Review of My Jerusalem: Secular Adventures in the Holy City (Doubleday 1994), paperback 287 pages.
Reviewed by Debra Martens
Bronwyn Drainie spent two years in Jerusalem (1991-1993) with Patrick Martin, then Middle East correspondent for The Globe and Mail, and their two children. Before that she lived in Crete and the UK, following which she worked for the CBC (see links below for more about her career). Her book about their two years in Jerusalem, My Jerusalem: Secular Adventures in the Holy City, is not a journal or diary, but a memoir, or as it would be called if published today, creative non-fiction. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of life in Jerusalem, and from this one thing — neighbourhood, an encounter, a trip to the West Bank — she invites us to consider Israel and Palestine, the people, the culture and the politics.
I marvel at how she blends the historical with the personal from the first chapter, which combines her reactions to airport security (the guns, the guns) with a quick summary of why the Middle East is an important news story. While she admits to “feminist misgivings” (p. 3) at leaving her work to follow her husband, she goes on to conclude that Jerusalem is the place to be:
“…the future of Jerusalem — that glowing, throbbing heart of the great desert religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is still nowhere near resolution and could yet bring the fragile structure of peace down around the heads of Jews and Palestinians alike. So it’s the right place to be, for all kinds of reasons.” (p. 5)
Over 20 years ago she wrote this, and I am sorry to report that it is still true.
Her description of where they will live, in a neighbourhood called Yemin Moshe, begins with a historical and geographical description:
“Down the middle of the valley between us and the Old City wall, known as the Valley of Hinnom, ran the now non-existent Green Line, which had marked the mined and barbed-wired boundary between Israeli and Jordanian forces from 1948 until the Six Day War of 1967.” (p. 24)
She then explains that post-1967 the Israelis have reclaimed this “dank and dangerous no-man’s-land” with such projects as housing, parkland, an open-air amphitheatre, and a cinema. Indeed, from the Jerusalem Cinémathèque today, one has a marvellous view of the valley and the Old City wall.
Although an academic friend warns her that, “Jerusalem is not Israel. … Don’t draw conclusions about Israelis from your lives here in this city” (p. 37), I find that Drainie does just that. His advice is given in the context of breaking down the religious make-up of Jerusalem, of pointing out the invisible walls that separate her friend’s secular children from playing with their religious neighbours, or, since 1987, separate the Palestinian and Israeli sides of Jerusalem.
Drainie accepts an invitation to Shabbat lunch at the Orthodox neighbours because, “It seemed important, if uncomfortable, to listen to more extreme views from both sides…” (p. 243). Her question of whether Haredi diamond merchants carry guns becomes an argument about the use of guns and then an animated political discussion about securing Israelis against Palestinians. With the introduction of the topic of Gaza, there is a shouting match about the situation between Israelis and Palestinians. This extreme is counterbalanced by the plumber Walid, a Palestinian who believes that all Jews should be killed. Walid and his father want nothing to do with politics but only to obey the word of Allah: “The Koran says we must kill the Jews … all the Jews in the world.” (p. 261) This rattles Drainie somewhat and she wonders how many others share his view.
Again, she begins with the Christians in her Hebrew class (ulpan) and expands into a discussion of the Holy Land’s Christians in general (154-170) and fundamentalists in particular. Similarly, a visit to the grocery store becomes a discussion of Israel’s mandatory military service and the political meaning of “near here.” (p.96)
While I am uncomfortable with these generalizations, my reading of this book is interrupted by silent cries of “Yes” when I come across something that I have experienced. Such as: “I thought I knew how to handle culture shock, but Jerusalem knocked me flat on my back.” (xi) Or that it is hard to tell old from new as everything is built with a yellowish limestone (42-3). I laughed aloud at her comments on the “maniac” drivers in Israel: “The more clear and present danger in the Middle East is simply from the traffic.” (65) I nodded at her comments on the uselessness of Palestinian shop owners being required to close in a strike protest — a move that hurts only the shop owners and not the Israelis (p. 113).
Drainie writes as a friendly raconteur, and so I nodded along, until suddenly … Here she was, writing something that I’ve heard before — that because of emigration, the population of Arab Christians is in decline (p. 115). I found myself asking: what is your source? The book offers “Further Reading” but nowhere are there footnotes or references or sources — I know: it is not an academic book and she doesn’t have to. Still, I wonder.
I find travel guides soporific; fortunately for me Bronwyn Drainie consulted them often, and in her narrative I have found nuggets of information that I will pursue on foot.
- Bronwyn Drainie was editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada from 2003 to 2015.
- Bronwyn Drainie, one of Canada’s leading cultural journalists, a judge for PEN’s New Voices Award.
- “We Must End the War of Words,” by Bronwyn Drainie, The Globe and Mail (1 February 2000) with bio note that she taught journalism ethics at Ryerson University in the late 1990s.