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Jewish Journal

Basta- stalls with watermelons

Olja Andrynowska

August 17, 2012 | 9:46 am

Watermelons for peace fot. Olja Andrynowska

In the summer of 1967, the Wall separating Israel from Jordan was taken down and the small piece of land in the Musrara neighborhood, known as Jerusalem’s no man’s land, became the venue of a very important meeting: a meeting of the East and the West, of the residents of the Old City with those from the newer parts. Of its own accord, the space organized itself around the market stands selling watermelon – “basta” in Arabic. During the day, the stalls provided shelter from the heat and right after sundown the area filled with people, for whom the refreshing taste of watermelon paired with salty cheese and washed down with thick, black coffee was merely an excuse to exchange thoughts and spend time together.

On a piece of this former no man’s land, music could be heard, people watched action films together, and all this happened beyond the boundaries of rich and poor, religious and secular, resident and tourist, Arab or Jew. As the 80’s came to an end, the stalls were closed, new regulations came into place and suspicion and animosity arose among the community of Jerusalem, the intifada was approaching. Muslala, the NGO operating in the neighborhood, decided to try and revive the nostalgic memories associated with this idyllic watermelon market. The project was coordinated by Matan Israeli. Modern stalls were designed by Israeli artist David Behar Perahia. The set-up was comprised of 10 wooden units, construction began a week before the festival. [nmlr1]  Omar Kadah, a plantation owner from north Israel, provided 3.5 tons of watermelons. Musrara lies right near the walls of the Old City, between Damascus Gate and the New Gate, with a view of East Jerusalem, so people passing by began to spontaneously join the project. The Jerusalem mounted police were the first guests to arrive (in the photo with Koko Deri). The opening ceremony took place on July 31st and the festival lasted until August 4th. A small greenhouse was built in a garden, to keep the watermelon seedlings, which were irrigated with water left over from construction. A small, semi-circular stage, which was installed between the stalls, hosted performances by excellent Arab and Israeli musicians, some of them associated with the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music located in Musrara.

        The Musrara district rose out of a need for more space, when homes within the borders of the Old City became cramped. Initially, it was a neighborhood for affluent Arab Christians. Their houses often exceeded an area of 200 m² and each was built based on a similar floor plan: a spacious living room in the center and rooms for each member of the family branching out from it. After the war with Jordan in 1948, Musrara became part of the no man’s land, and to everybody’s surprise, so it remained until 1967. The district was exposed to attacks from snipers and this constant threat did not make it an attractive place to live. However, Mizrachim, Jews mainly from the countries of the Maghreb, began to settle in Musrara due to the large deficit of citizens which Israel was suffering from at the time. The houses began to fill up with people again, with the only difference being, that this time whole families lived in one room and siblings would sleep in the same bed. Such was the upbringing of Koko Deri (born in Fes), one of leaders of the Israeli Black Panthers and the only one who still lives in Musrara today.

        The Black Panthers were a protest movement from the second generation of Mizrachim, voicing an opposition to the realities of living in the „Second Israel”, characterized by the ethnic conflict between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrachim and the rising tensions between the rich and the poor. The movement’s name was inspired by the African-American Black Panthers, after its founder, Saadi Marciano, met with Angela Davis in 1971. The district bears traces of all the phases it went through: from its illustrious past, through the poverty, daily dangers and a war for independent Israel, up to the attempts to revive its past splendor (though developers tried to bypass regulations protecting the neighborhood’s character and many of the Arab villas were expanded with modern elevations, completely foreign to their primary structure). Even the new residents of Musrara remain proud of the area’s history, and so a walk in the footsteps of the Black Panthers, supported by the efforts of Muslala, was met with acceptance. The 20-stop tour is mapped out by artists invited by Muslala. One of them is a bench created by Palestinian artist Hanna Abu Hussein, which was embedded with small tokens of everyday life, such as stockings or containers of contraceptives. Some elements of the walk are entirely organic, such as Matan Israeli’s „Lemonyptus”, created by combining a eucalyptus with a lemon tree. The lemon tree is a fixture of the local landscape, the eucalyptus remains a newcomer, regardless of its size or the depth of its roots. Most of Muslala’s projects relate to the aesthetics of different elements of the neighborhood, such as streets signs, or markings that lead to bomb shelters, sometimes they are incorporated into them entirely, such as Matan Israeli’s earlier piece „Stairs for Chiara” – a wooden stairway built for his Italian lover, who lived in the Old City, and meant to shorten the distance setting them apart. The stairs were dismantled during the intifada, but were returned later in a more stable version, serving both the Arabic and the Jewish residents of the city. 

Presently Musrara is home to several significant institutions, including the Naggar School of Photography, the Ma’ale School of Film, commonly referred to as „Musrara”, or the Museum on the Seam. Part of the neighborhood is the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim. Musrara is populated entirely by Jews, but thanks to its history and location it can still be a place for breaching invisible borders present in Jerusalem at nearly every turn.

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