Sulafa Zidani: “Three Buses and the Rhythm of Remembering”

15 June, 2022
Has­san Jouni, “Bus,” acrylic on can­vas, 90 x 140 cm, 2015 (cour­tesy Artsper).
 


Line 19 — Mount Scopus to Mahne Yehuda

 

Sulafa Zidani

 

I took Bus 19 fre­quent­ly when I stud­ied for my MA in Jerusalem. My first stop was on Mount Sco­pus, הר הצופים — the Mount of the Onlook­ers, or per­haps The Mount of Sur­veil­lance, the main cam­pus of my alma mater, the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem. In my Chi­na Stud­ies pro­gram, I was the only Pales­tin­ian in class­rooms full of IDF soldiers.

 

Mount Sco­pus The­ater. Pho­to cred­it: Dig­ger­Di­na (cour­tesy Wikipedia Com­mons).

 

When my friend Rachel vis­it­ed from the US, she remarked that the cam­pus looked like a stone space­ship that land­ed on our plan­et. Out of place, indeed, my uni­ver­si­ty on our stolen land.

At the amphithe­ater behind the law library, you could cast your gaze all the way to the shores of the Dead Sea.

Step off cam­pus and you find on one side the Mount of Olives, جبل الزيتون Land seized in 1967 and con­vert­ed into a mil­i­tary base. And on the oth­er side, a micro­cosm of the Israeli carcer­al state: the heav­i­ly policed neigh­bor­hood of Isawiyya.

In a few stops, Line 19 rude­ly arrives in Sheikh Jar­rah. It makes few­er stops in this East Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood that now the whole world knows.

I’ve been to one of these homes once. I must have been 18 or 19 when my activist friends took me along to vis­it a house half-occu­pied by set­tlers. The Pales­tin­ian fam­i­ly lived in the oth­er half. And this was sup­posed to be “ordi­nary.” We sat and shared tea. Most­ly qui­et like in a vigil.

Pho­to tak­en in East Jerusalem (cour­tesy nawres.net).

Line 19 then cross­es the free­way that slits “East Jerusalem” from “West Jerusalem.”  The bus dri­ves by Jerusalem’s down­town, where I once encoun­tered a swarm of set­tler youth chant­i­ng “death to Arabs!” wav­ing Israeli flags to mark “Jerusalem Day,” the day in 1967 when Israel com­plet­ed the occu­pa­tion of the east­ern part of the city. My room­mate grabbed my fore­arm and pulled me to an alley. We hid there for a while until the crowd looked small­er and the chants less audible. 

The bus pass­es by an Ital­ian hos­pi­tal, an Ethiopi­an church, and the Angli­can school my broth­er briefly went to before my fam­i­ly returned to Haifa. When I asked his white Euro­pean school prin­ci­pal what made her decide to live in Jerusalem, she said Jesus had called on her to do so. 

I lived in so-called “West Jerusalem,”  near the Mahne Yehu­da Mar­ket that I fre­quent­ed on my way home to get inspi­ra­tion for cook­ing and to be inter­ro­gat­ed about my eth­nic­i­ty. Can I just pay you for the toma­toes on the vine and keep moving? 

 

Mahane Yehu­da Mar­ket (pho­to Emilio Gar­cia).

This was a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood. At first, my land­lord, Nis­sim, a mid­dle aged Yemeni Jew­ish man, did not want to rent to me. Fine, I retort­ed. I didn’t want to give my mon­ey to a racist any­way. But the Israeli film­mak­er who was break­ing his lease to move out was des­per­ate. So, Nis­sim agreed to inter­view me. This involved me tak­ing a train to Tel Aviv where I sat in Nissim’s home with his wife and sis­ter. “My sis­ter is intu­itive” he told me “she looked into your eyes and she saw that you’re a good per­son.” I won­dered if she could sense that they made me feel unsafe. “But,” he added, “you can’t have an Arab roommate.”

I told Nis­sim I wouldn’t beg him, and that he either counts on me or he doesn’t. “Fine,” he said, “but your name has to be the only one on the lease.” I lived there for two years, and Nis­sim start­ed lying to me and to him­self. “You know it was nev­er me, but the neighbors…they didn’t want Arabs in the build­ing.” Nis­sim began to see him­self as a peace­mak­er and hero. I brushed it off. What’s the point.

 
 

Line 940 — Jerusalem-Haifa

Haifa. Pho­to tak­en from the look­out out­side Stel­la Maris Monastery (pho­to cour­tesy Sulafa Zidani).

 

Walk­ing dis­tance from my apart­ment in Mahne Yehu­da was the main bus sta­tion in Jerusalem. Here, I could con­ve­nient­ly escape this abu­sive city to return to my Mother’s in Haifa, to breathe the air blow­ing in from the open hori­zon of the Mediter­ranean Sea, and to eat some of my grandmother’s food.

Screen­shot from google maps show­ing the route of line 940, mark­ing the West Bank to show its geo­graph­i­cal proximity.
 

I usu­al­ly took the bus on Thurs­days, since the Israeli week­end is cen­tered around Shab­bat (Fri­day night till Sat­ur­day night, there is no pub­lic trans­porta­tion and every­thing is closed). Thurs­day also hap­pened to be the day many sol­diers got to go home for the week­end. Regard­less of your age, gen­der, or cute­ness, these sol­diers would aggres­sive­ly shove you aside on their way in. I missed the bus at least twice because of this. I told myself that I had to make my elbow game strong. Once, a sol­dier tried to flirt with me. Hon­est­ly, I have noth­ing else to say about that. I shut it down pret­ty quick.

Olive oil sent to the writer by her father (pho­to tak­en by the writer in Los Angeles).

Line 940 took the new free­way called High­way Six, much of which Israel built by seiz­ing Pales­tin­ian olive groves. The same type of olive trees whose boun­ti­ful har­vest pro­vides the olive oil my dad sends me once a year in recy­cled Coca Cola bot­tles all the way to the U.S. I am still not sure if this is just his way to say he loves me, or if it’s his way of remind­ing me to stay con­nect­ed to the Pales­tin­ian earth, to our cul­ture, and to our clan. The Zida­nis are a proud bunch, I’ll tell you that. We love remind­ing peo­ple that we are descen­dants of Tha­her el Omar el Zay­dani, an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian leader who resist­ed Ottoman rule.

The bus lurch­es to a stop at the main ter­mi­nal. And like many of the build­ings in the area, the ter­mi­nal was there because the British decid­ed. At least it was next to the sea.

 

Line X — Haifa to Beirut?

 

There was a time when a bus line ran between Haifa and Beirut (this image is com­mon­ly found on social media).

 

I usu­al­ly spent my week­ends in Haifa, doing laun­dry, eat­ing my mother’s food, and hang­ing out with my sis­ter and friends. Then I took line 940 back to Jerusalem to get ready for anoth­er week of school.

But this is a bus line that I’ve nev­er tak­en. Images often cir­cu­late of this bus line between Haifa and Beirut, or oth­er bus lines that, for now, no longer exist: Kuwait, Lebanon, Syr­ia, Pales­tine. My gen­er­a­tion has nev­er been on this bus ride, but it is part of our past, and, liv­ing in the uncer­tain­ty of the present, the future we nos­tal­gi­cal­ly dream of.

My Uncle Hameed used to dri­ve to Lebanon all the time in the late 1970s. Aun­tie Fati­ma, who became his wife, lived there after her fam­i­ly was dis­placed in the 1948 Nak­ba. While we sip cof­fee in my father’s vil­lage in the Galilee, Aun­tie rem­i­nisces to us: “Yes, I would sit on the swing out­side my house every week­end wait­ing for Hameed to come see me.”

The writer with her mater­nal grand­fa­ther, Mohammed (Abu Saeed) Sindawi.

Last week, I was talk­ing to a mentee who has fam­i­ly in the West Bank and Gaza. She asked me what the oppres­sion of Pales­tini­ans looks like in Haifa. We are all oppressed dif­fer­ent­ly; like our towns, our dis­pos­ses­sion is frag­ment­ed. Cut off.

My British step­sis­ter was in Beirut dur­ing the Sec­ond Lebanon War. She had been tak­ing Ara­bic class­es at the AUB when the war broke. Months lat­er, my Israeli col­lege friend Shai would tell me he can’t sleep because he still has night­mares from his mil­i­tary ser­vice dur­ing the war. Sad­ly yet unsym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, I respond­ed: “That’s what your gov­ern­ment does to you, Shai, and you have choices.”

My grand­pa and his cousin went to a board­ing school in Lebanon in the 1940s. In 1948 they came back to their vil­lage Jish to check on their fam­i­ly. They found them all mas­sa­cred and their house in ruins. His dad, Rad­wan. His moth­er, Shar­ifeh, who was preg­nant at the time. His two sis­ters, Khadra and Mari­am. And his two broth­ers, Grand­ma said she will check in the ceme­tery to see what their names were next time she’s in Jish. He and his cousin were the only two left. Why did I only hear about this in 2009, six years after my grand­pa’s death?

A pho­to of the writer’s sis­ters chas­ing each oth­er in her uncle Abu Ali’s straw­ber­ry field, Kufr Man­da, Galilee.

On the out­skirts of Jish, there’s a hill called تلّة الصرخة—Screaming Hill. Since the vil­lage is close to the Lebanese bor­der, fam­i­lies who were par­ti­tioned by the war would go to that hill and scream to each oth­er from across the bor­der. What were the con­ver­sa­tions that could nev­er be uttered on Scream­ing Hill?

I want bus lines that con­nect our book­stores, our record stores, our artists. I want to com­mute from my home to a film debut or music show. I want bus lines where peo­ple won’t move seats when they hear me speak Arabic.

I want to ride a bus with­out sol­diers, with­out the rem­nants of scorched and uproot­ed olive trees — bus routes that Uncle Hameed could take to vis­it Aun­tie Fati­ma on the swing. I want a bus that con­nects home to Pales­tin­ian home, a bus that traces over the frag­men­ta­tion, and sketch­es out the full­ness of the land I call home.

 

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