Sayed Kashua Reflects on Jerusalem

Arabs in Jerusalem “merely pray for things not to get worse.” Menahem Kahana / AFP-Getty Images

“How can you live in that city?” my friends, both Jews and ­Arabs, ask me. They’re right. Jerusalem has always been tough, and it’s been getting more and more religious, extremist, and racist over the years.

As I wrote these words in May, I asked myself the same question. It was the morning of Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates its completion of the city’s occupation: the annexation of the Old City and East Jerusalem. The radio newscaster talks of large-scale police deployment throughout the city and right-wing Knesset members planning to visit the Temple Mount. Soon the main roads will be blocked and the parades will start. People will give speeches about unified Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital. Then the Jews will have their “flag dance” and enter the Old City, where they’ll celebrate victory by singing and dancing, and the Temple Mount Loyalists will try, as they do every year, to ascend the mount with a model of the Third Temple. The Arabs will watch the goings-on from their windows, biting their tongues in profound sorrow. They can do nothing in the face of the right-wingers’ defiance. They lost the war, and they are still losing. Today they will shut themselves behind heavy wooden doors, concealing a life of suffering that does not interest the flag dancers. The revelers don’t want to read the study stating that 84 percent of Arab children in Jerusalem live beneath the poverty line.

I’ve never told my friends the real reason why I stay here. They wouldn’t understand. Who would believe me if I said I live here because the holy city has always been, for me, the city of sin? Who would believe me if I swore I can’t even have a drink anywhere else?

I arrived in Jerusalem 20 years ago, as a 15-year-old boy, when my parents sent me to a Jewish boarding school in West Jerusalem. I hated the city as soon as I entered it. On my first bus ride, a soldier got on and immediately pegged me as an Arab: a boy leaving his village for the first time, with an Arab’s clothes, an Arab’s thin moustache, and most tellingly, the frightened look of an Arab. That was the first time I was taken off the bus and searched. It took me a while to blur my external identity. I gradually gained command of Hebrew. I learned from my classmates what to wear so as not to seem suspicious, and I shaved off my mustache and grew my hair long. When I felt ready, I started to leave the boarding school and go out around town. In Jerusalem I discovered cafés, cinemas, record shops, and bookstores, none of which could be found—and still can’t—where I was born in Kfar Tira. I was a young boy, and I started doing the things I’d always been warned against. I found the backstreet pubs and started drinking.

It’s been two decades since then, and I still roam the city. I’ve learned to recognize not only the mosques and churches, but also people’s looks. I can tell by the way someone looks at me if they’re Arab or Jewish. I can tell who has lost hope and who still believes. Arabs my age are no longer capable of even dreaming of a better future for this city. They cannot imagine a liberated Jerusalem, a Jerusalem of peace, a Jerusalem that would make them independent. Entire generations in East Jerusalem merely pray for things not to get worse. But they do get worse, with every government decision to build another Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem, and every group of settlers planning the next “City of David” in another Arab neighborhood. Sometimes it seems as if East Jerusalemites need the ­occupation—they cannot imagine their lives without it, they’re addicted to it, resigned to the oppression and afraid of becoming purposeless if it suddenly disappears. Sometimes it seems that a whole generation wants to be controlled by their master more than the master needs his slaves. Israel has taught East Jerusalem residents to dream only of their National Insurance stipend, captives of their state allowances. It has taught them to be thankful for being allowed to sweep the streets and wash dishes in the restaurants. It has taught them to be grateful for still being allowed to work inside Israel, unlike their brothers on the West Bank.

East Jerusalem is growing weak and isolated. The only glimmer of hope can be seen, occasionally, in the eyes of small children. Because of all this, I have little choice but to get drunk. And as I’ve mentioned, I can’t get drunk anywhere other than Jerusalem. Because if you’re going to sin, you might as well do it as close as possible to where God resides.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a two-part series on Jerusalem, featuring one article by an Arab citizen of Israel followed next week with an essay by a Jewish citizen of Israel.

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