A City in Fragments
Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem
Yair Wallach



IT WAS IN THE EARLY HOURS OF A SPRING EVENING. I WALKED behind the supermarket, climbed down a low stone wall, and slipped through a large hole in the wire fence. Before me stretched the railway lines, overgrown with weeds, leading to Jerusalem’s old train station. It had stood empty and unused since the line to Tel Aviv finally shut down in 1998. I approached the main building, walked through the rubble of smashed glass, broken roof tiles, and pieces of wood beams, and entered the ticket office. Looking from inside the counter, the Perspex window shield was perforated with the Israeli railway logo; light rays shot through the holes of its Star of David. On the floor were scattered freight-train log sheets, a dirty thermos, and mangled plastic chairs. I walked down the corridor, past a corner, amid graffiti and painted walls. The half-dismantled stairway led upward, to the upper story. There I edged carefully next to the wall, as much of the floor had collapsed. Finally I was outside, on the station roof. I looked at the large stone sign on the station wall, above the door. In worn-out greyish white, with the letters plastered over but still readable, it said JERUSALEM in French, and “Kudüs-i-Sherif” in Ottoman Turkish. Below this original 1892 sign was the Hebrew stone sign emplaced shortly after the establishment of the British Mandate. In a brighter shade of white, and in somewhat antiquated serifed Hebrew, was written “Yerushalayim.” That trilingual, two-phased sign was the reason for my trespass. I stared at it, trying to make sense of it, trying to make sense of that place.

I was aware of the history of the station. The Ottoman Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was a project spearheaded by the entrepreneur Yosef Navon, an Ottoman Sephardic Jew, in partnership with the Ottoman district engineer George Franjiah, an Orthodox Christian Arab, and the Swiss Protestant banker Johannes Frutiger. The line and the station were constructed and operated by a French company. Their 1892 inauguration was celebrated by local intellectuals as a triumph of progress and enlightenment.1 The railway survived much of the twentieth century’s upheavals, wars, and atrocities. The line was targeted by Palestinian insurgents during the Arab Revolt (1936–1939) and the station itself was bombed by the Jewish Irgun militia in 1946. After the 1948 war the line operated as part of Israeli railways, in increasingly limited capacity, until its 1998 closure. Since then the station had stood deserted and quickly fallen into a dilapidated state, as it was reclaimed by teenagers, homeless, and junkies. The trilingual name of the station used to welcome those arriving in the city and bid farewell to those leaving it, whoever they were and whatever Jerusalem meant to them. The sign stood for the city. It stood for its bright modern future. Now it was plastered over, decaying, half obliterated. And that seemed to say something about Jerusalem, about signs, about text and modernity.

FIGURE 1. Roof of railway station, with the name of the city in French, Ottoman Turkish, and Hebrew (2006).
Source: Yair Wallach.

FIGURE 2. The Jerusalem Railway Station, [1892–1914].
Source: Library of Congress, Matson Collection, American Colony photographers.

For many years I walked the streets of Jerusalem in a real and metaphoric sense, searching for writings on its walls. I was especially attracted to the little-noticed, half-erased texts: worn-out stone inscriptions; lettering on sewage covers; mysterious acronyms on gates and facades; faded ceramic street nameplates. Here, in the old train station, I encountered such textual debris in abundance: turn-of-the-century French red roof tiles, proclaiming “St. Henry—Marseille”; a broken metal piece of the railway, embossed with “WDS and co, 1917”; a Hebrew sign “25 kg sack of round rice” hanging strangely from the ceiling; and plentiful graffiti in Hebrew, English, Russian, and Arabic. A blue-and-white commemorative sign on the facade, on the street side, paid tribute not to the builders of the railway but rather to its 1946 Irgun bombers, as if the attempt to destroy the station was more significant, in civic and national terms, than its original construction.

I looked for text in the city, in any form that one could encounter in public or semi-public contexts, in Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages: graffiti, logos, inscriptions, official signs, ephemera. The period that interested me was the century that saw the emergence of modern Jerusalem, under Ottoman and British rule: from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1948 war that partitioned the city. The texts of the city during this turbulent century registered the dramatic changes and violent ruptures in the modern history of the city: they were chronicles of construction and destruction, heritage preservation and modern development, occupation and displacement. But rather than seeing these texts as passive records, documenting social and political transformation, I was interested in the role they played in facilitating these very transformations.2 I asked myself what they meant to the people who emplaced them, and the people who encountered them. And I wondered what could be learned, by looking at these texts and signs, about the relationship between modernity and textuality in a place like this one. Jerusalem: a city overwhelmed by its religious and symbolic significance; a place of encounter and disjuncture, of ethnic and linguistic diversity; a battleground for imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism. In its complicated, multilingual, painfully contested, and violent history, Jerusalem provided a rich site for a study of the modern transformation of urban textuality.

My quest for Jerusalem’s forgotten textual artifacts was guided by Walter Benjamin’s notion of writing history from refuse. Benjamin’s investigations of nineteenth-century modernity searched for meaning in marginal aspects of urban life.3 Modernity was best understood not through grand political narratives but through fashion, street lighting, lithographs, prostitutes, and defunct shopping arcades. The logic of historical development was written into these seemingly insignificant and haphazard practices and artifacts. These fragments of everyday modernity, when placed together in a collage, had the power to call into question narratives of history as progress. By assembling together the random, fragmented, and half-obliterated traces of the mundane, the deep configuration of modernity could be grasped, as if in a panoramic vision. Benjamin’s model of the materialist historian was the rag-picker: the scavenger in the trash of history, who searches for discarded objects and obsolete techniques, reassembles them for a radical reusing: a fresh understanding of past and present.4

The rags that I set out collecting were the urban texts of modern Jerusalem. They included stone inscriptions, signs on buildings, text on money, graffiti, embroidered banners, protest placards, visiting cards, and identity papers. These “urban texts” were a broad array of media and artifacts that were inscribed and encountered in civic and congregational space in Jerusalem under late-Ottoman and British rule.5 They consisted of fragments of sentences, words, and numbers, in Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages. While many of these artifacts were not necessarily unique to an urban setting, their instances outside the city were far less common. The city was a site of condensed textuality, where textual interaction was far more frequent and played a key role in constructing the urban experience. Many of the inscribed artifacts and sites formed the backdrop of the city’s most dramatic events, but the texts themselves attracted limited or no interest from many scholars who wrote about Jerusalem.

The product of my textual-rag-picking is this book, a collage of inscriptions. It brings together texts that were inscribed in stone, painted on wood signs, struck in gold, printed on paper banknotes and visiting cards, glazed on ceramic tiles, written by hand on walls, and embroidered on cloth banners. When these media and artifacts are placed together as part of a textual field, it becomes possible to see the profound shift that took place in the textual economies of modern Jerusalem in the early twentieth century. The change was manifested not only in terms of format, scripts, material aspects, location, and content of writing, but also in the very meaning of writing and reading. Traditional Arabic and Hebrew urban texts in Jerusalem were invested with divine meaning and strongly embedded within material culture. Struck in precious metals, chiseled deep within lintel stones, and embroidered in golden thread in velvet banners, text had a bodily presence that could not be discarded or abstracted. With modernity, text was stripped of its material skin and was cast as abstract and fragmented signifier. Modern urban text proliferated as external signifier in wood, metal, paper, and cardboard, naming and defining buildings, streets, and people in the service of a wide array of political projects. The operation of textuality was radically redefined. Stone inscriptions, pilgrims’ graffiti, and sacred banners, which had been in use for centuries, were displaced and cast as heritage. At the same time, street nameplates, shop signs, identity papers, and visiting cards emerged as key tools for reorganizing population and space.


A starting point for a conceptual investigation of textuality can be found in Jacques Derrida’s early work on writing. Derrida played a pivotal role in the poststructuralist “linguistic turn,” which placed language at the heart of critical reflection, positing that culture and society are made through language and do not exist outside it. Derrida’s early work placed writing, specifically, at the heart of his investigation. Of Grammatology (1967) was Derrida’s blueprint for a new branch of scholarship, a new “science of writing” which never materialized.6 In Derrida’s broad and ambitious outline, such an interdisciplinary science would pay attention not only to the history and materiality of text but also to its philosophical foundations and psychoanalytical implications. The science of writing would not only investigate the content, techniques, and socioeconomic context of writing; it would also interrogate what writing is in the first place, what are its limits and preconditions. Derrida’s own contribution was manifested in his investigation of the metaphysics of writing and its inherent instability. While this “science of writing” remained an unrealized proposition, which he himself abandoned and whose viability he later denied, Derrida’s line of inquiry opened up crucial questions about textuality.

Particularly relevant to this book is Derrida’s understanding of writing as supplement: an external layer which completes the original entity and overdetermines its meaning. Oscillating between an addendum and a substitute, the supplement threatens to corrupt and destabilize the original. According to Derrida, the dichotomy between the original and its appendage is deceptive. If the supplement is able to complete the original object, then that object was lacking in the first place and could never exist by and in itself. Derrida’s concept of writing as “the dangerous supplement” refers to the relation between textuality and orality, and the manner in which Western civilization constructs writing as a flawed and corrupt copy of the original speech. Yet this conceptualization opens up important questions about the relationship between text and the material world. The fragmented texts of urban life can be seen as supplementary elements that complete, define, and transform artifacts, buildings, and people. Whether as signs on shops, identity papers defining an individual, or graffiti “defacing” a religious site, text appears as an agency which has the power to organize or disrupt the socio-spatial order of the city. Text is understood as a dematerialized external object that can be attached to things, define them, and alter their meaning.

It is the sweeping, anti-historical nature of Derrida’s inquiry which is its most significant limitation. For Derrida suggests that the instability of textuality is not specific to historical and cultural contexts but, instead, stems from the very structure of signification. Crucial here was Derrida’s widening of the scope of writing beyond the “narrow” notion of notation. Of Grammatology introduced a concept of “arche-writing,” which covered all forms of human expression, beyond text or speech. “We say ‘writing’ for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing.’7 It is with this “general” sense of writing in mind that Derrida concluded: “There is nothing outside of the text . . . in what one calls the real life of these existences ‘of flesh and bone’ . . . there has never been anything but writing.”8 This proposition opened the tantalizing possibility of reading all forms of human expression as text, simultaneously pushing the discussion away from writing. If the world was text, and could be “deconstructed” as such, there was little reason to limit the investigation to writing in the “narrow” and “colloquial” sense of notation.

The obvious problem with such an approach is that it risks diluting writing to a generalized metaphor. When “text” is expanded to include any form of human signification, the historicity of text is effaced and the cultural and material specificities of its usage are obscured. And yet text in a “narrow” sense is one of the most resilient and adaptable human technologies. Systems of inscribed notations changed remarkably little over centuries or millennia, and yet the application and meaning of textuality has been anything but constant. By ignoring historical considerations, we lose sight of “how, and with what consequences, writing systems are devised, regulated and imposed.”9 But a more serious problem, in my view, is that Derrida’s broadened concept of writing was in fact locked within his narrow experience of the contemporary technologies of writing. Derrida’s scholarship consisted of interrogative readings of texts from the Western canon, from Plato to Lévi-Strauss. His philosophical interpretation employed visceral and material metaphors such as the hymen, the suture, and the pharmakon (the medicine-poison), but did so with regard to text on paper. While Derrida’s concept of “arche-writing” encompassed all forms of signification, he himself said in 1998 that “I have always written, and even spoken, on paper: on the subject of paper, on actual paper, and with paper in mind.”10 The equation of text with tracts on paper implies a notion of reading as a silent, private, and secular operation of deciphering and interpreting, not part of everyday life but rather set against it; not a social praxis but rather an individual, isolated quest for meaning. The problem was not that the widening of the scope of text rendered the term meaningless, but rather that it imposed a limited notion of textuality that was culturally and historically specific, implicitly separating text from everyday life. If this is the case, it is necessary to ask if the crisis of signification, which Derrida analyzed so deftly, is inherent to writing as he suggested or in fact is a historical condition, rooted in modernity.

In contrast, for Michel de Certeau, the historicity of textuality is central to its analysis. De Certeau’s “The Scriptural Economy” is an analytical framework that historicizes modern text in a grand epochal narrative.11 De Certeau argued that premodern writing in medieval Europe was grounded in holy scriptures, whose reading was an embodied practice involving the human voice. The sacred text was the “great cosmological Spoken Word,” which believers desired to hear. In early modernity, with secularization, text lost its intimate connection to God and became an instrument of power. Textuality, in its modern sense, was a machinery at the service of capital and colonialism. The logic of capitalism (accumulation) and colonialism (appropriation) reduced people and their environment to a readable text. The emphasis on the colonizing impetus of writing has important implications for analyzing British and Zionist use of text to reshape modern Jerusalem. For de Certeau, the relation between writing and colonialism is epitomized in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which he sees as a founding myth of Western modernity. Crusoe, the shipwrecked Englishman, sees the desert island as the empty space which is open to be conquered and civilized through writing. Robinson Crusoe’s diary gave him the necessary “blank page” on which he subjugated time, space, and society. Modern writing, argued de Certeau, crucially depends on this “blank page” as an external and autonomous surface which is isolated from the world and has power over it. This exterior position allows for the separation between subject and object, narrator and world, signifier and signified. Upon this autonomous surface a symbolic code and a system of knowledge are formed which produce the world, as text.

De Certeau’s analysis of the “blank page” as the founding myth of modern text is particularly insightful. The notion of writing as pure meaning—abstract words that are external to material reality—appears as the basis of the modern understanding of textuality. The text’s “ontological referentiality” is a powerful tool which has allowed using words to label, categorize, name, and order. And yet the flaw in de Certeau’s analysis lies in subscribing to this mythology. The denial of the materiality of text is an ideological one, for text, in any form, is always part of the material world. Writing and reading are not operations of pure meaning that take place in a void, but rather are embodied social practices. Street nameplates, shop signs, banknotes, and identity cards were encountered and read not in an abstract space but rather in concrete physical circumstances. Rather than accept the myth of the autonomous text, I wish to outline the processes of dematerialization through which text was increasingly understood as external referent and thereby acquired new powers of signification.

As a critic of the Enlightenment, de Certeau viewed modern society as an oppressive techno-structure. Used in the service of capitalist accumulation and colonization, text, in its modern and secular incarnation, reduced everything and everyone to legible terms. De Certeau’s pessimistic outlook allowed no escape from this system of inscription, which determines all aspects of life including the human body. This dark view is echoed in other negative approaches to writing which view it as primarily a disciplinary tool. “The state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine,” one scholar recently argued.12 Yet reading texts only as an instrument of overwhelming power is reductive: such a view fails to account for writing’s emancipatory potential, its malleability and volatility. To be sure, the modern state has used text as a powerful tool, which manifests itself in urban space in town planning, population registers, and signposting. But the process of inscription is unstable and is threatened by itself, opening space to resist and challenge the established order. In this book I consider the potential of urban texts not only to serve power but also as means to challenge it, by a generation who saw radical rewriting of the self as a form of emancipation.

In Walter Benjamin’s writing it is possible to detect an alternative approach to urban textuality, one which identifies emancipatory potential in its radical new form.13 Benjamin was fascinated by modern textual artifacts, and particularly street texts. He recognized the fragmented and dynamic nature of “leaflets, brochures, articles and placards” as marking a break with the “pretentious gesture of the book.” Benjamin’s model of writing is not the mythological “blank page” but rather the card index: a collection of observations, quotations, and information, cut and pasted, arranged and rearranged.14 Modern writing consisted not of coherent long tracts but of fragments, which acquired meaning through connections, juxtapositions, and contrasts. Text was inscribed, printed on, engraved, in material form, and produced through labor. The location of urban texts in the street, “the dwelling place of the collective,” created opportunities for counter-appropriation and agitation.15 Benjamin studied carefully the introduction of house numbers, the logic of street naming, and the changing nature of shop signs, posters, and advertisements, not only as evidence of historical change but also as material technologies that remade the city. He was aware of their employment for the strengthening hold of state and capital over society. But rather than see street texts as mere instruments of power, he believed these were tools that were open for reclaiming. Against the background of the economic and political crisis of the 1930s, Benjamin called on writers to embrace the disruptive, fragmented language of the streets:

Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks and bars must speak to the wanderer like a twig snapping under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its center.16

Getting lost was a radical intellectual methodology that allowed an immersion in modernity through its signs. Modern street texts assumed, for Benjamin, a visceral quality, and navigating them was similar to a forest adventure. In that heightened sense of suspense, danger, and excitement hid a promise of emancipation, and a possibility of revolutionary awakening. Signboards and street names could be read against the grain; they could be used to write counter-hegemonic stories for the city and its people.


1. Travis, On Chariots.

2. Recent historical scholarship approaches material culture not simply as “evidence” which captures and illustrates social change but rather as embedded agency through which change is produced. In the words of Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, material culture should be seen “not as epiphenomenal . . . but rather as an integral part of the experience of modernity.” Abou-Hodeib, Taste for Home, 40.

3. Much of Benjamin’s writing revolves around cities and urban experience. Among the key texts are “One-Way Street,” “Moscow, 1927,” and “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” all available in Benjamin, Selected Writings, as well as Benjamin, Arcades Project.

4. In the unfinished Arcades, Benjamin set out to chart nineteenth-century Paris as a crossroads of modernity. Starting with defunct shopping arcades, the Arcades resembled a mammoth card index or an archive. It explored the reshaping of the urban sphere by the state and capital, not only in utilitarian terms but also by writing myth and desire into daily life.

5. I use the term urban text as a flexible category to cover a corpus of diverse textual artifacts, encountered primarily in urban settings. Bierman, Writing Signs, studies similar texts in medieval Egypt under the term public text. But “public” is a modern category, tied to an understanding of “a public” with corresponding “public spaces.” Many texts discussed in this book appeared in congregational and confessional contexts. In Jerusalem, a nonsectarian Ottoman “public” emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it divided into Jewish and Arab publics during the British Mandate.

6. Derrida, Of Grammatology. Textuality and writing are also central to Derrida in Writing and Difference and Dissemination. For an insightful conceptualization of Derrida’s early work on writing, see Fleming, Cultural Graphology.

7. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 9.

8. Derrida, 158–59.

9. Fleming, Cultural Graphology, 24. While Fleming sees the need to ground the inquiry in cultural and material contexts, she argues that Derrida’s theorization and investigation of textuality offers considerable strengths, especially in his psychoanalytical line of inquiry. Fleming followed this direction in her study of the material context of writing and book publishing in early modern England. See also Fleming, Graffiti.

10. Derrida et al., “Paper or Myself,” 1.

11. de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, 131–53.

12. Scott, Against the Grain, 139. Scott, who writes on premodern states, argues that writing, from its very inception, was an instrument of state oppression designed to make its population and resources legible.

13. The importance of urban textuality in Benjamin’s work has yet to receive scholarly attention. The most relevant work is his experimental tract “One-Way Street,” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, 444–88. The Arcades also devotes much attention to signage, street naming, house numbering, and commercial advertisements.

14. Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, 456.

15. Benjamin, Arcades Project, 423.

16. Benjamin, “Berlin Chronicle,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 598.