‘…they would fire into her stomach’. How tourguides narrate Palestinians in The City of David, East Jerusalem.

By Dr David Landy, Trinity College Dublin.

The ‘City of David’ is an illegal Jewish settlement in Silwan in East Jerusalem. As such it is a place of violence and tension, with local Palestinian resistance to their colonisation met with brutality by settlers and the Israeli authorities.

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David Be’eri, settler leader, drives his car into a stone-throwing Palestinian child in Silwan October 8, 2010. Photo by: AFP

Strangely, it is also a popular tourist spot with hundreds of thousands coming to see the archaeological dig there, as this was the original site of Jerusalem. I visited the site in order to find out how tours of the site portray local Palestinians. It has been claimed that Palestinians are erased in these tourist narratives, mirroring the de facto erasure practiced by the Israeli settlers who guide tourists around.

While this was one way Palestinians were dealt with, there were times when tours could not elide over their presence. For instance, when tours pass this ‘look-out point’, we were offered a panoramic view of part of Silwan. Row upon row of Palestinian houses were laid out before us, and it was impossible to ignore them.

How then were they dealt with?

The ‘look-out point’ in the City of David. Note the military terminology the site uses.

The ‘look-out point’ in the City of David. Note the military terminology the site uses.

Below is an anecdote from a tour I took. It illustrates one way Palestinians are narrated. On this tour, the Israeli tourguide used the place to tell us about the walls surrounding ancient Jerusalem. She chose a girl of about 12 or 13 from the mostly Jewish audience as a ‘volunteer’ and said ‘meet the hill on which we will build the City of David’.

Pointing to the girl she asked us, ‘If you are to defend your city, where would you build the walls?’ When someone correctly answered ‘high up’, she instructed the girl to raise her hands over her head as ‘walls’, something which made her look even more vulnerable, in need of protecting.

The guide then explained that we also need to protect the water source of our city, at the bottom of the hill, around the girl’s legs. Then she added, ‘we can’t build the walls low down around her legs because if we did, then the enemy on the other hill…’ – and here she pointed to where the Palestinian houses on the other hill were crowding along the slopes, and everyone’s gaze followed her finger and they nodded in understanding. ‘Then the enemy on the other hill, they would fire into her stomach’.

At the time, I was shocked by the visceral atavistic images this narrative evoked, the young woman on whom we build our Jewish city, the need to defend our vulnerable young (Jewish) women, and the casual relegation of un-named Palestinians to the role of the inevitable enemy threatening our citadel. It was a narrative which both elided over Palestinian presence and treated it as a threat.

The imagined ancient ‘City of David’.

The imagined ancient ‘City of David’.

In retrospect, the fact that nobody else was shocked was of equal interest. For key to narrating Palestinians as the enemy is doing so in a non-political, naturalised way which all could accept. And key to the naturalisation process is the sublimation of this enmity.

After all, the tourguides (and while on the lookout point I observed several guides doing the same thing, pointing to the Palestinian houses to illustrate the need to and the ways of defending the City of David) were only discussing ancient history. Palestinians were not named, were not mentioned. This rhetorical trick reminds me of how two of racism’s main carriers are the joke and the rumour, both modes of expression that allow the speaker to disavow the racism they are enunciating, as well as representing it as a commonsensical way of understanding of the world.

In like form, in this tourist site, such stories of ancient city walls protecting the citadel from enemies on neighbouring hills were used to make sense of the confusing ruins we were walking around in. But they had another purpose: these past stories of militarised history served to sublimate the present-day violence against the Palestinians in Silwan. Palestinians themselves were treated as ghosts, absent presences who were faintly threatening, from whom we, in our Jewish citadel, were presently safe.

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Guy Delisle’s ‘Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City’

Quebecois graphic novelist Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City (Jonathan Cape, 2012) is a collection of short comic strips which record Delisle’s year in East Jerusalem with his wife, a doctor for Medecins Sans Frontières.

Delisle is one of a number of graphic novelists to have turned recently to the subjects of Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine. Harvey Pekar and Boaz Yakin published two very different works in 2012 on their connections to the region, and Sarah Glidden documented her birthright tour in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010). Journalist Joe Sacco’s acclaimed Palestine (2001) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009)  provide touchstones to which all new graphic novels on Israel/Palestine are inevitably compared.

Delisle has published travelogues on Burma, North Korea and China. His focus is typically on the details of day-to-day life – which mainly revolve around looking after his two young children – rather than on the in-depth explication of history, politics and nationalist violence that characterise Sacco’s texts. The image below is taken from Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza:

In contrast, Delisle records Israel/Palestine from the perspective of a curious outsider and in his own tongue-in-cheek self-description, ‘a housewife’. Delisle’s position, if quietly subversive in its gender politics, can sometimes feel grating in its deliberate naivete and in the context of Israel/Palestine, inappropriately cutesy. The initial impression of superficiality is heightened by Delisle’s minimal illustration style, a sharp contrast with Sacco’s painstaking detail. At the same time, Delisle’s apparent lack of prior knowledge lends his narrative voice and judgements a greater degree of trustworthiness than explicitly ‘activist’ literature, a fact which may go some way to explaining his popular appeal.

Jerusalem, like Delisle’s other works, is structured into short vignettes that are well-suited for highlighting the absurdities of life in Israel/Palestine, as well as the clash between Delisle’s expectations and the realities he encounters. Delisle’s expectations of the grandeur of the Holy City are met with disappointment when he wanders around his East Jerusalem district:

‘It’s not much of a neighbourhood, is it? This isn’t anything like I imagined Jerusalem. There’s trash everywhere!’

‘I thought Jerusalem would be much more modern. It sure didn’t look anything like this in the travel guides.’

Delisle’s disarmingly whimsical style allows him to highlight some of the arbitrary and frustrating aspects of life in Jerusalem, particularly discrimination against Palestinians. He describes with amazement Jerusalem’s two separate transport systems, one Arab and one Israeli, while the juxtaposition of his expectations with reality is particularly striking in his visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev. The image Delisle had attached to the term – ‘two or three shacks on a hill with a dog’ – differs vastly from the town he encounters, with 50,000 residents and an expensive shopping mall full of desirable goods.

His apparently trivial internal conflict over whether to buy Shredded Wheat from a settlement supermarket expands into a reflection on the entanglements between politics and everyday decisions, with a tragi-comic payoff as Delisle, having decided to go with his conscience and not buy settlement goods, observes ‘three Muslim women loaded down with bags’ leaving the store. Through his short sketches and outsider’s perspective, Delisle presents a version of Jerusalem that is surprising, frustrating, and often surreal.