Double Take / Bombing on Stage

Performance artist Yossi Atia recently gave a tour of terrorist attack sites in Jerusalem, probing social responses to the carnage.

Televised images of the gutted bus that was carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria when it was blown up by a suicide bomber last month were a chilling reminder of similar scenes here that have become a fading memory for many Israelis.

Suicide bombings were once particularly commonplace in Jerusalem, and a tour last week of bombing sites along Jaffa Road – hit more than any other street in the world by such attacks – tried to explore the scars and fears those events have left behind.

Titled “From Trauma to Fantasy,” the tour, held several times last week, was part of a festival of “new public art” in Jerusalem that tried to engage audiences with political and social messages on the streets, rather than in galleries or theaters.

The guide was Yossi Atia, a performance and video artist whose previous work has included short, Borat-like satirical films on divisive political issues, in which ordinary people often end up looking a little foolish. On a Friday afternoon, he seemed to be in a more serious mood. Still, he introduced himself as a tour guide named Ronen Matalon, complete with a straw hat, clip-on microphone and speaker.

With a video cameraman in tow, Atia led a group of about 25 people through the Mahane Yehuda Market and down Jaffa Road, stopping at the stone memorial plaques put up by the city at the sites of bombings on buses, at bus stops and in restaurants, in which dozens were killed.

Using newspaper clippings and photos and prodding his listeners to recall the events, Atia tried to evoke the social response to the terrorism: the frantic phone calls to make sure loved ones were safe, the morbid fascination of crowds gathered at the scenes of carnage, the fear that pervaded everyday activities – like riding a bus or sitting in a restaurant – and the creeping fatalism that poisoned ordinary routines.

When Palestinian women joined in carrying out the attacks and the bombings spread from buses to restaurants and cafes, “you started being afraid of everyone,” Atia said. “There was a persistent fear that something bad is going to happen, a constant expectation of the next disaster.”

Inbar Amir, a tour participant who rode the buses as a teenager in those days, recalled how at first she had moved away from passengers that looked suspicious, but then resigned herself to her fate.

“I didn’t have the strength to get up anymore,” she said. “I figured what will be, will be.”

Atia noted that people wrestled at the time with the question of what one does on the day of a suicide bombing: Continue business as usual and proceed with plans to go out at night, or acknowledge the tragedy in some way?

He pointed out that as the bombings became frequent – peaking at more than 40 across the country in 2002 – they were incorporated into the daily routine. Radio and TV programming was no longer suspended for hours to make way for live news coverage, and scenes of the bombings were quickly mopped up and repaired, with the supreme goal of getting back to normal as quickly as possible.

For his part, Atia recalled, he would respond to a bombing by having beer with friends or going out on a date. It was his way of “beating the terror” and “not letting them win,” he said.

In a flash of gallows humor, he produced a homemade chart showing imaginary bombing locations and death tolls and asked his listeners to list how they would respond in each case: Would it still be appropriate to go out for a beer or a date?

The tour ended on Ben Yehuda Street, the pedestrian mall that had been targeted by bombers and deserted by shoppers, like much of the downtown area. It was now crowded with people, and Atia pointed out a tree, planted by then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani who came to show support after the 9/11 attacks.

Atia said the tree was a lone sign of hope among the memorial markers downtown with their inscriptions calling for divine vengeance, and that to him it symbolized “a change of consciousness from mourning and revenge.”

“My fantasy,” he concluded, “is to live without waiting for the next disaster."

As the tour was breaking up, Atia, who grew up near Jaffa road, revealed his true identity. He said he was filming the tour for a movie about his character, the terror-site guide, who in many ways resembles him. the film, he said, is a work in progress. What form it will take remains to be seen.