24 Hours in Jerusalem
Meet the real Jerusalemites behind five institutions dedicated to keeping the Palestinian spirit alive
In 1187, Salah al Din and his men bombarded Damascus Gate with their catapults and crossbows, eventually capturing the Kingdom of Jerusalem after nearly 100 years of Crusader rule. These days, they’re selling Crocs at Damascus Gate. And SIM cards too. Phone covers, fluffy toys and fresh pomegranate juice.Jerusalem is an ancient city. A modern city. An Ayyubid, Roman, Macabbean, Babylonian, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman, Armenian, Muslim, Jewish, Christian city. A city of illicit tunnels, moving walls, falling narratives, fragile histories and cheap souvenirs. A city of segregation and struggle. A city of impossible, blinding beauty. A city where changing a street name can lead to tectonic upheaval. A city that can whisk the psyche into such a fury that there is even a term for it: ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’.
It’s the centre of Aramaic thought, the cradle of arguments or, in the words of Ahmad Hifnawi, a native of Nablus, ‘the physical library of civilisations.’ And, like the roots of an ancient tree, the city’s many histories get more and more tangled with every passing year.
Visit Jerusalem today and you’ll find a city that’s split into three: West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and the Old City. The Old City is still surrounded by its Suleiman the Magnificent built walls, in a rhomboid–shaped fort of cobbled streets that’s just under one square kilometre – the sheer physical proximity of the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christ was crucified, is always a shock to first-time visitors.
Damascus Gate is the point where all three sides of the city meet. Across the road, a line of supermarkets, phone shops, buses and market stalls lead the way to Salah Al Din Street, the main entry point to East Jerusalem. It’s a big name for a big street. Back to back cars groan slowly up the road, pumping out dabke-techno from open windows. Prams rattle down the pavement, young mothers flying past the tailors and shoe shops, the sepia-tinted windows of money exchangers and the queues for ‘Broasted Salah Din Chicken’ and ‘Bethoven Fresh Fruit Cocktails’.
Salah Al Din is still the most expensive street in East Jerusalem’s ‘poshest neighbourhood’. During the British mandate, the street was lined with shops selling Cadbury’s chocolate and fresh goods from surrounding Palestinian farms. Most of East Jerusalem’s famous stores can be found here, or on the intersecting Al Zahra Street, which also hosts cultural centres, a cinema and the National Conservatory of Music in its cool, stone buildings.
Al Zahra Street actually takes its name from the Arabic word ‘sahra’, referring to the street’s late opening hours and its proximity to Bab al Zahra, also known as Herod’s Gate, which in modern Jerusalem ‘would always be the last of the old city’s gates to close at night,’ explains Mahmoud Muna, who runs the popular Educational Bookshop with his family. He’s just one of the many proud Palestinians working endlessly to keep the East Jerusalem spirit alive.
9:00am – Patisserie Suisse
‘Ya zalameh!’ cries Terry Hazou as a familiar customer walks through the doors of Patisserie Suisse. Hazou is a likable guy. He took over the legendary ‘patisserie-resto’ twenty years ago.
‘When Patisserie Suisse opened, there was a Swiss chef and a Lebanese chef working here. It was a European idea, more or less,’ Hazou explains. ‘At that time, the luxury hotels, the American consulate and the royal family in Jordan all used to get their cakes from here. I mean, back then Jordan didn’t even have a coffee shop.’
Today, David Bowie plays in the background, singing the same lyrics (‘Ashes to ashes, funk to funky’) as he has for the past few decades. Patisserie Suisse opened in 1961, over fifty years ago. ‘We used to do our own cakes and ice cream – but there were no refrigerators at that time. Anything with fresh cream and butter had to be made to order.’ The menu consisted of ‘all kinds of cakes, all kinds of biscuits and Syrian-style ice cream,’ Hazou says. ‘Ktir taybeh.’
On the back wall, there’s a photograph of the Dome of the Rock, a faded and peeling image of a different past, taken by Patisserie Suisse’s next-door neighbour. ‘The photo was taken by Garo, who runs the store next door, from an aeroplane in 1987. It’s been here for twenty years – just like me,’ Hazou winks.
Over a cigarette, he reminisces over the patisserie’s former golden era, constantly interrupted by his friends and customers. Politicians, ministers, artists, singers and actors have all passed through Patisserie Suisse’s doors. ‘Most of the customers who know the place from years and years ago, they still come. A lot of them are the elite people of the town – I mean, if their parents used to come for coffee here then it means they’re somehow more well-off than other people.’
Nowadays, the menu is all cheap cappuccinos and French fries. The green gingham tablecloths and plastic tulips give off a Pollyannaish cheer. Coffee shops have become an unprecedentedly popular business in East Jerusalem now, Hazou explains. ‘Before it was so rare to get a good cappuccino, only in the luxury hotels. Now it’s become so common everywhere.’
11:00am – Al Ma’mal
Located in a converted tile factory, the recently opened Al Ma’mal Foundation headquarters is a new cultural landmark in Jerusalem.
Despite the fact that it’s tucked inside the Old City’s walls, Al Ma’mal has a close connection with the other Palestinian cultural centres and art galleries in East Jerusalem. ‘It’s the only way to survive,’ explains director and curator Jack Persekian, who splits his time between Al Ma’mal and preparing for The Palestinian Museum in Ramallah. ‘It was the foundation’s decision to be in the old City of Jerusalem. It took a lot of time and effort and a little pain,’ he says.
The result is impressive. At the time of writing, Al Ma’mal was preparing for the upcoming Jerusalem Show and hosting an exhibition by local Palestinian photographer Issa Freij, ‘Wall and Ceiling Paintings in Notable Palestinian Mansions’.
As well as its light and airy exhibition spaces, Al Ma’mal boasts some sensitive architectural touches: a spiral staircase takes you to the basement, with the occasional exposed glass flooring revealing the archaeological remains below, a constant reminder of the city’s heaving layers. A live-in artist residence space offers a place for visiting international artists to stay (‘The most important thing is that it works internationally. We’re completely disconnected from the Arab world’), and the rooftop, with its view over the Old City’s rooftops, holds regular events and concerts.
2:00pm – Palestinian Pottery
In 1922, three skilled families of potters from Armenia were invited by the first governor of Jerusalem and British diplomat Mark Sykes to renovate some of the fading tilework on the Dome of the Rock.
The Armenians were admired for their craftsmanship and, as the renovations were postponed due to lack of funding, each decided to stay and set up shop in Jerusalem.
Established by the Balian and Karakashian families, the company that is now known simply as ‘Palestinian Pottery’ became famous for its airy designs that combined influences from Jerusalem’s many histories: the symmetry of Islamic design, tulips and carnations from Turkey, and birds, gazelles and other animals from Armenia.
Marie Balian sits proudly behind the desk of Palestinian Pottery, a dim-lit studio and pottery store just off Salah al Din Street in East Jerusalem. The widow of Setrak Balian, a master potter who inherited the company from his father and studied under Bernard Leech in England, is one of pottery’s greatest living painters. She’s in a wistful mood.
‘I was born in France and I studied art in Lyon. My husband was the son of the owner here. He came to France to see the family, he saw me and he brought me here!’ Balian laughs, pointing to the portrait she painted of her late husband hanging behind her. ‘So I married him. Now I have children, I have grandchildren. I’m nearly 90. But I still have plenty of ideas and I like to work. For how much longer, I don’t know…’
Many of Balian’s original designs are now mass-produced for the tourist market. ‘People come here and buy something and then they copy it! But what can you do, that’s life,’ Balian shrugs. Her son, Neshan Balian Jr, now runs the workshop, where skilled artists paint each design, one by one, with thin paintbrushes and small desk lamps. ‘I don’t consider them competition – it’s a different market,’ he smiles. ‘It’s for tourists who want a souvenir of Jerusalem with a picture of Jerusalem on it.’
Next to the studio is a small museum, displaying some of his family’s masterpieces from the past 90 years. The original tiles from the Dome of the Rock, replicated by his grandfather, sit alongside a plate made during Armenia’s Soviet Union era and an engagement present designed by his grandmother for his grandfather in 1916. Decades later, what is it that Balian Jr loves about pottery?
You know that you’ve created something out of clay, something that will last for hundreds of years – maybe thousands
‘You come to work excited every day, that’s what I love about pottery,’ he smiles. ‘Even with all the problems around you, you know that you’ve created something out of clay, something that will last for hundreds of years – maybe thousands. And one day they’ll excavate it and will say, “That’s by the Balian family.”’
5:00pm – Educational Bookshop
‘We wanted a sexy bookshop,’ says Mahmoud Muna. ‘Something attractive.’ Muna is referring to the glossy wooden tables and seductive selection of publications at the Educational Bookshop, where he is the Marketing Manager in a family business that dates back thirty years.
The family is closely associated with all things print in Jerusalem. Their first store, a simple book and stationary shop on Salah al Din Street, previously known as the Palestine Educational Bookshop and run by Edward Said’s father (‘he imported typewriters’), is still open and functioning today. But it’s the Educational Bookshop ‘Books @ Café’ branch, with its simple coffee shop, outdoor tables, downstairs literary salon and shelves packed with the Middle East’s finest writers, that has become a pillar of the intellectual life of East Jerusalem.
‘We tick every box we can to stay a genuine Arab and Palestinian business,’ Muna says, explaining how the idea of ‘mixing coffee and books is not a very Arabic thing to do’ but that they’ve made sure to keep the bookshop appropriately Palestinian: wooden furniture, a simple menu of local favourites and, of course, the choice of literature.
What makes the Educational Bookshop truly special, however, is how it goes above and beyond its call of duty. As a private company with firm roots throughout the country (they also handle the distribution of books and stationary in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jaffa), they take advantage of their relative autonomy to organise regular cultural events and act as a meeting place – without facing the same restrictions as a registered cultural organisation may encounter.
‘We’re stepping up to the plate. We’re just a bookshop, we’re not that professional at organising events and film screenings and such. But because there are gaps, we fill them.’
The Educational Bookshop has close ties with the rest of Jerusalem’s cultural community. Speak to a member of the Jerusalem Press Club, who regularly meet at the bookshop, or a student at Al Quds University, and they’ll all praise the bookshop’s hard work and dedication. All events are free entry.
We see books and bookshops as a way of keeping our identity
‘Education and knowledge is the last area of resistance for Palestinians. Everything else has been appropriated – the dress, the shisha, the streets. We see books and bookshops as a way of keeping our identity,’ says Muna. ‘The fact that we’re open seven days a week is even a statement. You can classify yourself by closing days in Jerusalem.’
8:00pm – Yabous
Opened in 1950, Al Quds Cinema was once a bright light in Jerusalem, screening premieres of the latest films from Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt. After its brutal closure in the mid-80s, the building was left abandoned for nearly 20 years and fell into disrepair. Thanks to Yabous Cultural Centre, the cinema has now been given a second life. Reopened in its original location and with its original name, the centre has managed to restore Al Quds Cinema to its former glory.
‘We don’t have any cinemas in Jerusalem except ours,’ says the director of Yabous, Rania Elias. Full of pride and determination, Elias is a cornerstone of Jerusalem’s cultural life. Along with her team, she has fought furiously for Yabous to come into being.
Outside of the office, she’s married to the director of the National Conservatory of Music and, although originally from Bethlehem, is now an honorary Jerusalmite, with a roaring passion for the city. ‘It is the place where I want to be, the place I will not leave.’
‘Last week we had an opening for the film “Eyes of a Thief” by Najwa Najjar. We had eight screenings. And it was full almost every night. This is how to present Palestinian cinema!’ Elias says, explaining how she believes in providing an ‘open space where people are free to express themselves.’ ‘We accept people from the right and left, old and young. People will watch a film or attend a lecture and then discuss it.’
Yabous also lends its halls to local organisations in need of a meeting space, such as the Jerusalem Electric Company.
‘They’re a retired group of 67 people who have nowhere to meet. These people have worked for Jerusalem. Now that they are retired nobody is looking after them. They say to me “you are like our granddaughter!”’ Local hospitals, women’s organisations and dabke dance classes also use Yabous’ spaces.
It’s taken a lot of sweat and tears to get there. Yabous started nearly 20 years ago, first as a volunteer-run, non-profit organisation in a small office near Orient House and now as a full-time team of 15. Together, they have organised more than 600 events in the past two years – no easy feat in Jerusalem – with 35,000 visitors (‘and half of them were women’).
Continually under threat in a city where an event can be cancelled for no reason and with virtually no notice, every day at Yabous is an achievement. ‘It’s like you’re constantly on a bicycle and you can’t stop – even for a minute. It’s very tiring. You feel exhausted. You feel like crying from the stress. But you are encouraged by the results you see, especially when you work in culture and arts,’ Elias says, praising the work of the Educational Bookshop, Al Hoash and other likeminded cultural figures in the city.
‘We have a dream to have a cultural centre in the city with a cinema, concert hall, rehearsal hall, a book shop, a coffee shop. But it’s a huge dream that definitely needs a lot of money, support and infrastructure,’ Elias explains.
Now, alongside Al Quds Cinema, the centre also includes Salon Mahmoud Darwish for exhibitions, Fairouz coffee shop and, hopefully soon, its own library and bookshop. ‘We tried to name everything after people who have contributed to Jerusalem or the culture of the Arab world,’ she says.
‘I love everything in Jerusalem. I love the streets, I love the air,’ she smiles. ‘It is my city. It is the city that was stolen. Part of my role is to stay here and fight through culture.’
This article appears in the issue48Buy Now