighborhoods full of colorful scenery; the merry chatter of street vendors gathered as if for some joyous occasion on the corner opposite the Post Office on Sultan Suleiman Street. It was said that a half dozen women, seated along the narrow cobblestone alleyway of the Muslim Quarter just outside the Damascus Gate, walked here all the way from Jericho to sell their herbs and grown eggs. East Jerusalemites, happy for the rare opportunity to buy Palestinian-grown goods, scooped them up as quickly as the old ladies could unpack them.
The mouth-watering smell of flat bread dusted with thyme and olive oil drifts onto the street from a nearby oven, joining the scent of spit-roasted chickens, of coffee beans toasting, and the rich aroma of Lattakia tobacco burning slowly in nargillas (bubble pipes). It was not yet noon, but on the corner of Nablus and Saleh el Din Street, vendors were already busy grilling cinnamon-scented kabobs and carving marinated lamb which they layered into warm flat bread, dousing the sandwich with a sauce of tahini, garlic and lemon juice.
Naim, our driver, was a resident of Jerusalem. He carried a blue ID card which identified him as an Israeli Arab and gave him the right to circulate in both Israeli West and Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians living in the West Bank carry orange ID’s and are not allowed to leave their towns and villages without the rarely issued Israeli travel permit. He drove us through some Arab-East Jerusalem neighborhoods and, as we headed south toward Bethlehem, he pointed off to his left.
“My family used to live here,” he said, and began to tell us his story. No one knew how old the hundreds of trees really were, he said. Some of the old-timers swore the olive grove was 300 years old, perhaps even older. The trees probably did not need irrigation because they had been there so long. Their roots intermingled with the rich, dark dirt and delved deeply in the earth. A small village nearby had an olive press, and every day during the season the villagers brought their freshly-picked crop to be pressed for oil.
Naim still remembered the exact location of his house, what time the sun shone through the kitchen window, and where each tree was planted. He remembered because he was the one who scurried up the trees and shook the branches at harvest time, carefully aiming for the sheet spread around the base of each tree to catch the olives as they fell. Now there is no sign of a Palestinian presence. The villagers, if not already dead, had been forced into one of the many refugee camps. As for the ancient olive grove, it was uprooted to make way for Har Homa, a massive Israeli settlement on the southwest edge of Bethlehem.

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  1. How wonderful to read this passage, it is as if I were there, as if I lived there feeling its smells, experiencing their delicacies and rapt for nature and its historical sites!
    Congratulations! I’m sure I would be very happy if I lived there, had he been born there. It would be a blessing from God!


  2. A riveting account of the pleasures (mouth-watering smell of flat bread dusted with thyme and olive oil) and humiliation (those ID cards) of life.


  3. What a lovely account. I visited twenty years ago and fell in love with the city and the country. I’m glad I got the opportunity to visit when I did. It was not without its troubles then.


  4. This passage is a loud reminder to everybody to pray and work hard to bring back to life, this old Jerusalem to be a new Jerusalem where peace and prosperity make up the atmosphere.


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