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in what has become little more than a junkyard
behind the Jordanian wall of ’48,
a family of cats is visible from the ramparts
the orangey feral parents—who evaded
mass-spaying, mass-neutering campaigns—
relax disdainfully as their cubs group-wrestle
a topsy-turvy junk backdrop adds to the theatre:
unhinged doors, empty canisters, shattered tiles,
Tuborg tins littering the unweeded grasses
caretakers of holy real-estate, they preen
and whine, where Sennacherib once plundered,
grooming their pelts and stretching along
Jerusalemites experience a daily life quite different from the spiritual and historical thrills promised by tourism promotions. Beyond the political debates, terror attacks, killings disproportionate to any immediate danger, and dwindling commerce, we see neglect, litter, weeds, broken sidewalks, potholes rectified only just before a municipal election, and money spent not on infrastructures for the city’s inhabitants but rather on contentious events or costly, traffic-disrupting entertainments like Formula One races through the city streets, all for attracting visitors. And this is just with respect to West Jerusalem; East Jerusalem is infinitely worse off.
At least one visitor, Niall McDevitt, a London-based Irishman who has published two volumes of poetry, has also seen what the postcards don’t show; his forthcoming book is a collection of impressions from his recent visit here. On the Ramparts Walk from the Jaffa Gate he encountered this scene. (The “Jordanian wall,” he noted in an email, was explained by a sign along the route as having been “built by soldiers of the Jordanian Arab Legion after 1948.”)
The title “Mortmain” comes from the Old French for “dead hand,” and means transfer of lands or houses to a corporate body, such as a school or a church, for perpetual ownership. The familiar equivalent in Arabic is waqf, while in Hebrew such an arrangement is a hekdesh. The three monotheistic religions own vast swathes of property in Jerusalem, much of it under such perpetuity arrangements and exempt from property tax. Thus to ensure some money for the municipal coffers, the property tax rates for homes and businesses in Jerusalem are the highest in the country.
In the midst of the sacredness and perpetuity, the poet sees junk, weeds and feral cats, which often surprise visitors from countries where there are no street cats. Here, they control the rodent population even as kindhearted citizens set out food for them. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel proposed limiting cat numbers by deporting them to another country, arguing that spaying and neutering animals is against Jewish law. It didn’t happen.
McDevitt’s reference to an invading Assyrian king summons up George Gordon, Lord Byron’s famous ballad “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815), which innumerable schoolchildren have memorized. Byron’s line about an ancient defeat in Judah, “The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown” echoes in “unweeded” in this description of Jerusalem today.
*Bonus: A recitation of “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”