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Under My Window in Jerusalem

Under My Window in Jerusalem

With layers of history and generations of conflict barely hidden below the surface, photographing what you see from your own home in Jerusalem can take on unexpected weight.
Scenes of life at the Western Wall plaza.

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.

The view out my window of the Mount of Olives and Augusta Victoria.

  Below my home is a narrow alley through which thousands of people pass every day. The alley is a crossroads: it serves as a passage for those entering the old city through Dung Gate on the south side, most of whom are Palestinians making their way to their workplaces, schools, and markets in the Old City. It connects Jews residing in the Jewish Quarter, in the western part of the city, to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. It is the route taken by Christians making their way to the Holy Sepulchre, and the path followed by Muslim pilgrims during Ramadan and other holidays, as they head to Haram al-Sharif.  

  My window over this spot is like having a premium box in an opera house overlooking the stage—it’s a prime view of the theater of life in Jerusalem. The sacred cohabits with the profane; the movements of children going to school and adults carrying supplies from the markets represent the morning and evening cycles of routine. Male and female police guarding their routes and soldiers posted on rooftops exist side-by-side with students, tourists, families celebrating bar mitzvahs, and couples exchanging vows.

My sense of contact with these passersby is intimate. I see them up close, sometimes too close for comfort; most are unaware of my presence. Beyond, I can see directly into the houses flanking the alley, the courtyards of my Palestinian neighbors, and then, a little further away, the grand piazza of the Western Wall. It is the social and physical layering that interests me—the communal and private “rooms” of the city.  

A self-portrait reflected in the window; beyond, the Western Wall is visible outside.

A group of soldiers on tour learn the history of Jerusalem.
The alley below my window.

  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.

A Palestinian mother and her child.
Two young Jewish boys dressed in costumes.

  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.

An ultra-Orthodox family on their way to the Western Wall on Passover.
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Two boys sit talking.

  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.

Palestinian women move along the alley after an early-morning visit to mosque on the last day of Ramadan.
In the distance, the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, and the Western Wall. To the left is the Muslim Quarter.
Students from a yeshiva pose for a group photograph during Sukkoth.
Muslim tourists pass through the alleyway.
Moroccans in the Jewish Quarter.

  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.

Sunrise on the Western Wall plaza.
Two ultra-Orthodox men talk to two soldiers.
An ultra-Orthodox couple.
Palestinian women socializing.
Two ultra-Orthodox men talk to two soldiers.
An ultra-Orthodox couple.
Palestinian women socializing.

  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.

Palestinian youth do homework while perched on a courtyard wall.

  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.

Children play in the courtyard.
The rooftop of a Palestinian neighbor adjacent to the alley, where she hangs her laundry.

  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.

A ritual tisch.

  One night, my husband woke me at 2:00 a.m. “There’s something going on out on the terrace that’s worthy of your camera,” he said. We looked out in disbelief. It was as if we had gone back to the 19th century: a group of Hasidim clustered around their esteemed rabbi, honoring him in a ritual called a tisch in Yiddish.  

  I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph many such events over the last few years, watching men sing and offer a meal to their rabbi. There is always intense discussion and praying, almost whispering. It’s like staring into a Rembrandt painting.

During Ramadan in 2014, which coincided with the Gaza War, restrictions on prayers in the holiest mosques were imposed, preventing men below the age of 40 from entering.  

Young men in prayer.

  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.

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