Palestinian devotees pray on Laylat al-Qadr outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

New stories from a very old city

A history as brilliantly labyrinthine as the city it describes

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Close to the second station of the Cross, a juice-seller’s business is booming from passing tourists. The owner is 41 and had escaped Jerusalem to go travelling for many years after the intifada rebellions of his childhood. As middle age approached, however, he was drawn back. Why? “I love it, man. I love my home,” he says simply. Trade is brisk, too, for the couple who run a hummus shop near the fifth station. It’s the same for the maker of halawa (a sweet sesame confectionery) by the seventh station and the bookseller by station eight.

Life goes on without complication along Jesus’s route to crucifixion. Or so it might seem. Beneath the surface of everyday life, and often out in the open, tensions swirl, as Matthew Teller, author of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, a journalistic urban biography, captures by way of a series of interviews with those living within its Old City walls.

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, Matthew Teller (Profile Books, £16.99)

This is a “city of icebergs”, with much more going on underneath than visitors clutching cameras might appreciate. Teller, a veteran journalist and travel writer in the region, has set himself the task of digging about asking questions of those who really understand Jerusalem — those who live in it.

Just about everyone gets a look-in. Jewellery sellers, bakers, art gallery owners, musicians, hoteliers, local journalists, community volunteers, street hawkers, imams, religious teachers and, on one colourful occasion, the fast-talking “matriarch of a grand family” surrounded by cats in a huge house tucked away by Al-Aqsa, the main mosque and third holiest site in Islam.

Afterwards, when transcribing, Teller needs to check his recorder is not playing back the interview at double-speed, such is her motor-mouth quality. He must have recorded hours of such encounters, which are often spur of the moment: a “very Jerusalem” serendipitous arrangement.

Big Brother is always watching, even in the quietest alleys

Not everyone is cheerfully milking the tourists visiting the holy sites. The stories collected reflect the often disturbing reality of Jerusalem, with its divisions between Israeli, Palestinian, Armenian and many other communities. “There is a weird energy in the Old City,” says Bashar Murad, a musician. “It’s a beautiful place, but you see Israeli soldiers everywhere, standing around with their guns, and if you want to visit Al-Aqsa you’re questioned by them at the door, treated as if you’re a criminal.” A human rights lawyer speaks even more plainly: “The 1967 war transformed Jerusalem from a vessel of humanity’s most noble aspirations of sanctity into a playground for pyromaniacs.”

Teller, who has a sprightly writing style, was brought up Jewish in suburban Surrey. His great-grandparents had migrated to Britain between 1887 and 1913 from Poland and what is now Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. His fascination with Jerusalem dates from a childhood visit in 1980, followed by further family holidays. He had a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall aged 13, although he is now, he says, an “unbeliever”. Later, he lived in the Old City for five months in his twenties while working at a Palestinian-run backpacker hostel.

The population of the Old City is estimated to be 35,000, with more than 90 per cent being Palestinian and around two thirds under the age of 30. It is extremely crowded, some neighbourhoods more densely packed than in Karachi or Hong Kong. This has dreadful knock-on effects. “Israel’s occupation exacerbates poverty, poor mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and other social ills,” says Teller.

It is as labyrinthine as the city it describes — and perhaps it was meant to be

The constant supervision by drones and CCTV cameras (the police control more than 400), use of satellites to follow smartphones and face-recognition technology to track individuals, though police deny this, has insidious consequences. Big Brother is always watching, even in the quietest alleys.

Woven between the many tales told from within the walls, which were constructed in the 16th century, is ancient and modern history. References from biblical times are made. The Crusades are covered. So is British involvement in the 19th century, the impact of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel defeated Jordan, becoming the “military occupier of Jerusalem’s east”. America’s recent controversial recognition of the city as Israel’s capital gets a mention.

It was during the 19th century that mapmakers first drew Jerusalem’s Old City in four quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim. This remains the basis of most maps today. Teller, however, finds the word “quarter” problematic as it suggests a place for outsiders, while not taking account of others living in the Old City such as Afro-Palestinian and Dom communities. Hence the book’s title referring to wider segments of society.

This is a curious, offbeat biography of an important city that comes alive through the many gathered voices. It is as labyrinthine as the city it describes — and perhaps it was meant to be.

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