Unpicking the Seam

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Charedi walking through a motorway tunnel

Israel is a land full of contradiction and ambiguity and paradox: Jerusalem even more so. So many writers and artists have wrestled with the daily issues this state of being presents to the world, and it’s probably reached a point for me where I feel somewhat disconcerted viewing art or reading stuff over here which doesn’t engage with the challenging ‘realities’.

So I was thrilled to discover the (relatively) new Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem which describes itself as a socio-political contemporary art venue. This amazing place is “Committed to examining the social reality within [our] regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we have in common rather than what keeps us apart.

There was no keeping me away.

The current exhibition West End is superb. Thought-provoking and inspiring, I love the way the works presented are reacting to the reality of conflict and prejudice in a way which opens up debate rather than fostering judgmental reaction. Artists from all over the world are represented, and the place is a must-see for anyone interested in the visual arts in the Middle East.

I spent a lot of time afterwards reflecting on the idea of a seam as a metaphor. Much of what drives my own work is the tension and dissonance arising from ‘edges’ between ‘worlds’: the dissonance which occurs and disconcerts when you encounter something ‘out of place’ and which seems to happen so often for me at geographical and psychological crossing points. I think “seam” is a particularly apt word to describe these intersection points which join as much as separate. What particularly fascinates me here is the physical location of the Museum on the Seam: quite literally, it lies on the road which follows the course of the pre-1967 Jordanian-Israeli border, and which still represents a psychological barrier between West and East Jerusalem but simultaneously represents a unification line.

It meant that when we eventually exited the museum, we found ourselves walking back through adjacent Mea Shearim, the original ultra-orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. As I walked through the mass of charedi hurrying to get home before the start of the sabbath, I felt suddenly very sad at feeling I had passed from a place of light and hope to a place of claustrophobic intolerance. There has been a lot of reporting in the Israeli media this week about an ongoing fight between secular and ultra-orthodox Jews regarding gender segregation on public transport. Many secular Israelis are becoming increasingly concerned by a growing desire within the charedi community to segregate and reduce the visibility of women in public life. Some nasty incidents of intolerance have taken place this week in Jerusalem, and all this was running through my head as I made my way through the Friday afternoon crowds.

It’s important not to generalise: not all charedi agree on the issue, but the overwhelming uniformity of dress and appearance of this segment of the population makes it very hard not to generalise.

And so as the centre of Jerusalem gradually did its Friday shutdown, we drove out to the west of the city, to Ein Kerem, a small picturesque village with a couple of Christian sites of interest. We guessed we would at least find a place here open to sit and have coffee.

Delighted to find we had guessed correctly, we duly sat to watch the world go by. Only to see an entirely different mass of religious fervour. Sitting in the shadow of the Church of the Visitation, crowds of Spanish-speaking pilgrims were wending their way up the hill, chanting their prayers volubly.

Was there anywhere we could go to to find a bit of secular quiet on this late Friday afternoon? In the end we found ourselves sitting in the lobby of the American Colony hotel back in East Jerusalem. Caught up with the daily papers, and basked in the warm glow of a giant Christmas Tree.

Oh yes; I’d quite forgotten it’s technically still Christmas out there in the big wide world.

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