Friday, July 25, 2008

Funk in West Jerusalem

Jerusalem is divided in many different ways. The most striking division is the Wall through East Jerusalem which prevents many Palestinians in the eastern suburbs and neighbouring towns from getting to Jerusalem. East of the city, the Wall winds its way far into the West Bank. Then there is the Green Line, which divides East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem. Over the course of the years, the Israelis have done everything in their power to erase this ceasefire line from 1948, which is the only border in Jerusalem that is recognised by the international community. Jerusalem’s Old City, with the Dome of the Rock mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall, lies just outside of the Green Line and are, on paper, still part of the occupied territories. West Jerusalem is the heart of the self-proclaimed capital of Israel. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and many other state institutions are located in this area. The foreign embassies are still located in Tel Aviv, as Jerusalem is not internationally acknowledged as the capital of Israel. In 1980, the Israelis single-handedly had claimed Jerusalem as their capital.

Adham, one of the circle of people from the Palestinian creative class that I’d been hanging out with in Ramallah, told me one day that he often went out to West Jerusalem to have a good time and party until late at night. There was much more going on in the West than the East where there isn’t much happening anymore, especially at night. In West Jerusalem there is music and partying, although it’s still no match for Tel Aviv which is the real party city in Israel. Even West Jerusalem is heavily affected by religion, which puts a lid on things at the same time as it creates a tense atmosphere. Adham is a Palestinian born in Israel and so he knows about life ‘inside’. I asked him if he would take me to West Jerusalem one day when he happened to be going there. I’d never been west of the Old City and was curious about what people got up to on the other side. Distances are short here and we’re talking about neighbourhoods perhaps 500m on the other side of the Old City, but which might as well have been on a different planet.

On Thursday evening I got a text message: ‘Meet me at Qualandya checkpoint at 20:00’. Pola came along and we stood in the sunset at the Wall and the checkpoint. We spent the time we waited having a closer look at the area of the checkpoint where all pedestrians and passengers in cars and busses have to walk through on foot in order to get through to Jerusalem. I’d heard that the system here was high-tech and depersonalised, but it turned out to be the same cattle-style arrangement as in Nablus, where Palestinians are led through small fenced-off passageways. The Israeli soldiers sit in their armed small sheds and communicate via loudspeakers, and so you constantly hear amplified voices commanding people to move forward and the metallic clicking sounds of the metal turnstiles. One of the countless small boys selling gum held us hostage for the half hour we waited for Adham. Inside and outside the checkpoint there was a constant stream of people being dropped off and picked up. The ability of Palestinians to work around and adapt to the Israeli obstructions is fascinating to see, and around the Qualandya checkpoint there is an entire little community of vendors and people hanging out and drinking tea while obviously waiting for friends or family to pass through the checkpoint.

Adham arrived in his mother’s car and picked us up. We weren’t going through the Qualandya checkpoint as Adham doesn’t have permission, in fact, to go to the West Bank. We were going to go through the so-called ‘settler checkpoint’ further south. Qualandya lies about 10-15 km on the inside of the West Bank and that’s still quite far to the Green Line. However, that’s a different story entirely. Tonight we were going to rave in the West. Adham didn’t really feel like being a guide when we drove through West Jerusalem and pointed here and there but in the end just said, ‘It doesn’t make sense’, and so we just continued driving while looking out of the windows of the car. There was a McDonald’s here and a Starbucks there and generally the city life reminded me very much of southern European cities. We drove through ‘The German Quarter’ where there were cafés and pizzerias with service and tables on the pavement outside, full of suntanned people in shorts and bare shoulders. We were looking for Safafa which is an Arabic village in the West. Adham told us that the Arabic villages are hidden and that it’s almost impossible to find them by car as there’s often only a single road leading there, often like a side street off a side street. We were going to pick up Adham’s friend Dirar, and Adham had to ask for directions several times before we found the little side street to the side street that would take us to Safafa.

Dirar had lived in Barcelona for eight years and was an educated film director. He now teaches at Birzeit University in Ramallah but still lives in Safafa when he wasn’t staying with Adham in Ramallah. We drove around a bit and finally found a bar where our night out could start. There were security guards at the entrance with metal detectors and Dirar automatically lifted his T-shirt to show that he didn’t have any bombs strapped to him. He probably did it mostly as a provocation, as Arabs in Israel are treated with a lot of prejudice and fear. Just speaking Arabic on the streets in West Jerusalem instantly creates a sense of fear. At least this was what they told me. I asked Adham and Dirar if there was any danger in speaking Arabic here and they laughed a bit and said that, as an Arab, you had a kind of power in the West because the Israelis were so paranoid. The bar they’d chosen was a bar with both Palestinian and Israeli people inside, so they’d clearly chosen a place where Palestinians would also feel welcome. There was a DJ working hard to get people on the dance floor, and there was Carlsberg and Taybeh on tap in the bar. It didn’t take long for our Palestinian friends to start gently rocking out in their chairs. Dirar said that you can always tell the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian dancing: the Israelis just jumped up and down and couldn’t dance at all. I was probably closer to the Israelis when it came to this.

After a few hours, the bar had filled up, and the volume had risen and so it was time to move on. We walked through a pedestrianised street with cafés and bars on both sides packed with people and loud techno music. There were security forces amongst the kissing couples and drinking teenagers and I couldn’t help thinking that most of the kids here were quite likely to also be soldiers. As with so much else here in Palestine, there is always a void between what one sees and what one knows, and the carefree life here most likely hides a much more disturbed daily life than what we know about from Europe. On the way out of the party area, we met a young couple where the guy had a massive machine gun hanging over the shoulder of his white T-shirt. I asked what that was about, and Adham and Dirar said with a smirk: ‘A Super Jew’ — which probably meant that he was a settler. The night was still young and we carried on to several bars and falafel joints until, in the early morning, we started heading back towards the distant world on the other side of the Wall in Ramallah. When I woke the next day I was pretty groggy and felt that our trip to West Jerusalem had been more like a strange dream-like movie than the usual crazy night out.

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