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Book Review: Life in Jerusalem

Author Paola Caridi gives the reader an in-depth look at a complex city and its daily dramas.
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.

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