Intricately weaving past and present, humour and pain, love and loss, “Jerusalem Stands Alone" is a beautiful homage to a living, breathing city so often reduced to nothing more than a pawn in political games.
The story begins as our protagonist, whose name we never learn, walks to the markets “surrounded by the city’s history, ghostly layers of people from past eras, men of different ages and women of different times.” Sitting at his usual perch in the Damascus Gate Café, he watches “a thin blonde foreigner slowly sipping her coffee, attentively turning the pages of her book.” This same blonde foreigner, a young woman named Suzanne who hails from Marseilles, rents a room from a Palestinian family in the city. Suzanne’s friend and the family’s eldest daughter, Rabab, reads Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and sneaks out on Tuesday nights to visit a boy from college who thrills her with his “endless compliments”.
This intertwining of characters, of chance encounters and paths crossed, characterises “Jerusalem Stands Alone”. The book is written as a series of vignettes, short stories rarely more than a page in length, each of which bears its own title and stand-alone anecdote. Each vignette is rich with detail, affording the reader a unique insight into what goes on behind Jerusalem’s closed doors. One such vignette is “warmth”, in which the reader is transported to the bedroom of Abd El-Razzaq, a fishmonger, and his wife Khadija. Rain pours outside, but the warmth of the bed holds the “troubles of life at bay for now”. Khadija ponders how she “loves the fading light at this hour,” as she lays against her husband’s chest. The couple shares a joke about the smell of fish emanating from his skin, as she “sidles closer to him and gives in to the sound of long-awaited rain as it soaks the streets of the neighbourhood.”
Yet from the outset there is a sense that all is not well with the city. “The soldiers are everywhere,” the opening page reads forebodingly. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that a group of settlers, with their long beards and peculiar habits, have occupied one of the city’s houses. Jerusalem itself is given voice, expressing its disquiet at the presence of these new inhabitants, the “porches of the old neighbourhood exchang[ing] secrets” and alert to the knowledge that “after this, their existence will never be the same.” Before long, “the windows of the occupied house are covered with barbed wire” and a nearby house is marked in red as the next target of these strangers’ appropriations. Abd El-Razzaq and Khadija no longer want to sit on the porch, once their favourite place to pass the evening in their nightwear smoking shisha, since “seeing [the settlers] standing there is enough to ruin [their] mood.”
Yet despite its layers of pain, the book is at turns humorous and steeped in irony. The butt of the jokes is invariably Yoram, the Israeli police captain “in charge of maintaining the city’s security”. Yoram likes to read about the ancient history of Jerusalem and in one chapter discovers a “secret log dating back to 1817”. The log details munitions that the Ottoman commander Ahmad Agha Al-Qutub hid in the Tower of David, just inside Jaffa Gate (Bab Al-Khalil). Disconcerted by the threat these almost 200-year-old weapons might pose to the security of the modern city, “Yoram sends his men to the tower to look for the munitions but they find nothing, so he summons the descendants of Ahmad Agha for questioning, hoping that one of them will know the whereabouts of the arsenal.” Yoram is, of course, unsuccessful, but “swears he will not rest until he figures out where those munitions are.”
In a later chapter, Yoram again reads an old document which states “the Christians of Jerusalem worked as blacksmiths [with] a blacksmiths shop in the Damascus Gate neighbourhood, run by the master blacksmith Elias, son of Issa Al-Rizk and Badr El-Din Al-Aklil.” Yoram begins to worry, believing “the Palestinians might use [the shop] to build pipes for their rockets, so he sends some of his men over to search the shop and arrest Elias, anticipating they will certainly find suspicious metal objects.” The vignette’s final line - “Yoram applauds his relentless and sharp eye” - is a subtle yet scathing nod to the distortion of history for modern political ends so common to Jerusalem’s reality.
The result of this mosaic of characters and time periods, of quiet moments of happiness and the jarring reality of Jerusalem’s political existence, is one of dizziness. Although a glossary of cultural terms and historical references is included in the back of the book to help those unfamiliar with the city navigate this intricate narrative, avoiding checking every detail will help readers immerse themselves in the vivid images that Shukair creates. For anyone who knows how messy, chaotic and yet breathtakingly beautiful Jerusalem can be, Shukair captures it perfectly, his intimate knowledge of the city peppering every page and often detailed places and street names long since erased from the map. Evoking the sights, sounds and smells of this ancient city and laying bare the minutiae of its inhabitants’ daily lives, “Jerusalem Stands Alone” is a striking tribute to a home Shukair has watched change beyond recognition.