Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Land of Promises Broken: What I Saw in Palestine

Having been up till the small hours the previous evening immoderately imbibing with an old friend in Amman, I found myself at the Abdali bus station at 06:30 am wondering for more than one reason what on earth I thought I was doing. I purchased my ticket for the ‘JETT’ bus that would take me to the King Hussein Bridge – one of Jordan’s three border crossings to Israeli-occupied Palestine – and took my seat in the waiting area, gulping furiously on a bottle of water. Everybody else in the station was Jordanian, and like most Jordanians, they appeared to be of relatively modest means. As a nearly lifelong resident of the UAE, it struck me how strange it was to see poor Arabs; that’s to say, dirt poor Arabs. In Jordan, the waiters are Arabs, the street sweepers are Arabs, and the peasants who harvest the olive trees in the beautiful countryside are Arabs. And as was to be made palpably apparent to me throughout the course of the day, there are plenty of Arabs in the region who are considerably more unfortunate still.

The first leg of my journey, from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge, passed by pleasantly enough, as we meandered through the mountainside overlooking the arresting landscape below – enormous dark-green valleys punctuated by islands of pearl-white rock. The air in Jordan has none of the haze one finds in the Gulf, and as my eyes followed the miles of cloud folding behind the pastel blue horizon, I felt closer to my mother’s native Scotland than to my apartment in Dubai three hours away. 

Arriving at the King Hussein Bridge, I alighted to have my passport and visa checked. After the first of what were to be many of the day’s waits, I was back on the bus, crossing the narrow stretch of no-man’s-land that separates Jordan from the West Bank. Thirty-odd seconds later, I felt the skin on the back of my neck churn as I laid eyes on that one sight for which no person who has lived for years in the Gulf can ever be prepared: the Israeli flag, speared defiantly into the desert, its Star of David flapping muscularly in the hot wind. Indeed, as the bus approached the drop-off point at the Israeli side of the bridge (known as the Allenby) and the IDF soldiers came into view, it struck me that I was setting eyes on Israeli citizens for the first time.

Israeli flags at the western side of the King Hussein bridge
Stepping off the bus, the apparatus of occupation unfolded before me. Those passengers with luggage joined a long queue of Palestinian families heaving and dragging their bundles of cargo to the security scanners. Invariably, these included several large cartons of water, and many families also carried shopping bags filled with inexpensive-looking snacks and juices. I was later to learn that due to perennial shortages of water in the West Bank, families frequently made the trip to Jordan – a country with substantial enough water problems of its own – to stock up. Carrying nothing but a backpack, I made for the nearby portakabin which acted as the first layer of passport control. Trying to ignore the soldier standing just metres to my left – a stone-faced young man of about 21; his eyes shielded behind reflective silver Ray-Bans; his fingers wrapped fondly around his machine gun – I focused instead on the customs officials behind the windows, whom I noticed were all women. Or, rather, I should say they were girls – not one of them looked a day older than me (23). Without exception they were strikingly pretty and as my eye caught one of theirs and I thought I detected the hint of a coy smile I began to wonder in my ignorance what on earth a girl like her was doing in a place like this, etc.

That ended very quickly once I reached the window. Handing over my passport with as much insouciance as I could manage, the girl’s facial expression turned first from Haughty Shop Assistant to Puzzled Mathematician. “What is this?” she asked brusquely, pointing to the entry on my passport under ‘Place of birth’. “Jeddah”, I replied. “Where is Jeddah?” Could she be serious? “Saudi Arabia”, I replied, trying my best to sound as though the question were entirely reasonable. Her look of shock couldn’t have been more pronounced if I had said Pluto. “Thank you, have a seat”, she said hurriedly, her radio already rising to her mouth. I did so on a nearby bench and watched as she left the portakabin with my passport through a door into the main building. Surveying my surroundings, I noticed the soldier had turned to face me, evidently intrigued by my detention. Between the two of us was an elderly Palestinian woman, hunched over a large plastic water container, driving it slowly across the tarmac in silent determination. I searched the soldier’s face for emotion: if he felt any, he hid it expertly. 

Five minutes later the girl reappeared and I was permitted to pass through to the main building, where I had my first of four rounds of questioning while my bag was emptied and scanned for explosives. What were my parents’ names? Why were they in Saudi Arabia? Where were they now? What did I do in Dubai? Did I speak Arabic? Was I married? Where was I going in Israel? (I quickly decided it would not have been worth my while to reply that in no sense was the West Bank actually in Israel.) Why was I going to Jerusalem? Where exactly within Jerusalem would I be going? Would I be meeting any Arabs? Was I going to visit any Arab towns? Where was I staying in Jordan? Who did I know in Jordan? Why was he not joining me in Jerusalem? Did he have a problem with Israel? (Again, I deemed it unwise to go down the factual route here.) In one question that seemed to me highly telling of the Israeli national fixation with ‘homelands’, I was asked “Why do you live in Dubai, when your [British] passport lets you work in the UK?” Clearly, the concepts of internationalism and globalisation are lost on some. 

Surviving the first round, I was again made to wait while my passport was taken elsewhere (presumably being screened by every search the Shin Bet computers could handle). This process was repeated with two more officials (both of whom, again, were women), with further highlights including ‘Are you carrying a weapon, or anything that looks like a weapon?’ Once again opting for the path of least resistance, I managed not to reply that I was just pleased to see her. After about an hour, I was allowed to proceed to the final hurdle, where my entrance visa would be approved and my passport stamped. I asked the woman to kindly not stamp my passport and instead stamp the famous ‘Form 17L’ that is routinely issued to tourists and businessmen travelling to countries that do not recognise Israel as a state. “Why?” she snapped. I told her that I worked in Dubai. As before, the radio came up, I sat down, my passport disappeared. A fourth and final interview was conducted with yet another woman and after a further fifteen minutes I was finally released – about twenty metres as the crow flies from where I had started an hour and a half previously. 

After changing my Jordanian Dinars into Israeli Shekels, I boarded a ‘service’, or shared taxi, to Jerusalem (or as I would call it to any Arab, Al Quds). My fellow passengers in this cramped minibus were exclusively Palestinian women, not one of them younger than 50, and not one of them without food and water packed into the boot for the families to which they were returning. As I removed my bag from the adjacent seat to accommodate the final passenger on board, she smiled at me graciously and thanked me in lucid, equanimous English. I asked her how she spoke the language so well and she replied that she was a teacher. At that point her phone rang and she raised her hand in apology, taking the call and leaving me to peer out the window at the protean Palestinian desert, which was at this point an arid amalgamation of sand and light brown rock – what Philip Roth called “the cratered moonscape of the Pentateuch”. So this is it, I thought. The Promised Land. As someone without any religious affiliation, the Holy Land has no metaphysical significance to me, but as a keen student of history and politics, I nevertheless felt what I have no problem describing as a spiritual frisson as I contemplated the millennia of pitiless tyranny and tragedy of which this tiny corner of the Levant has been the object. Ruminating on this macro reflection, I was brought back down to the micro by a tap on the shoulder. When I turned, another woman to the right of the teacher was holding out, as though to hand me, a small plastic cup of orange juice she had poured from one of the bottles in her shopping bag. Instinctively; Englishly; I spluttered, “No no, thank you very much”, shaking my head and smiling politely. Without blinking, the woman offered it to the woman next to me, and then to each of the remaining passengers in turn. Although I wasn’t the one sitting closest to her, it was to me – the visitor – that she had offered the cup first. 

Turning back to the window, I felt a hot flash of piercing anguish combined with acute fright washing over me, and it took me a second to realise that I was forcing back tears. There I sat, in my Covent Garden polo and my Italian loafers, and here was a woman with nothing offering me a portion of one of the few trifling comforts she was able to get her hands on. Never in my life had I been the recipient of so powerful a gesture of pure humanity. I shall not soon forget it.

Moments later, the engine screeched into life and we were off. At first there was little to see but barren rock and sand, but after about fifteen minutes I caught sight of what turned out to be an enormous walled-off residential complex high on a hillside to the left. Recognising the tell-tale sign of red roofs on beige walls, I instantly knew it to be the infamous Ma’ale Adumim settlement, illegally constructed by messianic Jews shortly after the 1967 conquest, and now home to at least 34,000 settlers (according to Peace Now). As I began taking pictures, the teacher asked if it was my first time in Palestine. I told her it was. For the remaining twenty minutes or so of the journey, especially once we had entered East Jerusalem (which involved stopping at a checkpoint whilst IDF men with machine guns climbed on board and demanded our documents), she pointed out, in a weary but not at all self-pitying tone all the residences where friends and relatives had once lived before being evicted to make way for Israeli settlers (who, thanks to a clause in Israeli law known as the ‘Law of Return’, were more likely to be from Brooklyn, Brisbane or Belarus than from Bethlehem). As she did so, I found myself at a loss for words. What do you say to such a person? Who has every reason to resent you, and yet treats you like an old friend? Who has every reason to suspect you, and yet invites you to her home when she disembarks, laden with as many bottles of water as she can carry? I felt immeasurably impotent, and viscerally sick. My regret compounds with every passing day that I never asked her name.

Ma'ale Adumim
Disembarking myself at the wall surrounding the Old City, I entered via the Damascus Gate. Shouldering my way down the narrow streets through the throngs of Arabs, Jews and tourists, it was in many ways like stepping back in time: the men in Ottoman hats burning frankincense; the Orthodox Jews in their 19th century clothing; the ancient stone pavements and archways. It was also much the same as any other major tourist attraction: novelty t-shirt stalls (“Guns N’ Noses” being my personal favourite); overweight Westerners talking too loudly; tawdry souvenirs sold at staggering prices (I think I paid over $30 for my black-and-white keffiyeh). I headed first for the Muslim quarter but was told by a soldier at the entrance that it was temporarily closed. When I made inquiries at a nearby shop, a Palestinian man told me that some Jewish extremists had made a nuisance of themselves there earlier and so the IDF had shut it down for the day. This was no small disappointment - the Dome of the Rock is the most iconic building in the City, and I would now only see it from afar.

The Dome of the Rock
Over the course of the next five hours I saw more or less everything else: the Al-Aqsa Mosque (of the eponymous 'Martyrs' Brigade'); the Western Wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and dozens of other synagogues and churches. Whilst the place is unquestionably exhilarating, I couldn’t shake the feeling of continuous incredulity as I encountered each wall, stone, rock, or bone. Can this really be what all the anger and fighting and death are for? Granted, the architecture and history are rich and marvellous in the extreme – but is it really for this that bombs are dropped on children? For a wall, a stone, a rock, a bone?

Al-Aqsa mosque

Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall

Christians praying at the Stone of the Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
In the taxi back to the Allenby Bridge that evening, as I tried to make sense of the experience, the lapidary words of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani came back to me: “O Jerusalem, you city of sorrow/ A big tear wandering in the eye/ Who will halt the aggression/ On you, the pearl of religions?” As the first bomb to hit Jerusalem in six years killed a foreign citizen just days after my return, and as round after round of peace talks continue to scale new heights of futility, his is a question long overdue an answer. Until that day, though, the tears.

1 comment:

  1. Alex,
    Powerful, informative & superbly written. I'll be visiting your blog often.