United colours of Jerusalem

Prathap Nair | Updated on November 22, 2019

Fragmented notes: The hour-long Shalem is a symphony created with instruments either broken or abandoned   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MEKUDESHET FESTIVAL/MICHAL FATTAL

How music and art come together to ease the city’s tense religious divisions

Under the blazing sun on a September day, as I hiked up the stone pavements of its old city, Jersualem did feel like the much-touted centre of the world. Elderly Egyptian Muslim pilgrims, Ethiopian Christians, local Orthodox Jews and assorted tour groups from across the globe streamed in and out of the religious sites. For a moment, religion felt like the golden lacquer that held the spirit of the city together. Since my transition from ambivalent agnosticism to explicit atheism has long been complete, Jerusalem as a religious destination held little charm for me.

But where religion unifies, the divisions can also be stark. Except for the tourists, religious pilgrims had little interest in visiting sites of other faiths. Besides, in a city shared by three major monotheistic religious faiths, the atmosphere seemed weighed down by the dourness of security measures.

When an invitation from the organisers of Mekudeshet, a contemporary art and cultural festival, landed in my inbox a month prior, I took more than a moment to decide on it. Organised by the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a non-profit, the festival promised to bring out the pluralistic face of Jerusalem with a line-up that included both Arabic and Jewish talents. The more I read about the festival bringing about a “cultural renaissance in Jerusalem in recent years”, the more I was intrigued.

I landed in the city and walked into the efficient hands of Kim Weiss, a sprightly Englishwoman who has made Jerusalem her home for over a decade. I confessed that I was conflicted about accepting the trip. “Boycotting is not the solution for anything,” she said.

That evening, after my tour to the old city, Weiss took me to Feel Beit, a low-key club on the periphery of the city. Olive groves lined its outer wall, and from the club’s courtyard we saw the city lights flicker at a distance, accentuating the darkness of the night.

Inside, Feel Beit was dimly lit — with tall bar stools and couches for seating — and a Hebrew talk session was in progress. It was there I met Karen Brunwasser, deputy director of the decade-old festival. “Art restores tolerance,” Brunwasser said. “After every injection of oxygen to the city in the form of art, the results were inspiring,” she added, remembering the earlier days of Mekudeshet (a Hebrew word for sacredness).

Admittedly, reaching out to East-Jerusalemites/Palestinians was difficult. But the initial scepticism may be slowly dissipating, as I discovered the next day.

The Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem was chock-a-block with restaurants, travel agencies and shoe shops, announcing their wares and services in Arabic. Inside Mahmud Muna’s Educational Bookshop, the wall-to-wall shelves were lined with quintessential reads on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and West Asian culture. The well-travelled and erudite Muna’s homey bilingual bookstore also doubled as a meeting point for cultural events, debates, book signings and other related activities. I met Muna, a patron of the festival, in the store’s cellar lined with photos of global Jewish and Palestinian icons — such as Mahmoud Shukair, Jeff Halper and Miriam Mangolez.

More than 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem (also known as Arab Jerusalem), a population that became part of Israel when the country annexed the territory after the six-day war of 1967. Despite living under the Israeli rule of law, people in this part of the city are allowed no official documentation that recognises them as Israeli citizens. They are “permanent residents”, a status that needs periodical renewal. Besides, they hold no voting rights in national elections.

But, sometimes, what politics can’t achieve, culture can. Muna’s bookshop played host to international and local artists and authors and conducted cultural events and book signings. Though Muna was aware that culture was at the heart of development, he was also mindful of its restrictions. “I think culture has its limitations and change has to come from politicians but, sadly, I’m not seeing it,” he sighed. “Can Jerusalem be the model (in co-existence)? It’d be nice to say...,” his voice trailed off, letting the unfinished sentence hang in the air.


On a different side of the city, an experiment on pushing the limits of co-existence was in progress. Weiss and I marched up a street in the ultra-Orthodox Meah Shearim neighbourhood to witness the Israeli artist Addam Yekutieli — aka Know Hope — in action as part of a Mekudeshet event called ‘Taking Sides’. The artist, in order to highlight the concepts of separation and exclusion that borders create, drew straight white lines across busy streets of Jerusalem. He then proceeded to write words on both sides of the line (Our Side, Their Side, for instance) and recorded the reactions of onlookers.

Draw the line: Israeli artist Addam Yekutieli’s art event ‘Taking Sides’ — in the ultra-Orthodox Meah Shearim neighbourhood   -  PRATHAP NAIR


“Jerusalem is a city that’s almost tailored to the project because of the separate realities that co-exist here,” the lanky Yekutieli explained. When he arrived at Meah Shearim, residents didn’t take kindly to Yekutieli’s art project. A kerfuffle followed, eggs were thrown at him and, in the subsequent ambush, someone seized his spray paint. Just as we were talking, an elderly man marched angrily with a spray paint can and defaced the work. “I think it’s more about our presence here, which is kind of the metaphor to the piece — a tightly-knit community and the unravelling of its values,” Yekutieli said.

That evening, I witnessed another art project, by Jerusalem-based activist and artist Yoram Amir, called ‘Window Stories’ at the Gan HaSus public park. Troubled by the Israeli State’s disregard for architectural diversity and preservation of old buildings, Amir started collecting windows from the buildings slated for demolition in Jerusalem. In 20 years, Amir collected over 2,500 windows. More than 500 windows from the collection were then built into a beautiful palace by two artists, Itamar Paloge and Lila Peleg. Peering up from the base of the tower, it was easy to mistake that I was inside a giant kaleidoscope.

Look in, look out: A palace built with more than 500 windows collected from buildings slated for demolition   -  PRATHAP NAIR


Amir passed away before the project was completed this year. A drummer-vocalist was singing a high-energy Hebrew song when I visited.

But the musical highlight of Mekudeshet played out in the form of Shalem, performed by a 100-member orchestra the next evening. Under a starless sky, I queued up for entry into the auditorium in the Hutzot Hayotzer area of the Old City.

The hour-long Shalem is a symphony created with instruments either broken or abandoned, neglected and disused. About 100 instruments (guitar, keyboard, mandolin, trombone, accordion, violin, trumpet and so on) collected from various institutions and individuals across Jerusalem were used in the act. Performed by volunteers in all age groups from diverse backgrounds, composed by local artistes and conducted by Tom Cohen, Shalem played out spectacularly as the metaphor for a broken city. The sold-out performance shook everyone in the audience, from bearded hipsters to silver-haired patrons, and the ovation rang out long into the night, lasting several minutes.


There was one more event that moved me immensely. Titled ‘Dissolving Boundaries’, it was an audio walking tour that took me around the city and into the lives of various Jerusalemites in the form of interviews.

It featured, among many stories, that of Fainy Sukenik, an ultra-Orthodox woman who, after being ostracised by her community for separating from her husband, started a support group for people in similar situations, and of Ofer Erez and his struggles to be accepted as Israel’s first transgender defence forces officer.

As I walked towards the Mahane Yehuda market, the soundtrack of the queer Lebanese band Mashrou Leila’s feminist anthem Roman came on. The song, which calls out to Muslim women to weaponise victimisation into resistance, made me emotional as I squeezed into the crowds at the market.


That evening, Feel Beit looked unrecognisable. Backlit in pink spotlights, the dance floor had transformed into a free ride for experts and half-dancers, spinning with reckless abandon. A belly dancer swayed on the stage and a pink-haired singer twirled, intoxicated by her own tune. As a new song came on, the belly dancer resurfaced, having changed into a shimmering dress in shades of a peacock. Someone threw a kippa in the air out of excitement.

I turned to Weiss, surprised at the kippa-throwing act, which, I thought, could be sacrilegious. Does that happen often?

“Oh it happens,” she told me. “This is what we try to achieve,” she added, “to bring people together, irrespective of their faiths.”

In the gaiety it was easy to forget the dichotomies of Jerusalem. Even if the semblance of harmony was only fleeting, it did exist in rare pockets. I wondered if music and art could dissolve the differences. Eager to hold on to the thought, I sat on the high stool, with the music growing louder, and silently raised a toast to the city.

Prathap Nair is a freelance writer currently based in Frankfurt

Published on November 22, 2019

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