The Six Day War in 1967 brought the reunification of the city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but the reality on the ground is different, with the city clearly divided into East and West. Israelis rarely venture into East Jerusalem, its neighborhoods as foreign as those of a different country.
Israeli readers may be uncomfortable with the short stories of East Jerusalem Noir (Akashic Books, November 2023), for they are tales of house demolitions, separation walls, checkpoints, and destroyed villages. But they are also tales of heavenly faiths that call out to residents to fill the emptiness of their lives with prayer.
The protagonist of the opening story, ‘The Ceiling of the City’ by Nuzha Abu Ghosh is stopped by soldiers at Damascus Gate and is taken to prison because he doesn’t have his ID. In ‘The Scorpion’ by Ibrahim Jouhar, a bulldozer disrupts an ordinary Jerusalem day, causing a homeowner to cry out “O wasted life, O lost dreams.” Nothing is crueler, perhaps, than seeing your dream house torn to pieces.
In the story ‘Between The Two Jerusalems’ by Osama Alaysa we meet a gentle refugee from the destroyed village of Lifta who, despite his Downs syndrome, establishes himself as an unofficial traffic officer. He wanders around Jerusalem’s old walls. The many vehicles in the streets make him feel free. He steps forward to direct traffic only to be detained by the police as a suspected terrorist.
For the residents of East Jerusalem, ordinary days in an extraordinary existence include waiting for a court decision that will determine the fate of one’s home. In the story ‘In an Extraordinary City’ by Rahaf Al-Sa’ad, Abu wonders if the hopes he’d planted in the hearts of his wife and children had been a mirage. Was it unfair to hope for something that couldn’t possibly come true?
Possibly the most heart-rending story in the book is ‘Noble Sanctuary’ by Muhammad Shuraim. We meet 75-year-old Hajja Aisha who, having just arrived from Amman, hopes to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque before her impending heart surgery. There is traffic on the roads and long lines at the checkpoints. Security inspections and gathering soldiers. Is Hajja’s heart strong enough to bear the erupting violence and make it to Friday prayers?
The collection’s editor, Rawya Jarjoura Burbara, says she asked the writers “to portray the city of Jerusalem as they live it, as they feel it, as they appreciate it, as they fear it, as they want it to be, and as they imagine it in the past, the present, and the future.” The result is 13 stories translated from Arabic, often painful to read and some with abrupt endings. The stories tell of the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of East Jerusalem residents, their lives vastly different from those living in the western half of the city.
East Jerusalem Noir of the Akashic Noir Series is published simultaneously with West Jerusalem Noir, a companion collection that reflects an image of the national, religious, and socioeconomic tension in the western half of the complicated city of Jerusalem.