DevMode
Jerusalem was being altered before our very eyes, its people evicted and dispossessed, its ancient walls studded with soldiers, its rolling hills vio¬lated with settlement fortresses, its open roads blocked with military checkpoints, and its spirit soiled by possession as the conqueror's spoils. It lay stifling under the siege, slowly strangulating, bereft of the lifeblood of its own children, groaning under the boot of military occupation. And we mourned Jerusalem instead of reveling in its magnificence. We watched the city that had been our core and cornerstone become a city without a soul.
To me Jerusalem was cobbled streets and covered walks, infinite variations of domes and cupolas, hidden courtyards and fountains bathing in the sudden sun concealed behind stone walls and deceptively closed facades. A Byzantine church and an ancient mosque, implacable in their harmonious communion, looked on impervious to our transience but exuding a timeless benevolence.
I always felt small in Jerusalem, but never petty or diminished. As a child, I was awed and annoyed at the timeless mystery and the incense of faith as well as the press of bodies. Jerusalem was a place where a child held fast to her mother's hand for fear of getting lost in the maze and human swell. It was a place where people went to dark, obscure churches to light candles in fulfillment of vows, where incense and miracles were facts of life, where the lips and knees of the faithful wore down the stones to a curved smoothness. There we conducted elaborate rituals with processions and symbols, brandishing crosses, icons, Korans and passions with obsessive routineness. Hundreds of thousands answered the call to prayer every Friday filling the mosque and the courtyard kneeling in unison before the majesty of Allah. Equal numbers responded to church bells with a time¬less devotion before the Lord.
Jerusalem was where Emile was born, in a modest room in Christ's Church, where his family had taken refuge following the 1948 war. He was brought up in a simple home in St. George's Convent with an open court¬yard where the residents held their parties, prepared their pastries and preserves, and watched their children grow. Emile and I used to meet there; we got married in Jerusalem; and both our daughters were born there. Later on, we would bring Amal and Zeina to visit their grand¬mother and play in the courtyard. From there they went on their first Palm Sunday and Easter processions, and from there we saw the first Jewish set¬tlers come in and redo the neighborhood adjoining the convent and the Armenian Quarter. Orthodox Israelis became the neighbors of my mother-¬in-law. After a while, I stopped going there; my face had become too famil¬iar and often provoked the Israeli settlers in the neighborhood. Gradually many Palestinians stopped going to Jerusalem, whether having lost their homes and property to the Israeli government and settlers, or prevented by the siege, or driven into bankruptcy by the taxes and fines.
In Palestinian peasant dialect Jerusalem was the Mdineh, the City (Madinah) of all cities, beyond further definition. There was no other. In my family's oral tradition there is a story of one of my ancestors who on his way to Jerusalem met a man with a boat ticket to the United States but who got cold feet at the last minute. He asked my ancestor if he would like to go to America in his place. "Only if you take my donkey home to my wife and tell her that on my way to the Mdineh I stopped in America." He was rumored to have made many riyals, dollars, which he sent home and with which he bought property and sent his children to college. My home¬town, Ramallah, was less than ten miles north of Jerusalem but never per¬ceived itself as a suburb. Like Bethlehem, ours was a town with its own lineage and traditions that stood on their own. It was said that Ramallah people found it easier to go to America than to Jerusalem. More than thirty-five thousand Ramallah people created mini-communities in the United States, living on distant memories of the old country and faithful¬ly preserving traditions. The seven clans had moved West, taking their cultural and tribal luggage with them, but with a constant eye on the East "back home" as the unifying principle of their identity, both past and future. Two thousand were left in Ramallah itself in a town that was rapidly becoming not their own, swelling with refugees and a flood of res¬idents from neighboring villages.
As a Ramallah-Jerusalemite, I inherited the legacy and deprivation of both, and as a Palestinian I felt the eye and weight of history as a personal intrusion. The Palestinian people as a whole habitually exacted a heavy toll from those who dared intrude on the course of their fate, particularly from those who presumed to lead or speak on their behalf.

The sun on the Mount of Olives peered through passing clouds. A cool breeze chilled us, and we sat in a patchwork of light. Behind us, the Dome of the Rock variously shone golden or subdued depending on the interplay between sun and clouds ... I had arrived late to the interview site, having been stopped at the Israeli checkpost that was part of the blockade on Jerusalem. As I took my seat, I could still hear the jeers of the young men who were made to leave their cars and stand on the sidewalk, barred from entering Jerusalem: "Is this the peace you're going to sign today? Tell the Old Man not to sign. Peace is made here not in Cairo. Let him come and stand in the lineup with us!" Angered and saddened, I made my way to Jerusalem - both the city and I wounded by peace…
A few days later, Amal showed me the poem she had been working on, one of such searing honesty that only people her age [in their teens] could write it down. It was about a Palestinian guide in Jerusalem. I accepted it both as a confession and a consolation. I also took upon myself the accusa¬tion and the blame.

The Guide
Amal Ashrawi

He used to lead the tourists
Down the cobbled streets.
He used to caress each stone
As friends who daily meet.
Each window a personal promise,
Each engraved door a pledge,
Each olive tree a vow of faith,
A story of eternal truth.
They forged his map
And changed his route -
Whom could he guide without a guide?
He feels the path, his feet are sure,
Despite the chart, the stones endure.
Though nothing but ruins still remain
Unguidable memories of the past
Linger among the days that be
From house to house, from tree to tree.

Excerpts from This Side of Peace: A Personal Account. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Published by permission of the author.

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