This unique, absorbing biography of Jerusalem brings to light its overlooked histories and diverse contemporary voices.
In Jerusalem, what you see and what is true are two different things. The Old City has never had “four quarters” as its maps proclaim. And beyond the crush and frenzy of its major religious sites, many of its quarters are little known to visitors, its people ignored and their stories untold. Nine Quarters of Jerusalem lets the communities of the Old City speak for themselves. Ranging from ancient past to political present, it evokes the city’s depth and cultural diversity.
Matthew Teller’s highly original “biography” features the Old City’s Palestinian and Jewish communities, but also spotlights its Indian and African populations, its Greek and Armenian and Syriac cultures, its downtrodden Dom Gypsy families, and its Sufi mystics. It discusses the sources of Jerusalem’s holiness and the ideas—often startlingly secular—that have shaped lives within its walls. It is an evocation of place through story, led by the voices of Jerusalemites.
British journalist Teller (Quite Alone) comes up short in his effort "to address the imbalance in stories—or narratives, or ideas—that exist about Jerusalem." Contending that "Palestinian lives and voices have been too often excluded," Teller explores the cultural diversity of Jerusalem with an emphasis on the stories of the "unlistened-to." He details the prosaic lives of Palestinian individuals and flavors their stories with colorful details, such as when he chronicles the history of the "most famous" hummus shop in the city and describes the founder's process of mashing chickpeas by hand. The author probes cultural frictions and biases, relating the story of a Dom woman who, after enduring a childhood marked by discrimination, founded a nonprofit to provide social services to the Dom community, descendants of the itinerant Domba people of India who settled around the Middle East. Discussions of Jerusalem's history and geography, as well as the arbitrary imperial division of the city into four quarters, are competent but unlikely to surprise those familiar with the basic outline of the city's past. Additionally, incomplete accounts of the 1948 war and the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, as well as baroque phrasing (the partition of British Palestine in 1947 is labeled "that geriatric tantrum from the 1930s rebranded as the two-state solution") drag this down. Readers interested in a more nuanced look at Jerusalem will be better served by Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem.