Meet Paola Caridi, author of “Jerusalem without God”

Her blog Invisiblearabs centers around Arab popular culture and politics. In fact it is dedicated to all those “real Arabs” who were “often misunderstood” and “invisible to the majority of Italian public opinion” before the 2011 uprisings, explains the Italian journalist Paola Caridi. “These virtual pages are the fruit of trips, thoughts, and at times rage, fruit always of honest passion.”

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In her latest book Jerusalem without God: Portrait of a Cruel City (AUC Press, 2017), Caridi, who lived in Cairo and Jerusalem from 2001 to 2012, where she worked as a reporter and analyst on Middle East affairs, grapples with that very passion for the wounded city she loves deeply.
In this interview, the reporter from Rome, who is also the author of Hamas: From Resistance to Government and Invisible Arabs, answered some of our questions about her interpretation and perspective on everyday life in Jerusalem, the profoundly spiritual and bloodied city, shared yet so divided, with its inseparable and interconnected sounds, smells, and rhythms.

AUC Press: What is your connection and story with Jerusalem?

My personal story? My story with Jerusalem started in 2003. I was assigned as MENA region correspondent by my Italian freelance news agency, Lettera 22. My husband is a TV reporter, and he was assigned as the correspondent for RAI, Italy’s national public broadcasting company. So I landed in Jerusalem as a journalist and family member, and as an analyst and mother. I always underline the dual dimension—professional and personal—of my experience: it allowed me to combine different perspectives in my daily life in Jerusalem. It helped me to know hidden parts of the city’s reality. My connection started as a professional one: I was a journalist in one of the most important places on earth. Year after year, I developed a different, and in some ways, intimate relation with the city. I became an inhabitant, a resident, a very strange kind of citizen. Now I consider myself a Jerusalemite.

AUC Press: Much of how you describe Jerusalem is through the senses, through sounds and smells in particular. Why is that?

I think each of us develops a very subjective way to know the context in which he/she is living in. My way of understanding and perceiving the city (every city!) is through the observation of life. Life means markets, daily life’s rhythms and habits, food and social behaviors. I need to live near a market, as I did, not only in Jerusalem, but also in Cairo. I never forget that my grandmother was an illiterate peasant. Regarding sounds: Jerusalem is very unique, in terms of the richness and complexity of its sounds. Sounds are among the best ways to describe how the city’s communities are at the same time intertwining and fighting each other.

AUC Press: Why did you feel Jerusalem needed to be written about in this way – “Without God”?

My book’s title could be perceived as a very provocative one. Perhaps it is provocative. I defined “without God” the city we consider the most sacred on earth. The general public, both secular and pious, consider the city as mirroring on earth the Celestial Jerusalem. In putting aside the sanctity of the city and its religious dimension, I had one goal. I focused on the most neglected part of the picture: the inhabitants, the human beings in their historical and social path. They are the invisible part of Jerusalem.

AUC Press: How do you, Paola Caridi, see Jerusalem?

What a tough and painful question! Jerusalem became for me a sort of prism through which I see now the region, the world, ordinary lives. I see Jerusalem as a political laboratory, both in negative and in positive terms, since the city was throughout its incredibly long history the archetype of the urban, religious, political space. On the emotional level, I see Jerusalem as the place where I saw another archetype. The archetype of suffering, both symbolic and extremely physical.

AUC Press: In your book, you discuss the “Power of Names”: “The streets of Jerusalem have changed names often, according to whoever holds power.” Who holds the power today?

In Jerusalem there is only one administrative, political, and military power, i.e., the Israeli authorities. For Israel, control over the whole territory of the city of Jerusalem is a political and national red line. Control does not mean, however, normalization and/or appeasement. It means status quo. It means delay sine die on the negotiation on the final status of Jerusalem. It means violence that often flares up.

AUC Press: Is it really ever possible to look at Jerusalem beyond the religious and or political dimension and context, and aren’t its architectural heritage, urban identity, and demographic profile a profound reflection of the city’s heavy history?

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Indeed. Jerusalem continues to be the archetype of itself. At the same time, we tend to forget its urban and historical contemporaneity. Jerusalem used to live as other cities used to live between the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the State of Israel. Jerusalem was in the contemporary geography of Beirut and Cairo. We forgot a part of the city’s long history.

AUC Press: You say “the two-state solution is impossible to put into practice, has no relation to reality, and shows no understanding of the situation on the ground, least of all in Jerusalem.” So how do you see the future of the city and the coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis?

Undoubtedly, Jerusalem’s near future is a bleak one. Tension is on the rise in and around the so called Holy Basin, the most awkward part of the Old City. The Holy Basin gathers symbolically in a few hundred square meters the unwillingness to pursue a long-term peaceful solution based on recognition, equality, justice. The risk is what we, as analysts, call the hebronization of the Old City of Jerusalem, i.e., Israeli national policy seized by the radical settlers’ political and territorial ambitions.

The problem is that, vis-à-vis the situation on the ground, there will never be either a win-win solution, or a normalization under Israeli rule. There will never be either a homogenous Israeli Jerusalem, or a Palestinian-only Jerusalem. Today, the two communities are living side by side in a profoundly asymmetrical way, as a part of the city that is occupied. But they are living in the same urban space. Although it seems idealistic and naive, a One and Shared Jerusalem will probably be in the long run the only possible and suitable solution. Often people react, thinking that Jerusalem as a city administratively shared by all its communities is an unrealistic and idealistic perspective, an idea impossible to realize, a utopia. My first answer is that Oslo’s so-called pragmatism and realism transformed Jerusalem into an unsolvable problem.

AUC Press: Why do you call your blog Invisiblearabs?

The blog’s name is an offshoot of my first book on contemporary Arab societies, Invisible Arabs, published by Feltrinelli in 2007. Ten years ago, Arabs’ lives and societies were hidden beyond the veil of prejudice and Orientalist clichés. Real Arabs were invisible to the majority of Italian public opinion. Ten years after, I have to admit that the men and women I met during my life in the MENA region are not anymore invisible. The 2011 revolutions, wars, and crises that stormed the region lift up their faces on TV prime time. Yet, they are victims of a misconceived idea of the Orient, the same idea that Edward Said stigmatized 40 years ago in his remarkable writings.

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AUC Press: You did a book tour in the US last fall. What would you like an American audience to gain from your book?

I wish to give American audiences a more complex and, at the same time, human picture of the city. Knowledge, empathy, recognition. They are probably unattainable goals for a book tour. What encourages me is thinking that human experience everywhere is based on similar ways of reading reality. I hope to give audiences a three-dimensional picture of the city, and specifically, of its inhabitants. I consider it the first intellectual step toward a much-needed political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, any negotiation would not be useful without a complex and detailed knowledge of the city, its streets, its urban body.

AUC Press: You worked as a reporter for more than a decade, covering Middle East affairs. Do you feel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contributed over time to much of the region’s current unrest?

Indeed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was and still is the spark of much of the region’s current unrest. The list of issues that emanates from it is a very long one. I would only name the Iranian nuclear issue. At the same time, in most recent years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became, in some respects, a peripheral one. I give only a symbolic example: the 2011 mass demonstrations in many Arab capitals never, or almost never, resorted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s rhetoric. No Israeli flags were burned in the squares. Rights and freedoms in the national institutional space and in the global one were the core issues.

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