Reclaiming Jerusalem's No-man's-land

An art project in the capital this week shines a light on a forgotten shadowland.

Everyone knows that the line drawn in green pencil by Moshe Dayan and Abdullah Tal in 1948 divided Jerusalem in two - the western Israeli part and the eastern Arab part. Now we are being reminded that the line divided the city into three: Israeli, Arab and no-man's-land. A group of artists, most of them Jerusalemites, are planning to revive Jerusalem's no-man's-land this week with a series of works and installations, most of them temporary, under the heading "Visit Nomansland." "We are the tourism office of that space," says one of the project's initiators, Guy Briller.

The Jerusalem no-man's-land was best known between the wars, from 1949 to 1967. Between the lines and blighted with landmines and gunfire from Jordanian Legion snipers, a real no-man's-land developed, where people were afraid to go. This period also gave rise to a number of legends, including that of a nun who dropped her false teeth out of the Notre Dame convent, only retrieving them after United Nations intervention.

Emil Salman

At the foot of Notre Dame, in the area between the Damascus Gate and the Musrara neighborhood, was the largest stretch of no-man's-land in the heart of Jerusalem. This is where most of the works will be displayed this week.

Veterans of the neighborhood remember that, until 1967, this area was a large swamp of sewage water where jackals roamed. After the Six-Day War, Israel went to great lengths to blur the line delineating the border. The swamp was drained and replaced with a system of roads crossing the city from south to north. The light rail has been added to these, as well as a new bus terminal in East Jerusalem, plazas and palm trees. This is the main transition between the two parts of the city, and the trade and transportation crossroads of Palestinian Jerusalem. It is the main route from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to the Western Wall, and for tourists it is the main entrance to the Old City.

However, the effort to erase the border has failed in at least one significant place: No-man's-land remains on Google Maps, and it was there that Briller noticed it about a year ago. "All at once it leapt out at me there's a small gold mine here," he recalls.

Briller spent a week in this space in his mobile home, from which he broadcast to the Internet. Thus the project was born. In order to explain the significance of the no-man's-land, Briller tried to draw up what he calls the comfort range: "Stretch an imaginary line from the Damascus Gate to the westernmost homes in Musrara. If you are Palestinian, at the Damascus Gate you are at home. You feel connected. At the plaza there are already cameras and police - you are in the shadow of danger. In Musrara, if you are a Palestinian, you are in danger. At any moment you could be arrested and made to stand with your face to the wall."

An Israeli walking from west to east will feel safe in Musrara and lose his confidence the closer he gets to the Damascus Gate. "This is an anti-place," adds photographer Yuval Yairi, who is curating the exhibition together with Briller and Li'el Klein. "This enables us to look at the reality from an unreal perspective."

The works exhibited might awaken some sleeping dogs that have been left to lie. The artists say this is part of the intention. The fact that the project is being done with hardly any institutional help and without a police permit is not going to make it any easier.

Artist Noa Arad-Yairi, for example, will position tied-up concrete figures close to a wall, a reminder of the arrests of young Palestinians by border police, something that happens every day in the area. Artist Yuda Braun will don his "White Soldier" persona. For two years now, Braun has been going around, mainly in areas of friction, in the character of the White Soldier, an armed combat soldier painted white all over. He has been arrested 20 times, once under the procedure for detaining a suspect, as the police aimed their weapons at him. Braun's performance will probably not go unnoticed this time either.

"This is an act of intervening in the reality," he says. "This is a character you're used to seeing and I present it with a change, in a surrealistic guise that forces the viewer to reexamine his attitude."

Braun often appears as the White Soldier in no-man's-land. "Every time something different happens," he relates. "Yesterday I went out for a patrol and the reactions were warm and people laughed. The time before, people gathered and started shouting at me. There is no way of predicting the public's reaction there."

Another artist participating in the exhibition is Porat Salomon, an inhabitant of the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin in Samaria. Salomon has located an empty space below the Jaffa Gate; here he intends to draw and mold in the sand a model of the floor of the home he's currently building at the settlement. "It isn't my intention to transmit any message," he says, "but rather to increase the volume of everyone's thinking. I am aware of the complexity in the fact that I am building a house at the Jaffa Gate - I am not imagining that I am in Switzerland. I am assuming the police will come and will want to evacuate me. I will be glad to speak with them. This situation is the content of the work."

Other works will relate directly to the past of the no-man's-land. Artist Gavri Guy will lay a "foot mine" in Musrara. Stepping on it will operate a computer program that will trigger the most popular phrase with the word "land" on the Internet at that moment. Itai Ben Nun, a street musician, will play as he walks from east to west, suiting the music to the place - Eastern near the walls and Western at a distance from them. Noam Kuzar is creating an alternative map of stops for the light rail system. Mohammed Jibli, one of the two Arab artists participating in the project, will conduct a musical tour for visitors and there will also be dance works, a play with audience participation and more.

A total of 32 artists will participate in the no-man's-land project. To their regret, the organizers have not succeeded in recruiting Palestinian artists. They have, however, succeeded in recruiting the famous Akramawi hummus joint on the plaza opposite the Damascus Gate, which will host a work by photographer Zvi Tolkowsky.

The project is being produced as part of Manofim (Levers ), a series of events to expose art in Jerusalem to the general public. Manofim was founded four years ago by young Jerusalem artists and quickly became one of the most interesting artistic initiatives in the city.

During the coming week there will be 25 exhibitions in the Manofim series, some of them in surprising spaces like an auto repair shop in the Talpiot industrial zone. The project is supported by the Jerusalem Foundation. In the next phase, in February 2012, the artists are planning to try to establish a "no-man's-land council," which will hold discussions on the meaning of both no-man's-land, both in Jerusalem and as a metaphor.

On Tuesday, Yairi and Briller had their pictures taken in situ, with large letters making up the word in English. The letters are part of an installation Yairi is preparing for the project, in which visitors and various people will be photographed with the letters. After a few minutes of discussion, a group of Palestinian taxi drivers agreed to take part and posed in accordance with the photographer's instructions. "What's written there?" asked a Palestinian passerby. "No-man's-land, land that belongs to nobody," replied the photographer. "It does belong to someone, it's ours! The Jews don't have anything here," he said angrily and hurried away.