We forget who and where we are. We are a sisterhood of women.”Do you know where the Augusta Victoria Hospital is?” asks my taxi driver as we drive through that invisible veil which separates east and west Jerusalem. It is my first journey out of my Jerusalem, where I now live having taken a one-way aliya ticket to Israel from England just five months ago.
Even with west and east, we live in a city which has been a unified whole since 1967. And indeed these Arabs have the status of being residents of Israel. Not citizens like Israeli Arabs but something a little less, being able to vote in municipal but not national elections. They have Israeli ID cards and are found sharing the same bureaucratic rites of passage as the rest of us who have to negotiate our way through the strata of Israeli officialdom. (As a new immigrant I know what I’m talking about!)
But the niceties of their status doesn’t stop me from giving a stare of suspicion to any identifiable Arab getting on my commuter bus or strolling through the neighborhood where I live – just adjacent to Emek Refaim, the site of a horrific murderous suicide bombing at Café Hillel in September 2003. The truth is my suspicious glances fall upon all sorts of unlikely people as I remind myself that suicide bombers don’t usually sport Islamic attire.
I’m rather surprised by my taxi driver’s question because he agreed to take me to this Arab hospital in east Jerusalem so he surely he knows where it is. Well, we’ve just driven past the Damascus Gate and the scenery has changed.
Kippot, streimels, sheitels, hats and fashion have been replaced by kefiyehs, face-hugging headscarves and drab-colored fabrics. I feel a certain tinge of anxiety. Are we really going to stop in this sea of unfamiliarity (hostility?) and ask the way? I’m especially baffled by my taxi driver’s question because I discovered in the first part of my journey that actually he is an Arab!
“Haven’t you been to the Augusta Victoria Hospital before?” I ask slightly nervously. “No,” he replies.
I bring the issue out into the open. “Do you know where it is?”
He laughs a laugh of reassurance, recognising the confusion he has caused. He explains “I only asked you, because I wanted to point out.” and he waves a hand toward the skyline, “that the hospital is very close to Mount Scopus, you know, the Hebrew University.”
“Yes?” I reply questioningly, knowing that I haven’t yet got the point he is trying to make.
I had looked it up in my guide book and the Augusta Victoria perches on the crest of a hill not far from Hebrew University. Its square tower topped by a grey slate roof clearly visible from many vantage points in Jerusalem. I’d consulted Martin Gilbert’s book Jerusalem: Rebirth of a City, for a richer historical perspective.
The hospital had been erected on land given to Kaiser Wilhelm II by the Sultan when the German Kaiser had visited Jerusalem in 1848. It was named after his wife, Augusta Victoria. The Kaiser’s visit was a theatrical, ceremonial occasion. He rode into the city of Jerusalem on a black charger, wearing a white uniform with a helmet surmounted by a burnished gold eagle. It was on this occasion that Theodor Herzl had an audience with the Kaiser at the Imperial Tent.
At that time Jerusalem was a squalid, overcrowded city that had spilled out of the old walls onto surrounding hills. Its population of 45,300 included 28,000 Jews; 8,700 Christian Arabs; 8,600 Muslim Arabs. A population that had increased nine-fold in just sixty years. Herzl laid out before the Kaiser his vision of a clean and modernised New Jerusalem, he explained “the old Jerusalem would still remain Lourdes and Mecca and Yerushalayim. A lovely beautiful town could arise at its side.”
My taxi driver fixes me with his eyes in his rearview mirror. “I just wanted to reassure you.” His fluent English adopts an earnest tone.
“You don’t have to worry. You are perfectly safe here – so close to the Hebrew University.”
And the truth is I had never doubted I’d be anything but safe here. In a hospital, of course I’d be safe. Everyone I know thought that teaching English to Arab women in an Arab hospital was an amazing opportunity, and everyone agreed that a door-to-door taxi was essential for peace of mind.
“The Mount of Olives,” Muhammad, my taxi driver sweeps his hand across the scene in front of us. Definitely the scenic route. A steep, empty road takes us to the gate of the hospital and then along the short drive to the front of the hospital. I wander in and look for an appropriate sign. A robed and scarved woman comes over to me and begins a conversation in Arabic, I smile and shrug, she smiles and walks off. I find someone who speaks English and points me in the right direction.
No security guards, no inspection of the taxi, no stirring the contents of my handbag. Of course I accept the necessity of security checks in my side of Jerusalem, but I suddenly realize they impose their own tension. The reassuring sight of armed security guards on most of the buses I take also creates its own atmosphere of anxiety. My children and I walk the streets of Jerusalem in security and confidence but it is not normal to live in an ever-vigilant state, a state with painful, engrained memories of three major wars in which all our neighbors vowed to annihilate us.
One Friday night, a Shabbat guest introduced me to the acronym CBM – not a type of Ballistic Missile, as I presupposed – but Confidence Building Measures. We in Israel certainly need them. But my guest, (a highly intelligent, sensitive man, who explained how his many years in Israel have pushed him politically from left to right), assured us that influential Arabs insist that they need them too. CBMs will help eradicate mistrust.
In a small office in the Augusta Victoria, I am introduced to a group of taciturn Arab women. Within half an hour we will be laughing and joking together. This is the first English lesson of a series of 12 that I am giving this bright, lively bunch of women. They belong to a support group for women with breast cancer and are going off to an international conference in the summer.
My challenge and delight is to improve their English skills so that they will be able to participate in the conference more effectively. And in this English lesson we forget who we are, where we are. We are a sisterhood of women. A small CBM is taking place in this great city, in the center of the world.
My taxi is booked – with Muhammad – for next week.