Yerushalayim, Al Quds: walking between two vibrant worlds
Traveling between Israeli and Palestinian lands: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nablus, Beer Sheva, Nazareth and many other small villages inside and outside the Green Line. It was my very first trip to the Middle East and I was thrilled with excitement. After my M. A. graduation, the university sent me to Jerusalem to carry out an internship at the Consulate General of Italy.
I selected this city as my favorite site among others in the world immediately after I discussed my Master thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian water conflict, focused on the shared water sources. I could not wait to get experience in the field. I was really happy to go there and see the situation with my own eyes.
Arrival in Tel Aviv, a sort of Miami with a bittersweet Middle Eastern flavor, about one hour drive from Jerusalem, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, Al Quds in Arabic. On the journey, the landscape was bare and surrounded by beautiful ocher shades.
My first experience in Jerusalem suddenly threw me down from my romantic dreams to the hard reality. The taxi driver taking me from Tel Aviv Airport to Jerusalem dropped me at an unknown point of the city in the middle of a traffic roundabout, refusing to continue towards the eastern neighborhoods, where I rented a room in a Catholic guesthouse: “we are not allowed to go there, you need to take a Palestinian taxi!”
(Taxis passing the streets of West Jerusalem)
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a number of unexpected side effects.
Walking in the streets of the city, I recognized the two Israeli and Palestinian vibrant worlds, in the same small piece of land, which politics today separates, and which a millenarian history unified, when the different identity components of the local population used to live together, sharing stories, customs, and traditions.
Crossing the city, the breath-taking panorama changes intensely: houses’ architecture, clothes’ colors, smells from the cafés, lifestyles. People seem to be divided along religious lines, and yet they live in a constant proximity. West Jerusalem is mostly Jewish, full of blonde, blue-eyed Russians, as much as the Eastern neighborhoods are mainly Muslim, packed with beautiful Arab veiled women, while the Old City is a mixture of different quarters. Signs of modern life emerge in the middle of a very old city, except in the Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Haredi community of Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, offering the greatest contrast in this diverse land.
(Old City of Jerusalem)
I mainly worked in West Jerusalem, where the Italian Consulate is located, but almost two-three times a week I used to cross the Old City, on the way to Sheik Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood where the Italian Development Cooperation Agency operates. Therefore, I got the opportunity to develop contacts and relationships with both Arab and Jewish communities, trying to better understand their own particular views.
Despite conflict and separation, hostility and mutual distrust, I had the opportunity to learn about experiences of dialogue and cooperation, particularly between women belonging to the two main communities. Even in the Israeli-Palestinian difficult and conflictual context, women can represent a unifying factor.
Throughout history, women have been both the vehicles and the drivers of positive change as peace-builders and mediators, because of their key role in countering extremism and radicalization. They are often the first to recognize the early warning signs of extremism in families and at the community level, voices of tolerance and counter-narrative message.
(The Wall of Jerusalem)
Women’s empowerment is the most powerful response to the disintegration of communities, to the loss of self-esteem in relation to women’s creativity and income-generating capacities. Women can give a great contribution to the region’s inclusive growth and sustainable development, but how to make it more visible? How to connect women’s full potentials, overcoming barriers that still hamper equal participation? How could dialogue and cooperation help to achieve these goals?
With this questions in mind, back to Italy after a pretty long period of voluntary service in India working for less fortunate women and children, I started thinking to write down ideas focused on today women’s situation in the complicated context of the Israeli-Palestinian area.
Strengthening women’s position in their families and communities would be the main object of my pilot project, in order to create more trustworthy ties and relationships among them and improve knowledge and valorization of their respective collective identities. Cuisine, food, and environment are one of the most beautiful expressions of one’s community identity, as well as communication and exchange tools more powerful than many seminar and conferences.
(Damascus Gate, Jerusalem)
This is why I intend to launch, with the help of local authorities and non-governmental organizations, a pilot project involving local Palestinian and Israeli women to set up three main courses on identitary cuisine; organic sustainable agriculture, with the development of a bio-district near Jerusalem; and a comprehensive informative, preventive health care information campaign for women and their children, focused on the relationship between balanced food and lifestyle on the one hand, and the prevention of some ailments like obesity, cardiovascular and skin diseases, and diabetes.
Recently I met two amazing women, Orna from Tel Aviv and Shatha from Bethlehem, running respectively two different organizations which serve as a meeting place for Jews and Arabs, trying to create a safe and friendly environment for peace and dialogue, as well as economic opportunities for local women. The story of their daily work deeply impressed and increased my desire to meet them again soon on my next trip to Jerusalem.
Enrica Miceli is the Secretary General of Mediterranean Perspectives and currently in charge of the Secretariat of the Italian Network for the Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue RIDE. She graduated in International Relations at the University of Bologna, followed by a specialization in Development Cooperation Studies. After an internship at the Italian Consulate in Jerusalem in 2010, she moved to India where she served as a volunteer for around three years. She firstly worked in Mumbai for a women’s empowerment project devoted to support women from the peri-urban slum’s areas and secondly in Kerala (south India), within the framework of the European Voluntary Service, in a foundling home for children and women in need. She was awarded International Volunteer 2015 for her commitment and supportive work in Kerala.