Jerusalem Without a Map

On a map, Jerusalem is only about six miles northeast of Bethlehem. In reality, the distance between the two ancient cities is considerably greater. Indeed, divided as they are by the Separation Wall (a.k.a. the Security Barrier), they might as well be worlds apart.

In general, Palestinians who work or study in Bethlehem and live in Jerusalem (usually East Jerusalem, where the Arab population is concentrated) can move between these cities without too much difficulty, provided they present their identification cards and travel permits to the Israeli soldiers who guard the checkpoints. In contrast, most Palestinians who live in Bethlehem need special permission to enter Jerusalem and can do so only during holidays. (Mobility is restricted for Palestinians and Israelis alike, as Israelis--tour guides excepted--are typically not allowed to cross the checkpoints into Bethlehem.) Hearing that I was planning a trip to Jerusalem, several of Bethlehem University's faculty members and students expressed regret at not being able to accompany me on my first journey there, thus causing me to consider the privileged status conferred upon me by an American passport--which serves not only as my ticket into and out of the West Bank but also as the means whereby I can move within it, circumventing the barriers that block my colleagues and students from traveling freely through their homeland.

(Above: a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, together with detailed views)

As a foreigner, I was able to take the #21 bus (which is actually a van) rather than the #124 from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, thereby saving myself considerable time and trouble by traveling around the Wall rather than through it. That said, the #21 still moves through established checkpoints and is subject to stops at "flying" (i.e., mobile and temporary) checkpoints. I boarded the van at a busy intersection in Bethlehem, paid the fare of five and a half shekels (under $1.50, and a bargain by American standards if not Palestinian ones), and began my trip to Jerusalem. I was admittedly anxious--about the checkpoints, about the soldiers, about not knowing precisely where the van was headed or exactly which route it would take to arrive there. I clutched a map of Jerusalem that I had ripped out of an issue of This Week in Palestine, which I consulted every ten minutes or so. It wasn't particularly detailed, but I had found and circled the Jaffa Gate and the Damascus Gate: two of the eight gates in the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, the former was my destination and the latter was where I could catch the van back to Bethlehem.

I was told the drive would take forty-five minutes or so (to travel about six miles, remember), and it ended up being just over an hour long. (I've learned that when traveling in this region it's wise to allow "extra" time for trips, whose lengths are always more-or-less difficult to determine in advance.) As we approached the checkpoint, I saw the words "Apartheid Wall" spray-painted on a barrier along the road (not the Wall proper) and the soldiers awaiting us. I put away my already-crumpled little map and pulled out my passport (which had become a sort of talisman), preparing for my first real encounter with a checkpoint. Technically, the first time I crossed a checkpoint was when Br. Neil drove me from the Tel Aviv airport into Bethlehem early in the morning; but that time doesn't count, as the young woman soldier barely glanced at his ID, didn't ask for mine, and waved us through the Wall without delay. This time would clearly be different.

As we slowed down, we passed a lone male soldier who (somewhat improbably, it seemed) waved at us and smiled cheerfully. I was a little reassured by his display of friendliness, and I relaxed a bit--only to become tense again when I spotted the other soldiers, none of whom were smiling and all of whom were shouldering semi-automatic weapons. We stopped alongside them, the driver opened the van door, and everybody--with the exception of a young man, his wife, and their baby--exited the van and formed a line. Because I had been sitting in the back of the van I was at the back of the line--and just as well, since I wanted to see what was in store for us. The passengers presented their IDs and permits, the unsmiling soldiers inspected and returned them, and everything proceeded in an orderly fashion until the soldiers began to question the man still sitting in the van. I had wondered why he and his family hadn't gotten out with the rest of us, but I figured perhaps they had a legitimate reason for not doing so (e.g., maybe the parents didn't want to awaken their baby). After some discussion in Arabic, the man (who seemed upset by what was being requested of him) stepped off the van and presented for the soldiers' scrutiny his and his wife's IDs, permits, and travel bag. This last was opened and searched quite thoroughly; fortunately, it contained nothing more dangerous than baby clothes and a can of formula.

At last my turn came, and a female soldier carefully inspected my passport. I tried greeting her with "Shalom" (one of the two Hebrew words in my vocabulary), but she was all business and didn't respond. (Later, I would be told that some women soldiers feel they have to be particularly tough in order to compare well with their male peers. I don't know whether or not this is true, but I do know that it's odd to see men and women who are young enough to be among my own students in positions of such responsibility.) After a minute or so she returned my passport, I boarded the van, and we were on our way. I had crossed my first real checkpoint, and the experience--while certainly somewhat nerve-wracking--wasn't as frightening as I had imagined it might be.

Since then I've gone through several checkpoints, and doing so has become almost routine--almost, but not quite. Even though I feel fairly secure with my magic passport in hand, I still worry about those traveling with me--and with good reason, as Palestinians do sometimes seek to enter and exit Jerusalem without permits. One evening this past weekend, I was taking the #21 from Jerusalem into Bethlehem and we were stopped at a "flying" checkpoint (my first). A group of soldiers motioned to the driver to pull over, and those who had been standing in the aisle (these vans sometimes admit more passengers than they can comfortably accommodate) stepped off the van, while those of us who were seated remained so as a soldier boarded to inspect our papers. When the van got going again, half a dozen passengers were left at the side of the road for further questioning, including one elderly woman. These were people without proper permits. I asked the driver what would happen to them, and he told me that they would most likely be released after signing a document indicating that they would never again attempt to travel illegally. As a colleague at Bethlehem University later explained to me, such documents are not taken particularly seriously by any of the parties concerned; but if a Palestinian is caught several times without a permit, he or she faces a hefty fine and at least a couple of months of jail time.

Keenly--and somewhat guiltily--aware that most Bethlehemites couldn't (legally) make the short trip to Jerusalem, I determined to see as much of the Old City as I could and to describe it for my students and colleagues who hadn't seen it in some time, if ever. With a decent map, I figured, surely I could cover a good deal of ground.

As it turned out, I was quite mistaken.

(Above: the wall outside the Jaffa Gate)
Some cities, such as New York and Chicago, are map-friendly; others, such as Boston and London, are not. Cities in the former category are organized into neat grids, and their streets are broad, straight, and well marked. Cities in the latter one are made up of narrower and more sinuous streets whose names, to the confused and anxious pedestrian or driver from out of town, transform without warning or logic.
Jerusalem is definitely not map-friendly.
(Above: the Jaffa Gate)
I learned this lesson shortly after arriving at the Jaffa Gate and finding my way to the Gloria Hotel in the Old City, Jerusalem's ancient and walled heart. The first sign that navigating Jerusalem would mean changing my perspective on getting around came in the form of my room key--not a plastic card but an actual key attached by a short chain to a sizable wooden disc with my room number carved into it. As if the key itself weren't sufficiently surprising, upon leaving the hotel to begin exploring the city I was told, to my astonishment, that I should leave said key upon (not behind) the front desk, where--so I noted anxiously to the man at the desk--anybody might snatch it up. He reassured me that someone would always keep watch over the key, and that leaving it on the desk would protect rather than endanger me, since doing so enabled the staff to know whether or not I was in the hotel. The notion that they would keep track of my comings and goings was at once unsettling and reassuring. I chose to be reassured, thought, "When in Jerusalem..." and left the key.

In return, the desk clerk offered me a tourist map of Jerusalem--i.e., one with the main streets and sights but without the smaller (and, as it happened, crucial) side streets. At the top was written "The Most Recent Map of Jerusalem." This title puzzled me. After all, how often could a map of a city this old require updating? I later discovered that not all maps of Jerusalem are equally accurate, since construction is constantly changing the face of the city. I was also told--and this bit of information was especially revelatory--that some maps elided streets in (Arab) East Jerusalem and focused on those in (Jewish) West Jerusalem, while others did precisely the reverse.

Maps of Jerusalem, it seems, are mutable--and they can conceal as much as they reveal.

My own little map soon proved to be entirely useless--worse than useless, actually, since it promised the world (or at least the Old City) and offered nothing. I realized this fact minutes after I entered one of the souks (markets) and found myself lost in a labyrinth that would have given Theseus pause. I repeatedly consulted the map, only to discover that none of the streets I was wandering down were listed on it. Again and again I retraced my steps and looked at the map, searching for any street or landmark that did happen to appear on it. All my efforts at orientation were in vain.

Ultimately, I threw the map away.

This desperate act--performed, I'll admit, in childish anger and frustration--turned out to be wonderfully liberating. Now at least I didn't even have to pretend I knew where I was going, and I could abandon myself to whatever the winding alleys held--which, as it happened, were all sorts of unexpected treasures. At one point I turned left instead of right (why not?), and I found myself in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I didn't recognize it as such, but the building looked interesting and so I walked in. As luck would have it, the Patriarch was there and I had arrived just in time to witness a lovely and elaborate ceremony.

A few hours and many sights, photographs, and videorecordings later, I wondered where the Gloria Hotel might be. (It was a minute's walk from the Jaffa Gate; but of course I had no idea where that was.) Resigned to finding it sooner or later, I continued walking--and, after reaching the end of a little market street full of merchandise both exotic and mundane--found myself standing in front of it.

Having abandoned the tourist map, I left Jerusalem with a less-organized but more-useful cognitive map, and with some important insights. Exploring the Old City without a map taught me to be patient, to relish the present moment, and to enjoy whatever experiences might present themselves--three lessons that are crucial to living well in the Middle East.

For photos of my wanderings through the Old City (I hope to add video soon), click the photos tab at the top of the page or click here.


Copyright 2007 Jamil Mustafa | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.