Mahmoud Shukair
Mahmoud Shukair
Wndows of Jerusalem

The windows of Jerusalem call for some contemplation, for they stir up visions, ideas and impressions in one’s soul. They encompass truths and distinctions that occur only in a city like Jerusalem, which continues to endure the negative effects of the Israeli occupation and its heavy burden on the people of the city, as well as on its prosperity.

When wandering in the Old City of Jerusalem and in some of its Arab neighbourhoods lying outside the city wall, I often happen to stop and contemplate its windows, and I remember what an American author used to do (I think it was John Steinbeck). He once said that he liked to cast stealthy looks through the windows he passed by while walking down a street or an alley. This desire of his expresses a human being’s inquisitiveness to fathom the depths of life, which may or may not be disclosed by windows.

In the case of the Old City of Jerusalem, there are few windows available to an inquisitive person wanting to look through them. That is because on the ground floors of buildings there are usually shops, stores, ovens, workshops, restaurants, cafés and the like, and any residential apartments are above them; this makes windows too high for the desires of inquisitive persons. Furthermore, the risk of stealing a look through windows in a city like Jerusalem might cause problems that no one but a rash or crazy person would risk.

I also remember the windows of Cairene neighbourhoods, as portrayed by some Egyptian films or as described by Naguib Mahfouz in some of his novels, windows that are breathing spaces for adolescent girls eager to see young men led by fate or by intention to stand near windows from which girls desirous of love look out obliquely or frankly. Such windows are suitable spaces for women pent up in their homes, for they can stealthily look outside through them or they can openly stand near them to observe the movement of people in the market, to exchange news and gossip, or to kindle stories among female neighbours who don’t know how else to spend their free time. It is well known that this used to be the case in Cairo in the forties and the fifties of the last century, but I don’t think it is so these days.

In the Old City of Jerusalem the situation is no longer the same, either. It is true that a conservative temperament has somehow come back, but underneath it there are desires and practices inspired by human nature that rebel against what is prevalent; these desires are also inspired by the nature of the current phase Jerusalem is going through, regardless of all pressures and circumstances. For there are manifestations of modernity in both its negative and positive aspects that make it difficult to turn the clock back successfully and that make it hard to limit these manifestations and control their effects – especially with regard to the generation of young men and women.

Windows are no longer the spaces through which exchange of news or gossip occurs. This desired exchange has become possible through home telephones or mobiles owned by women, for through such instruments they can gossip and talk as they wish. This pastime has also become possible through direct meetings among women, as it is no longer difficult for a woman, even if she lives in a conservative environment, to go out of her home and meet other women in the vegetable market or in boutiques or at work, or in the street where men and women saunter in the evenings when the city is not under curfew or is not closed because of a strike.

As for girls eager to have an early relationship that may or may not end in marriage, it is no longer difficult for them to speak via a mobile phone or send text messages. It is no longer difficult for them to go out of the home for any reason: they can go out to school, to university, to the workplace, to the hairdresser, to boutiques or shoe shops, and to other places. The conservative temperament can no longer impose on women the coercive conditions it used to impose in earlier years, because times have changed, it is no longer that time with its harsh conditions.

This natural change in relationships and in the details of daily life has taken away from windows the romantic quality that we used to read about in novels or that we used to see with our own eyes in the windows overlooking this neighbourhood or that alley. Windows have changed and have become mere spaces to perform the primary functions they were originally designed for, such as bringing fresh air or sunlight into the house, or bringing in some glimmer when windows are in areas where sunlight does not penetrate because of the crowded buildings, such as in the Old City of Jerusalem where there are totally dark walls from where windows don’t see the sun and the sun does not see them.

In spite of all this, the conservative temperament, seeking decency, avoiding scandal as much as possible, and in fact rejecting it and fearing it, continues to give the windows of the city a certain quality of their own. Windows have mostly thick curtains, and no movement or human existence appears through them; it is as if they lead to nothing but an empty world behind them.

For additional security, windows are protected by steel rods mostly in the shape of parallel vertical spears and, in rare cases, shaped in beautiful geometric designs. These are meant to protect the home from thieves, in the first place, and are thus an expression of no confidence in windows which, in most instances, are on the upper floors that thieves could not reach because of their height, and which alone would be sufficient to protect the home from them.

Perhaps the conservative temperament is responsible for the scarcity of pots of flowers and roses on window-sills, because these require the housewife or her daughters to open the windows, take care of the roses and flowers by watering them and paying attention to them. This means that the women of the house may be revealed to neighbours at other windows or to persons loitering in the alleys and neighbourhoods. Arab singing has many flirtatious songs telling of roses and windows, a matter that does not make conservatives comfortable.

For further caution and to emphasise the well-known conservative temperament and earn the home a forbidding appearance that will not tempt thieves or the frivolous to come near it, the window shutters are kept closed most of the time. They may be opened for an hour or two a day, and then are closed – perhaps to prevent the sun from fading the colour of the curtains, of armchairs and other pieces of furniture inside, or to prevent dust from entering the home, or perhaps because of a desire to protect the home in an unconscious way.

In all cases, the curtains play the role for which they are made. They usually consist of two layers: one of light, white tulle that is decorative and performs certain functions within the home, and another of heavy curtains that upholds the function of the shutters in an implicit harmony to protect the home from evils and surprises.

The windows of the Old City of Jerusalem have military struggle functions that became clear in one way or another during the days of the First Intifada. In the old neighbourhoods of Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza, and other towns, windows have had similar roles. The high windows overlooking the alleys and neighbourhoods were transformed into places for pouring boiling oil and for throwing flower pots full of earth on the soldiers of the Israeli occupation going in search of the Intifada’s young men.

The women of the homes were the ones who poured the oil on the soldiers and threw the flower pots on their heads. At the same time, they observed the movements of the Israeli soldiers through the windows and directed the young men, who were engaged in battles of attack and retreat with the soldiers, and helped them find ways of escaping arrest.

During the First Intifada, Jerusalem witnessed an openness in social relations. Women entered the people’s struggle side by side with the men, and new values began to be created that respected the human being, male or female. In retreat were elements of doubt in women and of fear of what could happen to them or what they could expose themselves to if they went out to places of struggle or to meetings of popular committees where they could mix with men.

However, this lasted only for a short time. The Intifada fell back because of bureaucratic procedures and errors, and the new values that were about to take root in people’s consciences fell back too. The conservative temperament returned, Israeli repression became worse and the process of making Jerusalem Jewish by completely dominating it escalated.

Whoever observes Jerusalem’s windows from the outside finds an expression of this struggle over place. The windows appear faded in colour and rusty, with some of their shutters disintegrating, untended by the owners and uncared for. Their sad appearance agrees with that of the stone walls that appear equally colourless and dull, with weeds growing in the cracks between the stones. The houses seem to hold together as though they are attempting to protect themselves from a crushing blow that will soon come. In the space of the marketplaces of the Old City, the doors appear humbled as they open onto dark corridors leading to stairs, which lead in turn to old residential apartments that resist the violence and give shelter to their Jerusalemite residents, who cling to remaining in their city despite all the acts of the Israeli occupation forces that threaten to uproot them.

Here looms the distinction. The Arab Jerusalemites are not concerned with the scene as it looks on the outside. That is why they let rust eat away at their windows and shutters, they let these shutters be exposed to disintegration and losing their colour under the violence of the sun, wind and rain. Rather, they are concerned with the scene as it looks on the inside, that is, with the space that shelters them and their children. There is a frightful residential crisis in the Old City of Jerusalem now, which the occupation authorities have rendered more severe by withdrawing the identity cards of Arab Jerusalemites who live outside Jerusalem, an act which means depriving them of the right to return to it. This hidden intention resulted in thousands of the city’s Arab citizens, who were living in Ramallah and some other West Bank towns, having to return quickly to the Old City of Jerusalem.

It is of course not easy to obtain a licence from the Israeli occupation authorities to add rooms or to build new buildings. Families multiply and children are in need of places to live in, and of larger space than is available. Arab Jerusalemites are obliged to make efforts to adapt the space available to them, to rearrange it on the inside, to create opportunities for new capacity, and to ensure their continued residence in the city. That is why they are concerned with the scene on the inside, rather than on the outside.

It is therefore not strange that the Jerusalemites exploit every single space available to them and turn them into rooms for residence. In the old walls, there soon appear improvised windows created to give some light and a scintilla of life to a storeroom containing old furniture or to an unused worthless cellar. This indeed is the matchless care of internal space that has the aim of confronting the residential crisis.

Furthermore, concern for the appearance on the outside may cost money that could  be better spent, during the economic crisis being endured by Jerusalem, on doing something more useful; such a concern may also appear to certain eyes as an act of constructing a new building and thus a violation of building regulations that require the obvious use of specific machines – all this making it possible for a decree from the authorities to be obtained to destroy the building or impose a heavy fine on its owner. In other cases, some Jewish settlers come with armed soldiers to implement orders to evacuate certain homes inhabited by Arab Jeru-salemites; and by using forged purchase documents these Jewish settlers either claim that they own these houses or they claim former ownership of these houses during the British Mandate on Palestine.

In spite of this and regardless of the severe Israeli procedures against those who risk building houses without a licence or adding new rooms to their old homes, the persistent need for residential accommodation forces the Arab Jerusalemites to violate the unfair conditions that deny them opportunities to build. They do build new houses and they do add new rooms to their old homes, and they try to invent ways of dissembling and pretence, which may succeed but often do not. But the new houses and the rooms added to the old ones run the risk of being demolished and if so, the walls, built with effort and sweat, would collapse and the windows lie in heaps with all their glass, aluminium and steel.

The city’s suffering continues and psychological pressures and crises become worse. As space becomes more crowded with individuals from various new generations, privacy decreases to an inordinate extent. Perhaps it is relevant to mention here the possible relation between this crowdedness in the Old City of Jerusalem and the spread of drugs among a not insignificant portion of its youth. Perhaps it is also relevant to mention the anxiety that prevails in the city in the light of the siege it endures. Its windows, therefore, may appear to be sad to those who look intently at them, as I do whenever I walk through the city’s markets and alleys. They may appear introverted, as though expecting unhappy surprises on a morning or evening.

Despite the siege that Jerusalem endures and the attempts to destroy its Arab, Islamic and Christian character, the city continues to be concerned with preserving, as best it can, its genuinely original features, which the Israeli occupation is intent on obliterating and destroying. In the meantime, the city continues to be concerned with remaining a city of diversity and of an implicit desire for openness without detriment to its concern with its genuinely original features.

This is clear from many aspects of its appearance that need not be indicated but in some way can be appreciated in particular from its windows. There are windows of various patterns, sizes, forms and shapes; windows inspired by several cultures and civilisations; windows created by architects from a range of eras and of various nationalities.

While wandering in the markets of Jerusalem, I come across Islamic architecture with its certain influences from Persian architecture and with its Ayyubid, Mamluke and Ottoman references. I come across Roman and Byzantine architecture, and medieval and modern European. I observe an architecture that encompasses certain secular dimensions concerned with the features of the city and its ability to embody delight and joy. In the meantime, I observe an architecture that encompasses certain religious dimensions meant to inspire awe in people’s souls and make them feel they are weak creatures in need of a Creator who will extend a helping hand to them and guide them to the straight path.

The city’s windows convey, on both secular and religious levels, some of what we have mentioned. In addition to this, other impressions can be offered up by the city’s windows. In some buildings, one finds a wall with three adjoining windows that rise high and are open to the outside aspect as though they aim to discover as much of it as possible but at the same time have no qualms about the inner space: they are concerned with revealing the inside if the opportunity presents itself to them and with instituting communication between it and the outside in an unbreakable harmonious union.

The three windows may be equal in size, and similar in form as well as in decorativeness and other artistic aspects, and they take on another particular linked form, as when the middle window is larger in size than those on its right and left. The similarity and the dissimilarity in the scene give a feeling of unity and variety at the same time, offering the onlookers, from whatever angle, a sense of pleasure and altogether bestowing on the scene an attachment to the world and its delights.

On the other hand, the windows may be grouped in a state of extreme similarity on the wall of a building with many floors. One immediately knows that it is a building of residential apartments or of government and company offices, and that it is the product of a pragmatic mind basically concerned with considerations of darkness and light, and of hot and cold weather according to seasons, and thus there is no longer any need for difference between one window and another but rather for similarity and harmony. Hence, there is a suggestion that the scene has clear features, and that the windows are not there to be contemplated for their beauty but to fill the vital and necessary daily requirements of the apartments’ residents or the office occupants.

One may find irregular windows that have no pattern and no symmetry, and one does not care to look at them or pay them any attention. One may also find small, isolated windows resembling prison cell windows. Or one may find a single window in the wall of an old house, and it attracts one’s attention because it dominates the scene on its own, overlooking a street bustling with passers-by and cars, making the view exciting and delightful and arousing a mixture of feelings. One may also find a lonely window in a wall, a distinction of some sort or a case of complete isolation – a uniqueness and an individuality in an environment of abundance.

One may find a horizontal row of similar windows, none of which has any virtue over the other. These may be windows with high rounded arches reminding one of a crescent or a semi-circular arc. The arches may bring to mind our ancient ancestors’ efforts when building the first homes, the first doors and the first windows. The tree branches and palm leaves, which were the first materials of those first homes, tended to curve and bend; perhaps this suggested the idea that the doors and windows should be topped by arches. If doors were places to enter and exit from, then windows were places for the entry of sunlight and air. The arches at the tops of doors and windows may have religious meaning even though the buildings with these doors and windows are not mosques or churches. An arch suggests a dome, and a dome is a symbol of the sky, and the sky is heaven, the source of religions.

In a mosque and a church, windows take on an unquestionably religious character. The windows are so high in the walls of a mosque or church that the hands of religious people there cannot easily reach them. This suggests that the windows are nearer to heaven than to earth, and it may suggest that a human being is in need of a higher controlling power that connects heaven and earth.

And yet, with all the holy things and places that Jerusalem has, it does not lack an element of dissonance that has been gradually imposing itself on the city in recent years. There are windows with dense iron meshwork for protection and there is likewise a meshwork of barbed wire surrounding buildings and windows. There are seventy settlements controlled by Jewish settlers in the heart of the city, among which is the house that Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel, took possession of. The scene here contradicts the natural flow and harmony of the general scene in the other parts of the city. Windows fortified in this manner do not suggest meekness and do not give expression to a natural situation. The dense iron meshwork, the surveillance cameras, the searchlights directed on the alleys and roads, the appearance of settlers armed with automatic weapons in the area of homes: all suggest that there is a place here that has been stolen and that has to be controlled and protected by means of iniquitous brute force, a fact that renders the scene repulsive and in need of being set right and correct.

Translated by Issa J Boullata

from Shababik al-Quds

published April 2008, online on