Last month, I went to Jerusalem for Easter. Although I’m not sure where my faith lies any more, I still find the atmosphere at Easter time quite special. But it was marred by sadness. People’s faces looked familiar, but they have grown older and more tired in the two-and-a-half years since I’ve been back there. But then there was a feeling that things in that ancient city hardly ever changed.
Certainly, the topography of the city is always changing and hardly ever to the advantage of the Palestinian population there. There was a palpable tension in the air, one that I can’t quite find the words to describe. It was like being in a house where the parents are divorcing and the children are trying to ignore that their world is changing all around them. Those hushed tones of listening, but not quite listening, to the battles and fights happening all around them. Perhaps these constant troubles have been so internalised that they have become part of normal life. A somewhat dysfunctional state of being, which, as someone who has been away for a while, I found disconcerting.
One of the things that I noticed was the sound of the tram, which never existed when I was growing up. The ding of the tram train was a completely alien sound and it was hard to ignore, as it stood out sorely every time I heard it.
When I used to listen to Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, the soundscape segment was my favourite and I often thought in my head what sounds I would choose for Jerusalem. I would imagine them like this: at dusk, on the rooftop of my aunt’s Old City house, the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives ahead of us (I always imagine it with my cousin Lina standing beside me), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Redeemer behind us.
To the west, is the Jewish Quarter and to the East, Damascus Gate. We would be up there, escaping the smoke-filled room after Easter lunch was done. We’d go up and talk about mundane things, or about the future. It would usually be sunny, but a bit breezy, so we’d have jackets on. The sun would be low in the sky, which would nearly always be blue, sometimes with a few clouds.
The minarets would suddenly ring out all over the city, amplified by the echo from the surrounding hills. Then, the church bells would ring. A young boy with a trolley down below in the Old City streets would shout out a warning to passers-by. The trolley boys control those streets and you could be run over if you don’t pay attention. I hear children in courtyards across the rooftops playing and a blaring cassette player with various classics playing out, sometimes Fairuz’s Good Friday repertoire would still be playing even on Easter Sunday (Knowing that Orthodox Passion week is starting the following day, that’s not very surprising.)
Despite the nostalgia I sometimes feel, I am aware that life takes you in different directions and you have to let it. Nonetheless, everyone holds onto fond memories of childhood, whether it’s sounds, smells, tastes or warmth of being with family and friends. But nostalgia can be dangerous as we can fall into not only romanticising the past, but failing to move on from it. So it’s always good to have a reality check.
Mine came in the form of those familiar faces, ones that I grew up with at school or in the neighbourhood church. Façades I recognised but who seemed to have grown more distant, more alien. For a community so small, there seemed to be a bit of attitude going on, a sense that everyone was still in competition with everyone else. Though a seemingly cohesive community, what I saw was a sense of a ghetto mentality that seemed to have been amplified by more and more political and economic uncertainty.
I found it hard to connect with the community more than ever. The established status quo seemed to have remained in tact. Normally, that would be reassuring, but having travelled from the UK where people are debating the role of women in church, I found it wholly unacceptable that in Jerusalem it was only men whose feet the priest washed on Holy Thursday. I found it equally shocking, though not surprising, that they were the same men that are always called forward for the ritual. To me that was a show of power and status, not one of humility, which the ritual is supposed to signify. It made me question whether I’d ever left the city as I stood in that spot reminding myself that I’m two-and-a-half years into the present and most certainly not in the past.
Although I like the Easter rituals in Jerusalem, I still find the role of the church and how it co-opts certain members of the community, while side-lining the majority of it’s flock, somewhat reminiscent of a mobster mentality. I exaggerate, nonetheless, it often felt that the church was run by a few families — with the blessing and encouragement of the church, of course — and you had to subscribe to their way of life to be accepted into the inner circle. In my early twenties, I tried to be more pious, but invariably, I failed, mainly because I couldn’t fathom that there was one true path to enlightenment. And questioning that and admitting it to the community was a sure reason for banishment. In a town where your identity is often religious, being less so created a barrier between you and others of the same religious background.
More and more, the men and women in the community reminded me of Agent Van Alden, of Boardwalk Empire, who is fanatical about religious observance but lacks the human qualities of empathy and forgiveness. A man who professes a pure way of life, but at his core is hypocritical and cruel. A man who does not admit that human weakness is what makes us endearing to others and what inevitably forges bonds. No one likes a bully.
Being back in the community in Jerusalem reminded me what I was not missing. It reminded me that despite their lauding of the virtues of love, peace and harmony, the community in Jerusalem cares little for one another. It made it easier for me to remind myself of the reality of life in Palestine and Jerusalem, in particular. It did not take away from my happy memories, but it did give me one big reality check. Perhaps I am being hard here, but change is good but it never comes from always kowtowing to the status quo.
But one positive thing I did come away with from my trip, is the overwhelming love and warmth I felt from my immediate and extended family. Often when you’re living so far away and trying to establish a new life elsewhere, you miss the comfort and reassurance of an established social network around you. But with easier means of communication these days, there’s no reason why the support of family cannot be extended over telephone lines and a good internet connection. As a family, we may have had our ups and downs, which is quite normal for any family. But one thing I know for certain is that I am truly blessed with each and every family member, from my parents, to my siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins. For me, they are my Jerusalem, and for me, that is one thing I’m happy to never change.