re We Brave?


This Year in Jerusalem, 2002

Our friends and family all reacted with horror when we told them we were coming to Jerusalem for two months. Gerry was impervious to all concerns. He wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday in this hilltop city that is sacred to all three of the monotheistic religions of the world. We had originally hoped that one or two close friends would share the adventure with us. But that was before we realized how high the adventure quotient would be.

We had no trouble, of course, finding somewhere to stay. Our landlord must have thought that the force was with him when we showed up on his virtual doorstep. There are other tourists here, of course, but they are few and far between. The number is increasing, however, albeit slowly, as we get closer to Easter and Passover.

We have been here almost eight weeks during which time the security situation has if anything deteriorated. One new friend to whom Gerry had confided his desire to visit Bethlehem during our stay called us up early one morning to urge him to reconsider. She had been woken up in the night by the noise of bombs exploding in Bethlehem, which is just a few kilometers south of the city. We had been spared that pleasure because our apartment is a kilometer further north and our windows all face north also.

But then, it is not an unusual occurrence for Jerusalemites to have close encounters of the violent kind. It makes being here a somewhat unnerving experience at times. Our first encounter with it was the day after we arrived when we took a Sabbath eve stroll through the center of town and came across police barricades on Yaffo street where a suicide bomber had detonated herself a couple of days earlier. A week later we arrived near the scene of a murder shortly after it happened and spent an hour or more watching a police helicopter circle over and over and over again looking for the perpetrators. They were Israeli Arab teenagers, were eventually apprehended and are now on trial. Later, as we were coming home after a Sabbath walk to an outlying Jewish suburb (there is little else to do on the Sabbath except walk), we heard an almighty bang. Within ten minutes the local TV station was reporting on a suicide bomber who had blown himself up in another suburb of the city killing nine and wounding many others. We could go on. Here in Jerusalem, the three degrees of separation are between you and someone who has died in the conflict. The latest suicide bomber was on King George Street, where we walk several times a week.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that people are rarely willing to talk about what is happening. Many people feel that the only way they can survive is to shut themselves off from it all. Many people have told us that they donít read the paper anymore or donít watch the nightly news anymore because it is too painful, too depressing. ďI donít think about it, or I couldnít work hereĒ, a waitress is reported to have said after a colleague and a security guard managed to disarm and subdue a suicide bomber in the restaurant where she works. The restaurant, by the way, is less than a block from the pizzeria where we ate the night we arrived in Jerusalem. Friends of a friend pleaded to change the subject when I asked for their thoughts on the situation. Strangers at a reception grimaced visibly as they answered our questions. It was clear they thought our interest gruesome.

But maybe the most obvious consequence for us of what is happening is the desperation we see every time we walk through the old city. We have done it maybe a dozen times already. And every time, we are greeted by shopkeepers literally desperate for a customer. Perhaps if we were the normal tourist we could give them some comfort by buying a dozen or so souvenirs from them. But souvenir-buying is something we try to avoid unless a visit to family is imminent. So we try to be ultra-patient and say no gently. We try not to get offended when our polite refusals provoke anger and resentment. When more than one in four souvenir shops is closed, it is very clear that business is dreadful. We wonder how they manage to live. Perhaps with Easter coming, a few more intrepid tourists will come. In the last few days it does seem to us that there are more tourists than during our first couple of weeks. For their sakes we hope so. Also, our resistance has crumbled more and more the longer we are here. We have in fact bought one or two things, not because we need them, or even want them, but because it behooves us to support the economy at least a little.

On the positive side, I cannot count the number of blessings heaped on our heads for the simple act of being here. When people hear that we are here for a two-month stay, their simple thanks become profuse. Strange that we should be considered brave, even heroes, while no Israeli feels themselves particularly courageous. They have no choice. They have to endure.

A Are we heroes? Of course not. Are we afraid? Surprisingly not. Two blocks away is as good as two miles away or two hundred miles away. We too in our own way ignore the danger and carry on with our lives. We have walked through much of the city and visited most of its sites and will continue to do so. Although we are extra cautious at night, we donít avoid the town center like some, and we do ride the buses unlike others, but no, for the time being we will not go to Bethlehem. And although it is a great disappointment to Gerry, we wonít go to Jordan either.

And such is life this year in Jerusalem.

March 31, 2002: Easter/Passover is now here and rather than bringing a few extra tourists and a measure of optimism to the people of Jerusalem old and new, it has brought a new wave of suicide bombers (Netanya-20 dead, Tel Aviv - 16 dead, Jerusalem - 2 dead) and Israeli tanks in Ramallah. It is the eve of our departure and we leave with our hearts in our mouths.

Jan Bates © 2002

August 21, 2004