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Germán Reyes, European spirit in Jerusalem

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Café babel travels to Jerusalem to speak to Germán Reyes, the Spanish International Cooperation Agency’s cultural attaché to the Israeli Occupied Territories.

The international city of Jerusalem captures the essence of three cultures and three religions that coexist uneasily, and is filled with tension day in, day out. It took us several hours of registration, questions and controls to arrive at the gates of the old town, the holy city of three religions. I find Germán sat peacefully on a terrace secluded from the noise of the souk (bazaar). The souk is the crossroads of the various holy places and is protected by beardless Israelis wrapped in bullet-proof jackets.

Journey to the beginning of the world

Germán arrived in Jerusalem on October 18 2002. His first job was as a lecturer at Al-Quds University, in the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was 26 and had just finished studying Arabic in Seville. When I ask him what his initial feelings were on arrival and what it was like living in Jerusalem at the beginning, he responded: “It was my first encounter with the reality of conflict. Decisions taken thousands of miles away have an immediate effect on ordinary people.” He told of broken dreams, uncertainty and his own eviction as a result of “the American invasion of Iraq, which began six months after my arrival. All non-essential expatriate personnel were evacuated until further notice from Palestinian territory”.

Back in Spain, all he could do was wait. It was six months before he could return to continue his work. By that time, the anxious ancient city of Jerusalem had begun closing its doors, like a woman boarding up her windows. Darkness was closing in.

Jerusalem and its visions of the world

Before coming to Jerusalem, Germán had been to other Muslim countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. When I ask him what differences there are between those countries and the West Bank he is surprised. To him it seems obvious. I ask him if he could try to separate the conflict from day-to-day reality for us. “They cannot be separated,” he replies. “The conflict is present in everything you do, experience and feel…that is the difference”.

Strolling - if you could call it that - in Jerusalem has something stimulating and charming about it as well as something sad and aggressive. You are able to stop and ask people questions. That is the best thing about it: people are not afraid to talk. This is the big difference: “Palestinians are one of the few Arab groups that express themselves freely; the tension makes them speak honestly”, he points out. “The Arab world suffers from self-criticism, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of a very black humour. The lack of a firm, established state opens the doors to freedom of expression”, he explains.

Reflection and freedom of expression allow Palestinians to be aware of their situation. They are capable of making the distinction between a government and a citizen. To them, “America is the Bush administration plus its citizens”. I ask him about Europe: what does it mean to them? “There is no collective vision of Europe. To them it is still nothing more than an amalgamation of countries with huge differences between them. Community policy has not made it this far. They do not know which countries do and do not belong to the European Union. France is the only one that stands out and that’s only because it took in Arafat during his last days. It has nothing to do with Europe as such”.

However, via his work in the Technical Office of the Spanish International Cooperation Agency, Germán, as cultural envoy, tries to promote the image of the European Union. In order to do this, all the European delegations in the area meet once a month to highlight their common projects. In this way, they are keeping a European spirit alive: they get to know one another; they work together and join forces. Europe does exist in Jerusalem.

The Unknown Palestine

I ask him how many of the images currently stored in his memory will stay there forever. “Thousands”, he answers, “unforgettable moments for different reasons; some personal, some historical…” So, does living in Jerusalem make him feel like a true citizen of the world? “I still remember the sound of helicopters arriving from Egypt with the body of Yasser Arafat. I found myself in Muqata, the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters, in Ramallah. Thousands of Palestinians had congregated to receive their leader. And thousands of shots were fired into the air to welcome him home. It was a historic moment.”

But it is possible to lead a more or less normal life as well. “When I finish work on Fridays, I have a beer in a hotel with a friend. Afterwards I go home and prepare some food, and then go out to relax in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city”. What are peculiar are the conditions in which daily life is carried out. Tiny actions become pervaded by tension, fear and uncertainty.

There are still two years left until he completes his mission. Afterwards he thinks it will be time to leave the region. I ask him what goals he has achieved. “Personal ones? This is it right now”. Each day he works towards leaving on this Earth the best part of himself that he has to offer. “An 18-year old Palestinian student of mine who had just begun university once said to me: ‘It’s not getting resolved and it will not be resolved until the two peoples no longer share the one state’. This sentence still resounds in my head”.

I let out a sigh. What would this city be like without conflict? “Crazy!” he replies. “The old town would disappear underneath waves of tourists and religious believers. As a city of pilgrimage for three of the world’s major religions, it would be unworkable”, he tells me, always with a smile. It would be crazy, but it would mean the end of a lot of things.

In an attempt to not end the interview on this note, I ask him for one thing we must not miss out on during our stay in Palestine: “Sunset in Jericho”, he closes.

Translated from Germán Reyes: manteniendo el espíritu europeo en Jerusalén