Does prolonged habitation in a conflict zone leave one with a chronic state of Stockholm syndrome?
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At least a variant of that I think I carried with me when I came back to London after eight years in Jerusalem. I missed the familiarity, the strong sun from beyond the Old City walls piercing my bedroom window across the valley of Gehinnom (the area whose infamous Canaanite-era child sacrifices provided one of the Biblical names for hell); the hike up the steps – 90 of them – with my toddler strapped to my back to his “peace kindergarten” on King David Street where he, and before him his sister, learnt to sing and speak in Hebrew, greet and swear in Arabic; the cafes around the city center where I worked on my laptop as the friendly waiters brought just the right number of hafukhs [Israeli cappuccinos] that provided the perfect caffeine boost without leaving me gritting my teeth.
The angst-ridden creative inspiration that I drew from the West Bank checkpoint queues and Ben Gurion Airport crossings would press heavily upon my heart following my unceremonious return to London in August, 2013. The numerous occurrences of being body searched or questioned about my racial background, where I came from “originally,” the names of my great-grandparents (of which I haven’t a clue), almost being deported from Israel - somehow became memories of travel woes from a distant past that no longer affected my psychological well-being. I longed for a stroll on Jaffa Road; a hafukh in one of its bustling cafes sitting at an outside table watching the multi-colored life passing by, feeling giddy about the possibility of a cosmopolitan Middle East at the heart of the divided city. Where the conflict is at its most brutal and yet, stays on the periphery of human tolerance, compromise and mutual need of one another.
It is impossible to explain fully the nuances of Jerusalem’s ethno-religious split to my old and new London friends. I had strayed too far from our past political adherences. I am worried about sounding too pro-Israel when, at the children’s school meetings, I want to share with curious parents that Jerusalem is a safer place than London for raising a family. Or while shopping at the local grocer, I cannot be bothered to check the kiwi fruit labels to check whether they came from Israel as has been de rigueur among my leftwing friends. I want to say it loud and clear that I do not care much about the boycott. Israel is not an apartheid state.
Is it possible to think of a “normal” life again elsewhere, after one has lived in Jerusalem for eight years? London is a booming metropolis, with a fertile atmosphere for unbound liberalism. Why does my heart then crave for the constraints of the conflict? Why do I desperately miss the muddled citizens of the muddled city?
I became aware of the first symptoms of the aforesaid syndrome within a month of returning to the British capital. I longed for the daily struggle for identity, the discontent and exasperation over borderlines that heavily penetrated our lives and kept us perpetually intrigued by and bound to the place. In the words of one of my favorite rock bands, “He’s chained forever to a world that’s departed. It’s not enough, it’s not enough.” We could not have enough of the conflict or the city.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its accoutrements were my everyday life; after being thrown off guard for my initial four years in Jerusalem, I had learnt to come to terms with it. The following four years I would voraciously tuck in the ebullience, destruction, emotional flare-ups, disconnect and the rush of adrenaline that the conflict emanated. The force of the golden womb where ideas churned and preconceptions buckled, would resonate months after I returned to the UK.
London started testing right at the outset my peremptory view of the world shaped by a decade in the Middle East, the most challenging being the topic of Britain's traditional tolerance and multiculturalism. My old misgivings regarding the hijab would suffer a blow when I saw some veiled young girls at the Nativity play in my youngest child’s primary school in north London, singing hymns to the birth of Jesus while their parents in burqa and djelleba (the modern day magi!) watched in silent admiration.
What I find hard to explain to my British friends is the conundrum of the conflict in Jerusalem, which became my home and where I befriended Zionists, Palestinian subversives, Arab Jews, Bedouins, Palestinian intellectuals, Jewish revisionists, international peacekeepers, Jewish settlers, Palestinian refugees. Young Israeli soldiers babysat for my children and Palestinian students of my Hebrew ulpan turned up in class during the Jewish festival of Purim, dressed up as ultra-Orthodox Jews. Jerusalem has its own unique story of intermingling, something the outside world hears little about in the long wave of political reporting.
Nowhere has the story of mutual trust and co-existence been more prominent than in Jerusalem’s hospitals, baby clinics and markets. Somehow the basic tenets of life – food, birth and health – bring the warring sides together with a visceral pull.
During the various stages of post-natal confusion following the birth of my third child, I opened my eyes and watched in wonderment my room-mates - a very religious Jewish mother and an equally observant Muslim Palestinian woman, who were surrounded by their extended broods in close proximity to one another, while Palestinian and Jewish doctors took turns in carrying out the routine checks on the new mothers and their babies. The visitors, some teenagers, made eye contact and even shared one or two odd smirks in the room or in the corridors of the Hadassah hospital in Mount Scopus, the site of fierce fighting during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. It was strange to imagine that their paths might have crossed in different circumstances, during incursions, occupation and acts of insurgencies. But here they were, momentarily oblivious of their conflict zone roles.
Lipika Pelham is a journalist, the former South Asia Editor for the BBC's World Service, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of The Unlikely Settler, a memoir of her eight years spent living in Jerusalem, to be published in March 2014. She currently divides her time between London and Jerusalem.