Ibtisam Azem

The City and the Writer: In Jerusalem with Ibtisam Azem

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/The Palestinians 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Jerusalem as you feel/see it?

Jerusalem is a city crowded with prayers for a mirage sky that all the gods have fled. It is ruled by power and is not merciful with its Palestinian descendants. It besieges them in the day, but its guile and beauty helps them sleep safely in its arms at night, dreaming and hoping for a better life. A life the second and third generations since the Nakba have yet to live. Despite leaving the city fifteen years ago, these feelings have remained and are reinforced when I return to visit every year. It’s an occupied city, first and foremost.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I have a lot of happy memories, but sad ones, too. I don’t think we can love a city unless we experience both joy and sorrow in it. Jerusalem is one of the most important and memorable cities I’ve lived in, especially since the four years I lived there (from nineteen to twenty-three years old) were quite consequential personally and formatively. There is one memory that still haunts me, and which I wrote about in a chapter entitled “Party” in my first novel. I had accepted an invitation to go to dinner at an Israeli friend’s house. She lived in Ayn Karim. When I entered the house—a typical Arab house built in the Jerusalem style with huge rooms—I felt like I suffocating, felt paralyzed.

I managed to sit for dinner but the more I contemplated the architectural style, the arches, the more I felt suffocated. Our stories about expulsion and dispersal and the fear in 1948 besieged me. It was a coincidence that my family stayed in Palestine and I wondered at that moment if staying was itself a greater catastrophe because you constantly see the remains of your catastrophe and live among them. The voice of my Jaffan grandmother and the stories about her expulsion and that of her family were getting louder. That, mixed with the laughter and conversation in the room, and the voices of the house’s original inhabitants, made me feel their bodies. I wanted to ask my hosts if they felt them as well. I felt I was one of those Palestinian ghosts who I saw moving everywhere. I couldn’t share what was happening to me with the others. I was still young and inexperienced. I couldn’t muster the courage to say much. I never divulged what I thought. I was mute, suffocated, and I felt utterly cold. I never returned to their house despite many invitations.

What is the most extraordinary detail of the city, one that goes unnoticed by most?

Many focus on the city’s religious history and its various historical epochs, but its rich cultural heritage goes beyond religious narratives and histories. Walking over its walls on foot is one of the most beautiful trips a visitor or inhabitant can take.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

One of the most important Palestinian short story writers, and a native of Jerusalem, is Mahmoud Shuqair. Edward Said’s Out of Place is a must. The memoirs of Wasif Jawhariyyeh are quite fascinating, and they describe cultural and social life between 1904 and 1948.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Nocturnal walks in the city, especially the old city. The restaurant at the Jerusalem Hotel because the atmosphere when sitting under the grapevines is unforgettable. There is a tiny café called Café Gate on the left-hand side after Bab al-‘Amud (Damascus Gate) where I love sitting on the balcony, sipping Arabic coffee and watching pedestrians. That spot crystallizes the complexity of the city—in that tiny place of four square meters, the paths of sellers and buyers, young and old, soldiers and civilians, school children and tourists, the call to prayer and church bells, and the hubbub of the market are all present.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I find this question challenging. What been written about Jerusalem by Palestinians and non-Palestinians has made most of the city’s main spots iconic if not mythological. Perhaps it’s more compelling to look for what has not been written about.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The Palestinian (and non-Palestinian) memories of the city’s inhabitants, especially before the beginning of Zionism and its negative influence on the country’s inhabitants.  Also, Mia Sha`arim, the neighborhood inhabited mostly by religious Jews, was always intriguing to me. I wasn’t able to go there and don’t know it well except through films and books. Being a secular person, passing by would perplex me, and left me with unanswered questions.

Where does passion live here?

I think that at present, Jerusalem is one of those cities where passion lives behind doors and in the dreams of its inhabitants more so than any public space. This applies to Jerusalem more than any other city I have visited or lived in.

What is the title of one of your works about Jerusalem and what inspired it exactly?

My first novel The Sleep Thief, is divided into thirteen chapters, each one a separate narrative, but they all have the same protagonist. Four of these chapters, “Party,” “Shaheen,” “Hamsah,” and “Muskubiyya”—the latter was translated to English—are Jerusalem narratives. “Shaheen” is about the complicated relationship among Palestinians, among those who are from different classes, or among those from inside the Green Line and those who come from the West Bank to work.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Jerusalem does an outside exist?”

Whenever I used to leave Jerusalem and cross the mountainous roads toward the coast, I used to feel that a gigantic gate was being shut behind me. I felt that I was going out to the world and the sea, which outlines Palestine from the north to the south. Intense sadness, but a more intense joy would strike me whenever I left Jerusalem.

Ibtisam Azem is a writer and journalist, born and raised in Tayibe, in the area known as the Triangle, north of Jaffa. She studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later at the University of Freiburg, where she completed an MA in Islamic studies and German, and English literature. She is the author of the two novels: Sariq al-Nawm (The Sleep Thief) published in 2011 by Dar al-Jamal, Sifr al-Ikhtifaa (The Book of Disappearance) published in 2014 by Dar al-Jama and currently being translated into English. Azem has worked as a journalist, producer, and correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV-Arabic in Berlin. She has published essays and short stories in al-Akhbar, Qantara, and al-Jazeera.net, and she is co-editor and editor of the Arabic page of Jadaliyya. Currently, she is a senior correspondent for al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper in New York, and is at work on her third novel.

Published Apr 28, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal