Revered by the three Abrahamic faiths, the capital of two warring tribes, and a singular archeological curiosity that doesn’t contain one uncontested stone, Jerusalem emboldens fanatics, enthralls visitors, and intimidates writers. Or at least it intimidated the hell out of this one.
In the summer of 2015, the UN Department of Safety and Security reassigned me from “Mogadiscio” to the “Palestinian Territories, Occupied.” (This was, by the way, how the place names were actually written on the reassignment letter, which leads me to believe that certain HR systems in the organization have not been updated for a REALLY long time.) In my new capacity, I held safety and security responsibilities for UN personnel, operations, and assets in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
My family and I moved into a recently constructed apartment building in Jerusalem’s North Talpiot neighborhood. The apartment’s modern façade did little to mask the shoddy workmanship—from loose doorknobs to bizarrely inaccessible light switches—of a building thrown up in a hurry.
But you couldn’t beat the location. Sandwiched between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods on the Haas Promenade, with a view that stretched from the Dome of the Rock to windswept desert. Close enough to the Old City’s ancient walls to witness firsthand how Jerusalem’s terrestrial realities jarred with its celestial mystique. During our time in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque muezzin’s call melded into the background of our days, while the hiss of teargas canisters foregrounded the worst nights.
On one particularly bad night, my nine-year-old daughter stepped onto the balcony and asked, “Is that fireworks, Dad?”
What I proceeded to describe was place and setting, while trying my damnedest to avoid any bullshit. But then, that’s the tricky thing with place and setting, isn’t it? Avoiding the bullshit.
As the ugly stepbrothers in the family of fiction craft, place and setting are frequently outshone by their more interesting siblings: point of view, characterization, plot, and theme. Let’s face it, the ugly stepbrothers do tend to bring out the worst in writers—their most self-indulgent, flowery, and inflated language—also known as “the stuff readers skip,” or, more colloquially, as bullshit.
But in many ways, those glitzier craft elements owe their very existence to the ugly stepbrothers. Many themes are products of place and culture, atmosphere often dictates the significance of our characters’ actions, and conflicts are born in hostile settings.
Since the Trump administration relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I’ve found myself more frequently asked to describe the city. I’m proud to report that I’ve resisted the urge to wax poetic about a city that somehow exists in both heaven and earth. That’d be bullshit. Politically expedient? Yes, absolutely. An easy way to sidestep describing East Jerusalem’s absence of streetlights and rubbish removal services, or the militarized policing of the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods, or any of the many terrible things that are revealed when a powerful community subjugates a powerless one.
So, instead I tell people how my expatriate bubble shielded me from the city’s tension, but didn’t obscure it. The Palestinian and Israeli faces that smiled in my direction scorned each other as if national injuries had been inflicted yesterday, because some of them had. More than any other factor, it is place and setting that define what is at stake for Keren and Yaccoub in “The Knife Intifada.”
Here’s hoping I managed to cut out all the bullshit.
DEWAINE FARRIA holds an MA in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Outpost Magazine, and Drunken Boat. He is a frequent contributor to The Mantle. Follow him on Instagram at @dewainefarria.