Politics colors everything in fractured looking glass


April 16, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The walrus, of course, was crazy. He would have loved it here.

"The time has come . . . to talk of many things," the walrus said in "Alice Through the Looking Glass." "Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- of cabbages and kings -- and why the sea is boiling hot -- and whether pigs have wings."

As with the walrus, many of the everyday acts of life here seem to make sense only when viewed through a looking glass.

The lens is ground of politics, and it magnifies such mundane matters as choosing the color of a new car, meeting someone for lunch, or in what order one may tie one's shoelaces in the morning.

Without this prism of politics to clarify the scene, it looks like a mad tea party.

Take, for example, the walrus's reference: time. Here, there are two times. Or at least there were until this week. When Israelis moved their clock ahead to daylight-saving time March 28, the Palestinians did not.

It wasn't a matter of economics, or convenience. It was politics: Palestinians wanted to show they determine when to change the time, not the Israelis. So for two weeks, Israelis were showing up an hour early, Palestinians an hour late, and foreigners were just guessing.

This lasted long enough for the point to be made and for everyone to be confused. Finally came a leaflet from the Palestinian Unified Command approving a move to daylight-saving time at midnight last Tuesday. Palestinian time, one presumes.

Sanctioned schizophrenia must be expected here, where two peoples warily share one city. Store hours are different for Arab-run shops than for Jewish shops. Workweeks are different: Muslims do not work Fridays, Jewish offices are closed Saturdays, Christians take off Sundays.

Choosing a neighborhood in which to live requires sorting out of one's politics. Does one want to live in a Jewish neighborhood or an Arab one? A religious neighborhood or a secular one? Choose one way, and your street is likely to be closed off to cars on the Sabbath.

Even a good hotel can be inconvenienced by politics. One of the best in town is the American Colony Hotel, but Jewish cabbies often won't go there: It is in "Arab" East Jerusalem.

Always take an Israeli taxi to the airport. An Arab taxi invariably will be stopped for greater scrutiny at the security checkpoints.

Want to buy a car? The choice of make, and color, is less one of preference than politics. Choose wisely, if you drive outside the city limits.

If you cross Jerusalem's hills into the occupied territories in a white Subaru, your car will be taken to contain an Israeli settler and may very well be stoned in the name of the Palestinian uprising.

If it's a Ford Escort, everyone will think you are police (if it is white and blue) or secret police (any other color). Most towns outside Jerusalem have local favorites in automobiles -- in Nablus, it is an old Mercedes, in Jenin, it's a Volkswagen or Peugeot. Any other rouses suspicion.

And just to ensure there is no anonymity, different-colored license plates are assigned to the cars like political badges: yellow for cars from Jerusalem, blue or green from the West Bank and Gaza. That makes it easier for the soldiers to decide who to stop and search, and for the Arab youths to decide who to stone.

Cars aside, many people actually wear their politics. Jerusalem is a city of uniforms. The Arab residents show their politics in the color of the kaffiyeh -- the cloth headdress. Black-and-white checkered cloth favors Yasser Arafat's branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization; red-and-white favors a more militant branch headed by George Habash, or simply signifies the wearer is from Jordan.

The Jewish dress codes are strictly enforced by the rabbis as a way of identifying their followers.

Strictly religious men of some sects must don their right shoe before the left in the morning and lace them in reverse order.

Among the ultra-religious Jewish residents of this city, the prevailing color is black: black pants, shoes, jacket and hat. But even here, subtle differences have meaning.

A black hat worn at a rakish angle -- tilted 45 degrees toward the back of the head -- signifies a modern Lithuanian. The Hasidic followers of one Polish sect wear a bow on the right side of their black hats; other sects wear the bow on the left.

Black is also favored by girls in miniskirts in Tel Aviv. But that is an entirely different kind of politics.

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