Often, when I go out and walk the streets of Jerusalem I encounter a place or a person that surprises me. A while ago it happened to me again. I attended an event that was organized by a tour company named Grand circle. It was held as a part of the company’s half yearly guides meeting. The main event of our meeting took place in a hall named ‘Alhambra’ situated in the heart of Saladin Street in east Jerusalem. I must say that I don’t often visit that street but I am no stranger to it either. Every once in a while, when I visit the American colony hotel, the Rockefeller museum or Zedekiah’s cave, I walk down that street, though till now I never got there by night. Well, there is always a first time…
We got to the Alhambra hall in the heart of Saladin Street just opposite the ministry of justice office, on a Tuesday evening. We walked by foot from the nearby Leonardo hotel. Before entering the hall, I decided to wander around the vibrant streets for a while. And what a surprise it was! These days, Jaffa Street, the main street of Jerusalem is almost paralyzed because of the building of the light rail. The public just refuses to visit the street, and here, on the other side of the city Saladin Street is an example of prosperity. Numerous people fill the coffee shops, the display windows are full and beautifully illuminated and the atmosphere is completely European (though a great dill can still be done about the cleanliness of the street). A friend recommended that I check the Educational Bookshop that doubles as a coffee shop. What an extraordinary place! The variety of books that deal with Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is astonishing. I was surprised to find many pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israeli books laying side by side – all of which are in English. The shop was full of locals and young tourists who drank coffee, talked and discussed various issues. It felt like an Indian guesthouse.
Crossing the road from the bookshop got me to the fancy Alhambra palace. The place used to be a cinema and lately has changed into a splendid spacious hall. Huge chandeliers hanged from the ceiling and made us all feel a little European. We could go back and remember the days when the colonialist governors of the city enjoyed gathering in these kinds of places and discussing the weather. The event we attended included a show of Arabic folklore and fund raising for an orphanage called “Jeel al amal” located in El Azariya. This orphanage does extraordinary work in harsh conditions. The audience, about a hundred people included Israeli tour guides and American pensioners that tour Israel with Grand circle. This mix of such different people was considered impossible to achieve just a few years ago in Jerusalem 2002 and is rare enough even today. The head of the orphanage went on stage and spoke of the impressive achievements of the institute, the food was good and the highlight was the folklore group show.
About fifteen youngsters, Arabs, residence of East Jerusalem went on stage dressed with wonderful traditional clothes and danced Jerusalem folkdances. They were no great dancers but it was not important for does who watched them. These young group members, the popular dance group of Na’amath, came from an underprivileged neighborhood in Jerusalem (Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel) and life is not simple where they come from. I am certain of the fact that every dancer in the group dances despite the atmosphere in his neighborhood. These youngsters try to turn their backs to life full of drugs, crime and poverty and we hope that this dance ensemble will provide them with better livelihood. It is not trivial for youngsters from East Jerusalem to perform in front of Israeli and American audience. It is not trivial for Jewish Israelis to watch a Palestinian folklore show. In a city with 35% Palestinians and 65% Jews, a city that draws at least two million tourists every year, these meetings became rare, maybe too rare. The darbuka drums roared, the guests were feasting and the Alhambra Palace was full of cultural normal touristy activity. An activity with touristy economical logic that stands behind it. The same logic that makes, I believe, Saladin Street the busy street that it is.