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Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, (Al-Quds)
by Amer Zahr
December 26th, 2014 (23 Comments)
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Two weeks ago, I was in Jerusalem.

I stayed in the Jerusalem Hotel, one block from the largest entrance to the Old City. I ventured through the city’s storied alleys, ancient stairways, and vibrant markets over and over during my few days there. I ate hummus, visited holy sites, and bought souvenirs. When I did make a purchase, I naturally bargained down the price a bit, but not as much as I would have if I have been in any other land. I just didn't feel right going back and forth too much with those of my people who have remained in the Old City for so long. Also, people pay me to tell jokes. I have a pretty good life. I have no problem giving a small portion of each ticket price to the Palestinian economy.

The Arab residents of the Old City have been present for centuries. Today, the population of the Old City is comprised of about 37,000 people, including 27,000 Muslims, 6,000 Christians, 1,000 Armenians, and 3,000 Jews. That means there’s at least 33,000 Arabs inside of Jerusalem’s old walls. That’s 89%. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, no matter how hard anyone might try to deny it, Jerusalem’s Old City is an Arab place. It’s been that way for almost 1400 years. 47 years of foreign occupation hasn’t changed that.

Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages of the State of Israel (although there are some initiatives underway in Israel today to revoke the current status of Arabic). As such, all road signs in the country are displayed in Hebrew, Arabic, and, most times, English. Why English? Well, many of the Jewish residents of Israel speak English as a first language. Also, $3 billion a year gets you a lot of perks, unless you’re an American citizen of Palestinian descent trying to visit your homeland, but that’s another story for another day.

However, in the past decade or so, Israel has undertaken a campaign to “renovate” its road signs. Now, it was already true that many highway exit signs in Israel completely ignored the Arab villages that they led to, instead naming Jewish towns that one only reached after passing by these “invisible” Arab locales. But the campaign I am referring to is specifically related to Jerusalem. In Arabic, Jerusalem is “Al-Quds,” which means “The Holy Place.” Until this latest campaign, all road signs indicating a path to Jerusalem denoted the name of the city in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, each in their native pronunciation. In other words, the sign read “Jerusalem (in English), Yerushalayim (in Hebrew), Al-Quds (in Arabic).”

But the signs have changed. Now they display what you see in the photo above. We have Jerusalem in English, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, and then something strange in Arabic. Instead of simply displaying the Arabic “Al-Quds” for Jerusalem, we get the Hebrew transliteration into Arabic. That’s right, “Yerushalayim” is transliterated into Arabic. However, just in case anyone doesn’t know what they’re getting at, they give us “Al-Quds” in parentheses. Parentheses? This might be more offensive than deleting the name altogether. Parentheses denote something superfluous, or insignificant, or sometimes even sarcastic. For instance:

She asked me to come over to her apartment (at 3 am!).
She asked me to come over to her apartment (I ran to my car).
She asked me to come over to her apartment (I wish).

Yerushalayim, (Al-Quds). Yerushalayim, (Al-Quds). Yerushalayim, (Al-Quds).

I kept seeing it. I kept getting angry. I kept feeling defeated.

Then I went back to the Old City.

Sure, I saw a few of those teenagers in military fatigues holding M-16s. But when I saw who they were pointing their guns at, I saw restaurant owners serving falafel, hummus, and shawarma. In other words, I saw Palestinians (and some Israeli soldiers).

Sure, I saw a few Israeli flags flying around here and there. But when I saw what they were flying over, I saw people speaking Arabic, using wildly unnecessary hand gestures, and kissing each other on the cheek an inordinate number of times. In other words, I saw Palestinians (and some Israeli flags).

Sure, I saw some of those European-looking guys peering from their balconies onto the meandering alleys and streets of the Old City. But when I tried to see what they were looking at, I saw shopkeepers selling cardamom and cumin, Arabic artifacts, and embroidered accessories. I saw women pushing their mint and thyme. I saw men marketing their keffiyehs and rosaries. I saw locals. I saw my people. I saw Palestinians (and some Israeli guests).

Jerusalem possesses the flavors of many cultures. She reaches out to all the children of Abraham. Even for a skeptic like me, one cannot deny the gravity of walking in her streets. Her arms are wide open. She is welcoming. I know all of these things. I’ve seen her.

But while I know what she is, I also know what she is not. Jerusalem is not Polish, or Russian, or Hungarian. She is an Arab. If she could speak, she would invite me over for dinner and pile food on my plate, even when I told her I was stuffed. The lemonade she would serve me would be overly sweet and tart. And she would ask me why I wasn’t married yet. And when she would utter anything to me, I would understand her. Because while Jerusalem can speak to anyone, her favorite language is Arabic. And lucky for me, she has a Palestinian accent.

While I was strolling through the markets of Jerusalem, a nice leather bag caught my eye. Now, I’m usually pretty worried that I give off a pretty American vibe whenever I walk around in Palestine. But as I was bargaining my way to a purchase, the shopkeeper told me he would give me his rock-bottom price. After all, as he said, I am “ibnil balad.” I am “a son of the city.” Maybe I got the best price, maybe I didn’t. I didn’t really care. At that point, I was jubilant that he knew that, like him, I belonged there.

Next time I visit Jerusalem, I am going to try to find that guy again. I need to ask him what it is about me that let him know that I was her son. I really need to know what that thing is, so that I never, ever change it.

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (23)
  1. Its the endearing Palestinian accent and sarcastic humor, they’ll know it anywhere. They spotted me too.

  2. An excellent interesting piece, as usual, that has the taste of “Ibn albalad”. Welcome back from Jerusalem, Amer.

    Raji

  3. Halina Minadeo ... December 26th, 2014 - 14:54

    So beautiful, Amr, I was teary eyed reading about the enduring love for al-Quds that all Palestinians share. Insha’allah, al-Quds will live forever.

  4. Beautiful, Amr. I was also teary eyed. When is your next gig in NY?

  5. This great. I can almost smell the mint and thyme and hear the magnificent orchestra of sounds streaming out of the Souk. I lived there for 4 years and I visit it every year. I feel the same excitement every time as if it is the first. I love you Ammo for sharing it. BTW, Al-Quds is ours. Period

  6. I always read your posts and enjoy all of them, I don’t usually comment online but this article got me into tears. I’m Lebanese and I got tears in my eyes. Very nice write up. Don’t worry you will never change. You will not be able to stop being her son :(

  7. Amer another great article. (Loved the satire, i’m sure you understand) I was fortunate enough to visit the Holy City this year and your article reminded me of the smells and sounds of the inner narrow streets. The baking of fresh bread, Hummus stalls outside the Damascus gate. Looking like tourists we definitely got the royal treatment at the stores, they even pulled out the cardamom Coffee and fresh juice.
    Great write up. keep it up. Herinder Singh

  8. This gave me chills and made me cry, thanks amr habibi!

  9. I think this Jerusalem-transcription is one of the strangest thing I have ever seen during my studies in arabic language, where transcription is our second amateur hobby.

    It reminds me about dictionaries, whereas the words in (parentheses) is the ones who is about to fall out of vocabulary. I doubt Al-Quds is such a word.

    Either the way, it’s a really weird way of humiliating people.

  10. Hi, Amer. I appreciate your sense of being so at home in Al-Quds and am very glad that you were there and experienced all of that. I hope you go again and again.
    Overall, you are definitely right about how the Israelis have erased many Palestinian place names.
    However, I question your sense of the history of those signs. I lived in Jerusalem in 1971 and distinctly remember seeing those signs saying Urshlaim (al-Quds) in Arabic back then. That’s part of how I began to learn to read Arabic.
    And, the name “Al-Quds” is a name for the city that came with the Arabic speaking Muslims in 638 or afterward. See http://palestineoverview.blogspot.com/2013/06/history-of-city-al-quds.html.
    So, I don’t mean to quibble at all — your overall sense is definitely right — but for real accuracy, those signs are not a recent phenomenon.
    All the best,
    David

  11. Robert Sweiss ... December 28th, 2014 - 18:17

    Merry Christmas Amer!

    Just a quick note to you regarding the Arabic word for Jerusalem (Yerushaleem), it is correct in the sign. The Hebrew use Yerushalime and the Arab Christians have used the word Yerushaleem. The Arabic Bible use Yerushaleem. The word Al-Quds was employed by the Muslims to reference its holiness by which over time became employed as a proper name which in some sense undermined the Arabic/Syriac name of Yerushaleem. Why Islam never utilized Yerushaleem would be a good topic to research.

    Thanks for all you do. Keep up the good work. God bless.

    Best regards,
    Robert Sweiss

    • hi robert,

      early arab christians and even some early muslims used the hebrew name. but it would be incorrect to say that any arab christians use it today. there might an exception or two, and sacred texts might use it, but today’s arab christians overwhelmingly use “al-quds.”

      but none of these historical details is really the point. there seems to be a hint of something damaging in your post. perhaps i am wrong. but don’t ever fall for israel’s attempts to create separations between arab christians and muslims. i can tell you firsthand that we are all equal “threats” to her.

      merry christmas to you too.

      salamat, amer

  12. Robert Sweiss ... December 28th, 2014 - 19:32

    I truly understand the point you are making against Zionist apartheid regime. The word Jerusalem is spelled correctly in Arabic in the sign. All of the Arabic speaking Christians recognize the word Al-Quds in reference to Jerusalem but they all do know Yerushaleem as properly spelled in the Arabic sign. In the Arabic text of the Bible, it has always been Yerushaleem not Al-Quds. You may be in for a surprise to hear Yerushaleem quite frequently spoke among the Arab/Arabic speaking Christians. My Arabic baptismal certificate states “The Greek Orthodox Jerusalem Patriarchate” and nowhere does it state the word Al-Quds.

    I am one of the most anti-Zionist people you may meet. I am aware of their tactics to divide and conquer. Recently the Zionists came up with a bizarre and new nationality identity for Christians rejected by the Jerusalem Patriarchate Church
    http://www.jpost.com/Christian-News/Israeli-Greek-Orthodox-Denounce-Move-to-Differentiate-Christians-from-Arabs-376493

  13. Great article! I know right, find out what that “something” is….and never change!

  14. Great article… Next time when you visit Al Quds – Jerusalem, I am inviting you over for coffee.. Would love to share thoughts and vision!
    اهلا وسهلا

  15. christinemalak ... January 8th, 2015 - 18:57

    This article is one of your best Amer! Great work! On another note, I just viewed a video on facebook that was shared by an acquaintance about Brigitte Gabriel. What are your thoughts on that vile serpent? Sorry, couldn’t resist inserting my opinion here. I think some well versed and informed Arabs should post a rebuttal to her propaganda. But who? Who??

  16. Jerusalem has been a Jewish-majority city since the 1850s. There was a Jewish majority in the old city, and all of Jerusalem until 1949, when the Arabs kicked them out of the Jewish quarter.

    Israel regained its holy city in 1967, in a war started by the surrounding Arab nations. They regained the temple mount, the most holy Jewish site in the world, and the state of Israel banned Jews from praying there because they did not want to upset the muslims who prayed there. That is what Jews do.

    Jerusalem has all kinds of people in it: Jews, Christians, Muslims. They all share and love the city. The thing is, though, that Jerusalem is Jewish. If she could speak, she would speak in beautiful expressive Hebrew, and ask you if you had found a nice Jewish girl. And feed you another rugelach. Because her veins run with the blood of a Jew. However much people may call her an Arab city, she has had a Jewish majority for nearly two hundred years. The muslims will not see her in the admiration she deserves. The muslims will not rightfully see her as the most holy place in the world.

    There are Jews, muslims, and christians in Jerusalem. But her name is Yerushalayim, because in her heart, she is a Jew.

    • this is a flat-out lie.

      • Which part of this is a lie?

      • I do not support Israeli government policy completely either, and I think that on the signs it should say Al-Quds in Arabic first, but I really dislike that you are trying to disconnect Jerusalem to Judaism. It just is not okay. Jerusalem was a Jewish majority city before 1949 as they are now again. So I don’t really know which part of this you disagree with.


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