On Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, an artist evokes mood at time of suicide attacks


Memorial plaques, left, mark suicide bombings along on Jaffa road in Jerusalem on Aug. 5, 2012. (Samuel Sockol/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 12, 2012

It was a tour that could happen only here: a stroll to the sites of Palestinian suicide bombings up and down Jaffa Road, Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare, which has the dubious distinction of being the street hit by the most such attacks anywhere in the world.

The guide was a young Israeli performance artist, Yossi Atia, and the tour was an attempt to map the trauma and explore the scars left by the attacks, which have dwindled since their peak about a decade ago, receding from the day-to-day consciousness of most Israelis.

The walk on a recent warm Friday morning, billed as a journey “from trauma to fantasy,” attracted about 25 people, including a few parents pushing children in strollers. It was part of a citywide festival of “new public art” that tried to break the boundaries of galleries and theaters and reach people on the streets, preferably with audience participation.

At a prearranged meeting point, Atia — whose past work has included satirical videos on contentious social and political issues — materialized in a straw hat with a clip-on microphone, introducing himself as a tour guide named Ronen Matalon. He proceeded to lead the group through a crowded open-air market and down Jaffa Road, stopping at stone memorial plaques put up by the city at the sites of grisly bombings in buses, restaurants and bus stops, where dozens of Israelis were killed.

Jaffa Road has changed since those times. The once-gritty street clogged with buses and cars is now traffic-free, the facades of its stone buildings sandblasted clean, a light-rail train gliding quietly down its length, with cafe tables and chairs dotting some sidewalks. And most of the time, pedestrians pass the memorial plaques without so much as a glance.

But Atia, who said he grew up on Jaffa Road, tried to re-create what it felt like at the time of the attacks, ticking off stories about bombers and some of their victims, evoking the mood and the public reaction. His running commentary, supplemented with newspaper photos and invited comments from the group, was intended to sketch a brief social history of the impact of the bombings.

The memorial plaques have evolved, Atia pointed out, reflecting a hardening of public attitudes over the years.

A plaque commemorating victims of a double-suicide bombing in the market in July 1997 said the victims “perished” in a terrorist attack, and a list of their names was followed by the Hebrew initials for “of blessed memory.” However plaques put up at the height of the bombings a few years later said the victims were “murdered,” their names followed by initials for “May God avenge their deaths.”

“There’s a shift from the terminology of memory to the terminology of revenge,” Atia said.

The guide prodded his listeners to relive their reactions at the time of the attacks: the frantic phone calls to make sure loved ones were safe; the sense that death lurked behind simple daily acts, like getting on a bus or driving next to one; the morbid fascination of the crowds that gathered at the bomb sites; and the empty streets downtown in the aftermath of the explosions.

Inbar Amir, who joined the tour, recalled that after a period in which she would move away from suspicious passengers on the bus, a sense of fatalism took over. “I didn’t have the strength to get up anymore,” she said. “I figured, what will be, will be.”

“There was a persistent dread that something bad was going to happen,” Atia said, “a constant expectation of the next disaster.”

At one point the discussion turned to the rituals of responses on the day of a bombing: mournful music on the radio, choices about whether to proceed with ordinary routines and plans for a night out or to acknowledge the day’s tragedy in some way.

Atia recalled how when the attacks became more frequent — there were more than 40 across the country in 2002 — they were incorporated somehow into daily life. Television programming was no longer suspended for hours of news coverage, and in one memorable example of the tension between events and the drive to return to normal, one TV channel broadcast a split screen in the hours after an attack, showing both a bombing scene and a soccer game.

Bombing sites were swiftly cleaned up and repaired, in a conscious effort to erase the carnage and resume business as usual.

Atia said he would react to a bombing by joining friends for a beer or even going out on a date, an attempt, he said, to “beat the terrorism” and “not let them win.”

Someone piped up with a joke from those days, an example of the gallows humor prevalent at the time. A passenger gets on a bus, the joke went, and asks the driver, “Do you get to the central bus station?” The driver responds, “Sometimes.”

The aim of the tour, which was recorded for a film Atia is making, seemed to be a form of catharsis. Atia ended the walk at Ben-Yehuda Street, a bustling pedestrian mall targeted in the years of the bombings. There he pointed out a tree that had been planted by New York’s former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who visited Jerusalem after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to show support.

The tree, Atia said, was a sign of growth and hope for a better future, the only commemorative marker that symbolized “the option of healing and forgiveness, a change of consciousness from mourning and revenge.”

“We are afraid of what has already happened,” he added. “My fantasy is to live without waiting for the next disaster.”

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