Oh, Oh, Jerusalem!

AUTHOR’S NOTES: This article was written in 1995 before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995. I made the trip to Jerusalem during the summer of that year when the hopes for Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis were at an all-time high! After that horrid assassination my personal hopes for peace came to an end, and my activism slowly wound down to nothing. I knew that no one else would have the chutzpah to ever do what one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century had done. I was right! From then on, it has been drastically downhill.

I submitted the article to Ms. Magazine. They approved and paid for it, but never published it.

It remains my favorite!

Oh, Oh, Jerusalem!

I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1943.

I now live in Oakton, Virginia.

I am a woman whose life had persistently been directed by violent political events, archaic societal requirements and stifling familial ties. I am also a feminist who had been swimming upstream; the laps more trying because they are effected in stealth. After all, bourgeois women simply do not rebel! Moreover, Palestinian females, more beholden because of their plight, have a double duty to obey, to acquiesce, to belong.

But what does one do with all the churnings of a soul who knows that there are other ways, different roads, else wise drums to resonate the spirit? One sublimates. One lurks.
. . . and . . . eventually . . . one soars to freedom and to exultation of the true self.

And so I did. At the age of fifty, it was a wistful decision, brimming with regret at what should have, could have been. Nevertheless, the sublimation was over; the lurking now belonged to the bygones.

In this spirit, a sentimental journey back to the Middle East was a pre-requisite, I thought. That baggage I was lugging had to be off-loaded; those ghosts of my past had to be laid to rest; those brandished beliefs of peace had to be tested.

London was, aptly, my first stop. I had spent about six years there as the war raged on in Lebanon. I had delivered my fourth child, my precious Adnan, in that beautiful city. His arrival had been a meteor of light in what was the darkness of our refuge. Discussing Middle East Peace with my friend, Randa, she tells me: “You have arrived at a total acceptance of the peace, it seems. I am not there yet. None of us here are.” How do I convince her, them? I guess, unlike me, they had not walked through the process, pouted, postured, vented and dialogued with the “enemy.”

In Amman I look at my mother and say: I am postponing what I feel is the onslaught of a massive depression! She smiles at me in a rare moment of total understanding. The emotions of being amongst my people after seventeen years of being away are overwhelming. Seeing family members brings on nostalgic memories of tribal living. The archaic norms now take on a romantic hue. Looking at my uncle’s hands, eyes, eyebrows, smiles, reminds me of my father. My genes jump with joy! My father is far away now, buried in London not in Jerusalem where he should have been. A missile of pain jolts my being and manifests itself in my tears.

During our entire stay we are constantly surrounded by people to an extent that I start to feel a yearning for my loneliness in Virginia. The crowds are searching my face, dissecting my words, trying to find out how “America” has made me different. When I discuss politics, fervently arguing for peace, I see suspicion in their eyes. I hear the silence. It’s a tough sell this peace, I am finding! The subject of my upcoming Jerusalem visit excites them: for themselves that they had made that pilgrimage to The Coveted City; for me that I was embarking to that Mecca of our collective emotions. Is it all about accessibility, I wonder; about freedom of movement, of trade and information?

Driving down, on the newly excavated and paved Highway to Peace leading from Amman to Jerusalem, I am mostly in a solemn silence. My friend and companion, Aida, does not intrude on my thoughts. This used to be a trip of hours. Now it takes less than one. Aha! I already sense the peace dividends!

The border crossings are quick. Our Palestinian driver warmly greets the Israeli patrols. Marhaba and Shalom unite where bullets once divided. Faked warmth? Expedient? Perhaps! But faking it (whether it’s a greeting or an orgasm) does achieve a desired end once in a while, doesn’t it?

We get off at Bab-el-Amood. The sights, the smells, the sounds are oh! so familiar! Nostalgia sweeps over me, overtakes my very essence. Aida and I climb up the steps towards her mother’s house where a delicious chicken pilaf (makloobeh) with eggplant awaits us. Aida’s mother hovers over me, hugs me, kisses me. I am an exiled daughter returned and it is a very profound event, it seems. The fact that I am here endorses the peace, validates it, and translates it into actuality.

Walking through the Old City we converse with the young boys, the Intifadah Brigades, who proudly show me the spot from where they threw the stones that avalanched into a Madrid Peace Conference in 1991; the ragged rooftops from where they raised the Palestinian flags that soared into a White House peace agreement in 1993; their Uzi-bruised skin from where seeped the commitment to extinguish the pain of War and oozed the resolution to light the candles of Peace.

From the Wailing Wall to the Dome of the Rock; from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Via Dolorosa; from Souk-el-Atareen (the market of aromas) to Haret-el-Nassarah (the Christian Quarter) I walk as if in a schizophrenic dream. My soul seems to have split. I am reliving the past; assimilating today and thinking of tomorrow all in one moment. I am the Christian pilgrim awed by a sense of spirituality that I had lost touch with somewhere between the throes of the Lebanese civil war and the frenzied corridors of corporate America. I am the Palestinian returning to my roots, reclaiming them, asserting my ownership over them. I am, also, the peacenik carrying the leftover flowers of the sixties and distributing them to the war-ravaged Palestinians and Israelis so they may have a joyful tomorrow.

The next morning, guided by Jack, a distant cousin, I am eerily retracing the past, furtively walking through my mother’s and father’s lives. I go to the schools they attended and am transported back to their youth as I see them playing in the courtyards. I visit the Church of Mar (Saint) Elias where they had been married and see them standing in front of it arrayed in their wedding outfits, surrounded by family and friends, by expectation and happiness. I enter the home where I was born and on whose rooftop I had spent many mornings. I plod to the glassed balcony off the kitchen where my brother and I were fed, where we played. In my mind’s eye I see our toy car, the dolls, and the tricycle. Aida and Jack are standing apart affording me the space to take it all in. At one moment they both have tears in their eyes. I have none. Only rage! It grips me, engulfs me, and chokes out every thought of peace and reconciliation!

I look at the YMCA building in West Jerusalem where my father, Gaby, had a sports shop and where he aced those tennis balls which had earned him many awards; where my mother, Esperance, had played squash while her eyes darted looking for my father.

“The only man I desire.” She told her Jewish friend, Pnina. And Pnina introduced them after which they spent many New Year’s eves dancing away their romance in the halls of the King David Hotel.

“They have reupholstered the furniture,” Pnina tells me as we head towards the King David terrace. “Everything else is as it was when your parents were here.”

She does not fully realize the impact of her words on me as the Glen Miller music floats into my ears. Look! There they are! Dancing! She throws back her auburn hair and laughs up at him with her blue eyes. He draws her closer to his body. What a raging flirt he was! What a beautiful couple they make! Oh! Those happy days! “What ifs” crowd into my mind! Anguish clings to me, tugging at my heart, pulling at my resolve. I could have danced here, too. I could have made my debut in these halls, followed in their footsteps and played tennis, maybe. Perhaps my children would have romped here, would have claimed their place amongst the elite, as were their grandparents, rather than be struggling in America. Oh! Damn! Damn!

Dinner at Pnina’s (my Jewish mother, I call her) is a family reunion with Reena (her daughter-in-law) and Ehud (her son). Ehud and I were born in the same year, a fact that instantly bonds us together despite the enmity of our people. In her excitement over my visit, Pnina had called Wadad (who also knows my parents) and together they had planned the dinner menu. Wadad had then called Joyce and Joyce had called Edythe and my imminent visit was trekking through the grapevine before I had even crossed the border! Such is the beauty of life where you have roots!

Ehud drives me around the city, points out the museums, Rabin’s house, the Knesset, the theatres. Here he is: the Israeli reserve soldier, who had risen to the call of his nation, had performed where he was commanded to, had served in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) albeit with the reservations of a liberal dove. This is the man I should hate, I think to myself, yet towards whom I feel this profound connection; this is the enemy uniform I loathe, yet Ehud’s empathy and sensitivity decry anything to do with war; this is the soldier who went to Beirut in 1982 and drove my people out of that city while I fumed and raged madly in the suburbs of Virginia, yet he is, too, the friend who understands the wrenching of my soul as he points out the home of my childhood and walks me through our Jerusalem. Oh, Agony! Oh, Anguish! How can I make sense of all this? How will I process all these emotions? How?

In Jaffa Street I sip coffee in a café. The Israeli waitress does not seem threatening; the Israeli woman at that table does not impart any enmity. They are ordinary women: working, idling, talking, and living. Yet, they, also, could have been toting an Uzi at one point or another in their lives. They, too, could have obeyed the command of their nation. They might have been in Sabra and Shatila, offering that strategic and logistical cover to the Phalangist militia as they rampaged through the Palestinian camps murdering men, women and children. I should be infuriated, inebriated with hatred. Shouldn’t I? But, no! No! A bomb had gone off on this same street, after all, planted by Palestinians in order to terrify, avenge and detonate their rage. That bomb, too, had killed innocents. Oh, horrors!

We all lost. We lost time and money. We wasted human beings. Joy and laughter eluded us. I look at Aida’s mother, her handsome grandchild, the Intifadah Brigades, the women selling their vegetables at Bab-el-Amood, the men in the souks of the Old City, the Holocaust survivors in the Jaffa Street café, the young Israeli soldiers standing sentry in the plazas and on the rooftops. Their eyes are old and tired. The fires in their souls have been extinguished. There is fear in their hearts. Would that it were different!

Walking in the Garden of Gesthemane, I feel Jesus Christ walking along my side. (Jerusalem can do that to you.) I sense His breath next to my cheek. I hear the swirl of His robes. “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” I have forgiven them, Lord. All of them! The lot! But, Jesus, help me now for I am feeling so lost in my emotions. The past is so alive here! So tangible! It saunters in and out of today unannounced, uninvited. After seventeen years in the West, I am not used to such invasions anymore. Things are more tidy in my American way of life. Neater. We move on. That kind of order does not exist here. Everything seems to be happening now and yesterday at the same time. You feel it in the conversations, the intricacies of the language, the oldness of the cultures. It permeates into the cuisine, the religions, the traditions. This incredible comingling of the yesterday and today drains me, obscures my path, clouds my thinking.

I sleep fitfully. I toss and turn. I talk to myself. Jerusalem? It’s a city. Another modern city. Apart from its Old City, its religious monuments and spiritual resonance, it huddles between its hills and glares from atop its buildings, sprawling, expanding itself like all cities today. This Jerusalem, it does not entice me. I do not feel any sense of belonging to it. No. I stare at its horizon and look over its suburbs and settlements and feel no raging sentiment to return. This city belongs to its inhabitants. I am not one of them, Palestinian or Israeli may they be. I am an inhabitant of Oakton. Not even the United States. I belong only in my little enclave of America, that part where my children are, my friends, my loved ones, my colleagues, my job, my bank, my supermarket, my drugstore, my apartment. Ultimately, that’s where each of us belongs. In this day and age, it’s a fallacy that we belong to a nation. The nation is only that which provides us with the necessary support in order to maximize our potential as human beings. Jerusalem’s political status – however that is configured as the peace talks continue into next year – does not really concern me. For, Jerusalem is merely symptomatic and symbolic of the wars that divided two very similar people. In reality, she belongs only to herself. Just look at her! She has withstood the Romans and the Greeks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans, the Muslim armies and the British. She has even withstood the Palestinians and the Israelis. She stands there, her belly full of the archeological history of all her marauders, carrying within her the pain of her inhabitants across time, the weeping of her women and the sobbing of the children. One day, you will all be gone, she seems to say. All your claims, your wars, your differences will be washed away by death and I, only, will endure and enfold into me all your stupidity. My belly will bulge even more with the remnants of your Uzis and Kalashnikovs, with all the sounds of your banal rhetoric and dated politics. All of you, Palestinians and Israelis, will be buried in my womb, your squabbles but a brief episode on my landscape. She mocks our claims, Jerusalem!

Yet! Yet, Jerusalem at this moment belongs to me. I came here and I reclaimed her as mine. I have memories here, a heritage, a history that no Israeli or Palestinian can outbid me on; that no Jew, Christian or Muslim can take away from me. This identity, my identity, is not geographical, political or religious. It is personal. Very personal. In essence, this is what the diaspora had stolen away from me. And, in coming here, I have reclaimed that heritage which will ever belong to me and to my children and theirs.
I wake up smiling. In these internet days can anyone really claim anything other than one’s self, thoughts and those few belongings gathered along the way? From my little computer at home, after all, I own the world! Through that little screen I can walk in the boulevards of Paris, trot in the parks of London, and have lunch in Sao Paolo and dinner in Saigon. I can attend a lecture in Copenhagen and join a conference in Beijing. I can talk to Rabin and converse with Arafat. I can argue with Gingrich and dialogue with Mandela. No. I am not a Jerusalemite. I was just born there. No. I am not an American. Circumstances just took me there. I am a female citizen of the Global Village; a woman inhabitant of Earth. I claim it all as mine. I claim its children as my own; its trees, its forests, its rivers, its skies. And, yes, sure, Jerusalem, too!

I gather my emotional baggage, heavy after years of weighing me down and dispose of it at the doorsteps of Jerusalem. Right there where it belongs. In my past. And I will come back, Jerusalem. Lighter. Sprightlier. I will return and walk in your streets and alleys, savor your sights, your smells, your sounds, lay wreaths for your martyrs and cry. And, oh yes, I will dance in the halls of the King David Hotel, in my mother’s footsteps, in my father’s shadow. I will do all that as I celebrate your peace and mine, oh, oh, Jerusalem!

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6 thoughts on “Oh, Oh, Jerusalem!”

  1. One of the most beautiful and moving articles I’ve read in a long time. As an American/Israeli Jew, I can identify with some of what you felt. I had similar thoughts and feelings on my many trips to Germany, especially Munich. But seemed to love the place all the more for helping me see the feelings more clearly. A shame Ms. never published it. At the time, it might have made a difference, when there was still a lot of hope.

  2. Brilliant essay! Thank you for sharing this gift. Transports one to a different time and place and cuts through the layers reaching inside oneself. Could feel the pain, the hope, the longing, the memories and the joy. Touches upon our humanity through all man’s inhumanity to man.

  3. Really touching! I enjoyed reading it!!! I could clearly imagine and feel everything you described. Can’t wait to read more!

  4. Hi Hala, For some reason you came to mind today and I googled your name and came up with the fact that you have written a book and then I found this page. I am Sally Pratt Dabagia and I met you in Beirut when my husband Norman, with Continental Bank out of Chicago, was assigned to Beirut in 1973. You and your husband and family were very good to us and I always enjoyed so very much spending time with you and your family. I often wondered through the years what happen to you and Nami (?) and your brother and his wife Eileen. We were having dinner with you when one of the first bombs exploded in Beirut that seemed to be the beginning of the Civil War. Do hope you are doing fine and that your family is well. I will order your book from Amazon and will look forward to reading your novel. Most sincerely,
    Sally Dabagia 11-19-2015

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