The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem

On a chilly winter night about two years ago, Muhammad, a taxi driver from East Jerusalem, waited for me in the parking lot at Qalandiya Checkpoint, reading a newspaper by the car’s interior light. I’d originally called him to pick me up from a cafe in Ramallah, but my coffee companion, also called Muhammad, interrupted our conversation and insisted on knowing how much I would be charged. “One hundred and fifty shekels?!” he repeated in a scandalized tone. “No way! Give me the phone, let me talk to him.”

And so the two Muhammads spoke rapidly in Arabic and closed matters without consulting me. Ramallah Muhammad returned my phone to me and said, “I’ll drive you to the checkpoint. He’ll pick you up and drive you from there to Jerusalem. We agreed on 70 shekels.”

I’d known Muhammad-the-driver for about three years. As an East Jerusalem resident, he had yellow Israeli license plates and was permitted to travel freely between the West Bank and Israel. Warm and refreshingly free of machismo, he spoke fluent Hebrew, and we’d enjoyed many long, interesting conversations about a variety of subjects during our drives between and around Israel and the West Bank. His low-key, self-possessed manner worked wonders on irritable, capricious soldiers at checkpoints.

Glancing at his profile as I sat down in the front passenger seat, I said jokingly, “Hey, you grew a beard! What happened, have you joined the Muslim Brotherhood?” Turning the key in the ignition, Muhammad answered curtly, without smiling, “Something like that.” He drove silently along the dark, ill-paved road that ended at Hizma, a drive-through checkpoint named for the Palestinian village on which it is built. A young soldier leaned his head in through the open window, said “Good evening, how are you?” and waited for a response, in order to check that my Hebrew did not have an Arabic accent. Satisfied, he waved us through and we were in well-lit, well-paved, red-roofed Pisgat Zeev, one of the ring neighorhoods built by the Israeli government on land that was conquered in 1967. For Israel, it is a Jerusalem suburb; for the rest of the world, it is a settlement.

Muhammad broke his long silence with a desultory comment about the weather; he also asked polite questions about my health and my work. “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he remarked. “No,” I answered. “I don’t go to Ramallah very often. It’s difficult…” I trailed off, sensing that he was not really interested in my problems. Muhammad grunted and was silent again. Then he said, suddenly, “Things are very bad in Jerusalem.” I made a sympathetic sound, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t accustomed to discussing politics with this cold, withdrawn Muhammad. The atmosphere felt uncomfortable and I, unused to feeling anything but completely at ease with him, did not want to say the wrong thing.

Muhammad continued, “I don’t know how to protect my children. How to protect them from the violence. I don’t let them watch the news on television and I walk them to school, but it’s not enough. My wife wants another child and I think, for what? To bring him into this..?”

By then we had arrived at my friend’s house in boho chic Nahlaot, near the entrance to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jewish West Jerusalem. Muhammad stopped the car and turned to me with a searching look. Wanting to say something sympathetic, I stammered, “I understand what you mean. It does feel very bad in Jerusalem. People in Tel Aviv seem to have given up on this city, and I don’t visit often because it’s so tense here.”

“Oh, I see,” answered Muhammad in an angry tone, “So you’re leaving Jerusalem to the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox Jews, eh?”

Shocked at being misinterpreted so badly, I answered, perhaps a little too vehemently, “That is not what I meant, Muhammad. Not at all!”

We were silent for a moment as the motor idled. Then I asked him, just to fill the silence and indicate that I was ready to get out of the taxi, “How much do I owe you, again?”Without hesitating, Muhammad said in a neutral tone, “One hundred and fifty shekels.”

I paid him without protest, not wanting to humiliate us both by reminding him that he’d told my friend the price was 70 shekels.  I never called Muhammad again.

Last week at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, I attended the opening of Frames of Reality, an exhibition of photographs by Israeli and Palestinian photojournalists. Each of the photographers exhibited a series of works based on a theme – like Tomer Appelbaum’s series on Israeli civilians who own handguns; or Gazan photojournalist Eman Mohammed‘s series on ‘home‘; or Asaf Hatav’s series on Eritrean refugees in Israel.

Atta Awisat, a Palestinian East Jerusalem resident who works for Yedioth Aharonoth, put together a series about children at play.

In his written introduction to his photos of children in East Jerusalem, Atta notes:

Occasionally, they are happy and sing songs as the politicians shake hands in pursuit of peace; later, they find themsleves abandoning their school rooms – their future – throwing aside their small school bags and books, hiding behind burning tires and throwing stones at armed soldiers. When the rage subsides and the sun washes across their tanned faces, there is a respite – they begin to play again, and that is where the truth lies. Before you take issue with me, I invite you to observe these children at play. Of course, you may not be able to differentiate between their playacting and reality, especially when you place one photo next to another and try to find the distinctions between them.

The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem
The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem
The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem
The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem
The things they see: children at play in Jerusalem
Standing and looking at these photos, hung on the walls of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, I thought about all the ugly, depressing things I had seen over the past few years. I thought about the fact that I could always go home and distract myself from those scenes with distance, the company of friends and sometimes a few drinks. But Muhammad lived inside them.