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The reality that Delisle comes to understand is that Beit Hanina is in Jerusalem, but it’s not the Jerusalem he expected. The neighborhood is an ex-patriot shtetl in the Arab section with a sizable American and European population, but it’s a lot less livable than Pisgat Ze’ev, the settlement neighborhood across the street. The latter has a big mall and, to Delisle’s delight, shredded wheat, which he avoids buying because he doesn’t want to support the settlers. But as he leaves the mall, the sight of Muslim women in niqabs, loading up their cars, confounds him. This is but one of the many contradictions he finds in Jerusalem’s political, religious and cultural maelstrom.
One of the strange advantages of Delisle’s tale is that he arrives very much as an innocent abroad, with few preconceived ideas: He seems to know nothing about the region other than the fact that everyone appears to hate each other. At one point, he ends up chatting at a party with the nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu, but has no idea who he is, and, as with most matters, Delisle doesn’t seem to care. Though his views are influenced by the fact that his wife and most of their friends are politically engaged and work for NGOs active in the occupied territories, he remains aloof, casually interested in things, but not too interested. When he’s not stuck taking care of his kids, he simply wants to go off on his own and sketch ancient sites.
What this means for the reader is that between trips to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall (anachronistically translated as “The Wailing Wall”) and Mea Shearim, among others hot spots, there are a lot of panels dealing with child care logistics and shopping excursions. The comic irony is that despite being in a place of fascination and conflict, Delisle seems to prefer going shopping or sitting in cafes to hanging out with the ladies of the peace activist organization Machsom Watch or giving a poorly attended comics workshop in Nablus. When invited into a yeshiva to dance and drink on Purim, he demurs; when he travels to the Dead Sea, he doesn’t feel like going in; when he visits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during a Greek Orthodox celebration, he leaves because he doesn’t like the crowds.
Delisle’s indifference is strange, but also funny. He is with friends and family at the Jerusalem Zoo when his wife receives a call about Israeli planes bombing Gaza. She immediately begins to mobilize the Doctors Without Borders team and tells the group to head home quickly. Delisle’s response, as everyone rushes away, is, “What about the baby tiger?”
Delisle can’t avoid some aspects of the situation, like the traffic jams created by West Bank checkpoints and the prayer call of the muezzin, both of which annoy him. He is also introduced to some of the complexities of Israeli and Palestinian life, like the Israeli Arabs who live in Pisgat Ze’ev, or how West Bank Palestinians shop in settlements or work for settlers. But his interest doesn’t have much depth, and he doesn’t ask too many questions.
This is too bad, because Delisle seems like an amiable, self-effacing guy. It’s a feature that comes through in his work, which makes for an enjoyable but not terribly compelling read. Although he sometimes makes an effort to explore and understand, you get the feeling he’d rather be back home in Quebec.
Eddy Portnoy is a contributing editor to the Forward.