Sunday, December 19, 2010


Heat. Dust. Hawkers. Machine guns. Soldiers. Worn steps. Religious paraphernalia. Roadworks. Dyed hair. Painted fingernails. Cafe latte. Hebrew signs. Lack of space.

On my way in to Palestine, I had deliberately avoided going to visit the sacred sights that this city has to offer. And on my way out I did the same. Out of a certain bloody-mindedness, of course, but also because I am not a person who adheres to a specific religion, and I do not enjoy lining up with thousands of other people to pay an extortionate price to see a piece of wall that may or may not have been part of human history.

I left Nablus at 0730, with the sun shining once more, and the few birds twittering in the few trees. A bus to Ramallah, and one last excellent falafel sandwich and strong coffee. Then it was on the bus to the checkpoint, where the local Palestinians had to all troupe off with their variously-coloured pieces of paper to be checked by a bored member of the Israeli Army. Foreigners like me were 'allowed' to stay on the bus, and my passport was not checked.

Many times over the last seven weeks I have reflected on the sheer lunacy of so-called 'security' measures put in place with alarming and increasingly stringent regularity, across the globe. I could so easily have been someone who wanted to cause damage to any number of people, but I was allowed to stroll through to Jerusalem, whilst the Palestinians were 'the chosen people', (Yes, I'm using the term provocatively) being singled out, checked, interrogated and often turned back.

Incidentally, I heard recently that the building that housed the Palestinian Records Office in Ramallah had been blown up with an Israeli strike on the city during the previous Intifada. This has caused untold but perhaps not unintentional havoc, as to be able to move about between various section of what is their own land, the Palestinians now have to show various pieces of coloured cards, depending on where they were born, their jobs, their ages, their backgrounds. It is very, very difficult for someone who lives in Nablus to obtain the correct piece of paper that allows them to enter Jerusalem, and even if it were possible, young men under 50 are not allowed.

Does this remind you of any other period in recent European history?

And in any case, it is all futile. Once we had passed the high concrete wall and entered Jerusalem, the sight that greets you is as I described above: chaotic. Anyone with any evil intent doesn't have to be under 50 years of age, and has ample opportunity to do untold damage in that unhappy city: there are messy roadworks, skips, crowds, bus stations, etc.

The Old City is tiny, crowded and divided into different quarters. I entered at Damascus Gate, into the Arab quarter, to be greeted by the now-familiar sights and sounds of Palestine. A frustrating 20-minute struggle later, and I was in the Jewish quarter, then another five minutes later in the Armenian quarter, as I sought the Post Office. What could and should be celebrated as an historic melting-pot of tolerance is now just an insecure, paranoid city full of disgruntled and miserable residents, all trying to make money out of the overweight tourists who still flock and gawp and clog up the narrow streets.

I was looking for the Post Office as I had to send a parcel home: no, not some curio of sentimental significance that I had found on my travels, but anything and everything to do with my six-week teaching experience in Nablus. On my third attempt I eventually found the Main Post Office, and dutifully took my number and waited in line (!). I packed up a parcel that contained my notes, calling cards, arabic-lesson material, e-mail addresses, Project Hope T-shirts, camera memory card, hand-woven bracelet from Bil'in, etc. Basically anything to show that I had been in the West Bank.

The whole process took forever, with the monosyllabic, bored and impolite counter staff barking words at me. It cost me nearly 50 shekels, and the parcel weighed in at under 2kg. It crossed my mind, as it so often does, how much money someone, somewhere, is making out of these global security measures. The parcel was eventually accepted and started its long and arduous journey towards France. It will be interesting to see whether it arrives, or whether it is blown up.

All I had to do now was get through Airport Security, so I headed for Tel Aviv airport. Easier said than done, but five buses later and I was finally outside the defunct and derelict Terminal 1. A not-so-subtle message to that famously low-cost airline was given by the choice of Tel Aviv Terminals: 3 for the posh airlines, 1 for the bucket-and-spade brigade. I was, of course, part of the latter. At one stage I had the whole terminal to myself, as I entered through a wrong door into a part that is under construction. I went to the toilets, filled my water bottle and looked around, all completely alone in a massive departure hall. Lapse of security, remind me to tell someone...

Eventually I found the right place, recognisable by the length of the queues waiting to get their stories and bags checked. I had been warned by other volunteers not to tell the truth, as this would compromise Project Hope's ability to continue to function without hassle, and I certainly didn't want to make life any harder for people who are doing such a good job.

Nor did I want to lie, however. This is the thin edge of some wedge or other, where we all agree to go along with orders and instructions from above, rather than striking out and saying 'No, this is wrong'. I still had not decided whether to tell the truth and let the airport staff deal with it (and me) or whether to play their silly little game and invent a story. I shuffled slowly forward, watching the people at the counter having to unravel everything they owned. There were tired kids running around, the inevitable machine guns, and lots of fixed stares of bored people.

Finally my fifteen minutes of fame arrived, and I still hadn't decided what story to tell. I was asked some preliminary questions by a young woman, and I told her the truth: that I did not have family here, that I had come 'to look around' and that I was interested in agriculture. She raised her eye-brows when I said I had been here for six weeks, and went to speak to a colleague. My small 8kg piece of hand-luggage was scanned for tweezers, and I walked beside it, ready for the interrogation. But it never came: I was told by the man who took my bag off of the conveyor belt, that I could proceed to check-in. All around me were people opening up their bags and spilling the contents all over the counters, and here was I 'allowed' to proceed, without further ado, to check-in.

Such is the nature of a security state, that you still don't believe you've 'got away with it', and I was expecting a hand on the shoulder, or a voice 'Excuse me Madam, this way', but no, I was able to proceed to the nearly-empty Departure hall and to go through Passport Control in lines of one person: me. How utterly bizarre. I'm assuming the colleague of the girl decided I needed special treatment or rather more likely, that they took one look at me and decided I was not a threat. What clearer example can you have of being judged by your appearance? I was always taught not to judge a book by its cover, but here that rule is turned on its head and reinforced with violence: always judge a person by the colour of their skin, their age, their passport. This is the road to tyranny, and I pity all those millions of people who have fallen for that lie the world over.

I wasted 50 shekels on the parcel home...

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