Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Favorite Saturday Spots in East Jerusalem

As I have written previously, Saturdays are pretty quiet in the Jewish parts of Jerusalem, as most businesses are closed due to the Jewish Sabbath.  While often this silence can be maddening, it has also motivated me be adventurous in seeking out new, interesting, and lively surroundings.

As of late, my wanderings have taken me to East Jerusalem's Bab a-Zahara neighborhood.  One of the first Arab neighborhoods built outside of the City, it was a bustling commercial area during the British Mandate and after the 1948 partition (in which East Jerusalem and the Old City were part of Jordan). I first happened upon the area when searching for some Palestinian art galleries, and have enjoyed peeling back its layers.  The area lies just outside of the Old City's Damascus Gate and is the meeting ground for several different communities cross paths.  You have the local Muslim population, who flock to the area for the bustling market as well as the Palestinian bus station that provides transportation to towns in the West Bank.  It also contains numerous Christian religious sites such as the Garden Tomb, and so it's not uncommon to see missionary groups from the U.S. and Europe wandering around.  The area's proximity to the French Institute and the American Colony Hotel also insure there is a presence of European NGO employees hanging around.

So here I want to share three spots in this area that have become my favorite haunts as of late.

Educational Bookshop
9 Salah Eddin St.

A delightful bookstore-cafe focused on providing information on Middle East culture and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Here you can get everything from introductory books on Islam and conversational Palestinian Arabic to post cards of Banksy's murals on the separation barrier.  I felt at home seeing J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami's A New Voice for Israel displayed alongside works by Karen Armstrong, one of my favorite contemporary religious scholars. The crowd at any given time is a mix of locals to the neighborhood, foreign journalists, and curious tourists.  The upstairs cafe area is nice because it's the sort of place where you can sit for a few hours charging your devices without anyone bothering you or guilting you into buying more than a cup of tea (which you can get with your choice of sage, cardamom, chamomile, mint, or za'tar).

Palestinian Art Court Al-Hoash
7 Azahraa St.

This was the place that initially brought me to the neighborhood and it did not disappoint.  Having spent the first couple of weeks learning about Israeli Jewish history and culture through art, I was eager to gain a similar window into contemporary Palestinian society.  What I was surprised to discover is that the current featured exhibit by Gazan artist Nidda Badwan is actually a show my friend Meghann had sent me a New York Times article about.  In addition to the compelling and provocative art, the space also features an airy reading room containing information on various  artistic and cultural issues facing the community.  I ended up buying a book there of work by Palestinian female artists.  Apparently Palestinian Art Court also features classes and workshops for the public, including programs for people with disabilities.

Institut Francais de Jerusalem-Chateaubriand
Salah Eddin St. 21

Located right next door to the Educational Bookshop, the French Institute is housed in a gorgeous Ottoman-era mansion that contains a lovely courtyard, library/multimedia center and lounge.  I like hanging out there for the free coffee and the ability to converse with people in a language I am slightly less terrible at than Hebrew.  The French Institute seems to have a pretty large presence in the area, as I seem to see their literature and flyers pop up in several of the events I have attended.

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