Cycling between worlds

I mean “cycling” in the sense of circling from one to another, not having to do with bikes. There are no bikes here. Well, that’s not true, I saw a few, but really there are hardly any. Which is too bad, the distances to travel are not far and bikes would make a lot less pollution.

In other words, it’s late and I fall off track easily when I’m tired. I called this post “cycling between worlds” because today I woke up in West Jerusalem, went to some unquestionably Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem, then was invited to a free concert just a few steps across the Green line in West Jerusalem (virtually 100% Israeli crowd), then took the bus to Kalandia and went to Ramallah to watch the football game with friends, then bussed back to East Jerusalem and walked back through west Jerusalem to my hostel.

It may sound like I just did a lot of crossing some imaginary border which has been erased anyway, so I’m just cerebrally living in my head as usual. But that wasn’t my experience at all, my experience was switching back and forth between two different worlds. One world feels very much like north America, with similar values and similar (if more extreme) hypocrisies. And the other feels less developed, much more conservative, but also more honest and, despite certainly having its problems, being closer to its problems because it has to face them directly.

Which is why I don’t mind that I don’t feel entirely comfortable in the muslim quarter of the old city. Especially if you enter through Herod’s gate rather than Damascus gate, and especially if you happen to enter when it seems half of Jerusalem is headed to al-Aqsa to pray (it is Friday after all), and you happen to be on one of the main paths. It’s not my place, which is why, when I realized what was happening I ducked into a church, and then wandered over to a different church – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Christians, unlike the Muslims, have really desecrated their holy sites with tourism. There is no feeling of holiness in the presence of a hundred tour groups, some of which have the bad taste to identify themselves by all wearing the same baseball cap (isn’t it rude to wear a hat in Church?) The slow expulsion of Christians from the old city caused by the Israeli occupation is turning Christianity into a dead letter in Palestine, with no spirituality left because it was all bundled up and sold to some Christian zionists who came on a “hello my name is” tour bus.

I did find an area in East Jerusalem where I feel totally comfortable, incidentally, the Educational Bookshop. I bought a book and a coffee and felt right at home amongst activists and academics, buzzing away at laptops, drinking coffee and eating small plates of food. They even had free internet, which is how I found a message from my friend Tzuli about a free electronic dance concert happening nearby, so after a while, I went there.

“There” was probably less than 1km from the coffee shop/bookstore, but because it was across the Green Line, it was in reality a world away. One thing you notice is that no men in East Jerusalem wear shorts, or sandals, whereas at this concert I was the only person wearing long pants and shoes. It was good music, and it was great to see Tzuli again and discuss things like the social justice protests and the situation of Neo-Liberalism in Israeli culture today, but at the same time the whole thing of being at a free concert, which means a state-sponsored concert, in Israel, well I can put it this way – it’s not exactly in keeping with the cultural boycott. But the Boycott, I guess you can say this is something you do more when you are outside Israeli occupied territory than when you are on it – when I am here I feel my job is to work hard in thinking to try to understand the situation better. And, in keeping with that, I’d say that the concert felt very north American in the sense of talking a lot about bullshit peace and love. And  it’s interesting to see those values sung about here, where it really is bullshit in a more overt way, when you’re standing on territory cleansed of its native population only 64 years ago, and when that native population remains an even present threat and danger  against the singing colonists, to the point that every single one of them, pretty much, either is in or has been in the military. In fact, I found out after that the concert was primarily attended by people in the army because they get off for the weekend, and now the state is putting a free concert like this on every week in a different neighborhood in Jerusalem. What it comes down to for me is, while in one sense it is very easy for me to fit in at such a concert and “have fun”, the concert is part of the occupation – it is a state sponsored downtime activity for soldiers.

After the concert I got ahold of my friend and headed to the West Bank to watch the football match in Ramallah with friends. On the way there, on the bus, the boy sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He was just on his way back from Tel Aviv – it had been his first time to the place which Palestinians call “inside the occupation land”, and he’d gone to the beach. It had been only his second time out of the West Bank ever – the first time to Amman years ago to get his passport. It was a strange feeling talking with Yusef, understanding how memorable this day would be for him, I really didn’t know what to say. And it was an inversion, in a sense I was the local, on a bus I’ve riden many many times, whereas it was his first trip on that bus. What he said that really stuck with me was a comment as we were passing by the checkpoint, something to the effect of “it’s only a few meters, but what an impact they have”. And he’s right, in physical space the wall, the barrier, is only a small place. But in keeping Palestinians out of their homeland, it occupies a huge mental space. It was really in that moment when I knew I had been right in feeling off about the concert – here is someone, a real person talking to me, who while I guess actually he could have attended the concert because today he happened to have a permit, 99.9% of the time he is excluded. You just can’t talk about peace and love when you live on stolen land and your national identity depends on excluding the indigenous inhabitants from their land. Or rather, you can, but the hypocricy which would just be normal and everyday in Canada or the United States, is explicit, or at least, just under the surface.

There is a tension in Israel between its idea of itself as a liberal country, and its idea of itself as a nation under siege. Siege mentality, which is a standard mentality for colonists under attack by natives, may not result in reactionary conservative social values (although, I think that is one of its effects), but it results in a stagnant conservatism of a different sort – the kind which paints the in/out group distinction with such a bright brush that it becomes the answer for all problems. And the racism towards and deportation of “illegal” African refugees is an example of exactly this – Israeli society isn’t able to think rationally about the Sudanese refugees because the only intellectual tool they have to understand a social problem is the in/out distinction – either you are one of us, and therefore good, or you are one of the enemy, and therefore a threat.

Of course, Palestinians draw in/out group distinctions too. But they are based on reality – the reality of dispossession and occupation, and the reality of other Arab nations selling them out, stabbing them in the back, trying to control them.

Needless to say, after enjoying the football game in Ramallah, it felt odd crossing the checkpoint again and walking back along Jaffa street to my hostel. Jaffa street feels like a street in Vancouver – clean, with a new tramway on it (ok, not exactly like Vancouver). And it’s also like Vancouver in the way that most Palestinians will never step foot on it.

I’m glad, I think, that I spent my first 2 nights here in Jerusalem. This back-and-forth experience, it’s difficult but it really works your mind. But I’m also glad that I’m moving to Ramallah tomorrow and I won’t have to do it anymore.

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