Getting to Know Jerusalem in Al-Quds

Food is absolutely, ridiculously and supefyingly good, expensive and plentiful in Israel and Palestine—that is unless you are a rice eater. The Israeli populace despite being from about 122 countries generally seems to be partial towards bread as their main source of carbohydrates—something that they share with their antagonists—Palestinians. The portions are also huge in Israel. I was to learn that relatively early at dinner in the legendary King David Hotel in West Jerusalem. A single food order in Israel can easily feed three, and I and my friend ordered three thinking modest European food portions. Needless to say it was a struggle, especially since the food was so good that it seemed sinful to let it go to waste—and that’s not the only thing that evokes sin in Jerusalem—being that it is the capital of religious traditions centered around the original sin. Jerusalem’s key sin for me is its sinful falafel that I fear has left me with the perpetual lament when tasting the chick pea balls anywhere that they are just not the same as in Jerusalem. 

Mamila in West Jerusalem where I was staying for the first few days is the poshest area of Jerusalem. Well healed Israelis throng the trendy eateries and shops in the Mamila mall overlooking the walled segment of the old city between Jaffa and Zion gate—the later known as bab-e-nabi-Daud in Arabic. It is a rare pleasure to sample the veritable United Nations of food on offer in the eateries representing the culinary heritage of all the countries that the Jewish population of Israel hails from—my personal favorite being the delectable shakshuka—a Tunisian origin breakfast dish constituting eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce.

There is a higher proportion of Hasidic and other religious Jewish sects distinguishable by their dress in Jerusalem. Even the most seemingly secular establishments have the Yaer Emanuel hand washing pitchers by their wash basins, to cater to the orthodox Jews, who would not wash their hands from tap water. Many of the West Jerusalem taxis have darkened rear windows and mirrors to meet the privacy demands of orthodox Jewish passengers—who according to some Christian and Muslim drivers won’t patronize non-Jewish taxi drivers. The overt Jewish religiosity is ubiquitous in dress, symbols and culture and encapsulates the politico-cultural and ideological tensions in the secular Jewish State of Israel. I could not help comparing with my own land of the pure—where overt symbols of piety inter alia mehrabs, beards, tucked up shalwars, pathological fear of female sexuality, mosques in the middle of the roads and green areas, and brassy Azans and naats at dawn—could not possibly leave anybody in doubt about the religious leanings of Pakistanis. And just in case somebody is still not sure, we start every formal event with a recitation from the Quran—something that our twin religion based polity of Israel seems to avoid thanks to its—typically hollow—secularism.

Living in Mamila—one could be forgiven for thinking that Israelis are generally a well heeled lot. But there are poorer neighborhoods in West Jerusalem and in Israel as well. The present Likud government did usher in a Reagonomic revolution in the historically highly socialized and regulated Israeli economy during its first stint in the 1990s. The result was a strong increase in GDP growth rates, very high concentration of wealth amongst less than 25 families and massive increase in poverty rates. Beggars are not an uncommon sight in even the high end areas such a Mamila.

Israelis more than most, seemingly want to be liked. In every restaurant and café I was asked by friendly Israelis, about my impressions of Israel and offered pre-emptive apologies for the inconvenience I must have suffered as a Pakistani entering the country. But all said that security concerns is a reality in the country and surely I understand. Frank late night conversation with one such Israeli of Yemeni descent was indicative. He was intensely curious about my Pakistaniness and along the same lines lamented how his heritage as an Arab Jew is a blind spot in the dominant nationalist/cultural narrative of Israel. But along the way it didn’t take much for him to also descend into a paranoid diatribe about how everybody hates Jews and the only place where Jews could be safe is Israel.

The perception of everybody hating Jews was articulated frequently in my conversations with graduate students and colleagues in the academic conference I was attending. Many of those rational, thoughtful, enlightened Israelis betrayed a deep angst about their country’s occupation of the Palestinian population. But unlike us Pakistanis who have now started to engage critically with some of the foundational myths of our country, even the most progressive Israelis do not seem to have made that break through. The foundational Zionist narrative is sacrosanct, except for some ultra-religious Jews for whom the existence of the State of Israel is an abomination. There is, nevertheless, a general inability to comprehend that perhaps Israelis’ Arab neighbors don’t hate them just because they are Jews but because of what they did to form the state of Israel and what they are continuing to do.

Jerusalem is a united city today—at least in theory. A hyper modern tram runs the length of the green line that used to separate the Jordanian administered part of the city from the Israeli part until 1967. East Jerusalem has been annexed by Israel—even though nobody in the world recognizes that annexation. Even the Israelis don’t seem to—after all why else would the Israeli military need to patrol half of the city in full military regalia. It is to the life in the Arab al-Quds and the pathologies of occupation that I will turn in my next essay.

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Towards Jerusalem, on way to Al Quds

An Israeli colleague asked me, if invited, would I come to a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A few moments of hesitation were the only interlude between his offer and my affirmative response. “Who would ever say no to a chance to go to Jerusalem?” I said. But truth be told I did hesitate.

Earlier on when I forwarded the announcement for the conference to my academic department, I received a series of angry e-mails from colleagues and graduate students for purporting to encourage violation of the boycott against Israeli academic institutions. My response then and now to my colleagues, as an academic, a pacifist (mostly) and a supporter of the Palestinian cause for dignity and self-determination, is that I abhor the behavior of the State of Israel towards the occupied Palestinian populace. I am also no friend of the Zionist movement, and have always maintained that it is one of those insidious European imperial ideologies, amongst many others, which was specific to the cultural and social pathologies of 19th century Europe. It had some appeal in the early 20th century perverse era of European imperialism, anti-semitism and fascist viciousness, but is way past its ‘sell by’ date. But we academics have to defend and maintain spaces of free and open exchange of ideas, otherwise our trade can not exist. We cannot exclude scholars from debate and discussion because of the bad behavior of their governments. If that were to be the criteria then I as a Pakistani, like many others, would probably be one of the first candidates for exclusion. There is no end to these politics of exclusion, and the end result of such politics is fracturing of the very foundations of the academic enterprise. So I will go to Jerusalem—and to Al-Quds I headed.

My reception at the cavernous Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport was less than enthusiastic. I politely requested the very attractive young lady at the immigration to not stamp my passport. In Israel, if you request that, they stamp a piece of paper with your entry and exit stamps and hence there is no record of your ever having visited the country. This is good for me because many of our brotherly Arab countries and Pakistan as well, helpfully for the Zionist paranoid narrative, tend to deny entry to anybody with an Israeli immigration stamp on their passports. What is not good is that that raises all sorts of flags for the Israelis and they want to know why is it that you would rather not have an official record of their hospitality. So as expected, I was ushered into the secondary inspection room, to be interviewed by an immigration officer for about an hour. The officer was all the more excited to learn that I was a Pakistani, traveling on a British passport. Answering questions about everything and anything regarding my family history, friends, contacts, Pakistan and two hours of waiting, finally got me my entry stamps into Israel. I was lucky–there was a young American woman of Palestinian dissent who was sitting in the room for two hours when I got to the inspection room and was still there when I left, as was a French NGO worker.

The interview process for me, was reasonably friendly with some cute interrogative techniques thrown in there for good measure to throw me off balance and reveal the truth about my possible unflattering disposition towards Israel, or inadvertently admit that I was not who I say I was. I guess everybody has to earn his/her living and think that they are damn clever at doing it. But my investigator was as cocksure as one gets when one feels the steely grit of power in one’s spine.

Israeli drivers are generally a cross between a Lahore and a New York driver—that is they are insanely aggressive when they know how to drive—which is not always a given even if one is operating a vehicle in Lahore as in Israel. Forty minutes of a taxi drive contemplating mortality, appropriately instilling the fear of God in me on my way to God’s capital city–finally got me to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is like the Hindu deity Agni. It has two faces—one of immortality—and Jerusalem of the mind, and of this Earth is closer to immortality than any other. And the other of the unknown symbol of life—perhaps an aspirational vision of life different from the one we live in contemporary modernity, for which Al-Quds could be the stage. But more than the two faces, like the fire god Agni who is the messenger to other gods, Jerusalem has plenty of iron and fire in its past and present, and it is after all the staging post for communion with the Abrahamic God. But as a Hindu travel companion in Jerusalem reminded me—“tum sala [You silly] Abraham followers have one God who plays favorites amongst you—there are enough gods and their Jerusalems for us Hindus to not have to fight over them.” True—we Muslims and them Jews and Christians have only one Jerusalem—and it is the tale of my communion with the place and the ideas of it that I will narrate in my next essay.