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This week, we are thrilled to present Sharon Dinur’s essay Concrete Comfort. Her essay delves into the many questions and feelings of discomfort that arise from moving to a new place, and eventually shattering all of your prior illusions of that place. As a young architect in the ‘Stone City,’ Sharon’s immersion in Jerusalem forced her to understand the true impact of the city’s physical and social structures.
About the writer:
Sharon Dinur is an essayist, architect, and the Deputy Director of City Planning for the Jerusalem Municipality. Currently, she is a Fulbright Scholar and Research Fellow at SPURS (Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies) at MIT. Sharon is most interested in writing about cities and people, and finds inspiration in everyday human behavior. She has been published in the Israeli publications Kol Ha’Ir, Sfat Rehov Architecture Magazine, and The Journal of the American Planning Association.
By Sharon Dinur
I was born from concrete and after I die, they will cover me with a concrete blanket. The connection between where my life began and where it will end is obvious.
The Israeli identity itself is defined by concrete — I guess this odd relationship started with the Bauhaus movement. The new nation of Israel and its young architects searched for a novel language that could lend shape and form to their ideology, a country that was called, alt neu land, from the German old new country.
These architects were fearless, bold, and strong. They embodied the “New Jewish” identity. They went to study abroad in the Bauhaus school, and came back with new ideas: less is more, non-decorative as a value, clean, honest, straightforward. What you see is what you get.
It was more than a language, it was a new way of thinking. A statement that we are not them; we are something else. We are new. We see the endless desert and we laugh, unafraid, with palms full of bright, white plaster.
In the years that followed Israel’s establishment, Bauhaus was superseded by modernism. The blinding white glare of the new houses, which stood juxtaposed to the blue sky and yellow sands, was replaced in the 1950s with gray, exposed concrete. However, the basic language of Bauhaus was preserved and even intensified. The ideology of brutalism combined with the low-cost of the material represented the story of the new Israel and the new Israelis. No longer nomads and no longer immigrants, denying their roots and their countries of origin, burying the Holocaust in farthest reaches of their subconscious.
I was born in a concrete hospital in the city of Haifa, next to the sea, where everything seemed simple. I grew up and adopted the language of the buildings. Strong, bold, impolite, as some will say. I wasn’t alone. We were all like that. No, “dear mister,” or “how do you do?” and definitely no “it was a pleasure to meet you.” The language was almost rude. I answer the phone not with “hello,” but with “what?”
I just can’t help it.
In architecture school, my teacher pitied us. “You know nothing,” she said. “The pattern you carry in your heart is ugly.”
While architecture students in Europe carry palaces and gardens lined with poplar trees in their hearts, we carry concrete slabs and wars.
Everything was built in this manner. Hospitals, schools, campus buildings, government offices, military bases. At the beginning, tourists came from all over the world to watch this miracle.
All of this was just a part of history when I came to live in Jerusalem, where I have lived since. There were some Bauhaus buildings, but due to British Mandate laws that the Israeli government adopted, all houses had to be covered in stone to preserve the texture of the historic city, even new buildings.
In Jerusalem, the buildings are made of stone, and the people are made of stories and myths. Stories folded within stories wrapped with other stories. And what kind of story depends on who is telling it, of course. It took me a while to understand this, because I was clueless when I came to this stone city. On some days, I still am.
I was brought up to believe Jerusalem is a beautiful city. Everyone insisted that it was. Maybe the most beautiful city in the world. We had Jerusalem day parades and all of the kids knew how to draw the Old City gates.
I met a guy from Vienna, a realtor. The Viennese are the kind of people who grow up with beautiful European cities embedded in their minds. He took me around the city. He told me Jerusalem is ugly. The stones are black and broken, and it’s dirty. I was amazed to see the city through his eyes, and to realize how blind I had been to what people from other places had always seen.
The stones are aging, and not all of them gracefully. We erect higher and denser buildings every day, and cover the walls with stones. The city looks heavy.
Some people believe the stones are more important than the people that live there. Some people use these stones to kill. Some use them as an excuse to kill.
Since that day with the realtor, I don’t call Jerusalem beautiful. I call it interesting. And confusing.
How to go through life in the Stone City wasn’t clear. I started wandering through parts I had never heard of before. I became a tourist in my own city. In my early twenties, when I had just moved to Jerusalem, I didn’t know that there is an East Jerusalem. I went to the municipality to pay my city taxes, and there were two lines of people waiting in the corridor. Next to one line, there was a sign that said “East Jerusalem.” At the time, I didn’t know that East Jerusalem was Palestinian, and that they pay reduced taxes. A quick, imaginary border in my head divided Jerusalem into two equal halves, east and west. I was sure I was living in the eastern side, but after ten minutes of waiting, one Palestinian mother told me I’m in the wrong line.
“But I live in East Jerusalem,” I tried to convince her.
“You?” she laughed. “You know nothing, do you?”
I tried to learn as fast as possible. Meanwhile, a new concrete structure was quickly rising. It was the separation barrier. Concrete and brutal, like a wound cutting into the city. All walls must fall, eventually, I said to myself. Berlin used to have a wall, too. But to this day, the separation barrier still stands. Will I live to see it fall?
I started to identify the many cities that make up what I once thought was one city. Buses operated by different companies and running different routes, east and west. Three “central” stations and three city centers. East, West, and Orthodox. But, united parks, united university, united Light Rail, united hospitals, and the most unifying one of all: shopping malls.
Eventually, my boyfriend and I rented an apartment in the city center. We had a small balcony (covered with stones, of course), illuminated by a single red light bulb. I thought it was romantic, but one night, when my boyfriend was working the night shift, there was a knock on the front door.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Please, let me in,” a voice said with an Arabic accent.
“I don’t open the door to strangers.”
“I just want some love,” the voice continued. “I saw the red light on. I’ve been here before.”
I realized then that our apartment used to be a brothel.
“No,” I said. “It’s not that kind of place anymore.”
“Why?” he begged. “Don’t you want peace? Peace starts with love.”
Of course I did.
“You have a red light,” he persisted. Eventually, I heard his footsteps descend down the stairs, but soon, they returned. He had brought a stone and left it beside my door. A reminder. Yet another failed attempt at peace.
Often, I wished to go back to Haifa, my Concrete City. Where what you see is what you get. No subtext, no complications, no strings attached. I needed relief.
When I came to Boston, I found that sense of relief in a building that some Bostonians called the ugliest building in town. It is a huge, concrete, brutal building: City Hall. I don’t think it’s ugly at all, I think it’s beautiful. It sends a message: I’m here to serve you, not delude you with beauty. Form follows function. When I looked at this building, I felt homesick. I took comfort in that. My concrete comfort.
Whether I will live out my future in buildings of concrete or stone, I don’t know. But I do know that when I die, they will bury me deep in the ground, put concrete blocks on it, and cover it with a big stone.
I hope they will write “a tale of two cities” on it.
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