Book Review: Life in Jerusalem

Author Paola Caridi gives the reader an in-depth look at a complex city and its daily dramas.
Updated 26 October 2017
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Book Review: Life in Jerusalem

As I began reading this book, I remembered what Pico Iyer, a wonderful travel writer, said about Jerusalem: “I would never call Jerusalem beautiful, or comfortable or consoling. But there’s something about it that you can’t turn away from.” I wonder if Paola Caridi felt the same way. Did she also find in Jerusalem something that she would never forget?
Born in Italy, Caridi is a journalist who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa. After a two-year stay in Cairo, from 2001-2003, she left for Jerusalem where she lived for ten years. In 2013, Caridi’s portrait of Jerusalem was released in Italian and was this year published in English, under the title “Jerusalem without God: Portrait of a Cruel City.” The English translation was published by The American University in Cairo Press.
Caridi found the ten years she spent in Jerusalem to be the most demanding of her life. When she bade farewell to Jerusalem, she wrote that she felt no nostalgia or regret. She felt nothing until, months later, she heard the Muslim call to prayer in Sicily.
“Those words… roused in me the sweet taste of nostalgia, the soothing sense of nostalgia. Suddenly, I discovered with a resonant flash that I did not regret the streets of Jerusalem, the sacred stones, the dazzling white of its historical architecture and the artificiality of its present architecture… I missed the rhythms of the day,” Caridi wrote.
“The call to prayer has been so precious to me that, even now when I am no longer in Jerusalem, it takes me back to real time, time that is more consistent with a nature we have violated over the years and centuries,” she wrote.
This book, however, is not a complacent and lyrical description of Jerusalem. The author takes a hard look at the city. Nothing escapes her blunt judgment.
The visit to Jerusalem starts in the old quarter of Musrara in the company of 80-year-old Michel. His father, an accountant who worked for the British Mandate of Palestine, moved his family to the first mixed district, which was created outside the walls of the Old City.
As the mandate came to an end, the British thought it was necessary to divide the street in half to separate the adversaries. However, the situation reached a point of no return with the horrendous massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. This mass slaughter triggered the Palestinian flight from Jerusalem’s city center and the surrounding villages.
Michel and his family, like almost all of Musrara’s inhabitants, left their homes. They were replaced, between 1948-1964, with immigrant Jews who predominantly came from Europe.
Nowadays, more than 2000 people live in 610 lodgings, which more often than not consist of one single room. The public authorities allowed Musrara to fall into disrepair because the long-term plan was to drive the inhabitants to sell their old Arab houses. However, the inhabitants refused to leave and wanted to have a say in the renovation plans, which involved the challenge of restoring the traditional Arab houses. Musrara is now home to Orthodox Jewish families and a small community of international diplomats and journalists.
“Arab Musrara, like many parts of Palestinian Jerusalem, is today a remnant of what it used to be… It is like a fossil buried in stone, following that same historical path of the two parts of Musrara: The Israeli part, fully within the social changes of the country, and the Palestinian part, frayed and… without a new identity that could take the place of its ancient heritage. Arab Jerusalem is more and more split into tiny islands, compounds, enclaves and districts that have lost the connection to city life. The reasons, of course, lie in the conflict,” the author wrote.
Despite all these divisions and ill feelings, there are places, like Mega or Malcha Mall, which the author describes as “reconciled common space” were everybody meets. Israelis and Palestinians shop here because you pay less for more — they are united in their hunt for a bargain.
“The problem, if anything, is how to translate a common belonging into political and institutional terms,” Caridi wrote. For a growing number of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals, “the remedy is as simple as it is revolutionary: Jerusalem should be one and shared. That is, it should remain united and should be shared — one city for two communities.
“The idea of a city undivided and shared by its inhabitants springs exactly from the utter awareness of what takes place in the city. Daily life is, in fact, the primary indication that Jerusalem cannot be divided,” the author noted.
Speaking her mind with an open heart, Caridi gives the reader an in-depth look at a complex city and its daily dramas.


Review: A political artist talks humanity, refugees and mass migration

Updated 22 April 2018
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Review: A political artist talks humanity, refugees and mass migration

BEIRUT: This precious blue book is a compilation of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on the global refugee crisis, edited by prominent American collector and publisher Larry Warsh. “Humanity” is full of important messages that can be delivered at any time, hence the handy, bag-friendly size.
The quotations, selected from interviews, magazine features and podcasts from around the world, show Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on humanity, mass migration and refugees.
According to his interview excerpts, the artist believes we have lost the capacity for compassion.
“The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritization of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis. The West has all but abandoned its belief in humanity and support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal human rights, it has sacrificed these ideals for short-sighted cowardice and greed,” he once said.
Ai Weiwei understands how it feels to be completely destitute in a foreign land, with nothing but one’s humanity. In 1959, during the Cultural Revolution, he accompanied his father to a labor camp in the Gobi Desert. When he returned to Beijing with his parents in 1975, he was 19 and determined to fight against injustice. Not afraid to criticize the Chinese authorities, he became an outspoken artist-cum-activist. He is now considered one of the most iconic artists of our times. He was detained in 2011 at Beijing airport, remained in custody for 81 days and was subsequently placed under house arrest. His passport was taken away and returned in 2015. That same year, Amnesty International awarded Ai Weiwei the Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in defense of human rights and he relocated to Berlin.
Each quote in this book pricks our conscience, makes us feel uncomfortable, and reminds us that our indifference and and lack of action toward other human beings is inhuman.
For example, in the book, the artist is quoted as saying: “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.”
A powerful statement that is one of many to be found in this thought-provoking read.