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Visual Dispatch: Jerusalem The War Zone

Jerusalem has suffered so many terrorist attacks that the city council at some point seems to have decided to standardize the plaques commemorating the victims. A number of morose remarks could be made about this, but I'll make an effort … Read More

By / May 28, 2008

Jerusalem has suffered so many terrorist attacks that the city council at some point seems to have decided to standardize the plaques commemorating the victims. A number of morose remarks could be made about this, but I'll make an effort and try to shut up. I remember being here in 2002, when a record number of 60 Palestinians blew themselves up in various parts of the Holy Land. Riding on city buses in Jerusalem was like playing Russian roulette. The falafel joint around the corner from where I lived at the time seemed like the ideal target: no guard, always crowded, situated in a small shop whose cramped dimensions would maximize the damage of the acetone peroxide explosives, along with the proverbial nuts and bolts. A 16-year old Palestinian kid blew himself up there on a sunny afternoon in July as I was at home, listening to Counting Crows:

"…So we slide inside of someone's mouth and someone's eyes until there's a sound of something intimate exploding…"

People were obviously reluctant to frequent cafes and restaurants during that period, which forced almost every single food venue to post a guard at the entrance. Sidewalk cafes were fenced in, but even then there were occasional smart terrorists that would bring along guns with their bomb belts and shoot the guard before entering and blowing themselves up. Hence the question, "Yesh neshek?" ("Do you have a gun?") was posed to every patron wishing to enjoy a latte in those days. It was one of the first expressions that I learned in Hebrew.

Now, to be fair, the last suicide bombing in Jerusalem was perpetrated on September 22, 2004, but if you are the owner of a cafe, how many bomb-free months do you count before you decide to expand your establishment unto the abutting sidewalk? There might be a secret algorithm here that I am unaware of, not entirely dissimilar to the one that prompted the standardization of commemorative plaques. Or there just comes a day when nothing else could make more sense.

Well, that day might have arrived already, without fanfare. Sidewalk cafes without
fences or guards are popping up here and there in the center of town as a result of this definitive lull in the Second Intifada (or whatever we choose to call this period of low-frequency warfare). Last Friday afternoon I enjoyed a live performance by a local band as I sipped on a cold Goldstar beer at one such place, Café Betzalel, named after Betzalel ben Uri, the ancient Hebrew building contractor who won the tender for the construction of the Tabernacle, way back when. The name means "in the shadow of God," aptly capturing the ambiguity of life in Jerusalem: the imminence of the Divine, and the darkness it sometimes entails.

Just one successful bomb attack will of course destroy not only the chosen target, but every expanding business in town owned by someone who thought that the violence had actually ended. But during the lull we live.

(Photography by Paul Widen)

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