Yesterday in Jerusalem, with artist Sary Zananiri’s words “tabula rasa of the external” as my guide—beginner’s mind, fly on the wall—I watched and I listened. But is observing without expectation possible? And is it possible not to impact what you’re observing?

During our walking tour of the Old City with Dr. Nazmi Ju’beh, a delightful and astute professor, archeologist, and director of the architectural conservationist organization Riwaq, we talked a lot about identity. Nazmi, a 55-year-old Jerusalem native, has no passport. Though he was born here, because he is Palestinian he is a resident, not a citizen. “We’re equal in taxation, but not in rights,” he explained as he walked and smoked, keen brown eyes gentle but flashing. “I’m many identities: Palestinian, Mediterranean, Muslim. Don’t force me into just one.”

Israeli soldier (left) and Hassidim (right) at the Dome of the Rock

Evidence of the mosaic often used as a metaphor to describe Jerusalem, and its people, was everywhere. During a stop for coffee at hospice run by Austrian nuns, the midday Muslim prayer was blast over loudspeakers from mosques all over the city. Nazmi, the sixth of 11 children and himself the father of two grown daughters and a son, is a product of his hybrid environment. “I was born in the middle of Jerusalem to a Muslim family, growing up with Armenian and Christian neighbors,” he said by way of illustrating how the so-called Quarters of the Old City—Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian—are in fact not as segregated as all that.

But regarding the emotional and psychological “line” between Israelis and Palestinians, Nazmi said, smiling and nodding, “you can’t see it, but you can feel it.” He told a story of approaching a checkpoint from Ramallah into Jerusalem one recent rainy night. “There I was, comfortable in my car, listening to classical music and smoking a cigarette, and through the window I saw an Israeli soldier: eighteen years old, carrying an M-16, rain streaking down his face, shaking—from the cold? from fear?—and, I thought, crying. I was the ‘occupied’ and he was the ‘occupier,’ and yet. I couldn’t help but see my son in him. And after I drove through the checkpoint, I pulled over, and I cried, too.”

Nazmi referred to what he called “the problem of my belonging.” But in stories like this and throughout the day, greeting friends around every cobblestoned corner, strolling into his brother’s spice shop,

Nazmi and his brother at the spice shop

he was firmly and confidently planted in a personal, social, and cultural identity—despite his hybridity, his lack of country. Same with the Palestinians gathered last night at the home of musician Said Murad, director of the Sabreen Association for Artistic Development. A barbecue seemed strangely fitting on Israeli Independence Day to this American—strangely because, as one Palestinian young woman said archly, “the Palestinians have a different name for the day—the word is Arabic for ‘catastrophe.’” Nonetheless, the mood at Said’s was lively and festive. Over succulent lamb burgers, salad garnished with fragrant basil, and plenty of Tzora red wine, and as Said and his friends played their ouds and drums and sang in the backyard,

Said (far right) and friends

the identity of this community was vibrantly intact. There was no problem of their belonging. And with “Ahlan!” that all-purpose phrase of welcome warmly ringing through the air, we outsiders were invited to belong, for an evening, too. But unlike the Old City—tainted by the self-conscious awareness of being watched, with its countless stalls hawking cheap commemorative wares (the world is clearly divided into people who want their leather satchel to be stamped with “Jerusalem” and people who don’t) paving the teeming tourists’ way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—here, in a backyard in an East Jerusalem home, life went on, easily and honestly, just as it would have if we hadn’t been there.


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2 Responses to “Ahlan!”

  1. Kamy Wicoff Says:

    I love the story of Nazmi at the checkpoint — that is one I won’t soon forget. Ahlan! Looking forward to reading more as you go…

  2. BK Says:

    “The problem of my belonging,” followed by such a beautiful portrayal of place, culture, celebration. I can’t imagine the complexity of all this. Thank you, Sarah, for writing it so clearly, so compassionately. With beginner’s mind, indeed.

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