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Al Wad Street in Jerusalem

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 28.05.2006:

From the testimony of Ali Qleibo:

“To Have a Saint.”

Each step in my house on al-Waad Street conjures up the religious, economic, political and social history of Jerusalem.

Coming from Damascus Gate, the house has a private entrance in the third qantara (the covered passageway).

Once inside, the sounds of the street become murmurs. History and mythology have transformed the house into a national treasure.

On the right hand side, there is an opening in a wall: a well, as old as the history of Jerusalem. Anyone who has visited the unearthed remains of the Roman cardo, behind Suq al-Bashoura, knows that the Umayyads used the Roman and the ancient Canaanite and Jebusite walls of Jerusalem as reservoirs in which the rainwater was collected.

Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, Jerusalemites continued to drink and wash with well water; and until today some remain attached to the drinking water from their wells. I remember one of my landlords (the home is presently inherited by more than 30 heirs) explaining this. He gently pointed out that the water from the first two rainfalls should be directed onto the stairs and out into the street. “Only by the third rainfall, once the roof has been cleansed, open the drainage pipes and canoes that lead the water into the well.”

Five steps further up, on the left side, is a green door that leads to the room of the holy man Sheikh Ya’qoub. The members of the Sharaf family, the present heirs of the property, insist that the sepulchre belonged to a servant who died in a stormy night. The next morning the snow was a meter high. In conformity with Moslem regulations which require the speedy burial of the dead he was buried in a room on the first floor inside the house.

Soon after the burial of el-Sheikh Ya’coub signs began to appear that the man was blessed, that he had barakeh. A sterile woman became pregnant after a visit to the house. People with diverse medical problems recovered from their ailments and the economic conditions of the residents of the house prospered… Sheikh Ya’coub became a willie (a Moslem holy man with supernatural good powers).

The marble stairs turn at sharp angles. Eleven steps further up and one arrives into the crusader section of the house, leaving behind the Roman and Umayyad remains. On a crusader arch, one sees, half concealed, a cross of the Knights of Malta engraved on the stone.

Climbing no more than 23 steps, we travel through the different historic epochs to find ourselves in modern Palestinian history. Five additional steps lead into the house’s open courtyard. In the plant beds, a pomegranate tree, a Near Eastern fertility symbol, is planted. At its trunk a few narcissus, anemones, daffodils, and lily bulbs have also been planted. A bourgainvillea and a little jasmine bush climb around the rusty bars of a window. Daisies find room in one corner, and a rosemary bush is surrounded by yellow pansies.

To have a green garden surpassed our wildest fantasies about a dream house within the walls of the old City. But our plants are not an exception. Most Jerusalemites enjoy having trees. In the absence of space, huge planting pots or barrels are used in which are grown the characteristic lemon tree without which a house is not a home.

In order to move unrestrained by rain or sun between the rooms distributed around the hosh, inner courtyard, a modern room with a full glass wall overlooking the garden was added. This is the only section of the house, together with the bathrooms, that was painted. The walls of the courtyard, the iron balustrade and the walls of the plant beds, however, were left intact.

Buildings in the Old City suffer from humidity which presents a constant problem to its residents. As Jerusalemites have become used to paint, a house is considered unfinished unless painted. Since the walls and ceilings are saturated with centuries of humidity, it becomes practically impossible to dry the walls even after they have been plastered. The paint bubbles up, cracks and falls, leaving disgusting looking spots.

In our house neither the Crusader nor the Mameluke rooms were painted. We resorted in the top plaster layer to sheed, a combination of white cement, sand and lime which gave the room a rosy tinge.

I sit at my desk in the qantara room on top of al-Waad street inside the walls surrounding Jerusalem. The desk has been placed at an angle that permits me to enjoy the beauty outside and inside the room.

My eyes wander around the room: I see three Roman arched alcoves, each on a wall. A fourth Roman arch, slightly larger, opens out becoming a door. A fifth alcove, much larger, once used as a rakzeh (a storage place for mattresses, comforters and pillows), now stands empty. Directly facing my desk stands a double Crusader arch enclosing a double window with Mameluke iron bars and a simple wooden screen (a mashrabiyeh). Neither the iron bars nor the screen looking on the Dome of the Rock and al-Waad street have been painted. The windows are crowned with two characteristic Moslem arches.

My attention is drawn by the blue misty smoke rising from the grill of the kebab salesman underneath the house. I peer at the distant horizon through the rusty iron bars. I focus my eyes on the nearby homes. The two cupolas on top of the adjacent house bath in light. In the distance, directly behind the domes, the yellow cupola of the Dome of the Rock shines under the golden sun of Jerusalem.

Source: Ali H.Qleibo, Before the Mountains Disappear: An Ethnographic Chronicle of the Modern Palestinians, Kloreus, Jerusalem, 1992.

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