Warming Up in Jericho
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 11.02.2007:
By Dr. Ali Qleibo
In winter, Jerusalem projects a sense of forlorn melancholy. The early September clouds increase the level of humidity. The dry, vibrant summer ochre and rose hues bouncing off the stones of the city lose their brilliancy. An iridescent thin mist of honey gives Jerusalem its unique autumn glow. As the sun sets farther and farther south, the city plunges from bright sunshine into hazy shadow. The colour of Jerusalem in winter is grey. The stones turn grey. The sky turns grey. The purple shadows in the cavernous ‘anater’ (covered passageways) turn black-grey. The blue mosaics of the Dome of the Rock turn grey; its golden dome hardly glistens.
Clouds begin to gather from early September. The temperature begins to drop. Rain begins to fall by October. The daylight becomes shorter until, during the olive-harvest season, the sun begins to set by four p.m. Come December twelfth, and until the end of March, one single grey and black cloud hangs over the city. The cold intensifies, and the rain batters the city of stones. By January, the ancient, dry stones of the old city have totally absorbed the rain water. The houses become like the interior of a freezing, dank, empty, wet water jar. Outside, the wet wind howls through the winding alleys.
The covered passageways provide momentary relief from the pounding rain. Men huddle around an open fire kept ablaze with wood, empty carton boxes, and charcoal. They stand in the grey smoke, chafing their hands near the fire, balancing their weight now on this leg, now on that, trying to keep the blood circulating in their feet, trying desperately to fend off the cold. Around them the few spectators would scurry to seek refuge from the thrashing wet, dank, clammy cold.
Winter triggers and pokes images and scars of the melancholic Jerusalem of the sixties. I see myself walking up the steep winding alleys from Damascus Gate towards New Gate to the Freres’ school. Late in the afternoon, I would trudge the same way back home with wet shoes, soggy socks, and cold feet … I shudder at the memory of those days. Days of rain, hail, and sleet followed endlessly. Infinite hues of melancholic grey and inexorable cold fuse in my memory with the pain of the barbed-wire fence extending from Damascus Gate all the way up north to Jenin.
Jerusalem of the sixties was a ravished city; a forlorn mountain fortress where faith and poverty dovetailed into a single braid of ‘huzon’: nostalgic melancholy.
The trauma of the Nakbeh was still an open wound. The Jerusalemite residents of Katamon, Baq’ah, Talibiyeh, Musrarah, and other suburbs had fled their homes to take shelter in the old city with their grandparents. Homeless and jobless, they were waiting for their visas that would allow them to emigrate to anywhere they could find work and a temporary home. The end of the sixties saw the last of the cosmopolitan Jerusalem of the British Mandate; it was a dying city.
Central heating had not yet arrived in Jerusalem; neither had television. Once night fell, the temperature would drop down even more. Everyone gathered around braziers of glowing embers or Aladdin kerosene stoves. Weighed down by layers of clothes, everyone huddled in search of warmth. We would scrub our hands over the fire, drink endless infusions of aniseed and chamomile sweetened with dry figs, eat warm sweets, toast bread, and boil goat cheese to go with it. Even the oranges, once peeled, would be left over the flame to be warmed. Nothing helped to drive the cold away. It was as though once the cold got into our feet, our clothes, and our coats, it would wedge itself into our bones, and nothing would drive it out.
It is against this background that the lustre of Jericho shimmers in my memory. Jericho offered a temporary break from the cold. Jericho also offered respite from the grey. Jerusalem’s winter was grey. The huzon of Jerusalem was grey. The barbed wires of no-man’s-land were grey. The colour of the rain and mist on the stone walls was grey. Jericho, on the other hand, is Technicolor. Jericho’s citrus yields a dramatic range of varied hues of green. The citrus fruits ripen in winter and modulate in colour from bright luminous yellow to rich succulent orange. The summer parched landscape, now wet, reveals pink, yellow, and ochre pigments that, in the play of light and shadow, acquire dramatic hues of purple blue.
Jericho was easily accessible from Jerusalem. Its proximity and dramatic difference provided a facile escape from the wounds of Jerusalem. Once in Jericho, there were no signs of war. The orange orchards and the vegetable plantations-zucchini, green beans, peas, and eggplants-extended into the endless horizon. The pastel pink Mount of Temptation perched nobly at the edge of the oldest city on the earth.
Jericho’s ancient history consoled us. Jesus’ third temptation took place here. King Herod had built his palace here. Hisham, the son of Abd el Malek Ben Marwan, who had built our Dome of the Rock, had built his winter palace in Jericho, Hisham’s Palace. Monasteries for all denominations proliferated in Jericho. The Moslem Awqaf owned much of the properties, and the Nebi Musa festival that linked Jerusalem to Jericho was still celebrated. On a personal note, this festical also binded my family history with Jericho to the Ayyubid Period. My uncle, Hassan Qleibo, carried the family banner from Jerusalem to Nebi Musa every year with other notables from Jerusalem in a procession led by El Hajj Amin El Husseini.
Jericho was our home away from home.
Spring comes to Jericho the first week of February. The winter of Jericho is short-lived. El-Marbaánieh, the forty cold days, begins on December 20 and ends, as the Arabic name implies, forty days later. Its short winter, however, is mild. Night temperatures rarely drop to seven degrees centigrade. Day temperatures hover in the balmy, sunny teens.
In Jericho, we took long hikes in the fields. We rode bicycles. We felt warm and carefree. We were enchanted with the open gurgling stream, the chirping birds, and the bellowing of the flocks of sheep grazing in the fields.
Jericho was magic.
Everyone’s grandparents seemed to have had a second home in Jericho. My grandmother, ‘Um Muhammad’, stayed all winter in Jericho. Actually everyone in Jerusalem seemed to be in Jericho in winter. The move to Jericho would start in early December, and the return was postponed as long as possible, until the Greek Orthodox Easter or the end of the Nebi Musa seasonal festival.
Outdoor restaurants lined the main street leading from downtown Jericho westward to the Mount of Temptation. People would don their best clothes on Friday and Sunday for the afternoon promenade up and down Main Street. These were the old, elegant, cosmopolitan Jerusalemites-whiling away their time on the way out. Now they are all gone. A few dinosaurs linger, the last of a dying breed.
Jericho has not changed. The tastiest oranges grow in its orchards. From early February until mid-March, lemons, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, and bitter oranges soak the entire Jordan valley with their fragrance. Winter in Jerusalem has not changed. The political situation has not changed.
Jerusalem and Jericho have become twin cities; two forlorn, abandoned widows.
In the family tradition, I have a beautiful house and orchard there where I try to spend weekends. I find myself spending less and less time than I used to. I no longer feel warm in Jericho; it is cold and lonely.
Jericho has come to share Jerusalem’s feel of nostalgic melancholy.
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