A satisfying celebration of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation, 1917-present, edited by Lena Jayyusi, Olive Branch Press (2015)

With the Palestinian population of Jerusalem increasingly pushed aside by Israeli policies and practices – ranging from making family life unlivable to supporting Jewish settlement expansion and ethnic violence – it is ever more important to emphasize the diversity of this magnificent city.

For centuries, Jerusalem has been home to a medley of different peoples, languages and faiths, existing alongside and interacting with one another in relative harmony.

Whether Arabic or Aramaic has been the dominant tongue, or Islam, Judaism, Christianity or paganism the majority religion, the city has always been a patchwork; monocultural uniformity – as modern Israeli governments have sought to impose – is anathema to its very soul.

Jerusalem Interrupted is very much a celebration and assertion of this fact. A satisfyingly substantial tome of 500 large-format pages, it charts many of the trends and changes which have marked the city’s history from the late Ottoman period at the start of the 20th century, through the British Mandate occupation from the end of the First World War until the Nakba (the forced expulsion of Palestinians) of 1948 and into the eras of Jordanian and Israeli rule.

A cultural hodgepodge

We are introduced to many facets of Jerusalem’s 20th-century existence in 18 chapters by scholars of Palestinian history and culture. Many of the authors have made significant contributions to more academic literature which – in terms of language or, simply, cost – are difficult for most readers to obtain.

This book, aimed at a more general readership, offers those without access to university libraries and expensive academic books the chance to benefit from its scholarship.

For the earlier period highlighted in the book – up to 1948 – chapters are written by the likes of Issam Nassar, who was involved in discovering, editing and translating many memoirs and other vitally important personal accounts of pre-1948 Palestine, such as that of the Jerusalemite musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh.

Andrea Stanton, author of a major study of the British-run Palestine Broadcasting Service’s place in Mandate society and politics, contributes a chapter on ‘Ajaj Nuwayhid, who headed Arabic-language programming on PBS alongside colleagues working on English and Hebrew broadcasts.

Stanton’s account shows how radio – listened to by large numbers of Palestinians by the late Mandate period – was an important battleground between British ideas of what should be broadcast, ranging from whether to broadcast Arabic music or Western classical performances, to political censorship about which both British and Arab programmers complained, and Palestinian Arab ideas of identity, religion and society.

And there is an absorbing piece on colonial medicine and Arab health by Sandy Sufian, whose monograph, Healing the Land and the Nation: Malaria and the Zionist Project in Palestine, 1920-1947, traces the ways in which Zionists in Mandate Palestine used ideas about cleanliness and disease to justify their social and political beliefs (and the ways in which Palestinian Arab physicians pushed back against this).

Other chapters tackle different aspects of Jerusalem life in this period, ranging from photography and art to the print press, education and the women’s movement.

The second section of Jerusalem Interrupted, meanwhile, follows up these rich and varied accounts of life before the Nakba with a smaller range of examples of how the occupation changed this remarkable city.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, for instance, writes on the ways in which archaeology and history have been used and abused in Jerusalem, manipulated to erase politically inconvenient periods, particularly of Islamic rule and culture.

And Nahed Awwad’s brief article on the now-defunct Qalandiya Airport in Jerusalem – often associated with the nearby Israeli military checkpoint or, perhaps for the majority of Palestinians old enough to remember, a lost item of history – highlights the fact that East Jerusalem was not always a tense, pressurized environment constantly disturbed by settler violence.

Instead, by interviewing elders and leafing through photo albums, Awwad finds that Qalandiya Airport was once bustling, the gateway to Jerusalem for famous visitors. Images from the early 1960s show, for example, the American actress Katharine Hepburn passing through, and the Syrian-Egyptian music star Farid al-Atrash arriving to perform in Jerusalem.

The many facets of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Interrupted is very much an assertion of a Palestinian Jerusalem, a place with a diverse and lively culture able to incorporate new influences and ideas. But these values are implicit through the various accounts and their different perspectives and concerns.

Undoubtedly this is a book with an agenda, but it is also a wide-ranging overview of a hugely complex city. The collection doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be comprehensive, but rather allows the reader to build an understanding of Jerusalem by dipping into its many facets.

One question, however, raised by this book is: why focus on Jerusalem? There are obvious answers to be found in citing the city’s religious, political and cultural significance, Israel’s efforts to seize it as a national capital and to obliterate non-Jewish voices, and the city’s centrality during the Mandate period in particular.

But it is easy, especially given the threats to Palestinian Jerusalem, to forget that Jerusalem is not all of Palestine: other cities and regions have their own pasts, have made their own unique contributions to Palestinian history and face their own threats.

Some more academic studies, less accessible titles notwithstanding, that treat Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jaffa and other major Palestinian cities with equal seriousness and depth are now called for.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.