Demodernising Jerusalem

Yair Wallach

A new book, 'A City in Fragments', tells the story of how the British Empire sought to dismantle a multicultural and increasingly modern Jerusalem in order to create a 'holy city' entombed in a mythical past.

Interview by
Owen Hatherley

Yair Wallach’s A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem takes an unusual approach to the history of Jerusalem, from the last years of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century until the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the occupation of the whole of Jerusalem in 1967. Concentrating on the years of the British Mandate, when it was the colonial capital of Palestine under the British Empire, it documents how a multicultural and increasingly modern city was actually de-modernised and segregated.

Wallach tells this story through the city’s modern refuse—shop signs and street signs, magazines and newspapers, cards and stamps, posters and banners, street signs and graffiti—and how by rejecting these the British would lay the foundations for Jerusalem’s current status as a disputed and ancient ‘holy city’ whose buildings are mostly less than a century old.


You describe the method of A City in Fragments early on as following Walter Benjamin’s idea of the historical materialist as a ‘rag-picker’, taking discarded bits and bobs and constructing a history out of these. Why did you decide to take this approach to a city so full of large History with a capital H as Jerusalem?


In some ways it’s the only way I thought I could write something interesting about that place. Jerusalem is talked about in grand narratives and with so much pathos. With Israel/Palestine in general, everybody’s so sure they know the story, what’s right and wrong, and public discussion often feels to me more like a ritual or a performance rather than an actual discussion.

So I wanted to look at the overlooked debris of history, through material relics that seem harmless, and that nobody seemed particularly invested in. And these artefacts and the stories around them gave me an opportunity to defamiliarise the city, forget the big stories, and listen to things that have been, often quite literally, erased. It’s like coming from the back door.

I thought Benjamin’s work in that direction, and specifically One Way Street and the Arcades Project, offers a route to talk about historical logic and structures but to do so in a manner that resists easy meta-narratives. It’s the idea that to understand modernity you have to go beyond the political economy or the geopolitics – you have to look at sewage, fashion, bicycles. In my case, it meant looking for textual objects and artefacts—stone inscriptions, graffiti, acronyms in metal gates, shop signs, banknotes, ID cards—and how they served to write and read the city. And in that collage of curios texts and signs, I hoped it may be possible to catch people off-guard and make them listen, even when talking about an overdetermined place like Jerusalem.


Two of the three languages that run through the book, Arabic and Hebrew, share an idea of text as something sacred, whereas most of the fragmentary or refuse-like texts that you discuss have a more workaday, ordinary quality. Or—as in the case of the distributed card that featured Hebrew lettering on the Dome of the Rock, which had a role in the  ‘1929 disturbances’ in the city—have much more inflammatory political effects than the city had been used to. Could you talk a little about the ways these languages were written in public space changed over this period?


Today, Hebrew and Arabic are often understood as enemies; Hebrew as a colonial language that has displaced and replaced the Arabic. And it was important to excavate the relationship between these two languages: the historical affinities, and how they broke down. Both in Islam and in Judaism, Arabic and Hebrew language respectively are seen as a divine instrument of creation, and the scripts themselves are holy.

In the nineteenth century, there was a striking similarity in how inscriptions in the two languages were used in architecture or on objects. During centuries of Islamic rule, Arabic was clearly hegemonic and far more visible. But as Jewish migrants arrived in the city in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, Hebrew became increasingly visible – primarily in congregational architecture. Towards the turn of the century, we see modern commercial signage, advertising, newspapers, and other ‘secularising’ uses that bring more text into the street – in both Arabic and Hebrew (and others, such as Armenian, Greek, Ottoman Turkish, Russian, etc.).

It’s only in 1920, after British occupation of Palestine, that the two languages start to be perceived as rivals, with Hebrew as the language of the British-endorsed Zionist project, and Arabic as a national and anti-colonial language of Palestinians. Hebrew assumes a colonising role—seen as a means to conquer and transform the country—and is resisted by Arab Palestinians on that basis.

And what really makes this acute is the new obsession with naming and signposting – which, as I show, did not exist in Jerusalem before the twentieth century. The desire to label buildings, streets, in ‘correct’ names that tell the ‘right’ narrative about the city, is one that leads to the zero-sum game we see today. So the book explores what made it possible for Hebrew to displace Arabic, but also shows the affinities between the languages, both in their traditional-religious use and the modern-secular uses, to illustrate that we can think of different kinds of relationships, and that Hebrew has a history in the city far beyond its colonising role in the last century.


A lot of the story of the first part of the book is of Jerusalem as a modernising, growing city in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, very much opposed to the notion of it as a stagnant backwater before the effects of Zionism and the British Mandate. Within that, I was fascinated by the brief account of the modernist Palestinian journalist Khalil Sakakini. How did he relate to this rapidly modernising city?


When I was reading accounts from the early twentieth century, it was striking how much young Jerusalemites were excited about the future—progress, technology, development—about things like a municipal clock tower, trams, electricity. And while it felt terribly naïve in many ways, it was also refreshing given how much the city today is identified with the ancient past and its holy status.

Khalil Sakakini really stands out in this regard, as an intellectual and educator. He practised constant self-invention and transformation (and daily cold showers, but that’s another story). His life revolved around the Ottoman modern city centre, where he sat in cafés, argued with his ‘vagabond’ literati circle, lectured to students and fans, wrote articles, and sent telegrams for his political activities, in the busy years after the 1908 Constitutional (‘Young Turk’) Revolution.

Khalil Sakakini

There’s something in Sakakini’s embrace of humanist modernity that is so inspiring – exciting, but also tragic. He wasn’t afraid of adventuresone of his homes was a windmill, which was later bought and renovated by architect Erich Mendelsohn, during his stay in Jerusalem in the 1930s—and somehow it doesn’t seem a complete coincidence to me. Sakakini’s story captures an early-twentieth  century potential for non-sectarian Jerusalem identity. His visiting card didn’t include his professional credentials, but only introduced him as ‘A human being, god’s willing’.

In 1917, he hid a Jewish friend from the Ottoman secret police, and they were both caught and sent to prison in Damascus. But his story also chronicles the destruction of that potential in Jerusalem, under British rule and particularly in the 1948 war, in which Sakakini lost his home and his library and became a refugee.


One thing which is really striking in your account of the British Mandate over Palestine and Jerusalem is how it connects to this earlier story of modernisation. There’s a conscious decision by the British administration and the British planners, beginning with the great Arts and Crafts designer C. R. Ashbee, to create a sort of historical reservation, stripped of advertising, using mandatory local stone, out of what was—by 1917, when they took hold of it—quite a messy and modern city.

Some of the artefacts of this were rather attractive, like the ceramic plaques showing the new street signs in three languages, but your portrayal of this project is mostly very critical. What do you think was lost with this historicisation of Jerusalem?


British officers and administrators arrived to Palestine with a preconception of Jerusalem as an ancient, sacred, and ethnically segregated city. And that vision guided their policies in the city, in terms of ruling over the population, but also planning and architecture. All new buildings had to be clad with stone (typically the local limestone) to make them look like the old city; use of new building materials was limited or banned. Streets were officially named after biblical prophets and crusader kings, in ceramic name plates.

C. R. Ashbee, as ‘Civic Advisor’ to the governor, had an Orientalist vision of the city, and hoped to do what failed in England – to save it from the evils of cars, tramways, and industry. He declared that Jerusalem was ‘the city of an idea’, and that it belonged to the world.

And some of the legacy is, as you say, attractive: the ceramic street name plates, or the unusual combination of modernist architecture with stone cladding in bourgeois neighbourhoods of the 1930s. But overall, the effect of that colonial makeover was overwhelming. The inhabitants of the city lost control over its meaning, probably irrecoverably. The city is crushed by its historicist aesthetics and what it symbolises.

An example of the ceramic street signs in Jerusalem.

Before British occupation, Ottoman urban development was mostly led by the local municipality, and was sometimes brutal in its irreverence to historical heritage. Local officials were far more interested in the city’s future than its hallowed past.

If that approach had continued, Jerusalem would have been a city of mundane street names and concrete buildings (it does feel a relief to come across a rare concrete building in the city). Perhaps it would have made the city less easy to fetishize for the purposes of faraway political actors – the most recent ones are US evangelical Christians, who drove US policy on Jerusalem under the Trump administration.

The fact is that of 99 percent of buildings in the Jerusalem municipal area today were built after 1900 – and in that sense, Jerusalem is probably a more modern city than Manhattan. But we keep talking about it primarily as an ancient, sacred city – and that I think has much to do with the planning policies of the British Mandate.


Money plays a really interesting role in the book, both in telling the city’s story in this period, with seemingly dozens of different currencies being tender, but also as artefacts through which the various national and colonial projects were expressed under the British Mandate in particular. How were the Mandate’s banknotes used to support this ‘historicisation’ project?


I was interested in the role of monetary text – how people read coins and banknotes, metaphorically and literally. The Palestine Pound currency was first proposed in 1920 and introduced in 1927 – primarily as a political statement. The main aim was to reaffirm British commitment to Zionism, through the inclusion of Hebrew as official state language (alongside Arabic and English). And Palestinian Arabs and Jews understood that point and reacted to the currency with respective hostility and jubilation. But other than that, there was nothing overtly Zionist about these banknotes: they featured picturesque vignettes of major historical/religious monuments.

A note for one Palestine Pound, issued in 1939.

And that reflected the British-Christian vision of Palestine primarily as a sacred historical land. Even today, it’s not unusual to hear someone talking of it as an ‘ancient land’ which for me is just bizarre – as if other countries are less ancient. Like early European photography of Jerusalem, the banknotes presented the country as it is froze in time after Christ, with abandoned monuments and ruins – for example, the citadel of Jerusalem, which featured on all the notes. But that citadel was metres away from the modern Ottoman town centre of Jerusalem, with its photo studios and foreign banks—and cafés, where Khalil Sakakini hung out—but of course the modern bits do not appear on the banknotes. And in fact, British officials hated that centre so much that they planned to demolish most of it (and Israeli planners later accomplished that after 1967).


The book ends with the texts and artefacts created by partition in 1948, particularly identity cards. Here there’s an account of ‘Identity Card’, a famous Mahmoud Darwish poem that he later partly disowned. Why did you decide to end the account of the city’s fragments with this one?

The ID card of Ahmad Said, a Palestinian refugee.

A major theme in the book is that modern state power operates by inscribing urban space and population and by making them legible, through a plethora of practices and artefacts, such as street names, monumental writing on buildings, land registration, ID cards. But at the same time, this obsession with labelling people and buildings also opens space for resistance and challenge. And I see this fear of ‘text out of control’ in the way that, almost immediately upon arrival in Palestine, British officials were obsessed with the regulation of advertisements and public notices, with dangerous and unsettling Arabic-inscribed banners and Hebrew graffiti.

The Darwish poem captures this duality of oppression and resistance. Written in the 1960s, the poem recounts a interrogation scene in Darwish is asked by an Israeli official to read out his identity card – his name, ethnic identity, features, etc. But Darwish turns the situation on its head and dictates a statement of defiance: ‘Write it down, I am an Arab!‘. And it was that choice that interested me – the choice to write resistance through the format of oppression. As if you can’t simply ignore or escape the logic of domination, but you can turn it around, subvert it from within.

So he wrote Palestinians back into existence, through Israel’s instruments of control over them. The way I read this, it’s also about an inevitable entanglement between Hebrew and Arabic, between Israelis and Palestinians. The poem is in Arabic, but Darwish’s original message of defiance was stated in Hebrew. For me, it suggests that the liberation of Palestinians and Israelis from their respective oppressed/oppressor positions is a dialectical, intertwined process: one cannot happen without the other. And that Arabic’s emancipation is also Hebrew’s emancipation.

About the Author

Yair Wallach is a senior lecturer in Israeli Studies and head of the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS, University of London. A City in Fragments is published by Stanford University Press.

About the Interviewer

Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune. His latest book, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, is now out from Repeater Books.