Journeys to Jerusalem
For almost forty years I have been going to Jerusalem. Although I grew up in Amman, my earliest memories tap into the hills and stones of Jerusalem; splinter in its rocky soil. This is true even though my coherent recollections of Jerusalem begin later, after I turned seven, the biblical age of reason, and the eastern part of the city fell under Israeli occupation. Who is to say at what point experience turns to memory? Traces register at the deepest layers of consciousness, and we are heir to things we cannot always name.
Before 1967, my older sister recalls, we could drive from Amman to Jerusalem for lunch and back in a single day, untrammeled by checkpoints and borders. That this earlier time of unhindered Palestinian access to Jerusalem exists, for me, before the onset of clear memory, residing instead in a shadow realm of impression that is almost mythical, seems only appropriate. After all, despite the long legacy of UN resolutions, Palestinian claims to justice appear to have taken on the characteristics of a fairy tale: a story of wish fulfillment told at night to credulous children, but dismissed by the powers of the world in the light of day.
I have no explicit recollection of those early family visits to Jerusalem: the drive down into the richly fertile Jordan valley, past fields of banana and tomato, and then up again, toward the dun-colored Palestinian hills that formed the base note for Jerusalem's symphonic walls. But subtle impressions of light and shade, the smell of freshly turned earth, the springtime syncopation of poppies and wild mustard by the roadside, the off-white facades of stone buildings rising on the eastern approach to the city, chipped facets holding light like an internal glow, must have made their way into my subconscious, emerging later as a sensation of mysterious familiarity, till it was if I had always been traveling this route. Mingled sights and sounds and smells of the city itself must similarly have registered on my earliest awareness: the Dome of the Rock, its golden hemisphere casting a glow over the city; the worn bulwark of the Old City walls, eloquent with antiquity; streets filled with snarls of cars, people, sometimes donkeys; blaring horns, drivers shouting at each other, vendors calling out their wares; the proliferation of odors, as car exhaust and perspiration collided with aromas of za'atar and freshly roasted coffee.
In contrast—for Jerusalem has always provided a study in contrasts—my relatives' house off Saladin Street, near Herod's Gate, must have provided then the oasis of calm that it does in later memories: cacophony of the street falling away as we passed through the tiled corridor leading to the internal garden fragrant with lemon and jasmine, and then to the house itself, there to be welcomed with kisses and exclamations. For if Jerusalem was a city rich with historical legacies and sensory texture, it was also an emotional space resonant with familial warmth and familial claims. For me, child of an American mother and a Palestinian father, the embracing welcome offered by my Jerusalem relatives was a comfort: proof that one could be different and yet still belong. And when my aunt called us to lunch, to a table groaning with kusa mahshi and wara' dawali and baba ghanouj, there was no distinction made between the cousins: we were simply “the children”, expected to behave properly and eat well.
Within the context of Israeli occupation, moreover, we were all, American passports or no American passports, Palestinian. As a child I did not fully understand the words “occupation” and “military rule”. But I could see how my father's face froze to an impassive mask when we approached Israeli officials at the bridge between Jordan and the West Bank; how soldiers gave orders and we were forced to obey. It did not escape me that although we made the crossing along with other foreign passport-holders, our documents processed in air-conditioned buildings instead of in the sweltering (or, in winter, freezing) tin-roofed areas where West Bank Palestinians spent long hours waiting to be cleared for passage, we were invariably treated differently: called to one side, searched and questioned while tourists moved through unhampered. Most unsettling, from my child's perspective, was the extent to which my father, at home the epitome of power, was drained of his authority by these Israelis with guns rifling through our documents. As we waited for transportation away from the bridge into the occupied West Bank, I stared out at the Israeli flag blazoned onto the Palestinian hillside like a tattoo on raw flesh, and wondered what Palestinians had done to deserve this treatment.
When we finally reached Jerusalem and the haven of my aunt's house, however, these humiliations seemed in some way badges of honor. The more harassed we were on our journey to Jerusalem, the greater was our sense of being Palestinian. Even my American mother participated in this sense of communal belonging, as if by marrying a Palestinian she had married not only into a family but into a national experience. (This was hammered home years later, when she checked into an Israeli hospital, seeking a diagnosis for the debilitating skin problems that later proved to be manifestations of cancer. The Israeli nurses, who knew she was married to a Palestinian, did not change her blood-stained sheets: after she had asked for fresh linen for days, they tossed the clean sheets on the floor and told her to make the bed herself.)
Even at an early age I could see that to be Palestinian meant being part of something larger than the immediate family and its expectations. It meant being connected to a land, a people and a history, all of which were symbolized by a single city: Jerusalem. If Palestine was the homeland whose echoes reverberated through our lives no matter where we lived or how we sought to distance ourselves, Jerusalem was the emotional center of this homeland, the focal point of Palestinian longing.
I recall a winter day in Jerusalem when I was around nine. In the morning we walked through the Old City over cobblestones slick with rain, drinking in the sensory rush. Later we went for a drive to an outlying area studded with olive groves and stone fences. After the tumult of the Old City, the open spaces of earth and sky were like a lyrical pause at the center of a musical score. My father and uncle stopped to talk to a farmer while I wandered a muddy path beside a low stone fence, drinking in the landscape of green and brown and gray, olive trees pruned to simple lines, the intricate balance of stones laid carefully atop each other to form the orchard's bordering wall. Something about the landscape's energy, the careful industry of the olive grove and its surrounding wall, stayed with me, a small kernel I quietly harbored. On our return to Amman I tried to capture those perceptions in a painting, laboring to render the complexity of individual stones, the stark beauty of branches etched against a sky swollen with rain. My art teacher, a gentle Palestinian man whose name, as he loved to remind us, meant “friend”, leaned over my page to ask me what I was painting. When I said it was a scene from my recent trip to Jerusalem, he patted my shoulder. “You love Palestine,” he said warmly, as if it was a secret we shared. Although I sensed that the emotion he had in mind was larger than I could really comprehend, I nodded.
As experiences such as this one poured, wave by wave, over my consciousness, they laid down traces, so that even before I could recall specific trips to Jerusalem, the place had become part of my mental landscape. Going there seemed a bit like visiting a grandparent: something natural and inevitable, a right as well as an obligation. Jerusalem—and through Jerusalem, Palestine—lived in me the way a grandparent's genes live on in the body of a child: a mysterious habitation linking generations. No matter how much time passed between my visits, Jerusalem echoed through my consciousness, and with each arrival I was transfixed by that deep chord of familiarity: summer heat beating on stone, the drumming of winter rain.
Since childhood I have been testing my voice against this echo. And for forty years I have been making this journey to Jerusalem: the way a musician rehearses a melody, the way a swimmer goes to the sea.
Throughout my childhood, going to Jerusalem was a descent and an ascent: the downward journey through the Jordan Valley, the actual river passage, bracketed by tedious waits on either side of the bridge, and then the upwards journey to the final destination: Jerusalem. At the heart of this experience lay the Allenby Bridge.
In my childhood recollections the bridge, Jordan's only portal to Palestine, was a simple wooden structure across a murky channel of water that seemed wholly unworthy of its mythical reputation. Was this muddy stream really the famous River Jordan, the place of Jesus' baptism, the river celebrated in literature and song? Even on winter crossings, when the water moved more swiftly, swollen with rain, and rushes laced the surface like camouflage, the river seemed disconcertingly unimpressive. Gazing down at it as we rattled across the bridge in the bus designated for that purpose (or, on occasion, walked across, suitcases in tow) I marveled at the importance granted this seemingly insignificant body of water.
I knew that “crossing the Jordan”, whether in American culture or in Bible stories, was supposed to signify a passage from slavery to freedom. After all, I attended an American school, and my best friends were missionary kids. But in the local Palestinian context that I also inhabited, the Jordan River stood, instead, as the demarcation line between dual oppressions: exile and occupation. On the eastern bank of the river Palestinians lived in forced separation from their homeland, often in desperately poor refugee camps. (Although we lived comfortably in a middle-class neighborhood of Amman, I knew that there were alternate universes to my own small world: that only a few minutes drive away were refugee camps where children with dirty faces and hungry eyes begged for food.) On the western bank of the river Palestinians lived under the boot of military rule, again often in refugee camps forgotten by the world. Between these two banks flowed the river itself, spanned by the insubstantial web of wood named after General Allenby, the commander who led British troops into Palestine in 1917, starting, one might say, the whole Palestinian tragedy.
On the western bank of the river, my father was a Palestinian under occupation: his land confiscated, his identity denied. On the eastern bank, he was a Palestinian in exile: his future held hostage, his identity denied. And when he stood in the middle of the bridge, swaying between the poles of injustice, what then? Perhaps, beneath the façade of righteous anger that made him such an imposing figure in my childhood memory, he was like so many other Palestinians: simply bewildered, caught off-balance by history.
I turned seven in October 1967, soon after the June war that placed the remaining land of Palestine under occupation and made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees, many for the second time. That fall my father brought home an oil painting of a man carrying his children across the Allenby Bridge. The painting was rendered with thick, nervous brush strokes of black and yellow, the choppy surface evoking a sense of uneasiness. The man portrayed in it stands stiffly, leaning slightly to one side as if braced against his load. He hoists a child in the crook of one arm, gripping the sleeve of another child, who clings to his back, between his teeth. His gaze is directed vacantly off to one side, as if there is no point in meeting the viewer's eyes. Behind him, seen through the framework of the bridge, are indistinct figures in a long line: other refugees waiting to cross.
Taped to the back of the picture is a black and white photo of the scene which the painting replicates, along with a scrap of paper bearing a few typed lines: “The Israelis drove approximately a quarter of a million people out of their homes on the West Bank during and immediately after the war of June 1967. Here a father brings his children to safety across the River Jordan.” In the photo the man looks downward, as if focused on nothing more than the next exhausting step forward. In both photo and picture he carries nothing but his children: his free hand is splayed open, as if emphasizing the radical experience of his loss.
I grew up with this picture but did not really understand it. I knew it had to do not only with the presence of Israeli soldiers at the bridge crossing, but also with the war, which had entered my consciousness as fragmented shards of perception: the piercing spiral of air raid sirens, the terrifying roar of bomber planes overhead, the dank odor of perspiration and fear permeating the protected inner hallway where we huddled. A child, I had until then largely been spared knowledge of the world's injustice. But I understood, even then, that there was no real hiding from the forces unleashing violence around us. As I grew older and experienced other wars, I began to understand what it was that could not be escaped: not so much the planes and bombs as Palestinian history itself.
If the 1967 war served as my first encounter with Palestinian history, crossing the Allenby Bridge provided a hands-on education in the realities of Palestinian identity. We were fortunate indeed to be able to make that journey in the opposite direction: to go toward Jerusalem instead of fleeing. But we crossed on transit visas, our stay limited, the parameters of our journey beyond our control. And although as American passport holders we had a far easier time of it than did most Palestinians, still we could not escape the ramifications of being Palestinian. Those gray-green (later, blue) U.S. passports with their embossed seals made a significant difference in how we were treated. But they did not make all the difference. Although our crossing might take three hours instead of seven, although we were not usually subjected to strip-searching, did not have to send our shoes to be x-rayed, and were generally spared the humiliations that were the lot of most Palestinians seeking to enter their homeland, still we understood that in the eyes of the Israelis we were not “real” Americans: we were always Palestinian, always a threat.
For me, one of the particular hardships of the crossing was that we could not carry anything printed or handwritten across the bridge, for fear of running afoul of the censor. How I longed for a book with which to pass the interminable wait! But it was impossible. Carrying anything printed meant long delays while we waited for clearance from the censor. Handwritten documents were even more problematic. Once we were delayed at the bridge for hours: my sister had forgotten a letter from a friend in her purse. After that I developed a paranoia about having anything printed in my possession at the bridge. And heaven forbid we carry names, telephone numbers, or addresses: these would trigger special attention, and one never knew how information would be used. For this reason we never mentioned our relatives' names at the bridge, but told the authorities that we would be staying at a hotel.
Once, when I was a teenager, we planned to cross the bridge in company with British friends. It was a chilly day, and we felt fortunate to be spared the long lines where West Bank Palestinians waited their turn to have their suitcases unceremoniously dumped out onto large tables. Inside the building where our documents were processed, an Israeli soldier looked our names up on a computer, and then motioned my father into a cubicle. I could hear my father's angry voice, the insistent voice of the soldier. Suddenly my father stormed out of the cubicle and told my mother that we were going back: he refused to submit to these conditions. The official had decided to strip-search my father, something our American passports usually spared us from. My mother was in a quandary: if we turned back, we would be abandoning our guests. Finally the situation was defused: my father was only required to take off his shirt and loosen his pants. We passed through border control without further incident. But as we seated ourselves in the car that would take us to Jerusalem, I could still see the set of my father's jaw.
Years later, I found myself standing in a cubicle at the bridge with my sister, my pants around my ankles. The female Israeli solider who had ordered me to unclothe was writing something on a clipboard and had not bothered to glance at my naked legs to verify that I was not, in fact, concealing contraband. My jaw was so tightly clenched that my teeth ached. My sister, who had only been required to take off her shoes, raised her eyebrows and shook her head at me. But I was too upset to heed her warning. “Why do I have to take off my pants but she doesn't have to take off her skirt?” I demanded of the soldier. “If you're worried about security, why don't you check us both?” Without looking up, the Israeli woman shrugged. “She can hide something in her shoes, you can hide something in your pants.” I looked at my sister, whose open sandals revealed most of her feet, but whose long skirt, unlike my tight Capri pants, could have hidden all manner of things. The point, evidently, was not security but harassment. I had revealed more anger during our initial questioning than my sister, and I was being punished for it. I had a sudden vision of my father in perhaps that same cubicle, stripped to the waist while a bored young Israeli man wrote on a clipboard.
Later, my sister and I rode in a taxi through Jericho, and I remembered stopping in Jericho's central market, where my father bought large burlap sacks of oranges and tangerines to take to the Jerusalem relatives. The purchase, I now think, was mostly for my father, as if the familiar gesture of generosity could restore his trampled sense of honor. While he heaved the heavy sacks of fruit into the trunk of the car, I leaned my head against the cool window pane and watched the market's swirling kaleidoscope of orange and green and brown. After my father had paid the stall owner, he handed us a small sack of oranges and dates through the window to eat in the car as we traveled. Although I had never liked dates much, I took one and bit into it. The taste that flooded my mouth was sweet and dense as earth. I could taste that grainy sweetness all the way to Jerusalem.
In the El Al waiting lounge at Kennedy airport, even the babies had tiny yarmulkes askew on their round bald heads. Orthodox Jews with long curls framing their faces mingled with women in tight shirts and skirts; men in yarmulkes pushed strollers. I was more than a little nervous about flying El Al: I was only doing so because the terms of my U.S.I.S. speaking tour required it. But no one seemed to notice that I was Palestinian. I was traveling on crutches for a badly sprained ankle, and when I hobbled to the back of the line for boarding, a man scolded me in a friendly tone: “What are you doing back here? Go to the front: you do not need to wait for everyone. Go.”
On the plane, the woman next to me was eager to talk. She had made aliya a year before, she said, and was still bringing her things over. She had even managed to sneak an extra suitcase onto this flight. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I went up to a man with only one piece of luggage and asked him if he would carry a suitcase for me,” she responded, clearly pleased with herself. “But how could he accept to take something from a stranger?” I asked, horrified. “Oh,” she replied, “I knew he was religious, and I am too. You can tell, you know. We both knew it would be fine.” I stared at her. For a moment I thought of telling her that I had agreed to carry a suitcase for a strange Muslim, just to see her reaction. But the image of armed marshals escorting me off the plane made me refrain.
After takeoff the woman continued the conversation. “Is this your first trip to Israel?” she asked. “I've been to Jerusalem many times,” I replied, “but I've never flown into Tel Aviv.” I could see her flicker of confusion. “What do you mean?” she asked. “How did you get to Israel?” “I crossed the bridge from Jordan,” I told her a little reluctantly, knowing where this would lead. “Ah,” she said a little too brightly. “You went by way of Egypt? You made the tour?” “I've been to Egypt a couple of times,” I told her, “but not as part of my trips to Jerusalem.” I could see the realization wash over her face: I was not a tourist, I crossed the bridge from Jordan the way the Arabs do. She turned and settled in her seat: our conversation was over. She did not speak to me again for the next nine hours.
At the Tel Aviv airport, light danced from every surface. As I made my way slowly forward on crutches, an airline representative came to help me drag my suitcase off the belt. “Is anyone meeting you?” she asked, solicitously. Just then I saw two Palestinians holding a placard with my name. The waiting couple introduced themselves: Mohammed and Dena. I glanced at the El Al representative: the smile had been stripped from her face. “You won't be needing me anymore,” she said coldly.
Outside, the air was as mild as lamb's wool. We drove along the road leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and I stared out the window at the chalky embankments studded with occasional poppies. “This looks just like the West Bank,” I started to say, then caught myself. Of course it looked familiar. One land: so close, so far. I wondered if I would recognize the Green Line when we crossed it. But before I realized it, we were in the familiar streets of East Jerusalem.
At my relatives' house the parlor was cool and dark, as always. I drank lemonade flavored with rose water and listened to news about life under occupation. Conflicts were erupting over Jabal Abu-Ghnaim, a green area in the West Bank taken over for a settlement against the protests of Palestinians as well as Israeli ecologists. The daughter of a friend came to collect the package I had brought for her from the United States. Perching on the edge of a chair, she told me, “Jerusalem is a dying city.”
A few days later, I stood on the Mount of Olives in the predawn, looking out over Jerusalem. It was Easter Sunday. The sun had not yet crept over the horizon, and in the darkness we could see the yellow lights of Road Number One: a swathe of highway slicing the hills like an airport runway, built over the ruins of many demolished Palestinian homes. Nearby, another set of yellow lights marked a settlement bypass road. My cousin pointed out a darker area, lit with only a few indistinct lights: an Arab neighborhood. Behind us, a hymn rang out from the assembled congregation. At that exact moment, the call to prayer resonated from one mosque, then another mosque. The sounds of worship, Christian and Muslim, wove together on the cold air: there seemed no conflict between the two.
Later, I sat in a parlor, waiting for a car that would take me to Amman, listening to relatives and a neighbor share memories. The massacre of Deir Yassin; how survivors were paraded in trucks through the streets of Jerusalem, and my father and uncle threw jackets up to women in the trucks to cover themselves. The 1967 war: how a neighbor fled with his family on a road specified by the Israelis as a safe route, but returned soon after, alone, his entire family burned by napalm. 1948: how a family fled from Lydda on a road they were told led to safety, but which led instead into the desert; a road on which many died. The tellers' eyes were sunk in their faces, their voices quick and low, as if relating something they didn't want to remember but couldn't let go of, as if history could be exorcised through narration.
When the driver who was to take me to the Allenby Bridge finally arrived, he told me that the West Bank roads had been closed down. A Palestinian student had been killed at a checkpoint; there were tanks outside every town. We drove through back roads, passing by settlement after settlement: stone facades claiming the hillsides aggressively, occupying the slopes above Palestinian villages, whose contours, in contrast, blended into the landscape. The driver named every settlement, every village: a litany of names. When we arrived at the bridge, my passport was processed at a high window that made me feel small. I wondered if the height of the window was intentional. My last view of the occupied West Bank was of an Israeli flag leaning out over the muddy water of the Jordan River, planted on the last possible span of earth. Above us, even the sky seemed captive.
The first time I entered Israel through Haifa, it was not by choice. It was June, 1982. I had been studying at the American University of Beirut, where my formal education centered upon English literature and sociology and my informal education centered on the politics of Palestinian-American identity. A few days before exam period, the Israeli army began their brutal invasion of Lebanon. I fled the city, squeezed onto an open truck full of sweaty, jostling bodies. Then I fled the country, crowded onto an open cargo boat filled with university students.
As dusk fell, our boat pulled away from shore. We were like travelers on a train pulling out of a station, watching the face of a loved one become smaller and smaller. The Israeli forces controlling the Lebanese harbor had granted our boat clearance, but an hour out of port, when darkness had fallen, we were apprehended by an Israeli gunboat. A spotlight played slowly over the boat, pinning us to the night. Then we were boarded and several students taken off. We stood on the open deck for hours, dizzy with exhaustion, clutching our passports, waiting for the Israelis to return. When dawn came we realized where we were being taken: to Israel.
As we entered the port of Haifa I gazed, stunned, at the coastal view I had never imagined I would see: red shingled roofs, a backdrop of brown earth. Soldiers brought bread and tomatoes on board in wooden crates while television cameras rolled. We must have made good headlines: Israeli army feeds hungry refugees. But as soon as the reporters left, the interrogations began. The American citizens on board were taken to see the U.S. consul and offered the choice to return home via Israel instead of remaining on the crowded, ill-equipped boat. I thought about the option all night. But when morning came the land seemed a closed fist: I could not bring myself to enter.
Sixteen years later I came once more to Haifa from the sea. This time I was traveling from Cyprus to Jerusalem with my Greek Cypriot husband and our year-old daughter. Unable to find plane reservations to Jordan or Tel Aviv, we had decided to travel instead by boat. We journeyed all night, the boat's engine a steady roar beneath our sleep, and as dawn broke we found ourselves approaching Haifa. As we disembarked, memory washed over me like the ship's wake: light beating the coast, the land submissive beneath its weight.
Inside the immigration hall, a female Israeli official chatted to my husband, smiled at my infant daughter. Then a burly Israeli man looked over her shoulder at my immigration form, with its space for “father's name”. He said something in Hebrew, and within seconds I was hustled to one side for interrogation. Who was I? What was my relationship to my traveling companions? Where they really my husband, my daughter? What was the purpose of my visit? Whom did I plan to see? To speak to? Where did I plan to go? Did I have family in Israel? Did I intend to visit them? The questions were relentless. When my child wailed, the interrogator merely raised her voice above the cries.
By the time I emerged from the immigration hall, I was furious. Despite our quantities of luggage, I insisted we take a local bus instead of a taxi to the depot where we planned to catch a bus to Jerusalem: I didn't want to spend any more money in Israel than I had to. My husband hefted our suitcases and baby equipment onto the bus without argument. A man got on the bus with us and started a conversation. Where were we going? Jerusalem? He would show us which stop for the depot. No problem, it was on his way. Yes, he was going to work, but he wouldn't be late, there would be another bus he could take. Yes, this stop; he would get off too. No problem, really! This line for the bus ticket, yes, that's right, he would wait. Got it? Good. It was that bus right over there, where the line was already forming to board. Did we see it? All right, good. He'd be going then, had to get to work. Have a safe trip, enjoy Israel!
As our self-appointed guide took himself off, strolling away in no apparent hurry, I turned to my husband. “What was all that about?” I asked. “Why would someone on his way to work get off the bus to guide a stranger? Why was he going to work at 8 a.m. from the port, anyway? And why so friendly—what happened to the stereotypical Israeli brusqueness?” “Congratulations,” my husband replied. “I'd say we were accompanied by security. To make sure we went where we said we were going to go; did what we said we were going to do. Look at it as a badge of authenticity, if you like: verification that you're Palestinian!”
Our bus wove through the streets of Haifa, the city melodious in morning light. The landscape seemed so familiar I wanted to cry out in recognition: light like a bright hand over the hills. My grandmother came from Jaffa, a seaside town known as the “bride of Palestine”; its Canaanite founders called it Yafi, “beautiful”. Haifa lived in my mind as its sister: Palestine by the sea. Yet history had made me an outsider to the land.
The bus was half-filled with soldiers, men and women, their guns cradled casually, commandingly; their smooth faces a reminder of how youth is sabotaged in defense of the state. I held my daughter close, whispering in her ear. She gazed out quietly at the coast, at the rows of white breakers punctuating the striking blueness of the sea. It was her second journey to Jerusalem. The first time, I had carried her deep inside my body, secure from the probing eyes of the security officers who wanted to know what I carried with me, whom I planned to speak to, where I intended to go. In my oversized coat, I did not look pregnant, and so she slipped across the border without being noticed: a small victory I knotted deep within me, a talisman against the humiliations of interrogation. A few days later, at a concert in Birzeit, my father's home town, I felt her move for the first time. A female vocalist singing lines of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, something about longing and freedom, hit a high note and held it: the child stirred violently with me.
As we traveled inland, the scenery shifted from brown earth to cultivated fields, orchards, houses. The sun moved higher in the sky; olive trees leaned toward each other like old men trading stories. The road curved toward Jerusalem through wooded hills that made deep swells in the land's body: a lover's terrain.
Then Jerusalem broke upon our view like a wave cresting: stone and light on the ridge, buildings overtaking the land. The city rose from the hills like the stone it was made of, integral to earth, inseparable from it. I felt a surge of mingled emotion: ache of familiarity, the painful atonality of alienation. As we wound through West Jerusalem neighborhoods, past stone houses that looked like those of my relatives, I saw that West Jerusalem was a splintered mirror image, part familiar, part strange. The city shone from every surface, as if breathing from within, indignities of entry and exclusion temporarily replaced by the constancy of stone, by light cascading down the hills, illuminating gray-green of pine and palm. But West Jerusalem was a closed world: we passed through as transients only, till the bus spat us out onto a summer sidewalk near the Green Line: into history, into the present.
Jerusalem is a mosaic. Our personal stories are small chips of stone, part of a larger picture that can only be fully perceived from a distance: the Damascus Gate at sunset; an Israeli soldier atop the Old City walls; a street crowded with traffic leading to a quiet interior garden. We come to the city bearing private histories, private sorrows, and find ourselves in the heart of a public space: one ancient as history, and as tormented.
In the fall of 2002 I traveled to Jerusalem to attend a family wedding. Guests attended from several continents, as well as from the West Bank, which under occupation seemed further than a continent away. Flying from Cyprus took me an hour; it took the West Bank relatives two hours and three separate cars to traverse the once-short distance from Ramallah to Jerusalem, across roads severed by deep ditches and barbed wire fences.
The next day we went searching for Jerusalem pottery. It was Friday, prayer time. Outside the Damascus Gate Israeli soldiers prevented us from entering the Old City. On the other side of the street, Palestinian men barred from going to the mosque had lined up facing the soldiers. As the call to prayer rang out, they knelt on the filthy asphalt and bowed their heads to the ground. Between the Israelis and the Palestinians, cars rumbled past, the air thick with fumes and dust. It was the most potent demonstration I had ever seen: unarmed men facing armed soldiers without shouting, without threats, without stone-throwing, praying in defiance.
Going to Jerusalem is like entering a wound. We go to Jerusalem like bleeding medics, helpless against the injustices of the world. We go to Jerusalem like refugees from history, bearing nothing but our children, the future gripped between our teeth. We go to Jerusalem because the city lives inside us like the stone of a fruit. We go because we have voices, although the world does not have ears. We go because above Jerusalem's ancient walls the sky still rises, leavened with light.
 UN estimates place the number of refugees resulting from the war at up to half a million.
A slightly longer version of this essay was previously published in South Atlantic Quarterly.