By Dan Clendenin
Dion Nissenbaum, A Street Divided; Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 246pp.
As part of the cease fire negotiations in 1948, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan and the Jordanian officer Abdullah el-Tell sat down with grease pencils and a map in order to carve up Jerusalem. Dayan drew a red line on the map and el-Tell drew a green one. Running right through the middle of their two lines is Assael Street in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.
For almost seventy years now, Assael Street has been No Man’s Land, the Forbidden Area, Barbed Wire Alley, or, literally, the Alley of God — “a narrow belt about 50 yards wide and 300 yards long” that was controlled by neither Israel nor Jordan. For twenty years, coils of barbed wire split the center of the street. The Palestinians and Jews who live there on opposite sides of the street live “between the lines.” Assael Street is thus a literal and symbolic fault line that has registered the tremors of this intractable conflict.
Dion Nissenbaum tells dozens of stories about the families who live on Assael Street — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Everything on Assael Street is argued and debated, even the correct spelling of the street name. Nothing is too small for controversy — an errant soccer ball or a wandering chicken. There are thugs, spies, police bullies, and obfuscating bureaucrats. But there are also people who learn each other’s languages, attend each other’s celebrations, and care for each other’s kids.
Nissenbaum lived on Assael Street for four years (2006 to 2009). His personal background lends itself to his empathetic story-telling. His father’s Judaism played little role in his life. His mother was the daughter of devout Catholic parents. And during a stint in Afghanistan, he met and married a Pakistani-Texan woman, and subsequently “embraced Islam.” He writes with genuine respect for all the people living in one of the world’s most combustible mixtures of history, culture, politics and religion.
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