Friday, October 24, 2008

Parallel existences

You know how some people talk about there being another world, with people like us, living their lives parallel to ours, but we just can't perceive them? Maybe you've wondered: "Wouldn't it be weird if while you're just going about your business, going to work or the supermarket... and right there with you, are people from a totally different world. You can't see or feel them but they're there. Wouldn't that be wild if there was an existence parallel to our own?" 

Well,  I've found one right here in Jerusalem! Here, you can easily live a life free from Arab riff-raff and never know that they're actually right next to you all the time. Take for example the free tourist maps. These maps are very handy because they list the bus numbers and routes through the city- certainly something you won't find at the bus stops (never mind a schedule). The bus lines shown on these maps list only Israeli busses.  It's not that there's really anything wrong with this - I mean, Danish bus maps don't list Swedish routes. But then again Sweden isn't in Denmark and Denmark isn't in Sweden... 

The wide-eyed tourist wanders the city, clutching his piece of Local Authoritative Knowledge (The Map) and vaguely registers the public mini-vans with Arabic writing on the side, catching a glimpse of women in head-scarves, watching their alter-ego society speed past them in their own weird head-gear. The vans whisk them off to some foreign location. We're told at the university not to ride in these busses. Who knows where they will take you? No doubt central Bagdad or the moon. Same thing.  You wouldn't want to risk it.  

Most Arab communities are not on these maps. Imagine walking through Copenhagen, wandering into Sydhavn (or Brooklyn, Prenzlauerberg, Lehen...) and when you consult your map to figure out where you are, you discover that you've just walked into oblivion. The area is not on the map - you're, according to your map, precisely no where. Recently I went to visit an anthropologist who works at Al-Quds university.  "Al-Quds" is Arabic for "Jerusalem" and is one of the biggest universities in Palestine, teaching Economics, Political Science, Philosophy, Medicine and Anthropology.  I was amazed to find that many Israeli locals didn't know what Al-Quds University was. 

A Palestinian University in Jerusalem? Never heard of it. Where is it?" 

That was of course the million-dollar question, because, again, its not on the map. After a bit of research I learned that the campus has several centers from southern Jerusalem to Ramallah (a strip of land that is about 15 km long - I bike that much in a day in Copenhagen).  Several centers are within walking distance of the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus, where I am studying. Still no one I spoke to knew it was there. To be fair, in order to get to some of these places, you have to cross a check-point, something Israelis are not allowed to do.  So how could they know? These check-points are there to curb Israeli-Palestinian violence, but they are also Information borders. Bombs can't pass, but neither can Knowledge. It occurs to me: the check-points are a bit like antibiotics - they kill everything, even the good stuff.

That was a tangent: Anyway, I made an appointment to speak to the anthropologist and we agreed to meet at his home. He gave me directions. The roads that he named to help me find my way were, again, not on the map. I got hopelessly lost and he finally had to come get me. When I heard Brahms Symphony No. 1 blaring from his car stereo system, I knew I was in good hands. It turns out his home is 5 minutes walk from where I live. After our meeting, I did a little research on the net about his neighborhood. Besides private residences and shops, the neighborhood of Shuafat also boasts a refugee camp, which - you guessed it - was not on my handy map (I live at "French Hill Junction" - just for perspective, it takes me 15 minutes to walk from French Hill Junction to Mount Scopus).

Whether they're on the map or not, borders move topsy-turvy (see the blue and pink areas in map above), in and out of areas that seemed to be in the middle of being a neighborhood. And suddenly you find yourself next door to a refugee camp. In Denmark, at least we have the decency of hiding our refugees far away from the rest of society. I've gotten mixed reactions from my acquaintances regarding my foray to Shoafat. Some say its an upper scale Palestinian neighborhood with an adjacent poorer area (the camp). Others said that I shouldn't be going to there, especially alone and certainly not at night. It seems that there is no consensus for what counts as A Bad Neighborhood. This is always a bit subjective but here it has been exaggerated ad absurdum.  

There are several types of borders in Jerusalem, some are very physical realities, like The Wall (in red on the map). You can only cross these borders at a designated cross-point. In some places the wall hasn't been built yet and the border is just a thick layer of barbed wire.  You can see people gingerly picking their way through it. Going around it would mean a big detour in frequenting the places of their daily life. 

The curious thing about Jerusalem is that it is home for so many kinds of people, each one claiming cultural and/or political ownership. One is constantly wandering in and out of different worlds, crossing a much more common kind of border here, the invisible ones. Some are more fluid, marking the vague passage between one neighborhood to another, while other borders are quite pronounced. But you'll never find them on the map.   A map is a flat, 2-dimensional representation of what is supposed to a physical reality. Because of that we tend to see reality as stretching out in front of us in a horizontal fashion. I think however, that Jerusalem may be a vertical kind of place, as realities are piled on top of each other in endless layers of perspective and time. Depending on your point of view, to which layer in the varying vertical realities you ascribe, you can either be in Palestine or Israel. Or both.  How do you draw that on a map?

But what the map doesn't tell you, your eyes and ears will, effectively demoting your map to scribble-note status. I feel more at home in the Jewish parts of town, which probably doesn't come as a surprise. I enjoy the Shabbat Shalom greetings at the market from anyone to everyone on Friday mornings. It feels great to be included in this orgy of loud well-wishing. Despite the fact that the Jewish areas are clearly not European, they seem more Western in terms of how people dress or the way the storefronts look. I can identify with the patrons in the cafes and of course, there is also the language.  One of the beautiful things about Israel is that people have come from all over the world, their backgrounds are very different, but there is a general sense of belonging  because of a shared Jewish identity (There are also huge problems in Israel due to disagreement within the Jewish community, but that is a topic that deserves more than a footnote). Its a cozy, insular village feeling.  Jerusalem has about 700,000 inhabitants. That's  big village.

A few evenings ago, I waited with a Palestinian woman in the German Colony (a hip Jewish neighborhood, full of cool cafes and interesting boutiques) for a taxi to bring her to an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, where she lives. I was the local (!) that would ensure her safety in what was, for her, a strange environment. She was clearly afraid to wait alone. She called an Arab taxi company (she doesn't speak Hebrew) instead of hailing a potentially Israeli one on the street. She was concerned that the Arab driver would not be willing to come into "this area".  I was completely at ease.  She was obviously way out of her comfort zone. It was a reality check for me.

Just as my charge was very sure that she was not in Arab Kansas anymore, I don't need to consult my map to know when I've wandered into the twilight zone, otherwise known as Palestine. People dress differently, it seems to be a little poorer, although there are certainly very poor Jewish neighborhoods. I can't envision myself sitting down in a coffee house with the local gang, sharing a water pipe.  And then there's the Arabic. I don't speak Arabic.

In my last entry I went to some pains to describe the feel of the area around Damascus gate, the night before Eid. Nothing happened to me there, it just felt very foreign to me. People stared at my friend and me.  I suppose we stuck out. Some ill-behaved young men called after us, but that can happen anywhere. What was it that made me feel unsafe? 

Let me return to my anthropologist friend.  Maybe that can shed some light on the question. When I left his home the other day in Shoafat and started walking home, my belly was working on a cup of arab coffee spiced with cardamon and a cookie filled with dates. My mind was digesting all the interesting things that I had observed and the lively discussion that we had. While I was there, I met the gentleman's family and some of his friends. His daughter introduced me to her guinea pig and showed me her father's paintings. I felt like I was visiting old friends. When I walked out into the dusk of Shoafat, it seemed like everyone was smiling at me.  In fact, a little girl enjoying the cool evening breeze courtesy of the open window of the car she was in, shot me a broad grin while I stood waiting for the traffic light to turn green.  I couldn't help but match her exuberant greeting.  I felt safe.

So how do you find out who is Us and who is Them? You will never discover the truth if you don't look for it yourself. Relying on accepted public opinion (whatever that is) just reflects others' experiences and agendas.  We tend to think of maps as Information. Fact. Sometimes I wonder if there's an invisible foil on my tourist map and if I could just manage to get my fingernail under the top layer, I could peel it back to reveal the real Real. Steering through Jerusalem, on and off road, requires varying skills and my success in maneuvering in and out of these parallel existences depends upon my ability to change navigation strategies.  Its like there's this secret alternate society that can not be accessed through the usual channels. We take for granted that the topography represented on a map is ours for the walking upon. In Jerusalem, this is an illusion. Maps may lull us into a false sense of security of understanding where we are and by association, who we are. We need to challenge these assumptions, get our heads out of the map and start looking where we're going.