Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Musrara, the Center of the World

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Musrara, the Center of the World

Article excerpt

As essential as water or the air we breathe, streets are the corridors of the soul and the dark trajectories of memory.

--Paul Virilio, Panic City1

"The Cypresses are still there."

Michel looks at them, high up behind the wall that surrounds a four-story white building, and his eyes begin to wander, thirsty, trying to recognize the little that remains from his distant childhood.2 They are ancient eyes, Michel's, folded under the weight of an eighty-year-old man. He is already tired from the walk uphill along a little street in the center of Jerusalem, just outside the ancient walls of the Old City. But his breathing is light, concealed by the slightest of smiles, gentle and innocent, because that anonymous little street in the old quarter of Musrara is Michel's memory lane. That is what he calls it in his impeccable British English: the street of his memory. The memory of his childhood and of the fixed images of 1948 that marked a before and an after, the hiatus in his life. And the hiatus of Jerusalem.

Michel looks around like a stranger. He looks like the passers-by who use the little street to get to the offices of the Jerusalem city hall, just over the hill where a large square opens up. Michel, however, has no urgent business at city hall. His arrival point is his memory lane. He is there, after decades, only to remember. Memories rush from the mouth of that bent old man with the tidily combed white hair. His memory lane was called Baldwin Street when he was small, named in honor of the crusader king in 1918 by the British authorities, together with a committee that brought together representatives of the three religious communities to rename the streets. Baldwin was a gracious street at the end of the 1930s, full of villas with gardens. Look there, the house of the French consul,

and then that of Judge Khayyat - large, very large with a real park surrounded by a wall. Right in front of the Khayyat estate was the house in which Michel lived as a small boy for ten special years: from 1938, in the middle of the great Arab revolt against the British and Zionist immigration, until 1948, the year of the birth of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war, the year of the Palestinian catastrophe - the Nakba.

The little house of Michel's childhood was a single story, like many in the small but important quarter of Musrara - a prestigious area which in successive censuses counted at least 130 one- or two-story buildings, as well as churches, hostels, and convents. Musrara was a built-up area, triangular in shape, established around 1875 in a place whose name in Arabic perhaps means "field of pebbles." It is bordered to the south by the walls of the Old City, to the west by the commercial district of Jerusalem, to the north by the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood Mea Shearim, and to the north-east by the primarily Muslim district of Shaykh Jarrah. From the architectural point of view, Musrara mirrors the typical style of fin-de-siècle Jerusalem: local stones, sloping roofs on four sides, Arabic windows high and arched in the upper part, and metal book-end window shutters. Then there were the gardens: rose gardens separating houses from the street, and behind them fruit-trees - pomegranates, almonds, mulberries, and medlars - and those tall and austere cypresses that have resisted wars, new inhabitants, and rampant speculative building.

Musrara was the first mixed district to develop outside the Old City walls, where the Jerusalemite middle class - Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Ottoman citizens - lived and in time consolidated their day-to-day life. There they freed themselves from the constraints of the sixteenth-century walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent, which until 1873 were closed at night to protect the inhabitants from external dangers. In Musrara, the class of well-to-do that had developed at the end of the Ottoman Empire in the decades preceding the First World War placed themselves "at the mercy" of the countryside and villages that ringed Jerusalem and furnished the city with vegetables, milk, olives, and manual labor. …

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