light rail - Eran Wolkowski - August 26 2011
The privatization of the Tel Aviv-area ligth rail project failed because of an inherent problem: To win the tender, the franchisee had submitted a bid so low it was impossible to sustain. Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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The expressions of the overweight nun sitting in the wheelchair and her skinny nun escort, both of whom joined the masses of passengers at the Shimon Hatzadik stop of the Jerusalem light-rail, showed that they enjoy suffering - sort of like Jesus did on the Via Dolorosa. But later, when they wanted to get off - despite the pleas of the two "operations inspectors" (as attendants on the train are called ), who yelled to people at the stop, "First let out those who want to get off before you come onboard!" - the doors closed before the skinny nun had time to pull the heavy wheelchair out.

"That takes up a lot of room," said one passenger, trying to blame the wheelchair. "Get off at the Davidka and go back one stop." The nuns nodded. What did their savior say? "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Indeed, many people don't know how to deal with the light-rail. Some don't even know why they boarded it. I, however, discovered why immediately. It's Jerusalem's answer to the Tel Aviv protest encampments: You get on and travel for a certain distance in order to complain, in the hope that there will be a sufficiently large audience to hear your complaint. Like the lady who, when the train reached the last stop, summed up her impressions to the operations inspector thus: "I would have gotten there faster on foot."

He tried to defend his place of work: "But it's pleasant - there's an air conditioner."

But she stuck to her guns: "For 20 years I traveled faster. This took me an hour."

"And there's sun in your face. Why didn't they put in curtains?" complained a bearded man.

Another rider defended the honor of the new project: "Don't you see? It's special glass that protects against sunlight."

And the bearded one: "They didn't put in curtains because there was no money left. They kept on digging, and in the end there was no money left." He blew his nose noisily in a tissue and then wiped the sweat from his face.

There are some who were happy about the train: the little innocent children who have never sinned, the ones with curly hair and long golden earlocks who have never had a haircut, and the other, black-haired ones with skullcaps with their name embroidered on them. Like little Hod, who sat in the empty seat to my left like a good boy after the girl who sat there before him, exhausted, suddenly jumped up at the reprimand "It's forbidden!" that erupted from the throat of her father at the end of the car. According to Jewish law, you see, impure females are not permitted to sit next to pure males, and vice versa.

And there were the older people for whom this is their first trip, from the Mount Herzl stop to the Air Force stop and back. They brought drinks and a sandwich, and seemed to be enjoying the festive atmosphere. Others, the serious ones, held a map of the route and nodded their head in confirmation every time the name of the stop that appeared on the page accorded precisely with the name of the stop written on the sign.

This was no small thing, because many of the stops embody whole chapters in Jewish history - even in a certain logical order. If the first stop is named after the visionary of the state, for example, next come stops that recall the reality that followed the vision: Indeed, seven stops are named after commando units, army corps, generals and battlefields. "Dukhifat, Dukhifat, Dukhifat," the voice of the automatic announcer declares in the country's three official languages. Yes, Dukhifat. Named not for the miraculous hoopoe bird that appeared with King Solomon in Jewish legends, but for the Israel Defense Forces commando unit.

There's a charming sort of Jerusalem chaos in the translations of the names of light-rail stops, from Hebrew to English and Arabic and back. For example: For some reason, the Arabic translation of "Ammunition Hill" is "Sheikh Jarrah," whereas the stop at Sheikh Jarrah is called "Shimon Hatzadik" in Hebrew. Shivtei Yisrael (Tribes of Israel ) is called "Musrara" in Arabic, and only the Davidka Square is "Davidka" in all three languages.

"Where are we? Sho'afat? Help, Mommy! It's really scary to be here," called out a girl who boarded at Pisgat Ze'ev and suddenly noticed that on her right and left, the train passed between Arabs' homes. They could be identified by the black containers on the roofs for collecting water. The girls was about to push the emergency button to get off. "Don't panic," called out another rail company official in a white shirt, running toward her from the end of the car. And from the driver's compartment the voice erupted: "Good morning, this is your driver speaking. Don't push the emergency button."

Cried one voice from the platform at the Al-Malik George stop, in Arabic, and King George, in English: "Let him through." It was a blind man, feeling around with his cane. He also wanted to experience the light-rail and to express his complaints. One compassionate woman ordered her son to give him a seat.

"It's not necessary," said the blind man. "No, no, sit, so you won't fall down," the woman ordered the man, whereupon he exploited his democratic right to express what he was feeling in public.

"My brother-in-law works as a taxi driver. The train has broken the backs of the taxis," he said sadly.

"A train is like a new toy," replied the woman after a while. "What do you think? That it won't break, too?"