- Purchase/rental options available:
The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 729-745
[Access article in PDF]
Journeys to Jerusalem
Lisa Suhair Majaj
For almost forty years I have been going to Jerusalem. Although I grew up in Amman, my earliest memories tap into the hills and stones of Jerusalem, splinter in its rocky soil. This is true even though my coherent recollections of Jerusalem begin later, after I turned seven, the biblical age of reason, and the eastern part of the city fell under Israeli occupation. Who is to say at what point experience turns to memory? Traces register at the deepest layers of consciousness, and we are heir to things we cannot always name.
Before 1967, my older sister recalls, we could drive for lunch from Amman to Jerusalem and back in a single day, untrammeled by checkpoints and borders. Now, when Palestinians cannot even go the short distance from Ramallah to Birzeit, much less from Amman to Jerusalem, without being forcibly reminded of their occupied status through multiple checkpoints, ditches dug across the roads, and barbed-wire fences, this is wondrous to contemplate. That this earlier time of unhindered Palestinian access to Jerusalem exists, for me, before the onset of clear memory, residing instead in a shadow realm of impression that is almost [End Page 729] mythical, seems only appropriate. After all, despite their support in a long legacy of UN resolutions, Palestinian claims to justice appear to have taken on the characteristics of a fairy tale: a story of wish fulfillment told at night to credulous children, but dismissed by the powers of the world in the light of day.
I have no explicit recollection of those early family visits to Jerusalem: the drive down into the richly fertile Jordan Valley, past fields of banana and tomato, and then up again, toward the dun-colored Palestinian hills that formed the base note for Jerusalem's symphonic walls. But subtle impressions of light and shade, the smell of freshly turned earth, the springtime syncopation of poppies and wild mustard by the roadside, the off-white facades of stone buildings rising on the eastern approach to the city—their chipped facets holding light like an internal glow—must have made their way into my subconscious, emerging later as a sensation of mysterious familiarity, till it was as if I had always been traveling this route.
Mingled sights and sounds and smells of the city itself must similarly have registered on my earliest awareness: the majestic vista of the Dome of the Rock, its golden hemisphere casting a glow over the city; the worn bulwark of the Old City walls, eloquent with antiquity; the streets filled with snarls of cars and people and sometimes donkeys; blaring horns, drivers shouting at each other, vendors calling out their wares; and the proliferation of odors, as car exhaust and perspiration collided with the distinct aromas of za'atar and freshly roasted coffee.
In contrast—for Jerusalem has always provided a study in contrasts—my relatives' house off Saladin Street, near Herod's Gate, must have provided then the oasis of calm that it does in later memories: cacophony of the street falling away as we passed through the tiled corridor leading to the internal garden fragrant with lemon and jasmine, and then to the house itself, there to be welcomed with kisses and exclamations. For if Jerusalem was a city rich with historical legacies and sensory texture, it was also an emotional space, one resonant with familial warmth and familial claims. For me, child of an American mother and a Palestinian father, reminded too often of my anomalous status in Palestinian culture, the embracing welcome offered by my Jerusalem relatives was a comfort: proof that one could be different and yet still belong. I might be Americaniyeh; my brown hair and hazel eyes might set me off from my black-haired, black-eyed cousins, whose fluency in English, German, and Arabic put my monolingualism to shame; [End Page 730] but within the familial space we were all beit Majaj, of the house of Majaj. And when my aunt called us to lunch, to a...