Hoffman: House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood
House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood, by Adina Hoffman. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2000. 217 pages. $22.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Ruba Kana'an
House of Windows is Adina Hoffman's portrayal of life in the neighborhood of Musrara as she experienced it between 1992 and 2000. The American-Israeli author had moved to Jerusalem, where she worked as a film critic for the Jerusalem Post and settled with her husband in the newly gentrified neighborhood. The book is written as a series of narratives depicting informal, everyday scenes from Musrara, located at the center of the divided Jerusalem of 1948-67, where it formed a section of the armistice line known as "the seam." After 1948, Musrara was settled by predominantly immigrant Sephardic Jews from North Africa whose lives form the backbone of Hoffman's book.
Described and marketed as travel literature, Hoffman's book belongs to a literary genre that overlaps the boundaries between fiction, journalistic reportage, and memoir. As such, the author freed herself from the limitation of a fixed time and space, and managed to "disappear" in the text, in a Foucaultian sense, and replace her voice with a series of seemingly independent narratives. These narratives construct a mental map of Musrara akin to what Susan Slyomovics in The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) calls a "folk map" that reflects "notions, ideas, and opinions about the details of the past" (p. 7). Like all folk maps, Hoffman's depiction is based on exclusion. Through positing a number of opposites (such as Israeli-Arab, religious-secular, Ashkenazi-Sephardic), Hoffman presents an alternative geography to which she personally belongs. It is as if through bearing witness to the events narrated in her book Hoffman identifies herself with Musrara, and hence with Jerusalem and Israel. The two following snapshots highlight the overlap between narration and self-identification in Hoffman's book.
One of the portraits narrated by the author is that of Ahmed, an older Palestinian who "did not live in the house across the street, but seemed in his own way to belong to it" (p. 71). The narrative follows the protagonist's appearances and disappearances in Musrara and the author's impressions of his relationship with a courtyard garden that he helped nurse back to life. Ahmed first appears as an odd-job man who carries out menial tasks in the neighborhood. Later on, he adopts a daily self-appointed task of tending to an overgrown garden across from the author's house. According to Hoffman, Ahmed's relationship to the garden was neither "self-conscious [n]or even intentional" (p. 78, author's italics). Rather, he was attached to the garden-alley-quarter-city like "a dog that will walk miles just to be reunited with the lingering trace of a familiar scent" (p. 72). Ahmed seemed to wander in and out of the narrative without reason (on his part) or questions (on Hoffman's part as "it was awkward to ask questions" [p. 71]). It was only when Ahmed disappeared for a long time and the "weeds grew thick" (p. 79) that Hoffman wondered at his whereabouts or even his last name. Has her treatment of him been "crudely colonial" (p. 74)? She wonders. Yet, upon any of his many returns, Ahmed reoccupies his ghostlike place and function in Hoffman's narrative. Ahmed is divorced from his Palestinian identity and distanced from the structural narrative of Musrara's daily life. As a fleeting presence "the garden's guardian angel" (p. 74) is, for that short duration, immersed into the landscape of which he becomes a metonym. (See further Mark Levine, "Overthrowing Geography: Re-Imaging Identities: A History of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, 1880 to the Present," [Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1999], pp. 234-38.) Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Hoffman's approach to Ahmed is that it is reminiscent of the Israeli malaise that characterizes the treatment of "the Arab" and his link to the land in the literature of the Statehood Generation such as some of the reflective works of David Grossman, Amos Oz, and A. B. Yehoshua (see further Gila Ramras-Rauch, The Arab in Israeli Literature [Indiana University Press, 1989]).
The centrality of the "Arab" (meaning the Palestinian) as the "other" in Hoffman's narrative is a lynchpin in her search for identity and her construction of it. This becomes more apparent in the episode where the author embarks upon a search for the roots of the apartment where "although our furniture was our own, and the apartment's mortgage was listed in our name, I knew our house had other owners, somewhere in the world" (p. 159, emphasis added). The search takes Hoffman on fruitless trips to the municipal office and the national archives in West Jerusalem, and then to Orient House in East Jerusalem, "a place at once next door and galaxies away" (p. 157). The search ends when she decides to abandon her pursuit, acknowledging that it was self-serving as, "I had no plans to turn over the deed to our home" (p. 173). Hoffman digresses from the main narrative, at this stage, to record the "municipal apartheid" (p. 168) and the double standard in the treatment of Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem. These concerns, however, remain "moral" rather than political. Her indignation at the Jewish claims in Jerusalem and her apparent compassion for the Palestinians seem to be without purpose when one takes into consideration her acceptance (and justification) of her lack of political activism (pp. 168-69). It is this inherent contradiction between Hoffman's moral concerns, on the one hand, and her search for belonging as a stakeholder in Israel, on the other, that confirms the nature of the book as a trip of self-discovery, mundane and politically naïve. One question remains: "Can one still be expected to categorize this book as an innocuous addition to 'travel' literature?"
Ruba Kana'an, research fellow in Islamic art and architecture at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, is a specialist on Ottoman architecture and urbanism in Palestine.