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Understanding the landscape

- Sandra Manzella, Italy -


Here we are, silently scanning the landscape. We’re standing in the shadow of the UN observation point in Jerusalem, from which we can have a good view of the Old City and of East Jerusalem area. A little group, only six people including our guide, an Israeli young man, who works for Green Olive Tours.

“Let’s 'read' what lies in front of us for a while, we’ll talk later”, he says. And that’s exactly what we are doing. Only a few minutes later and our guide is ready to collect our perceptions and to explain the scenery in front of us.

I’m surprised as I couldn’t imagine to start my visit in this way: I chose a Green Olive tour in order to understand the differences between East and West Jerusalem and I figured out walking along dusty and sunny streets. On the contrary, our guide drove us to this southern hill, from which our eyes can embrace the two defying Jerusalems: we’re going to find out the variety of suburban areas by simply watching the landscape. Not a difficult exercise, if you know where to look.

There, in the background, stands the Old City, with its shining Dome of the Rock and its protecting ancient walls; coming closer, some villages with bending streets and the high grey barrier, built to defend borders (according to the Israeli government), even though this is a reason for increasing resentment on Palestinian side. On our right, far away, the blue dome of the Palestinian University Al Quds and, behind it, a little further, the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus: two cultural centers, two separated worlds.

I wonder why we didn’t drive along the straight streets across the villages, instead of coming through modern but external roads. Better not, the guide answers, as the street villages are full of holes and sometimes youngsters throw stones to unknown vehicles.

Since then, I’ve become a faithful follower of Green Olive and during other tours, I could learn that understanding the landscape meant to focus on what we see, not on our destinations, driving along streets towards North, to Samaria, towards South, to the Dead Sea or towards West, to the West Bank,
For instance, I learnt how to identify the Israeli settlements around Jerusalem because of their recurring features: barbed wire fences, checkpoints at the entrance with protecting soldiers and the famous red roofs, a Western architecture stranger to Near East buildings. All the settlements have got wide and speedy streets around them.

Outside Jerusalem there are several checkpoints, some of them only for pedestrians, so that people have to get off their cars. I also learnt that colors can have meanings and can lead to distinct lifestyles: about cars, yellow car plates mean Israeli cars, while green ones are for Palestinians This is a well known difference, hinting to heavy consequences. Colors can also mean vital variations; on Israeli roofs, white cisterns shine in the sun: they’re for solar panels to heat water. On terraces on top of Palestinian houses, the cisterns are black and they preserve water.

On the hills, the settlements and the Palestinian villages share the same names, just with some slight differences in pronunciation. Everyone can recognise the villages for the slender silhouettes of minarets, the white flat roofed houses and some red roofs, as sometimes Palestinian workers in the settlements re-use constructing materials for their houses.

In the external quarters of West Jerusalem, out of tall skyscrapers, if you observe the architecture of buildings, you can discover different features related to different stories. Among squared compounds covered by Jerusalem stones, some gentle houses stand out with domes, arches and gardens: they are the abandoned or confiscated houses from last century wars, where Israeli people now live. We know that the old Palestinian owners have kept the keys and hope to come back one day. Lots of literature about that, as well as sad memories and lost lives…

From all over the world, pilgrims visiting Jerusalem crowd Christian sites, pray and sing in churches, bear heavy wodden crosses in moving processions, but they can’t see the modern Via Dolorosa outside the walls of the Old City.

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