East Jerusalem, where the streets had no names

For decades local residents used landmarks as their only method of navigation; municipality now working to ensure every building has an address

A child walks past the newly-named Umm Kulthum street in East Jerusalem, October 24, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Bernat Armangue)
A child walks past the newly-named Umm Kulthum street in East Jerusalem, October 24, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Bernat Armangue)

JERUSALEM (AP) — When he drives around east Jerusalem, taxi driver Samer al-Risheq doesn’t use GPS and tucks away his maps. In many parts on this side of the city, those tools are useless: The streets have no names.

It’s a sign of overall neglect. Now Jerusalem’s municipality is trying to at least solve the part that involves signs.

In contrast to the orderly western half of the city, where Jews live, the often rundown, predominantly Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem have for decades existed without street names or house numbers, causing confusion.

“Many times I get a call to pick someone up and I just can’t find him,” said al-Risheq, who lives in the Shuafat neighborhood of east Jerusalem. His own street, like so many others, has no name.

Without names for the labyrinthine streets in the area, residents have had to improvise, using landmarks as reference points. When ordering a pizza, a delivery man is directed to the first left after the mosque, or right before the local school.

More seriously, an ambulance driver who isn’t familiar with the neighborhood would be hard pressed to find an ailing patient.

With no street addresses to guide them, letters are often sent to a central place, like a store or mosque, and don’t always reach their intended recipient. Official letters and bills remain uncollected, sometimes causing mounting debts completely unknown to the individual.

“It’s like uncharted territory,” said Nisreen Alyan, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which lobbied to address the confusion. In a symbol of the disorder, even the number of streets that remain to be named is disputed and may be anywhere from 150 to several hundred.

Recognizing the problem, Jerusalem’s municipality has named 145 streets since last year, and the rest are expected to be identified by next year. House numbers are set to come later.

East Jerusalem is not alone in having unnamed streets. In fast-growing places in the Gulf like Dubai or Doha, streets in newer areas do not have names, while Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, has many roads that are not even paved, much less named.

In Israel’s neighbor Jordan, while streets have long had names, only recently have houses been given numbers. The kingdom caused confusion by changing many street names to make them more compatible with the new numbering system.

Even so, the situation in Jerusalem stands out because of the contrasts between the two sides of the city.

The predominantly Jewish west has gleaming malls and leafy residential neighborhoods. Residents can be seen sipping cappuccinos on quaint cafe patios, and flowers line the streets. All streets and even the smallest of public squares have names on signs written in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

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In east Jerusalem, many roads are narrow and potholed, there are few sidewalks and garbage is piled up on street corners. Residents have for years complained of neglect, saying they lack public services such as clinics and schools, even while paying local taxes.

Though there are slums in west Jerusalem and upscale neighborhoods in the eastern sector, most parts follow that pattern.

Contact between Jews and Arabs, common in the first two decades after Israel captured east Jerusalem, came to a virtual halt with the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 1987 and has never recovered.

Few Arab residents of east Jerusalem have accepted Israel’s offer of citizenship. Instead, they hold residency rights while identifying with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank.

The result is a city that remains interconnected, yet deeply divided. There are no walls separating the two areas, they are linked by a common public transportation system and residents can freely travel anywhere in the city.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and then annexed it — a move the international community has not recognized. Some 300,000 Palestinians, live in the east Jerusalem alongside 200,000 Jews in developments built since 1967. About 300,000 Jews live in west Jerusalem.

The fate of the eastern sector is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. East Jerusalem is home to the Old City, where the city’s most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites are located. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state, which would also comprise the neighboring West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel claims the whole city as its capital.

Jerusalem’s mayor has always been Jewish, partly because most east Jerusalem residents boycott elections, and east Jerusalem has little representation in city bodies.

Jerusalem’s current mayor, Nir Barkat, is staging street naming ceremonies with much fanfare. Earlier this month, he dedicated Umm Kulthum street, named after the famous Egyptian singer, and a performer warbled love songs as residents clapped their hands.

Barkat has said the aim is to “improve the quality of life” for the residents of east Jerusalem. But some residents have responded by vandalizing the new street signs, an indication of the mistrust that many feel toward the city’s Jewish politicians.

The names are proposed by the communities and then must be approved by a municipal committee. The choices include the ordinary like “Orchard Street,” along with famed Arab historical figures and the names of clans settled in the neighborhoods.

Meir Margalit, a liberal city council member who is often critical of the municipality’s policies, said the residents believe the naming committee will reject suggestions that seem too political, so they refrain from offering them.

Margalit said the new names have also had some undesirable consequences: Some residents have complained they are receiving heaps of old bills, now that they live on streets that can be found.

Darwish Musa Darwish, the community leader of the east Jerusalem Issawiyeh neighborhood, said most residents are pleased with the clarity brought by the new names. He acknowledged much work remains to be done in east Jerusalem, but “if I have an address and a street name, it’s a sort of progress.”

Larger problems remain.

“The municipality doesn’t provide us with services,” complained Hamoudeh Siam, who owns a shop in the Silwan neighborhood. “Instead of naming the streets, let them come clean them.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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