The sense of place in Jerusalem: 2020


The governed and the governors, the pull and (non) sense of place under occupation.

In Philip K Dicks’ The Man in the High Castle, a post 2nd world war scenario is described played out that has contemporary relevance to life under military occupation in Palestine. In the novel the Nazis and Japan have won, the USA has been divided, with a settlement line, between a Japanese controlled West Coast and Nazi controlled East coast and New York, with ‘white’ Americans (not note the indigenous natives who no longer exist) holding second/inferior ‘place’, culturally, socio-economically, and generally hierarchically.

Just as in the occupied territories in the novel, in Jerusalem the sense of this place is strong: feelings associated with knowing your place, knowing the correct codes of behaviour, the conscious efforts to be, of at least appear, neutral or subservient, to conform, and of mis-steps, faux-pas, failures of integration, and humiliation; these are all subtly played out in the early part of Dick’s novel, through the experiences of both the governed and the governing.

‘Place pulled’ is describing something that happens to you when the normality of your place in say a symbolic order, or social systems is momentarily disrupted, it is a phrase used by Dick. This refers to the pull to know your place: the feelings associated with sudden awareness of the way your identity (and place) is being imposed as you are pulled into place by a political order, and its assumed, if unwritten, codes and norms.

Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem today, from Jaffa Gate to Damascus gate through narrow souks, the sense of place pulls, and is discomfiting for me, since visitors like us don’t know our place. The codes, and boundaries: geographical, ethnic, religious including costume and dress boundaries are visible; but even though the boundaries of communal violence and power are there, and sensed they are ill-defined, harder to see or experience.

Two young Israeli soldiers/police (armed with machine guns), a young male and female, at a road junction in the market of the souk, stop two young Palestinian men aged about 16 and 12. The female soldier demands, with hand outstretched, and then takes, the older boy’s identity card and proceeds to hold it up and to slowly scrutinise it. The delay is palpably too long, too deliberate, imposing ‘place’ by force on the youngsters ( who are, we should notice, living in their home town under this military Israeli occupation). We stop and observe, trying to make our presence felt as if we can exude disapproval of this apparently random and deliberate intimidation of the governed by the governing.

Along the narrow streets throng guided groups of Russian Christians each holding a crucifix as they file along the Via Dolorosa – reputedly the route Jesus took bearing the cross to his crucifixion – the way becomes congested as group of Jews in black garb, fedoras, kippahs, white shawls, and beards, some humming musically, are walking presumably away from praying at the Western Wall. And all these groups are marching past stalls, some Muslim, selling spices, incense, food juices and shoes, some Christian selling crucifixes, and, somewhat bizarrely, IDF (Israeli military) t-shirts.

The Jews going about religious business impose place by walking through territory illegally occupied by Israeli military and imposing something hard to define on the governed.

The Christians in religious trance-like fervour through their mysticism seem to filter out concepts of injustice and by so doing appear condone the injustice. Not, we might at least suggest, that the Jesus of the New Testament, would remain silent here.

As a visitor here, the spectacle is experienced sensually but only superficially. We are welcomed, but I also sense less warmth, more tension than when I was here three years ago.

An armed soldier stops us – it is closed- ahead is an exit out of the market – what’s up there? The Temple Mount. Is it closed to everybody or only open to Muslims. A perceptible pause. He may be a Palestinian policeman. In blue, Israeli soldiers stand nearby, in grey . Only Muslims, he says, the entrance from the western wall is open tomorrow. Well, that’s all clear then. Israeli controlled Soldiers/Police control access to the Al Aqsa mosque calling it The Temple Mount (the Jewish name) for Muslims only. This is a site of place, of communal boundary and, today, polymorphous symbolic violence – armed and religious.

The religious devotions of the crucifix and ostentatious dress of Jews and (especially Orthodox) Christian clergy, is a display of mysticism, of derangement that, in my view, functions to distract many from the injustices being imposed here.

In Dick’s dystopian novel the Japanese have imported a habit – the use of something like tarot cards and the I-Ching, to act as a kind of oracle to consult and guide decision making. This is another mysticism, a way for people to seek relief from the constant neurotic anxieties associated with either a) knowing one’s place is of the governed, or b) of not quite knowing one’s place, or c) of fearing losing one’s place as the governors.

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