Snapshots without Cameras

Jerusalem: Snapshots from a Distance

By Zena Faith Levine

A review of Jerusalem: Snapshots From A Distance by Esther Dagan

Published on April 1, 2003

Jerusalem: Snapshots From A Distance
Esther Dagan

Amrad Publications
$20
paper
168pp
1-896371-03-05

Jerusalem: Snapshots From a Distance consists of eight short stories, each a snapshot of lives at different times in and around Jerusalem. Although each story is discrete, the theme that runs throughout is the message of the olive tree: life, hope, peace.

“Old Jerusalem Souk Snapshots,” the first story, serves as an introduction. I, the reader, am invited into six-year-old Simba’s Jerusalem family in 1936. I am Simba’s adult guest, accompanying her on her way to school with my camera. I am taken along the souks of Jerusalem, asking questions about everything I see and taking pictures. Everything is vividly described: jewellery, fruit, meat, silks, pottery. I sense the hustle and bustle, I hear the bargaining. Simba is a good teacher to me, her guest, but as an adult reader I sometimes feel I am taking history lessons from a child.

Not all is glorious on my day at the market, though. Although a Muslim selling religious artefacts informs me that there is “no discrimination here,” Simba remembers a stabbing that happened in the market a week ago – men shouting “Slaughter the Jews!” in Arabic and a woman yelling “Help!” in Hebrew. Simba explains simply: “Some Muslim people hate Jews. That’s all I know.” Soon after, an Arab boy is lying on the ground, bleeding, after being hit by a truck. An Arab policeman assumes the truck driver was a “dirty” Jew and vows to kill him. The story ends with Simba back in the present, wondering how many more innocent people need to be killed for peace. “When will we be freed from our encaged rage, imprisoned in our historical past?”

From here on in, I, the reader, am no longer directly involved in the stories. I no longer have a camera, yet the snapshots continue.

Much of Dagan’s stories consist of dialogue, which adds some humour and spark. In the second story, “Burial on the Mount of Olives,” we learn about the olive tree. Malka’s grandfather planted one for her before she was born and explains: “The olive tree is part of our people’s history…(It) means plenitude, peace between people, hope and protection from the sun, wind, and rain.” He also says that it provides olive oil, the central icon of Hanukkah. The tree shows up in many stories: characters will often be found sitting under them, contemplating death, life, war, peace, and personal memories.

“Tombstones” begins with an account of 1967’s Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbours and goes on to deal with the period after, when Jews were trying to get back to their homes in the Jewish Quarter. Many topics are touched upon, including the long journey from the outskirts back into Jerusalem, barricades, destroyed cemeteries, and the unreachable Mount of Olives. It’s a lot of detail for one story, and in the end the destruction and chaos of the war is summed up as “one of the prices for our independence.” The remaining five stories range in subject from rape, to soldiers killed in war, to Zionism and recent suicide bombings. But as with the others, these stories are not complete. They are merely snapshots.

Although Jerusalem: Snapshots From a Distance is a work of fiction, I believe these stories come from personal experience. Dialogue and detail give the sense that these are not only Dagan’s stories, but the stories of her parents, grandparents, and friends. Many of the characters propose respect, sharing, education, understanding, and compromise as roads to peace in Israel. But is anyone listening? Many of the players in the stories, both Jews and Arabs, are not. So the stories continue… mRb

Zena Faith Levine is a Montreal freelance writer and editor.

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