An old story tells us that once upon a time, in a city at the edge of the desert, there lived a young man who was madly in love with a girl. He knew her since the days of school, where he would wait restless by the door if she ever arrived late in the morning. The girl returned his feelings, but rumours quickly reached her parents, who removed her from the school to protect the honour of the family, and forbade her from meeting him. The young man longed for the girl day and night, and maybe lost his mind a bit, for he begun writing his love on the walls of the city. “I pass by these walls”, he declared in one of his poems, “And I kiss this wall and that wall. But it's not love of the houses that has taken my heart, but of the one who dwells in those houses”. Fearful of a public scandal, the girl's family moved to another city and married her to another man, which the young man did not take too well and that story has a very unhappy ending. Ours in another story, one without ending yet, but it is also about a young man and a girl, and about walls, the walls of Anata, a neighbourhood in today's East Jerusalem.
The young man of our story is called Juma, he is 22 years old, all of them spent in Anata. His mother was born in the Old City, annexed by Israel in 1967 together with the rest of East Jerusalem, while his father comes from a village near the city of Hebron, which was not annexed and today is in the territories administered by the Palestinian Authority. They came to live in Anata, which like them finds itself both within the boundaries of Jerusalem's municipality and those of Zone B, under the Palestinian Authority. Perched on the last hills before the Judean desert, today Anata is physically separated from East jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank by Israel's Security Wall and a maze of Israeli military facilities and settlements. Walled-off on three sides, what was once a flourishing agricultural village turned into an impoverished ghetto, shunted even by the municipality that annexed it: after decades of neglect, sewage runs in the street and the whole neighbourhood is falling apart while nobody seems to care.
Juma concedes that Anata is a place that many would like to leave, yet in recent years thousands have come to buy or rent houses there, to be registered as living in Jerusalem and keep their residence permit or to be close to someone who doesn't have it. This has driven prices up and contributed to overcrowding, yet it allows couples like Juma's parents to live together and have a family. But the boundaries and walls also cut across families: while Juma has the blue ID of a Jerusalem resident, and therefore can work within the Wall, his father with his green Palestinian Authority ID cannot. Like a string of bad boyfriends, all Israeli governments have at the same time ignored and suffocated East Jerusalem, neglecting its needs while putting in place innumerable physical and legislative restrictions on the life of its inhabitants. This bad policy is borne out of the same obsession that determined the boundaries of the municipality and the course of the Wall: excluding as many Palestinians as possible while keeping most of the land, all with the openly-stated goal of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city, and preserve Jerusalem as “the united and undivided capital of Israel”.
Children of this dysfunctional relationship, the youth of Anata do what most kids do in these situation – they try to get by as best as they can, although it's hard and some get in troubles. The inevitable process of criminalization has taken a heavy toll on Anata's youth: like many of his friends, Juma wasted several years in prison, and did not finish his education. Not that school offers much of an alternative: with a dropout rate of 40% and a shortage of funds, teachers and classrooms, East Jerusalem's educational system is failing a lot of kids, restricting their chances to find decent jobs. Anyway, Juma likes Anata and spends a lot of time in the Western part of the city, where he has friends and has done all sorts of jobs, from construction sites to washing dishes in restaurants. He wishes things in the city were better and there was less police around, but he tries not get depressed about it, juggling a life suspended between living in a religiously conservative Palestinian neighbourhood and working in westernized, capitalist Israel. As the oldest son of the family, his biggest concern now is getting married, something that he very much looks forward to. But it is no easy affair: there is a lot of family stuff to be dealt with, a wedding is expensive, and the groom is expected to have a house, to be able to provide for the family, and to buy a significant amount of gold for his bride-to-be.
There is a certain girl whom Juma has known since school, the daughter of one of the neighbours. As long as their childhood allowed it, they used to spend a lot of time together, and then they went the separate ways boys and girls go as they grew up. She seems to return his feelings, but in his current financial situation a marriage remains a distant dream, so he hasn't proposed yet. East Jerusalem's Palestinian society is fiercely traditional, and respectable young men and women are not supposed to give too much away if they are not married. Juma doesn't want to do anything that would offend her honour or that of her family, and for now they have to make do with meeting briefly when their families visit each other, sharing moments, exchanging glances, and waiting. He is working as much as he can to save money, and he's slowly building his own house on top of the one of his family. When thinking about the walls of the bedroom, he says he wants to make it big, so that his future wife will have all the space she needs. He plans to stay in Anata, and shrugs when asked about the Wall and the neighbourhood’s many challenges. If this young man is to avoid what happened to the one in our first story, he will have to thread carefully and be patient, for physical walls are not all that stand in his way.