A Pervasive Insecurity?

“All Jerusalemites know that sense of dread. The hesitation, as you choose your seat on the bus or your table at a restaurant, the suspicious glances at the people around you.”   -from The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Summer 2006 magazine

I don’t know how much I agree with the second part of this quote, the implication that life in Jerusalem is filled with constant companions in fear and suspicion. But I know about the sense of dread, from my own experience during the war and from conversations with people who have lived here longer than I. My life these days is mostly contained within the center of the city so I don’t deal with buses, but I do see soldiers everywhere and especially at the shuk. This week there was something going on where a police car stopped traffic on the street by the shuk, and yes, my first thought was that there might have been some suspicious bomb-related activity. On Friday, I saw a young soldier, high on power, verbally abusing some Arab-looking guy at the entrance to the shuk. I saw an older woman intervene, telling the young soldier to calm down and take it easy. I wanted to go to the Old City with a friend on Friday, but we didn’t because of the protests over the Israeli archaeological digging near the Al-Aqsa mosque. I don’t think about bombing anymore when I go into a restaurant, even though I have shown my bag to the security guard at the entrance. I don’t look at people as possible suicide bombers, and neither do most of the people I know. But the awareness is there, that we are not 100% safe. That this city is full of all kinds of tensions, that life is and will continue to be difficult. That’s just how it goes, here.

But today I found a haven, where Jerusalem seemed to drift away. I went to what turned out to be a Catholic seminary with my roommate, right near my house. I had thought it was a monastery. There is an open garden there, wild and facing the beautiful building. I don’t know if I can describe it really, but there is something special about that place. It felt a little bit like the Secret Garden, even though the garden itself wasn’t enclosed or anything. There is an open area with a statue of Mary and baby Jesus, wild flowers, old olive trees, green weeds shooting up everywhere, and rose plants in hibernation for the winter, save one that was blooming gently already. The building is the seminary and church, made in pinkish Jerusalem stone with the windows trimmed in blue. A young man came out to talk to us, a seminary student in his third year of study, originally from Congo. When he finishes here, he is going back to be a priest and teacher for his community. There were kids playing with another student and a priest, but on the veranda of the building, not in the garden with us.

It was beautiful, and touchingly peaceful. It felt like we had stepped out of Jerusalem into somewhere in Europe, in some other time. Usually I don’t think about the dread that I have come to live with – I call it tension, difficult living conditions because I am secular and liberal, missing the free California culture. But escaping like that, even for just an hour or so, reminded me that it is here. The garden, though, gave me a sense of calm and renewal. As Rasta Bob says, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

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