Jis wajah se fasaad hote hain, uska koi ataa-pataa hi nahin
(The reasons for strife, they are nowhere to be found)
— Krishn Bihari ‘Noor’, 1926-2003 (Uttar Pradesh, India)
[A delightful rendition available here.]
The Berlin wall, built in 1960s, was a concrete barrier that separated West Berlin of the Federal Republic of Germany from East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic. It was about 155 Km long, and 13 feet tall. The Separation Barrier, under construction since 2002, is partly an electronic fence, and partly a concrete wall in urban areas that separates Israel and West Bank in Palestine. It is about 750 Km long (approximately 10 percent of it being concrete), and 30 feet tall in some places.
I was greeted by a series of murals, mostly pro-Palestine messages and symbolism, on the West Bank side of the Separation Barrier near Bethlehem. These are beautiful pieces of art, including many inspired by Banksy’s works (there is also a hotel claiming that the artist stayed with them), amidst one of the most contested regions of the world. I couldn’t see the other side of the barrier, but a reasonable assumption is that murals there would depict the alternate side of this ethnoreligious conflict. The vocabulary changes based on where you stand and what you read (in my case, based on the VPN gateway): liberation for one is occupation for the other, someone’s resistance is another’s terrorism, aggression for me could be security response for you, and what one calls as settlements could be annexation for another. Amidst this exchange of words and gunpowder that arbitrate the nuances of power and hierarchies, hangs precariously the lives and livelihoods of the ‘common’ millions who are frightfully present throughout the unforgiving wheels of history.
The spectacle of barriers continues in the Old City of Jerusalem: they are there, inside and outside, shifting over centuries, determining who is welcome – or not – in different neighborhoods. Modern day Jerusalem consists of an urban sprawl that developed largely after the creation of Israel in 1948, and a medieval Old City enclosed by 16th-century walls and gates built by the Ottomans. The Old City is constructed in white, using picturesque “Jerusalem Limestone” (meleke) whose sun-kissed photographs are splashed across travel magazines, goading visitors to soak-in the culture and beauty of the holy land. The city could be a treat to the eyes, with its medieval bazaar bursting with smell of spices, and its narrow alleyways lined with restaurants and souvenir shops buzzing with tourists and pilgrims and guides. But with all its beauty, it is probably difficult to find another parcel on earth that is such a startling juxtaposition of tribal instincts of humans reflected in organized religion, of political opportunism that feeds it, and of military/militancy that enforces it.
A walk through the Old City in Jerusalem is a distinctly unsettling experience; it feels like an exhausting drag through a viscous, thick concoction of faith and religion, traditions and orthodoxy, rules and checkpoints, and an unnerving feeling of being watched. There are points where one may be asked about one’s religion or nationality, and accordingly granted or denied access. The present day nomenclature of the territorial fragmentation of the Old City introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the British – the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter – perpetuates the city’s history tainted by perennial disappointment.
Jerusalem’s tag as the “land of creation” derives from its veneration as a holy city by the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity whose believers constitute more than half of humans on the planet. The Temple Mount, a large compound on a hill in Jerusalem, contains the religious sites for all three. In Jewish scripture, this spot is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and this was also the location of the first temple (Temple of Solomon around 950 BCE) and the second Temple (around 500 BCE). Both temples were destroyed in conquests, but a large section of one of the retaining walls from the second Temple remains, and is known as the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jews. After Islamic conquest, a shrine called the Dome of the Rock was built in the 7th-century on the site of the destroyed second Temple, and is believed to be the site of the prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. After Mecca and Medina, this is the third holiest site of Islam. The Al-Aqsa mosque, located adjacent to the Dome of the Rock on the same compound, is also holy to Muslims. Christians also believe that this is the same site mentioned by the prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible, and was visited by Jesus according to the New Testament.
“Poets and storytellers are in error in matters of the greatest human importance,” wrote Plato, lamenting the pervasive legends of gods and heroes. On Good Friday, pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa (“the way of grief”), through the 14 “stations of the cross” representing the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. As a tourist, one is bombarded with ‘facts’ and ‘counter-facts’ as promulgated by different Christian sects at various stations. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where his resurrection occurred. The church itself has continued to witness scuffles between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Franciscans, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac sects. In Bethlehem, a little south of Jerusalem, lies the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. It’s also where Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have often attacked each other. Amidst brawls over stories and contests for the ownership of God, lessons on how to live with tolerance and righteousness were lost, replaced with an all-pervasive ennui of existence, and God being reduced to a refuge. In a book I read recently, truth was laid bare: “For two thousand years, Jerusalem has brought out the least attractive qualities in every race that has lived there.”
Outside the Old City walls, political drama of the last century has been playing out. It started with the British troops entering Jerusalem in 1917 under Edmund Allenby, who directed the Palestine campaign in World War I. My crossing into Israel from Jordan was through the Allenby bridge – the current land border between the two countries that came later – where immigration for a solo male traveler, arguably suspicious, was a predictable four-hour process. This was also the point at which the Arab hospitality, optimism, and smiles, largely disappeared and a palpable unease settled-in for the rest of my journey, until I reached Tel Aviv. Since the end of the British Mandate and subsequent wars and peace talks, Southern Levant has been a land perforated with political greed, false hopes, lost identities, and claims over resources. The last failed attempt at peace, Oslo Accords, turns 30 on Sep 13, 2023, marking yet another generation lost.
Unless one is able to find repose in the Kotel, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem will batter the soul and bludgeon the most stout of optimists. And while hope in general might be in short supply in Jerusalem, as one listens to the sound of the shofar, the muezzin, and the church bells, one is at least ‘hopeful’ of the judgment day that everyone here agrees upon. It’s dangerous, and ignorant, to be taking sides when witnessing the world’s most intractable, divisive, and perhaps the oldest conflict. Meanwhile, a taxi driver who drove me between Israel and West Bank said: “no mother will ever send her child to war either for the temple, or for the mosque, or for the church.” I did not ask his religion, or nationality.