Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Between protest tents and nargillah pipes

Watching the colourful Ramadan lights in neighbouring villages as we drive by DH mused, wouldn't it be nice if we could just drop by all neighbourly like with a plate of cookies and wish them Ramadan Kareem? They're so close by. Deceptively close.

And maybe it would be OK, we certainly meet enough decent Palestinians from the area working in nearby shops. Or maybe we'd be taking our lives in our hands. Hard to know since some of our neighbours started baying for our blood with chants of "itbah el yahud" (slaughter the Jews) over the mosque loudspeakers during the 2000-2003 intifada. Before that Jews went into our neighbouring Palestinian villages. No more though, not since a few of those Israelis didn't make it out alive.

We're driving home from breaking our Tisha b'Av fast with family in Jerusalem. The previous night, Tisha B'Av eve, we'd gone on the traditional walk around the walls of the Old City, especially interesting this year as Ramadan coincides with the Jewish fast this year, so as Jews were beginning their fast at sunset the city's Muslims were breaking theirs. This evening however, we are all breaking our fast. As DH notes, tonight is iftar (the fast breaking meal each night of Ramadan) for everyone.

The Muslim areas of the Old City and adjoining Arab neighbourhoods are festooned with holiday lights, neon stars and crescents and illuminated "Allah" signs bedeck homes and public buildings. All along the streets young men lounge with nargillah pipes and little boys feast on holiday sweets and corn on the cob purchased from the many festive food vendors. The Damascus Gate is especially busy with stalls and shoppers and just lots of men hanging around relaxing on this Ramadan night.

There don't seem to be many women out, just a few in drab jilbabs and hijabs out with their families. We get a lot of stares, mostly curious, some hostile, telegraphing "what the hell are the Jews doing here tonight?" I figure as it's a custom to walk around the walls of the Old City every Tisha B'Av night, some of them must realise it's Tisha B'Av, but I guess a lot of them just wonder why we're there on Ramadan. I wave and call out "Ramadan Kareem" and get quite a few shocked and bemused stares - and one smile. The kids Junior and I wave to giggle and wave back.

J keeps me very busy. First she asks me for the story of Tisha B'Av. I ask her which one and she says, both, the Babylonians and the Romans. I ask her to tell me what she remembers and she tells me the story of the Babylonian attack on the Kingdom of Judah, the siege of Jerusalem, the capture and forced exile of the Judean king to Babylon along with the Judean aristocracy and upper classes, the rebellion of the Babylonian installed new king, despite the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah not to rebel, and the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. I am impressed. She reminds me that she spend most of the of the public reading of Lamentations reading Yaffa Ganz's well written children's book on the subject. Just as well, the book of Lamentations is far from being a kid friendly read. I get to tell the story of the Roman occupation of Judea and the Jewish revolt which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. I try to be concise, but this is a kid who wants all the details.

We study the huge historic stone walls, in places mounted above steep cliffs of bedrock, making them particularly daunting to potential attackers. J tells me that the narrow slits are for the defenders of the city to fight the attackers with arrows, throwing spears and hot liquids. That's why the sieges lasted so long she explains.

She's curious about the Mount of Olives, sad to know that some was built over and destroyed during the Jordanian occupation (didn't they know about all the important history and the hakhamim (sages) and neviim (prophets) buried there?), fascinated by the ornate Russian orthodox church with its golden onion domes and the colourful fresco adorning the Catholic Church of all Nations.

Looking down into the valley she asks about the ornate tombs which stand out from among the more traditional headstones. She doesn't remember who Zakhariah is but enthusiastically regales me with the sad story of Absalom. "It's a tragic tale Ima, so it's OK to talk about it on Tisha B'Av night".

Soon we're passing the City of David, the original site of David's capital, nestled near the base of Mount Moriah, where David's son Solomon would build the Temple. I see a lightbulb go on in J's mind. It may be midnight but she remains alert and curious. "So that's why we talk about going up to the Temple Mount!" She exclaims. "The people lived down here".

Looking down into Silwan she notes all the colourful lights and asks me to tell her the story of Ramadan. I explain to her that Muslims believe that this is when their prophet Mohammed received the Quran. "Oh, so it's their version of Shavu'ot? Why to they celebrate it like Yom Kippur then?" I explain that it's kind of like Yom Kippur and Shavu'ot rolled into one.

J has a book about the gates of Jerusalem and she's very excited to try and spot them all. "That's the Lion's Gate!" She yells at one point "that's where the Israeli soldiers entered to liberate Jerusalem in the Six Day War, it's not too far from the Kotel, Ima, we're almost there!" Well, still a a midnight slog uphill, but yes, we're close to our destination.

I ask her if we could have done this walk in 1966. "Of course not Ima! But I know we could have on Tisha B'Av 1967, Uncle told me he did it then".

It is past midnight but the area around the Kotel is teeming with people, huge family groups, tourists, religious and secular. There are local tour groups for curious secular Israelis to show them what religious Jews do on Tisha B'Av night and foreign guides explaining the strange Jewish practice of mourning for a city and Temple destroyed two millenia ago. Some people have settled in to spend the whole night reciting Kinot lamentations by the Kotel.

In the Davidson Archaeological Park by the Temple Mount some of the original huge scorchmarked stone blocks sit where they fell during the Roman destruction of the city. It makes me shudder ever time we visit the site.

Our car is parked near Independence Park so we pass the this summer's "economic revolution" protest tents pitched there as make our way home. There are far fewer tents than I'd expected judging from the media hype, quite uniform, as though someone distributed the same tent to everyone. Earlier in the evening we'd seen people sitting out in discussion circles on the grass, honouring the solemnity of this most tragic night of the Jewish year. All is quiet now, it is afterall well past midnight.

Breaking the fast with relatives in Jerusalem the next evening our meal is disrupted by a noisy, but quite small, demonstration in the street below, mostly against the rise in electricity prices it seems, "Tzu el hamirpeset, hamedinah koreset" (step out onto your balconies, the state is collapsing) is the cry we hear as we peek curiously outside.

The crowd look mostly like studenty types, a few clean cut in neat jeans and khakis others of the long haired crusty rasta variety, a few kids in Scouts uniforms and a few folks with rather prominent red flags adorned with the hammer and sickle. I wonder if the young people carrying them understand the message and memories these symbols convey to many in Israel. They sound like many more people then they actually are. The couple of large dogs are very quiet and docile.

Communist paraphenalia aside, they do have a point about electricity prices. Somehow though I don't think they're calling for the market to be opened up to more competition though.

Our host tells us that this has been going on almost nightly for weeks, sometimes into the wee hours. Normally the 23:00 cut-off for noisy events is meticulously enfored. At the moment though the police and municipality seem reluctant to clamp down on the noise of the protests. She's had many sleepless nights as a result. It's amazing how much noise a few dozen people can make.

All in all a very curious few days. Keep praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

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