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Palestinian Novelist And Jerusalem Resident Recalls City's History


We're going to talk now to a writer who has been thinking a lot this week about the Jerusalem he used to know.

SAYED KASHUA: I love Jerusalem. It was the place that I fall in love for the first time. And it's so painful to watch the news from here.

MCEVERS: From here, meaning the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where novelist Sayed Kashua is now a visiting professor. For 24 years, though, he lived and wrote in Jerusalem. Sayed Kashua is Palestinian. He writes in Hebrew. He has lived in both East and West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is primarily Jewish. East Jerusalem is where many Arabs live. Kashua first came to the city in the '80s when he was 14 years old to go to boarding school in West Jerusalem.

KASHUA: I remember. In - I was a high school student in my first years in the university, I would go to the theaters to watch plays. There were at least two theaters in East Jerusalem, and there were movie theaters and music festivals. And it was a living place. And I remember going to the library of the Orient House, and there were newspapers and magazines. And all of these institutions were just shut down and closed by Israeli government with the years. And when I moved to the city, it was during the years of the first intifada.

MCEVERS: We should say intifada means uprising, right?

KASHUA: Yes. But still, back then, it was the years of the 1990s. And it was completely different situation because there was hope for the Palestinian people. When I finished high school, I remember dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, celebrating the Oslo Accords and agreements, the peace agreements. We were celebrating Palestinians and Jewish people together who believed in peace in the streets of Jerusalem back in 1993. So it was painful, the first intifada, but it was painful with hope.

MCEVERS: So it sounds like it was a divided place. But there was this sense that it's not forever, that there is, like, some sort of movement toward something else, some other kind of future.

KASHUA: Yes, that's right. I think, while the Oslo agreements were a big celebration - but also, more restrictions were implied on the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem after the Oslo agreement in order to make sure - and the Israeli government wanted to make sure that it will be almost impossible for the Palestinians to have Jerusalem as their capital city the way that they wanted it to be.

MCEVERS: Do you think that it could ever be fully united given the way that it has been partitioned and people have been put in certain places over the last decades?

KASHUA: It is - looking at Jerusalem, it's - if it can be united, I don't know. What's the meaning of be united? If people will have equal rights between the sea and the river for - with all the Palestinians, yes, of course. Why not? If you have equal rights and you are not privileged just because of your ethnicity or your religion and we can share it and - so yes, of course I'm very much with that. I'm against separation walls, and I'm against borders.

But it's very clear that that the policy of Israel is making the lives of Palestinians so miserable to force them to leave the city of Jerusalem. All you need is just to take a taxi and go to - used to be beautiful neighborhoods in Eastern Jerusalem and to see the reality there. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are told every morning since they are born that this is not your city.

MCEVERS: You described in East Jerusalem from when you were younger a place with movie theaters and newsstands and...

KASHUA: That's right.

MCEVERS: What's that drive like now? What does it look like now?

KASHUA: Now there is nothing like that. There's nothing to be compared to what Jerusalem used to be. It was the center, the hub for the Palestinian population. People from Ramallah, Bethlehem and all over the West Bank will come to Jerusalem. That was the center of the Palestinian life. And now we are talking about people who are surrounded by walls and frightened to lose their permanent residencies. Now we're talking about people who lost the hope to dream.

And it just - this is the - probably the most humiliating. You know, it's so painful that you lose the ability to dream. People in Jerusalem cannot imagine a better Jerusalem in Eastern Jerusalem anymore. They cannot imagine that it can be beautiful, peaceful, Old City. They just want to survive. And that's so very sad when you depress the ability to dream of better future.

MCEVERS: Sayed Kashua, thank you so much.

KASHUA: Thanks, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.