- by Yahav Zohar
Jerusalem, an urban planner once told me, is not properly a city but a collection of courtyards. With every turn, with every alley, you come into another world, an entirely different story. In such a fragmented city there seems to be no real cultural mainstream beyond government funded seasonal festivals that bring here culture from the outside, but a lot of local fringe culture is alive and kicking. Art students and community activists group so that some of the most interesting things happen off the radar of tourists and visitors, secret even from most locals. Thus, on the way to a screening at the high profile Jerusalem Film Festival I was diverted by a friends message to a less publicised event.

Just 10 minutes walk from the Cinemateque and festival, In the midst of the upscale hotel district, two minutes walk from the regular meeting point for Green Olive Tours at the YMCA, is an almost forgotten piece of history. Unseen from the main streets, in the shadow of the massive new Waldorf Astoria and “David's Residence” luxury apartment complex, is a secret little neighbourhood/courtyard/hosh of once  stately homes dating from the 1870s and 1880s. Some have been done up, others are run down and abandoned, and one has just been given a surprising burst of new life. 

Nicknamed Ha'Mif'al, “the factory”, this grand old house has become, just for the summer, a hub of artistic and cultural activity. Bayit Rek (lit. “Empty House”), a collective of artists that for several years have been running parties, art projects and cultural events in abandoned buildings all over Jerusalem,  have been given the run of this once stately home, turned factory, than school, and for ten years barred and collecting dust. With the permission of the municipality, the group have turned parts of the building into a makeshift artists workshop, cafe and bar and concert hall.  Suddenly, amid the glitz one comes upon what seems like an artists' squat typical of big European cities. 

The project is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 11am to 11pm and on Fridays from 11am to 5pm. When I arrived, near sunset, about three dozen people were sitting in small groups on straw mats and pillows in the garden. Tea was brewing over a small fire, music was playing, and at the outdoor bar they were serving home made tacos (with a vegan option). Another small group was gathered in intense conversation in a pretty little earth hobbit-house that was built cooperatively by the guests artists and the neighbours. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming in a way that is rare to find in any busy city center.

But the best part by far was inside the big old house. Mainly, the abandoned building had been cleared out and left almost as is, with it's beautiful high ceilings and windows, but many of the walls had been painted in a way that left fragments of the  the old alongside all sorts of new colorful creation. In the center of the downstairs space a fountain a fountain with a sort of classic looking sculpture broken with fragments of glass matched the looked of carefully studied neglect.

As it happens, the event that night was music, and specifically Arabs and Jews playing and singing together. The little hall was packed and sometimes it seemed that half the crowd were also among the performers which kept changing in a range of groupings and styles from folk through hip hop and electronic. Which is where the evening ended, for me at least, in a good vibe sort of dance party which I missed out on in conversation with some of the organisers. Everything seemed to be done in a volunteer spirit and the concert/party was free of charge

I was struck by their story of tracking down, almost by chance, a member of the family who had owned the grand house and lived in it until 1948. Claire Lorenzo is apparently sharp and very much alive in her mid nineties, and she came from very nearby East Jerusalem for the first time in many years to see the house she grew up in and tell of the family's history there. They couldn't really say how she felt or if she cared with what they had done with the house, and if the idea of Palestinians and Israeli Jews playing and dancing together in the house taken from her family seemed to her in any way better than the house being used as a factory or a school or just being shut off to the world. 


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  1. Wonderful write-up. Intriguing spot.

  2. Cool! Thanks for writing this, will try to go today with my family!

  3. Sounds wonderful in so many ways. Wish I could have been there!

  4. Very nicely written, thanks. Contains all the beauty and sadness at the same time. Hope to be able to visit that place one day...


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