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Living on the seam line of Abu Tor

Is it coexistence when even my 8-year-old can see that 'the city doesn’t care about the people' who live over there?
Illustrative: Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in central Jerusalem, south of the Old City, December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in central Jerusalem, south of the Old City, December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

When I first heard, years ago, of Abu Tor, it was proudly described to me as a Jewish-Arab neighborhood, one of the few Jerusalem neighborhoods where Israeli and Palestinian residents live together. “It’s true,” my friend continued, “that there are sometimes Molotov cocktails thrown at porch windows. But that’s when there is a lot going on, like the last Intifada, and besides no one was ever really hurt. It is the nature of living in conflict,” she shrugged nonchalantly, eyes twinkling, “and most of the time people get along.”

When, years later, we looked into moving to Abu Tor, I realized it was less Jewish/Arab, and more Jewish     /     Arab, with much more that seems to separate, rather than connect, these two halves of Abu Tor.  A sign at the top of my street was erected to celebrate Jerusalem’s reunification (see “The “occupation” and “cleansing” of Abu Tor?” February 21, 2019).  But so much about daily life in this seam line neighborhood makes you wonder what “reunification” between Israeli Jewish West and Arab Palestinian East Jerusalem is supposed to really mean.

A neighborhood with two tales

There are a few ways to tell the story of Abu Tor.

I could tell you a story of comforting coexistence. Do you like to people-watch? You could sit for hours on Naomi Street, the main street leading into Abu Tor, and watch the endless diverse stream of people who live here: women with hijabs, men with kippot; children heading off to school; dog-walkers and joggers.

I could tell you about how Yes Planet, the new movie theater, stands sparkling at the entrance to Abu Tor, offering a few hours of entertaining relief to both Jews and Arabs. Or of the Peace Forest covering the green rolling hills which Abu Tor overlooks, and how on a Saturday afternoon you can see families, young couples, older people, Jewish and Arab, all strolling leisurely, laughing, joking, along the Sherover Promenade, which winds its way through the forest.

I could tell you about the basketball court at the school up the hill, and how just the other day my husband and son had a quick pickup game with Arab teens from the neighborhood. Or about the wafting sounds of the nearby mosque’s muezzin; the chiming bells of the monastery up the block, and the after-dinner blessings of our observant Jewish neighbor across the way.

These things are all true. But if this is the only story told, then it is false.

Because Abu Tor is also a story of side-by-side coexistence defined by separation, difference and different conditions. Jews and Arabs live mostly on separate streets. Children attend separate schools and go to activities at separate community centers. Separate languages create a further barrier, as most Jews don’t know Arabic and many of the Arabs don’t speak Hebrew. Each tends to their medical matters at separate health clinics.

Shopping is mostly done at separate stores. Granted, Arabs may come to the stores in the Jewish neighborhoods and Jews may go to some of the East Jerusalem stores, but think about it — when is the last time you struck up a new friendship with the stranger shopping next to you at the store? It is not a place to foster real connections.

Worse, during tense times, stones and Molotov cocktails are thrown at Jewish cars and homes, and police stop passersby and check IDs, but always of Arabs, never Jews.

Both realities are true, intertwined, connecting and dividing those who live here on these streets of this seam line neighborhood.

The seam line

To start with, the divide is physically embedded into the geography, as the armistice line cut through Abu Tor for the two-decade interim between the wars of 1948 and 1967. The top of Naomi Street, the main entry street into the neighborhood, is a Jewish area, as it was under Israeli control since Israel’s independence. Down the hill, an Arab Palestinian part of the neighborhood begins, as it had been under Jordanian control until the 1967 Six Day War.

But you need neither a history book, nor a map, to know where the armistice line created a border.  You just need to walk down the street and you can sense it.

The first thing you see when you enter the neighborhood is Yes Planet at the corner of Naomi street looming up like a crown jewel.  On the left, the apartment buildings have classic, white Jerusalem stone facades. They are not fancy, but they are nice enough, solid, respectable. Their porches overlook a view of curving hills and a valley, with green-grey-brown trees and shrubs that turn brilliant green in spring.

As your eye travels along this distance it comes to a grey wall that snake-glides along the horizon, blending in with the curves of the far off hillsides: it is the security barrier dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas. Then you see a few of the buildings in Abu Dis, the proposed-disputed capital of a possible (impossible already?) Palestinian state. And, if the day is clear enough, you may even see Jordan’s mountains bathed in light, and, sometimes, if you are lucky, cumulus clouds, glowing pink and white.

Then your eye swoops back from this great distance to the street right in front of you, and, as you walk down the hill, you can’t but help notice that down at the feet of the white Jerusalem stone buildings, with their porches that take in this grand view, things start to look a little run down.

Daily life

“When we first came to the neighborhood,” says Aida, whose family moved to Abu Tor when she was 10, “I saw these lovely buildings and the green.  It was pretty and felt open.  We were excited then to move here.”

But walking down the hill, the leafy arms of the overgrown shrubs tug at you, and you notice that some of the buildings are run down or even boarded up, marked by graffiti. The road narrows. In parts, the sidewalks disappear, forcing pedestrians to walk on the street. Where there are sidewalks, cars have just as often parked on them, as there is nowhere else to park, again forcing pedestrians to walk on the street, always a little worried about the cars hurtling themselves impatiently along the roads.

I get annoyed by the endless bits of trash that accumulate at the entrance to my own building, windblown colorful wrappers from candy bars or chips, sometimes with letters in Hebrew, sometimes Arabic. But I know that compared to the Arab part of Abu Tor I shouldn’t really complain. “There is a garbage container next to where we live,” says Aida, “and since trash collection is so irregular, the garbage piles up. Sometimes I even have to walk over trash bags to get into my home, and it can smell so awful that we can’t even leave the windows open.”

“You try to do your part, throwing things out, trying to keep the streets neat,” Aida observes, “but there is only so much you can do and it is never enough to keep things from piling up and becoming disgusting.  It kind of makes you give up.”

“You can tell,” my then 8-year-old son observed one day, as we walked through the neighborhood, “that the city doesn’t care about the people who live here.”

Is politics to blame? Poor public policies? People’s own behavior? Either way this is the lived experience of the grossly inadequate trash collection services endemic to East Jerusalem neighborhoods for years, intersecting with narrow streets and inadequate parking solutions. An example of the problems of any urban environment? Yes, but it is also one of many urban problems painfully exacerbated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Immutable?

But there are also those who refuse to believe that the difficult reality around us is either immutable or inevitable. At a personal level, Aida’s parents chose to send her and her two sisters to the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab school, which breaks down so many of the barriers. (Full disclosure: it is from Hand in Hand that I know Aida, whose name I have changed to protect her privacy). Beit MICHA is a neighborhood day center established to help both Arab and Jewish hearing-impaired children. Abu Tor neighborhood activists, and organizations like the Willy Brandt Center, organize joint activities, such as language lessons, community meetings to discuss neighborhood affairs, and other joint events. The Jerusalem municipality has recently decided to commit significant budgets towards upgrading East Jerusalem’s infrastructure. An important step that could help close some of the gaps between East and West Jerusalem, though its real value will lie in how it is implemented.

As I walked to work in yesterday morning’s pouring rain, I saw one of my Arab neighbors, whom I now recognize as he works at the supermarket across the street.  As we greeted each other, a big truck drove by drenching us, leaving us laughing, rolling our eyes ruefully, and equally wet.

Life in this seam line neighborhood can make you hateful or hopeful. What kind of Jerusalem do we want to invest in?

This is the second in a series of articles about living in Abu Tor.  Next week: Stones and security in Abu Tor. 

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach oversees growth and strategy at Hand in Hand: the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Prior to that she worked with international migration, conflict, relief and development efforts. She holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU, and lives in Jerusalem.
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