Across The Border

Entry by: macdonald

13th September 2016
Across the Border

Sharing a ‘sherut’ mini-bus had seemed a good idea, but none of the other passengers know exactly where they are going. They all hand the driver addresses on scraps of paper and two hours later we are still meandering around a maze of busy suburban streets in West Jerusalem. We are dropped off last by an apologetic driver.

The Jerusalem YMCA is a beautiful building though and after showering quickly, we eat calamari and salad on a balmy terrace, walls lined with purple bougainvillea, floor space dotted with Palms in big stone tubs. A pony-tailed chef ventures from the kitchen and we talk about Manchester United.

At dawn we stroll to the Old City, enter via the Jaffa gate and without a map promptly get lost in a hilly labyrinth of narrow streets. At six-thirty the Holy Sepulchre Church entrance is already crowded. I’m puzzled by the sight of a tearful American woman, being comforted by a companion. Later I’m told that the intense religiosity of this city pushes some people into a distressed condition called ‘The Jerusalem Syndrome’.

Christ’s tomb resembles a big sooty Tardis with a queue too long for us, but much of the rest of the building is empty. At the base of the Golgotha rock a youth is curled asleep in a dark corner.

In the late afternoon we return to the Old City. A tour party is blocking the Via Dolorosa so we head north to negotiate hills and questioning glances in the Muslim quarter. A muezzin’s unearthly call echoes over the rooftops, reverberating inside my head. Hot and footsore, we enter the ‘First Temple Period Museum’. Unbidden, an Israeli student shows us around. I am intrigued by a tiny silver necklace scroll, engraved with Hebrew, the museum’s most valuable treasure. Uncovered in a City of David tomb, it took three painstaking years to unroll and read. It has an inscription from the Book of Numbers, the earliest lines of Old Testament ever identified. Back in the sun, startlingly youthful Israeli soldiers toting machine-guns watch us negotiate metal detectors to reach the Wailing Wall square. We are approached by a youth in Orthodox dress, but beardless. He is cutting lengths of red wool from a ball.

‘To bring you luck’ he says to my wife and when she gives him a few shekels he ties one around her wrist.

A temporary wooden walkway winds up to the spacious Temple Mount. Flat ground at last! The crowds quickly spread out here. Only Muslim’s are allowed into the Mosques.

Next morning, Edward Husseini, an ex-colleague who we haven’t seen for ten years is waiting at the Hotel reception as planned. Opposite the Damascus gate he slams on his brakes, honking his horn. A Palestinian youth with a bandaged hand stumbles across the road oblivious to the traffic. On the pavement an old woman draped in billowing black cotton, with skin as dry and creased as a shrivelled lemon is sitting cross-legged. Piles of rosemary, thyme and mint, tied into bunches with string, lie at her knees, awaiting a buyer.

A few kilometres on, Edward slows to a halt in a traffic queue amidst a wasteland of unfinished breeze block houses, piles of rubble, potholes, overgrown paths, oil drums. Two hundred yards ahead soldiers are checking a vehicle.
‘Are we close to the West Bank border?’ I ask.
‘We’re not supposed to call it a border. It’s the Qalandia checkpoint in the security barrier.’ Soon we are moving again and Edward barely needs to slow as he waves his ID through the open car window.
‘That wasn’t bad,’ I say. ‘It took us longer to get through Manchester Airport.’
‘Not so quick coming back into the city though,’ Edward replies. ‘We’ll need to be here early to avoid the crowd.’
‘Can you drive through whenever you want?’ my wife asks.
‘It’s been better the last couple of years; opens earlier in the morning and there are more lanes. But they close it when they like.’
‘Just like that.’
‘Just like that. I don’t get to the hospital, kids can’t get to school; shopkeepers can’t get to their shops; farmers to their land.’
‘Has it reduced terror attacks?’
‘Perhaps. But everything about the barrier is disputed; its name, its route, its impact.’
Nearing Ramallah we pass a new Israeli settlement; red slate roofs and green lawns transplanted onto the dusty, stone strewn landscape, the rising sun bathing gardens of olive and lemon trees in a greenish glow.
‘These are the biggest obstacle to peace,’ says Edward. ‘They prevent separation of Palestine from Israel.’ I understand his point. How can the government uproot a quarter of a million settlers who they’ve encouraged to live on Palestinian land?
Edward lives with his wife and younger son, Kaseem; a lean, sharp featured nineteen year old with glistening smoothed back hair, wearing a stylish, light-weight suit. He is funny and eloquent.
On a second floor balcony, we look over a network of narrow alleyways amidst the cramped streets below. Somewhere tinny music is playing on a radio.
‘Palestinians who live here are the lucky ones,’ says Kaseem. ‘They only have a few threadbare rugs, an old cooker, a television, a few mattresses but many elsewhere have nothing.’
We go into the town centre to eat. In a lively restaurant we have chicken, followed by the famous Rubak’s ice cream which tastes of gum.
‘Don’t you ever get frustrated here, Edward?’ I ask.
‘Of course, but we Palestinians have a word – "sumoud". It means "patience, perseverance". I believe in "sumoud".

Later, when the others are in the kitchen, I’m left on the balcony with Kaseem.
‘How do you feel about the situation, Kaseem? Do you agree with your father?’
‘I listen to him,’ Kaseem replies. ‘Even when he repeats himself. His generation lost, and are still finding excuses for the way we are treated, but the Israelis pay no attention. My generation does want to live in peace, but the Israelis show no signs of wanting peace with us.’
‘Don't you believe in sumoud, Kaseem?’
‘With respect sir; if you had seen your childhood home bull-dozed to oblivion for no reason and your grand-parents die of broken hearts; if you’d been stopped at a roadblock because of your blue licence plate and watched the police that stopped you, wave the cars with yellow licence plates through; if you’d seen your friends cursed and beaten; if your people spent their lives in fenced off wastelands, no better than prisons, surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity, their children sometimes bombed and killed; if you had found your words evasive and hesitant when you’d tried to explain to your little niece why she couldn’t go to the beach or visit her school-friends and seen tears welling in her eyes; if you’d understood that it was good for her to cry about it, because unshed tears might grow into dark clouds inside her head, stunting her character, creating an unconscious bitterness toward Jewish people; if you had been humiliated day in and day out at Israeli checkpoints where your mother and sisters are herded like beasts; if you had been harried by day and haunted by night because you are a Palestinian not quite knowing what to expect next, plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; if you always had to fight a nagging sense of your own worthlessness; if you had become an exile in your own land, then you would understand why I find it difficult to be patient.’
My mouth had opened, perhaps to reply, but I didn’t know what I was going to say. Edward appeared with two cups of coffee. The silence on the balcony had a tension he must have noticed.
‘Everything okay out here?’ I nodded in reply and Edward handed out the cups, then returned to the kitchen for milk and biscuits.
‘We give them what they want,’ Kaseem whispered, ‘and call it peace.’

From the Palestinian side, the Qalandia checkpoint looks like a fortress; an eight metre high wall with guard towers and barbed wire. At dawn, hundreds of Palestinians are already negotiating the metal detectors and turnstiles. Because the structure is made of metal, it gets very hot during the summer, cold during the winter with no protection from the wind.
It’s hard to predict how long it will take to pass through Qalandia. Sometimes it’s twenty minutes, other times more than an hour. It depends on the number of open turnstiles and security terminals, how quickly the various work and entry permits are processed. The constant uncertainty is palpable.

Last morning and my wife and I argue over Bethlehem or Yad Vashem, as we can’t do both. The elderly holocaust survivor at the information desk is very precise in her guidance on the site and we learn many melancholy facts about the ‘Shoah’.

On a hillside at the edge of the Jerusalem forest is a children’s memorial. In a huge darkened hall, mirrors are cleverly used to transform a single lighted candle into a limitless sky of flickering stars. As the names and ages of countless children are read out, the inscription on that ancient necklace scroll comes to mind: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face shine upon you.’
We almost make it to Bethlehem after all.

‘You wanna’ go to Bethlehem?’ the Palestinian taxi driver asks.
‘No thanks –the airport please.’ But he perseveres.
‘I’ll take you Bethlehem. No problem. What time’s your flight?’

We resist the invitation. You need three clear hours before your flight-time to get past security. Approaching Ben Gurion airport, armed Israeli soldiers wave us down. Our driver groans. I have to retrieve my passport from the boot and explain myself.

‘We came to see the sights.’ I don’t mention our Ramallah visit. He inspects me carefully before handing the passport back.
‘Thank you, sir. I very much hope that you enjoyed your visit to my country.’
‘We have, thanks.’ I reply. ‘It’s a wonderful place.’
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