The Artists Who United Jerusalem, and Then Divided It

Muslala, an idealistic group of artists, found themselves unwelcome in a seam line Jerusalem neighborhood

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Yehuda Brown's "White Soldier" project.
Yehuda Brown's "White Soldier" project.Credit: Alexander Jensko
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Not long after Chiara Fantini arrived in Jerusalem from Italy in 2006 on a student exchange program, she and a young local artist, Matan Israeli, fell in love. She was staying in the Old City and he lived in the Musrara neighborhood, opposite the Old City in the western part of Jerusalem. A low, acoustic wall ran along the road between Musrara and the Old City, and between Israeli and Fantini. In a romantic gesture, Israeli built a small wooden staircase abutting the wall, which was used by people who wanted to head down to the Old City from Musrara. Hundreds of people climbed up and down the stairs every day, whether heading for the big parking lot just above the fence or for the Palestinian shopping area opposite the Old City’s Damascus Gate.

The stairs became a small symbol of the connection between the two parts of the city, and as such they were demolished – three times. In December 2008, the police removed the staircase as part of the preparations for Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, for fear of rioting in the city. Two years later it was Israeli himself who did it, because of the groundwork for the light train. The stairs were installed a third time with the aid of a Palestinian businessman, but were demolished again in 2014, immediately after Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

In retrospect, the stairs were the first artistic act by Muslala, a group of artists who were active in Musrara from 2009 to 2014. Their aim was to develop art forms that would converse with the area – an old, distressed neighborhood on the Jerusalem seam line – and influence it. The project ended in resounding failure. The artists found themselves in a direct confrontation with veteran residents of Musrara and with old ethnic, political and racist demons that were released along the way.

The steps that once connected Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood and the Old City.
The steps that once connected Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood and the Old City.Credit: Matan Israeli

Muslala was booted out of Musrara. But just before the group fell apart they found a new home: the Clal Building, a white elephant in the center of Jerusalem. Now Muslala is trying to save the building that was supposed to be the city’s beating heart but mostly became associated with its degeneration. Toward the end of May, Muslala, in conjunction with the journal Erev Rav, launched an extraordinary catalogue summing up its five years of activity in Musrara, admitting failure – but with a view to the future.

Watermelons in a minefield

Muslala was founded in 2009 as a nonprofit. It started as a solo exhibition by Israeli, the group’s moving spirit, in the streets of Musrara. Subsequently he was joined by artists Guy Briller, Rami Ozeri and Yochai Hadad. In the years that followed, the Muslala group created dozens of artistic projects in the neighborhood. Billboards and benches became platforms for exhibitions; a dead tree was transformed into an installation in memory of a neighborhood resident; an artist who called himself Mikoriza “planted” small gardens of “urban mushrooms” in the form of sections of colored pipes that sprang up on the sidewalks. The artist Hannan Abu Hussein, born in the Galilee city of Umm al-Fahm and now based in Jerusalem, decorated a bench with tiles inscribed with images of feminine objects. The group offered tours to view the works.

In the next stage, Muslala worked in cooperation with the neighborhood and was involved in the founding of a community garden. A bomb shelter given to the group by the city was converted into a carpentry workshop for local children and anyone else who wanted to use it. Among those who availed themselves of the opportunity were groups of at-risk youths, mentally disabled individuals and dropouts from ultra-Orthodox educational institutions.

In 2011, Muslala produced a series of events and activities to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers protest movement of Mizrahi Jews. One of the high points was the renaming of two small streets in the neighborhood to “Black Panthers Road” and “Lane of Not Nice People” – evoking Prime Minister Golda Meir’s disparaging remark about the Black Panthers.

Yehuda Brown's "White Soldier" project.
Yehuda Brown's "White Soldier" project.Credit: Muslala

In 1971, Muslala was also involved in the Nomansland art project, referring to the interim space between the Israeli and Jordanian borders, which divided the city until 1967. What especially sticks in the mind is the character of the “white soldier” who patrolled the no man’s land in a white uniform. The “soldier,” his face and body painted white, was created by the artist Yehuda Baron; he was occasionally arrested by Border Police officers as he made his rounds.

In 2012, as part of the Under the Mountain Festival within the framework of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, the group installed a watermelon stand on an empty lot below the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center on the boundary between Musrara and the Old City. The idea was to reprise one of the interesting cultural phenomena of unified Jerusalem. In the summer months during the 1970s and 1980s a row of watermelon stands sprang up in the no-man’s-land area, and – unusually in Jerusalem – they were run by Israelis and Palestinians in partnership. The watermelon sellers sat around eating their produce and watching kung fu movies on televisions installed at the site. Muslala recreated the setting and invited the two sides. But it soon became clear that the Jerusalem of 2012 was not the same city it had been in the 1970s.

The watermelon shed projectCredit: muslalaartrex

At the entrance to the site a sign in Arabic invited the public from the eastern part of the city, music in both languages was played and many young Palestinians showed up. But the tension rose when dancing began and mixed couples formed at the site. Matan Israeli admits that the project was a mistake. “I didn’t have enough experience to understand the complexity of the event when the dancing started. Guys who had never danced with a Jewish girl – for them it means one particular thing for that moment. We weren’t ready for that. We worked without a Palestinian partner, and there was no one to explain to the young guys in Arabic how to behave. There was also a problem of timing – the event took place during Ramadan, which is a holiday that families spend at home. The only ones who go out are the shebab” – rowdy youths – “who are looking for adventures.”

The Muslala event “bordered on indecent acts,” the chairman of the neighborhood’s community directorate, Avi Moyal, told me. “Mothers came to me and said that members of the minorities had octopus hands and were lifting [the Jewish girls] on their shoulders,” he recalls. “Israeli didn’t care – what mattered is that there was Jewish-Arab cooperation. Everything is allowed for the sake of peace.”

Moyal also claims that the Muslala group offered explanations about the Nakba and about the neighborhood’s Palestinian history – Musrara was an Arab neighborhood until 1948 – in their tours, and that they tried to intervene in the elections to the community directorate. “We walked through a minefield of 40 years, and we should have proceeded more slowly and defused mine after mine,” Israeli admits.

Tensions rose in the months that followed. Under pressure of the neighborhood committee, the city denied the group use of the bomb shelter, and their tours drew hostile, sometimes violent, reactions. The group appeared to have come to the end of its tether. And then, from an unexpected direction, a solution emerged that led Muslala onto a new path.

Matan Israeli and the Clal building in Jerusalem.
Matan Israeli and the Clal building in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Rooftop oasis

The Clal Building was a modern structure for its day. It was erected in the 1970s between the Mahaneh Yehuda produce market and Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare at the time, and was intended to be a “spiral street.” The mayor, Teddy Kollek, declared that the edifice was the answer to the wild expansion of Jerusalem after 1967, in an attempt to save the city’s business core. But the building’s failure was as spectacular as the hopes for it.

In contrast to the original plan, which spoke of an uncovered building, the structure was capped with an ugly plastic roof, supposedly temporary, which is still intact. The stores were sold to hundreds of separate buyers, which hampered management of the building and the cultivation of its public spaces. Jerusalemites flagrantly avoided the peculiar spiral created by quarters and halves of stories. The building became shabbier by the year.

As part of a Muslala study program in conjunction with the David Yellin College of Education and Salon Hacubia (The Cube, an art institution), two students, Guy Cohen and Naomi Verta, suggested a cooperative project with the Clal Building. In short order, Muslala, with the support of the building’s merchants, launched activities on the desolate roof and terrace. Now there are dozens of trees and beds of flowers and vegetables growing on the roof, and it’s a venue for exhibitions, workshops and lectures.

“The goal is to show how forces of creativity, thought and art can give the city a new direction and more breathing space,” says Eyal Bloch, 56, a social entrepreneur and sculptor who is chairman of Muslala and speaks of an “urban oasis.”

The group’s ultimate goal is to save the Clal Building. The rooftop activity now encompasses four spheres: a laboratory for sculpture and building using earth; the “Gag Eden” (Roof of Eden, a play on gan eden, Hebrew for paradise) project for the development of urban agriculture in open spaces; a center for urban beekeeping; and Prizma Center, which engages in community activities such as yoga, meditation and dance.

Muslala's rooftop project at the Clal building.
Muslala's rooftop project at the Clal building.Credit: Matan Israeli

The groups aims to provide a cultural attraction on the terrace to bring members of the public to the building, improve its public spaces and reconnect the structure to the streets around it. “The goal is to build it as a success story that is connected to our agendas, such as sustainability; not just to make compost on the roof, but to use this as a genuine connection between economics and society and environment,” Israeli says.

Recently a plan devised by the firm of Rachelle Wiener Landscape & Architecture has been drawn up for the renovation of the roof and the terrace. In the more distant future a budget will also perhaps be available to replace the grimy plastic roof with a glass dome that will let light into the building. Muslala currently enjoys establishment support from the Jerusalem Municipality; Eden – The Jerusalem Center Development Company; the Shahaf Foundation – Philanthropic Partnership for Promoting Young Communities; the Natan Fund, which supports innovative approaches to transforming the Jewish future; the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jewish Agency and the Lechtag Foundation.

Israeli is optimistic about the future of both the group and the building. “We’ve been doing art out of love since the Chiara stairs,” he says, “and that’s important, because most art is created from a critical standpoint, and critiquing isn’t love. Love is a stance in which, despite everything, there is a possibility for optimism – and optimism is the most radical stance there is.”

Muslala's clay oven workshop.
Muslala's clay oven workshop.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi