Jerusalem: A City Divided by Sound
It’s just before 8 a.m. on a Shabbat morning in Jerusalem. At this early hour, the dry summer heat hasn’t settled down on the city yet, and the air is still fresh with the scent of jasmine. The Jerusalem stones are still soft-looking.
I’m sitting in my garden, enjoying the calm, beginning to read the paper, drinking a cup of coffee. There’s never much traffic on my street in a leafy neighborhood in the southern part of the city, and almost none on a Saturday morning.
And then a sharp crack sound. And another, and another until the din is ominously loud.
The neighborhood suddenly wakes up. “Where is that noise coming from?” asks a middle-aged woman, plodding into the street in her fuzzy Lion King slippers and tying the belt of her silk bathrobe tighter. “Is that coming from the Temple Mount?” asks a man dressed in a crisp white shirt, ready for the early minyan at the synagogue down the road.
“Is that what war sounded like when you were in the army?” a middle-aged woman asks her husband. “No, dear,” he replies with a patronizing smile.
I quickly check the internet. Nothing on breaking news. I dial 100, the Israeli equivalent of 911. They don’t answer. The municipal emergency hotline doesn’t pick up, either.
Intrepid reporter that I am, I check Facebook. By 8:10, my Palestinian friend Nivine Sandouka, a feminist and activist from East Jerusalem, has posted on her wall. “To my friends in West Jerusalem: Don’t worry,” she writes in English. “This isn’t World War III and the Palestinians are not trying to reclaim the al-Aqsa. We’re just celebrating the Tawjihi.”
The Tawjihi is the Palestinian matriculation exam. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian high school students, who make up 41percent of the total school population of the city, have the choice of taking the Israeli matriculation exam (bagrut) or the Tawjihi. The Israeli exams are offered in Arabic to Arabic speakers, but some 90 percent of them choose to take the Tawjihi, which is also recognized by Israeli institutions.
The Tawjihi marks a critical point in a 12th grader’s future. Passing provides a ticket to college; failure means a low-level job. Retaking the exam is difficult and complicated. The Palestinian Authority sends the results by SMS to every student who took the exams, at the same time. Proud families of those who pass set off fireworks. Those who failed are shamed and stay in their homes.
The Bagrut is considered much easier than the Tawjihi—and the results are published publicly, for glory or shame. But even in Arabic, Sandouka says, studying for the Bagrut doesn’t teach much about Arab culture and nothing about Palestinian culture or history.
Sandouka explains that she posted on Facebook because she realized that the Israelis living in West Jerusalem might not know about the celebrations. “Jerusalem is supposed to be a shared city,” she says, “But often I as a Palestinian don’t understand what is happening in the Jewish part of the city. And even for the Israelis who do know—usually, the results are announced in the evening, so you can see the fireworks. This time, it was in the morning. So I figured, my friends must be freaking out…I was worried that they were afraid that the Palestinians were liberating Palestine or something. So I let them know.”
“In a normal, shared city,” she says, “The municipality would have let them know, but it doesn’t have any real communication with East Jerusalem. There are about 300,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem —how could the municipality not know and not alert the public? It doesn’t alert the Palestinians about events going on in West Jerusalem, either. When the demonstrations [against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] started in downtown West Jerusalem, we could hear the noise and didn’t know what was going on and why Jews were rioting.
“Of course, if the Palestinians voted in the elections,” she adds, “then we would have representation. But the majority of Palestinians boycott the elections because they don’t want to legitimize the Israeli occupation. So instead of communication, we have battles of politics and control and live in mutual ignorance.”
Why did the Palestinian Authority announce the Tawjihi results on Shabbat in the morning? After all, fireworks in the daytime sort of defeats the purpose.
She laughs. “First of all, it’s your Sabbath. But for us it’s just a regular workday.”
Jerusalem journalist Peggy Cidor is convinced that the fireworks were particularly loud this year. “For each family, the fireworks are an expression of their pride and happiness for their son or daughter. But collectively, they were an expression of Palestinian despair.
“Palestinian Jerusalemites graduating high school today have never known anything but the Israeli occupation,” Cidor explains. “They are political orphans. The Arab world ignores them, the Americans don’t take them into account, the Europeans don’t care and Israel is stronger than ever. Their community is poor and anyone who can leave the region—does. What is left for young people to do? So they make a bit of noise on a Shabbat morning—it won’t really get them into trouble with the Israeli authorities, it isn’t a security threat, no one gets hurt. It’s an assertion of independence and national pride, but it’s sad, almost pathetic.”
I go back to my garden chair, make a new cup of coffee. When I first came to Israel, I was filled with pride each time there were symbols of Judaism in public space that reflected the Jewish calendar. There were Hanukkah menorahs in store windows instead of Christmas trees. Sukkot are set up all over the country, even in restaurants that don’t keep kosher. The annual book fair is held around Shavuot, a secular nod to the traditional celebration of the giving of the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the country is silent. On Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Hazikaron [Israel Memorial Day], sirens go off throughout the country to honor the dead.
But in Jerusalem, we share public space. We live in the same geography with people who live in different cultural time zones, and the sounds that make up my sense of belonging may be jarring or cacophonic on the other side. And, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the different sounds of the city. I am trying to learn Arabic so that I can understand them better because I know they deepen my cultural knowledge, broaden my spatial awareness, and complicate yet enrich my sense of place.
I admit, sometimes the noises feel discordant, even annoying—as when, if the wind blows in the right direction, I can hear the sounds of the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer in the earliest hours of the morning. Or when the sounds of fireworks disrupt the blissful quiet of Shabbat.
The noise continues without a break for two hours or so, then begins to taper off, continuing intermittently throughout the day and much of the night. I feel unsettled. Yet it’s a price I’m willing to pay, because maybe, with mutual respect, we can learn to live here in democratic equality.
But next year, could you please start celebrating just a little bit later?
Kul Il-ichtiram. Mazel tov. Congratulations to the successful graduates.