September 17, 2021 •
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Postcards from Jerusalem , Part 5,  Hebron Part 3: Rock the Casbah
By Cantor Jessica F. Epstein

The smell hit me first. The Casbah had a terrible, rotten smell. It was dark. The passageway was unpleasant and dirty when you entered this part of the Old City of Hebron. The temperatures were in the mid-90s,  and it smelled of garbage and possibly sewage.

The Casbah is very similar in structure to the narrow winding streets of the shuk in the Arab Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Vendors each have a kind of niche in the walls behind curved metal doors for goods and food – the problem with this Old City Casbah was that there were absolutely no tourists or economic life of any kind. Absolutely dead. It was one of the most depressing areas I’ve ever been to.

There was no hope here. No opportunity. Many shops were closed. Jewish settlers have been forbidden here since the 1997 Hebron Accords, though up until the 1929 Pogrom, Jewish life flourished in the narrow streets, and there were both houses of study and synagogues in this area as well, some of which Israelis are trying to repurchase. It was here that the first modern terrorist attack in Hebron took place, in which an Arab man shot and murdered a Jewish man in 1980. Yehoshua Salome was born in Denmark and moved to Israel where he worked on a kibbutz and served in the Israel Defense Force. His friends set up a memorial for him at the spot where he was murdered, but the monument has been frequently vandalized.

We passed shops selling tourist-trap junk, some selling food – most were shut. The sellers would call out to us (in the traditional Arab way) “Come! Lady see!” “Look! Look here! Good price for you!” I have never gotten used to that in the shuk. It always feels intimidating. We didn’t really stop to look, and they weren’t selling anything any of us would want. Mohammed pointed out that this area of the Casbah had the settlement of Avraham Avinu directly behind it and on top of it. Above our heads was a metal net with a few pieces of garbage on top of it. Mohammed explained that the “settlers” regularly threw down garbage and urine onto the Casbah.  I remain very skeptical of those claims, but that is part of their narrative. It doesn’t seem to bother them that the same wrappers (possibly pushed up through the net from underneath) have sat there for a decade and also happen to be in Arabic. A later Israeli we met vigorously denied that things are thrown.

We made our way to the store of an older and very dignified shopkeeper who invited us in and gave us his story. In his words, “All the harassment happens under the Israeli’s eyes.” There are watchtowers and security towers above the Casbah which look down into it. You could hear the frustration in this proud and eloquent man’s voice as he spoke passionately about what used to be. “This used to be the main market for every Palestinian, from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Bedouin. Villagers. They used to come here and visit the mosque and do their shopping afterwards. Not anymore. They make it like we live in a big prison.” He’s not wrong about that description. Many of the shopkeepers left for the newer city and some for other cities and villages. He believes that, “The Jews are after the Mosque.” He claimed that from 2,000 stores at the peak there are now only 70 stores. I believe that statistic. It is a very sad situation for the people there. His father, a tribal judge, had this shop before him, and it is part of his DNA.

I want to share his words with you, because they did move me.

“Nationality – it means nothing to us. Religion – it means nothing to us. Because, wherever you go – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, believe in God, not believe in God – as a human being nothing to do with me. None of you picked up his religion. You’re born with a Christian family, they made you Christian. I’m born with a Muslim family, they made me Muslim. And you see what is going on here – the troubles, the problems, the conflicts – it’s not about religion or nationality or language, because we could speak languages anything we want. We could communicate with anybody on this earth. But the thing is it’s about land. Somebody’s going to take your land and kick you outside of it. Any questions?”

We sat silently as this man showed us a picture of his father in a kafiyyeh and brought coffee to one of the women on the tour. As much as I believe that there should be an active Jewish presence in Hebron, there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers. This man and his shop, which he vowed to keep open against all odds, were on the losing end of a battle between forces far greater than him.

He motioned to some of the fabrics he had and other items for sale and said that there was no pressure to buy anything, but if we saw something to let him know. There were not going to be any other tourists coming by. My heart went out to this man in this dirty and empty alley. I was the only one who looked around for something small to buy that would fit in my suitcase. I spotted an embroidered pillow case on top of some piles of fabric. It looked like handmade counted cross-stitch.

I don’t remember what I paid but I am sure it was too much. That’s what happens in the shuk and you just accept it. The tour group left as I made the transaction. I noticed there was Arabic writing on the case in kind of a glitter glue. It was a pillow used as a gift for newborn babies traditionally.

“What does it say?”

“A thousand blessings.”

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