The town of peace and olives, the citadel of laws, the shortest path between earth and sky. Nizar Qabani beautifully articulated the amalgamating images, definitions, and depictions of what Jerusalem is. Fairuz called it the flower of all cities, and many other historians and literary figures have written about Jerusalem. But to us Palestinians, who live too close yet too far, what does Jerusalem mean and how can we articulate what this city encapsulates? Amidst the shrinking map of Palestine and throughout the decades, Jerusalem has always been the beating heart of Palestine. But beyond its physical place, Jerusalem holds an emotional space in the hearts of Palestinians that stretches for miles beyond its actual size. Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, but it is also the capital of pain, heartache, and sorrow for generations of Palestinians that have witnessed the continuous efforts to eradicate Palestinian Jerusalem.
To examine how history is reflected in Jerusalem and through its people is one thing, but it is quite another to confront the realities of the present. There are cities that we live in, but there are also cities that live within us. It is said that our memory of a place is not just a visual image but a sensory one as well. When I think of Jerusalem, the sound of street sellers calling “ka’ek, ka’ek” comes to my mind or the image of an influx of tourists marching through Damascus Gate. But beyond the heartwarming images that Jerusalem instills in us Palestinians, and beyond the romanticization, there is also the reality of disfiguration, separation, and complexity. Today, in Jerusalem’s Old City, military soldiers are everywhere, CCTV cameras are installed at every corner, and one can feel the intensity just by strolling through its streets. As a Bethlehemite, I grew up in close proximity to Jerusalem. But the distance between the two cities has always felt greater than it actually is.
Throughout the years the distance seems to have grown because of the separation wall that was built to make it harder for Palestinians to reach Jerusalem, the military checkpoints, and the required permits that are nearly impossible to obtain. If we were to imagine that a city is a representation of the people that inhabit it, what would Jerusalem represent? Would it represent the image of a military occupation or of decaying generations that have witnessed their homes and land being taken away from them? Would it be the image of a people still wearing their halo of catastrophe? To me, Jerusalemites are a people who hold to their convictions despite the danger it puts them in. During the last couple of years, Jerusalem has witnessed the intensification of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but the resilience and resistance shown by Jerusalemites have TYbeen an example to all Palestinians to defy the colonization attempts to fragment our identity. Jerusalemites continue to raise the bar one notch higher every time they resist. We look to them every day to remind us of the meaning of homeland, in all its grandeur, in all its pain and misery. So, what does Jerusalem mean to us? It’s our compass of resistance and resilience, it’s our North Star for the past and present, and it’s the place that fills our lungs with the possibility of justice and liberation. Jerusalem is and always will be our center. Marc Ellis once wrote: “No matter how far away in time and geography, the center remains; interpretation revolves around thatcenter even when the language of articulation or the images employed seem distant. The center is the power, that which sends us on the way, but it is also the place to which we return.” *
Jerusalem will always be a treasure from the past that will never fall out of fashion.
* Marc Ellis, Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time, Fortress Press, 1997, page 86.