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China Puts Middle East Differences on Ice

JERUSALEM, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - In a first in years, snow blessed the Holy City last month. For a moment, hail metamorphosed into a paltry three-millimetre layer of white, liquid, light. Children and parents and snowmen relished the wonders of an almost real, though usually ephemeral, winter. But then, the Ice Age befell Jerusalem…

A replica of the Tower of David at the Ice City in Jerusalem. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

A replica of the Tower of David at the Ice City in Jerusalem. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

Israelis like to sing of the disputed city, “Jerusalem of gold, bronze and light”. For two months this spring, as clouds disperse and evaporate in the land of eternal sunshine, the city is not only gold, bronze and light, but ice.

Some 30 ice sculptors have been flown in especially from China. “We brought in our finest team from Harbin, a very faraway place with a long history and a rich culture,” says Bai Liang proudly. “These artists have at least 15 years of experience. Since it’s our first time in Jerusalem, we have to be on our best.”

Assisted by local artists, the Chinese masters have designed and installed the first international festival of sculptures on ice in a covered space near the disused train station located close to the old no-man’s-land that used to divide the city into Jewish and Arab sectors before Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

“We exchanged ideas, plans and sketches with Israeli artists in order to reach a tight concept that integrates the local culture and architecture in our creations,” explains Liang, the exhibition director.

With hundreds of tons of ice, walls have been erected carefully, one ice block at a time. Within one month of hard work, a palace of wonders, a frosty replica of Jerusalem of Ice, came to light – “Ice City”.

“Temperatures are low, ice is heavy,” ice sculptor Liu Qi acknowledges as he supervises the lifting of a replica of a limestone of the walled Old City. “An ice sculpture artist has to be in good physical condition, resistant to cold. And, knowledge of the art is certainly critical.”

At a cosy ten degrees Celsius below zero (minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit), life is a fairy tale when coats are received on entrance to the site. So, dress warmly, enter a world of ice and misty lights.

“The people here are interested in snow entertainment and ice. We’re happy to bring happiness,” says Qi while now combing a reproduction of a flying camel with a special metal rake.

Visitors pass through a replica of Jaffa Gate, one of the seven opened monumental gates to the Old City.

The exhibition grounds feature historical monuments such as the Ottoman walls built in the 16th century during the rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent; the Tower of David, a citadel originally raised above earlier fortifications in the second century BC; the Montefiore Windmill built in 1857 and designed as a flour mill, but actually unproductive due to a lack of winds. Qi saws another square chunk of translucent ice. Vapours of frost sprinkle his face. Though it breaks up easily, ice stands for unity, purity, and strength.

If the infamous monster – the “Golem” moulded in cement by French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle – is a favourite Jerusalem playground, the amiable beast in its frozen version offers an even more slippery slide.

“No, I’ve never seen such beauty before,” six-year old Iris shakes her head from left to right. “Yes,” she nods – she simply loves it.

“The colourful ice sculptures are made with food colouring. It doesn’t matter if kids taste the popsicles- like sculptures,” smiles Liang.

Jewish and Arab schoolchildren can be seen playing side by side. In Ice City, the walls are emblazoned with two interlaced peace doves. Co-existence seems no arctic mirage.

Meander in the ice forest; wander around the fairy tales of your childhood; encounter ice figurines from the Wizard of Oz – the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Cinderella, the little glass slipper is metamorphosed into a little glacial slipper. The pumpkin transformed into the golden carriage is transformed into an ice carriage; mice are frozen into horses.

Not just children are marvelled. The attraction emulates ice festivals in Harbin, China, or Bruges, Belgium. Like their equivalents around the world, Ice City draws people from around the world.

“They do this in China? That’s cool!” exclaims a young tourist from Chicago ostensibly in awe of a menacing black bear adorned with an emerald glint.

“My wife gave me a present for my birthday and brought me here,” explains Tomer Gur-Arieh, a Jerusalemite.

But all this shimmering world of crystal and diamonds is pure evanescence.

These metamorphoses, of pandas, of giraffes and camels – even the lion king, the city’s emblem – will surely melt away. Don’t worry, next year, we’ll be back, assures the Chinese team.

“They’re very satisfied with our work,” confirms Liang, “especially Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat; he came here five times; he was shocked by the ongoing change.” At the Mar. 6 opening, Barkat maladroitly hailed the ice festival as a “cultural revolution”.

“Never cast a thread until April is dead, Never cast a clout, until May be out” has never been so true here – the “cultural revolution” heralded by the Israeli Mayor will have to be watered down on the last day of April.

“We’re talking about further cooperation,” says Liang. “We’ve signed a five-year contract to bring ice sculptures back to Jerusalem.”

In the meantime though, to add a glow to cold cheeks you might want to have a drink on the rocks at the local ice bar…

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