Growing Up In Jerusalem: A Conversation with Majda Batsh
Majda Batsh is a 34-year-old journalist who studied cinematography in the Soviet Union. She grew up a hasan sabi [tomboy], “in the streets,” her mother says, of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, playing football on rooftops or in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and hopscotch on al-Wad street with “stones” of tied orange peels. She still lives in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Her second-story house is tucked away in a side alley, at the top of a narrow, circular stone stairway which winds around her neighbors’ homes and then magically opens up to the sky. From her roof, which she has made into a garden of flowering shrubs and cactuses, one can see the settlers’ rooftop “security” walkway to the more than three dozen Arab houses they have seized and now occupy in the area. Majda is well known in her neighborhood for arguing with Israeli soldiers in perfect Hebrew.
My sisters had long, straight hair, but because my hair was tight curls, my mother always cut it very short so it would be easier to comb. I never had long hair. I would follow the [Greek Orthodox] priests in the street because I was jealous of their long braids. I played football and other games with the boys in the neighborhood until I was 15. I played everything except marbles. I thought it was too dirty to play with my hands on the ground. My mother sewed dolls by hand for me but I never played with them. There were never any girls my own age to play with. My sister stayed inside with my mother. There was only one girl -- a girl of “high class” -- in the neighborhood but she never played outside.
My brother didn’t like my behavior; he would beat me, and mother supported him. He would give me copper pans to shine or teach me to clean a chicken so that I would become a “good wife.” But my father spoiled us. He had been a rich man, a merchant of household goods, with shops in Jaffa and three shops in the Old City. He used to buy goods from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. He married four times: first, an older woman whom he truly loved. When she died he married a younger woman and had seven children, then a third woman who had no children and finally my mother who had 10 children. He had a partner from Khan Yunis, but after the  war they had no money to pay their creditors. They went bankrupt in 1951. My father refused to accept a refugee card. He worked as a construction worker and had a street basta where he sold household things. My mother worked sometimes at home.
The  war was a big shock. The women in the hara swung their misbahas and moaned, “Ya latif, ya latif!” When my sister told everyone there was an Israeli in the Jewish Quarter, she was beaten by the neighbors for lying. One day after the war curfew was over, my mother took me out with her because she couldn’t go by herself. We went to the cemetery. I saw bodies of Jordanian soldiers, bloody and full of flies. Then she took me to a local hospital to see the wounded. The dead were buried by the garbage men. I remember everything about that day.
My 18-year old brother died in August 1967, in the hills above Jericho. No one was permitted to bury him for three days because he was considered a fida’i. The Israelis told my mother at first, “He’s not your son.” Then they said he died from the sun.
Before the Israeli occupation, I thought of myself as Syrian. My mother was Syrian and we would go on summer holiday to Damascus and be spoiled. The first loss I felt after the war was that I couldn’t go to Damascus.
After the war, my school, near Herod’s Gate, became a first aid center. It had been bombed. It did not reopen as a school until ten years later. So I went to a school outside the Old City, to al-Quds school in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. There was some discussion among our friends about not going to school but my father disagreed. We did not lose any time in school. Hebrew began right away in all except the private schools. We studied the Israeli curriculum and learned about the Knesset, Israeli democracy and the history of the Jewish people. Even now Arab history is not systematically taught in the schools.
“Hivano shalom allakem. We came and brought peace to you.” That was the first thing we learned in Hebrew class. Our teacher was an Israeli woman, beautiful and kind, but she did not stay long. Another teacher told us not to study Hebrew. His brother had been killed in an operation in Lod. Six teachers were dismissed, accused of inciting demonstrations. Once soldiers broke into our school and attacked us, and beat our Hebrew teacher.
In the beginning of the occupation, there was little public, organized protest. It used to be a game of magic with people: They would hang their big door keys by a string over a Qur’an to see when the Israelis would leave our land. In 1969, there was a bomb on Jaffa Street and the Israelis imposed the first curfew on Jerusalem. They searched our house and neighborhood during this time. I never went to West Jerusalem. My brother was very much against it. When Nasser died, in 1970, people were overwhelmed and cried openly. Neighbors carried sticks in the street. We demonstrated when Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly in 1974. Israeli soldiers sprayed us with green paint and photographed us. In 1976, Mahmoud al-Kurd was killed in a demonstration. He was the first Jerusalem resident to be killed under occupation. He had been a weightlifter and was very popular. In al-Wad street I threw my shoes at the soldiers because I had nothing else to fight them with and I was so angry.
When I was 14, I began to work during the summer with my neighbors in an Israeli factory. My brother was against it. He thought I was too young, and that it was the enemy’s factories, and also that a woman would become a prostitute. My first job was in a candy factory outside Jaffa Gate. I worked the next summer, too, sewing cloaks for Jews who go to the Western Wall. The factory was in Talpiot, farther away. When I went back to school we compared salaries and I found out we were paid half what we were promised.
The Aqabat al-Suraya quarter, where I grew up, is a very good quarter. People treat you like part of one big family. But the city has changed. Now you see people who have no schooling, who are addicts, or criminals. People are moving out of the Old City, especially families who have to live in one room.
I once met a Dutch woman on the Allenby Bridge [over the Jordan River] who embarrassed me by telling me the places she wanted to visit. I had not been to most of them. So we went together to all the churches, the museums. I knew many places but she knew their history and told me everything. She inspired me to read and to know. This city, Jerusalem, is a city for the people who live in it. It should be like other cities. It should not be special just because it is special to other people.