This place really messes with your mind…

Yesterday was a Jerusalem day.  Here’s how it went and why my brain hurt afterwards:

5:30 AM: Leave the house to walk to the Central Bus Station.  I am accompanied primarily by Ethiopian men, on their way out of the house and to work (or wherever they go).  The path to the Central Bus Station takes me through a neighborhood these days filled primarily with foreign workers and immigrants.  As I mentioned to my brother the other day, it kind of feels like walking across 125th St. in Harlem – – – many shades of color.

7AM – I am in [West] Jerusalem.

8AM – I meet my first interviewee in a coffee shop on the main street of Rechavia.  Rechavia is one of the intellectual hotbeds of West Jerusalem – an older residential neighborhood, home to many professors, several politicians, and a couple of embassies.  I sit with my interviewee for almost two hours discussing his experiences with one of the organizations I’m studying, and his experiences in the ensuing years.  A fascinating conversation.

10:30AM – I am at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University [where I took my Arabic class last summer], having hitched a ride with my interviewee in exchange for returning a library book of his.  I almost can’t get into the campus because I don’t have a Hebrew University student ID.  “You need a written permit from the person you’re supposed to see here,” explains the guard.  I convince her that I just need to return a library book and finally get in the gates.  I think to myself – what has this university come to that you need written permission to enter if you are not a student? What ever happened to making higher education more accessible? How is it that security concerns go thus far?

11AM – my 2nd interviewee of the day doesn’t show up.  I call her husband, who I am supposed to interview later, and who apologies profusely for both of them – “we both forgot because of x, y, z that happened in the last few days,” he says.  In the meantime he invites me to conduct my interview with him now, because at 1pm (when we were supposed to meet) he has to go to a meeting.  I agree and hop in a cab to Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, north of Mt. Scopus.

11:30AM – I chat with my second interviewee about his experience as the director [ex-director] of one of the two organizations I’m researching.  Another fascinating conversation, which I won’t go into in much detail here because, again, of IRB restrictions.  Suffice it to say that joint Jewish-Palestinian organizations have internal dynamics that are no less volatile than majority-minority relations in the country as a whole – even when the staff in its entirety shares beliefs about the importance of what the organization does.

1PM – I leave my interviewee’s office and head across the street to get on a bus back to the center of Jerusalem, or more accurately, the East Jerusalem Central Bus Station, which is just outside the Old City.  As I leave and as I sit on the bus back into town I am struck by the lack of services given to this neighborhood and the others we go through.  Egged busses [Egged is the national bus company here in Israel, although its monopoly has been broken in the last decade or so] don’t go to East Jerusalem neighborhoods – as my interviewee told me, the other option I have for getting back to where I need to go is to get on a “settler bus” – an Egged bus taking individuals from the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem into the city.  I prefer to take the local bus, for a number of reasons.

But the lack of bus service really bugs me.  As we head through Beit Hanina I see that the light rail, on which service is supposed to start sometime in 2011, does go through this neighborhood.  I am reminded of a newspaper article I read a few weeks ago lamenting this fact and voicing concern about the safety of Jewish passengers if Palestinians can get on the train.  As I look out the bus window at little girls walking home from school, though, the racist subtext underlying this particular concern really hits home.

1:30PM – out of the bus and into the mayhem that is East Jerusalem at its finest [sadly I don’t remember to stop for some of the best baklava I’ve ever had, sold in a shop near the bus station].  3 minutes later and I am by the walls of the Old City, reminded of the religious battles that underly political tensions here.  10 minutes later and I am in the heart of West Jerusalem – and not just any part of West Jerusalem, but one of the most expensive, tourist-dominated, American-dominated, highly Zionist and pretty religious parts of West Jerusalem.  A van fitted with loudspeakers zooms by blaring songs sung by the Nu Nachs, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews with a particularly strong missionary zeal.  As I near the West Jerusalem Central Bus Station I am surrounded by men, boys really, in kippot [yarmulkes] and generally by black hats [the ultra-Orthodox population here wear all white and black, including black hats, sometimes even fur, even in the midst of summer].  Then I get into the bus station itself, which is a total mix.

Where am I, again? What country, city, what population? And how is it again that such huge differences – in resources, in services, in ways of life – can exist so close to one another? It really messes with your mind…


postscript*: Today I was at an orientation for Fulbrighters in Israel.  The US Ambassador spoke, giving the American perspective on politics here, and then, later, our tour guide told us that Tel Aviv was built “on pristine sand dunes,” where nothing had existed before.  Nothing, of course…except the Arab villages she neglected to mention.  Like the villages themselves, their mere existence was erased from the version of history this woman learned.

Like I said, this place messes with your mind…

*apparently Neil is starting to influence my writing style…

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