16 March, Old City, Jerusalem

By Maya Bastian

It’s lockdown time in Israel although I’ve been calling it ‘Occupied Palestine’ which irks the locals. I’ve been on an artist residency since February 19th and have been watching the virus unfold with a degree of separation. Since I have no one to be accountable to, I wake up at 12pm today. Bells from various churches ring out and that’s when I know I’ve slept too long. Eating pita and hummus in my tiny flat that sits in the Christian Quarter of the Holy City, I decide to work on a large scale art piece all day. I step over the sheet of plastic on my living room floor that is covered in spices, paint and coloured rice and head out into the 200 year old renovated tile factory that is my temporary home.

The place is cavernous and empty. Israel has shut down all public gatherings, so we receive no visitors and there is no art on the walls. The two women who run the gallery are stressed out and curt, with good reason. All travel between the West Bank and Jerusalem has been suspended today, so they cannot see their families.

As I’m setting up my art supplies, I get a text from a local Palestinian chef named ‘Iz’, who asks me if I want to film him doing a food tour in the Arab market. It’s a beautiful day out and I know it will rain for the rest of the week, so I agree. We walk through the narrow and cobblestoned streets of this 5000 year old city looking for interesting food vendors. It’s almost completely empty. This is a place that is usually filled to the brim with tourists and religious zealots, vendors shouting and guys riding motorbikes up and down the steps. It feels surreal but also kind of amazing to be the only ones around. We speak to a baker with a 500 year old stone oven in his shop and a pickle vendor who declines to look at us but lets us sample his wares.  All the while, Iz is animated and hilarious. Falafel makers, spice sellers, bread bakers — all shops are nearly empty and they welcome us to film them and to talk. The Holy City of Jerusalem is an incredible place to be when it’s empty. Its stone arches and little nooks tell stories that no one can hear.

Nearing 5pm, I remember that I invited a couple of people over to do yoga on the rooftop of the tile factory. So we pack up our gear and head back quickly, running up the never ending steps that lead back to the Christian Quarter. Five people in total, we light candles and I teach a gentle yoga class as the sun sets. It feels like people need to relax and there are big deep sighs as I talk. Afterwards, none of us wants to go back to isolation.  We combine our groceries and Iz whips up a frenzy in the kitchen while we play MIA and Sam Cooke and laugh and joke.  When he serves us, there aren’t enough seats at the bar so he offers to stand.  But we agree that we will all stand as it makes the most sense.   

Afterwards we munch on strawberries and talk about Corona and Palestine and isolation. The people here aren’t afraid to talk about the ways in which they are oppressed, and so I mostly listen and ask questions. In this way I learn what it feels like to live a life of restricted travel, constant surveillance and racist scrutiny.  Despite the topic, there are a lot of jokes going around and the atmosphere doesn’t feel as heavy as it has the last few days. We agree to do yoga one more time before my residency comes to an end and they all take their leave.  I settle back into my flat with leftovers and Netflix, wondering what tomorrow will bring.