Our home is perched up on a hill in the old city of Jerusalem, along the fragile border between the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. Facing east, we see the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif) and the Western Wall precinct, the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa mosque, with the backdrop of the Mount of Olives and the Augusta Victoria hospital. To the north is the Muslim Quarter, with Mount Scopus in the skyline; to the west, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Christian Quarter.
On Fridays and during Muslim festivals, I observe the continuous flow of people moving down the alley, en route to the mosques. On these days, a policewoman appears, scrutinizing the passersby; during other times of high alert, groups of border-patrol officers position themselves in the alley, asking for and checking documentation from Palestinians.
Here, a Palestinian mother with a young child returns from mosque at the end of Ramadan on Eid al-Fitr. The year this photo was taken, 2014, the festival happened to coincide with the Gaza War, or Tzuk Eitan, as it was called in Israel; the young boy is carrying a toy rocket, all too similar to the Scud missiles launched toward Israel from Gaza. During the festival of Purim, two young Jewish boys walk in the opposite direction. One wears an Arab-style keffiyeh headdress and carries a toy Uzi.
Two Palestinian boys sit below my window, discussing the security checkpoints. The one to the left appears to have been arrested before. He speaks in an animated voice, bending forward to demonstrate how he was handcuffed by the border patrol.
Though they are not Jewish, the Palestinians I see below my window live within the Jewish Quarter. In the early 1970s, while the Quarter was being restored, it turned out that the two properties abutting our house were owned by the Moroccan Muslim Waqf, the holy council under the control of the King of Morocco. A series of phone calls from the Foreign Ministry brought a halt to the construction, allowing the families to remain in their homes. For them, life goes on—ceremonies and events by the wall notwithstanding.
For decades, the Israeli military has performed its swearing-in ceremonies—both for regular soldiers and for officers—by the wall. On one occasion, the entire initiation was for a group of military rabbis. Preparations begin in the afternoon, with platforms installed, loudspeakers and audiovisual equipment constructed, and bibles and weapons brought in and set on long tables. Meanwhile, the faithful continue their prayers at the wall unabated. As the emcee does sound checks, disrupting the silence of the city and the hum of the prayers, both groups ignore each other’s presence.
Looking northeast reveals the edge of the Muslim Quarter. Sitting on a courtyard wall in the shadow of the satellite dish of adjacent residences, two Palestinian students do their homework on a laptop.
The city skyline has, over the years, been covered with TV antennas. In the 1970s, Teddy Kollek, the famed mayor of Jerusalem, swore that he would get them removed (and offer free cable service in exchange) so the Old City’s beauty would be protected. Teddy has come and gone, and the antennas have become obsolete—but they are still there, rusting away, their function replaced by scores of giant dishes that visually overpower the domes and delicate architectural fabric of the area: communications out of control.
During school days, the public courtyard becomes the playground of a nearby school, Talmud Torah, which has no outdoor spaces of its own. The students—all Jewish boys—roughhouse and play soccer, using the adjacent walls as the goal. Unfortunately, it is also the only path connecting with the alley leading to the Muslim Quarter, and the boys often taunt and insult Arab passersby. (The teachers don’t seem to intervene.) Talmud Torah belongs to the religious, nationalistic movement, whose views are often expressed on the children’s T-shirts—such as one that reads, “A Jew Does Not Expel a Jew,” referring to the Jewish settlements.
During Ramadan on Laylat al-Qadr, this group of young men—prevented from attending prayer—chose the public square to worship instead. It was the only time in 40 years that I have witnessed Muslims praying below my window.
From Under My Window by Michal Ronnen Safdie, will be published by powerHouse Books in June 2018.