Life atop `powder keg of world'


Jerusalem: In the deeply divided Old City, ancient rivalries make have rendered coexistence a vain hope.

January 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- On color-coded tourist maps, the Old City is neatly divided into self-contained quarters. Each of its four communities -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian -- looks to be secure in its own exclusive enclave.

The maps are wrong.

The Old City, surrounded by 16th-century walls up to 9 feet thick, is a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets where mutually distrustful sects compete for influence and turf while safeguarding their rituals, some dating back thousands of years.

In a region where battles over land and religion are the norm, there are few places where ancient rivalries stemming from man's relationship with God are more pronounced than within the Old City.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has drained the Old City of its vibrancy. Tourists are scarce. Idle Palestinian shopkeepers lounge on stools, and are ready to pounce on anybody who merely pauses to gaze at a trinket.

"It is a cluster of volatile ghettos," says Albert Aghazarian, a college professor who lives in a secluded cloister in the Armenian Quarter and is known for his knowledgeable tours. "This city is more divided than ever."

Far from a showcase of how three of the world's major monotheistic religions can coexist, as tourist maps suggest, Israel's trophy from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war harbors insidious undercurrents that can erupt at a moment's notice and at seemingly innocuous slights.

Both Palestinians and Israelis view the Old City, with its population of 33,000, as their respective capitals. But for now it remains as divisive a place as it did 34 years ago, its final status uncertain and so contentious that peace negotiators save it for last.

In the Old City, a tourist can cross cultural divides and traverse different worlds by simply crossing a street. Virtually every action is a political statement -- where to buy bread, what street to take or even choosing to live there.

"We live normal lives, but we also know that we live on the powder keg of the world," says Shoshanah Selavan, 39, a mother of five children who has lived in the Jewish Quarter since 1987. "For religion, this is the center of the universe. We are the eye of the storm."

Viewed from the rooftops, the city is awash in domes, steeples and minaret spires, all competing for dominance in a confined space. A Jewish Yeshiva stands on a Muslim street. A mosque is next to the remains of a destroyed synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.

An Arab baker in the Jewish Quarter hangs out a sign proclaiming that he keeps a kosher kitchen, and closes on the Sabbath. A Jewish merchant feeds his family by selling Roman artifacts from the time when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Jewish Temple.

Selavan wants to demonstrate coexistence, and points out a row of houses during a frenzied tour of her neighborhood: "Jew, Jew, Armenian, Muslim, Jew."

Nearby, Jewish children guarded by armed police scamper on an elevated settlement on top of the Arab market -- two groups coexisting by forced separation.

The Old City has been relatively quiet. But violence 15 months ago has been blamed for triggering the latest deadly uprising. Now, the four enclaves are hollow, desolate shells, out of bounds for most people in West Jerusalem and a virtual prison of poverty and despair for their residents.

Battle cries for the uprising call on Muslim Palestinians to defend the Al-Aksa Mosque, which sits atop an esplanade known by Jews as the Temple Mount, the most revered shrine in Judaism and the last remnant of the Second Temple.

On holy days, such as Yom Kippur for Jews and the end of Ramadan for Muslims, more than 2,000 police officers are assigned to the Old City to keep order.

And so the residents hunker down on the very edge of uncertainty. For Selavan, living in the Jewish Quarter means giving up conveniences found in a more modern world, but she sees herself on the front line of preserving her heritage.

She used to shop at the Arab Souk, the marketplace just outside the Jewish Quarter, engaging in the friendly art of bartering with the merchants who sell freshly butchered meat that hangs from outdoor stalls or spices that spill from barrels into the narrow walkways.

But Selavan now shops elsewhere, afraid some of her money will be siphoned off to the militant groups that send suicide bombers into Israeli pizza shops, discos and packed buses.

Her neighborhood of about 2,200 people has declined in population, but it is viewed as a last refuge for Jews. "My children are dancing on the ruins of the Roman Empire," Selavan says, as she darted along on her walking tour.

History here inevitably includes anguish. Street by street, she points out homes of people who died in terror attacks dating back two decades, and the struggling widows and fatherless children left behind to cope.

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