Katie and I head out of Hebron in a service taxi, one of the large ones this time, and retrace the route I had taken the night before. It had been dark when I arrived, but now it is daylight, and I have someone to explain what’s going on beside the road as we travel. In daylight she points out to me just how many destroyed orchards we pass beside the road. Either side are fields containing the stumps of what had once been olive trees. I don’t know if they have also been burnt, but they look blackened to me as well. We are not talking about just a few rows close to the road where people could hide either – whole fields have been obliterated, and presumably the livelihood of the farmer along with it.
But where some things are being wiped out, there are also new things springing up. We pass a ramshackle group of mobile homes and temporary buildings on a hillside, surrounded by a high fence. This is how some settlements begin – as illegal outposts. That’s “illegal” in the sense of “under Israeli law” of course – all settlements are illegal under international law. But people can come out here, set up temporary buildings, arm themselves, and form a settlement. Eventually they become enough of a headache that the Israeli government legitimizes them, and a new official settlement is born. We pass other temporary structures on the way as well – very rough shanty town type constructions of corrugated iron and cloth, with animals running about amongst the people. I had seen these on the way down but not known what they were. Katie now explains that they are what has become of the local Bedouin. These people are traditionally nomadic, but with the restrictions of the occupation this is an impossible way of life. But Israel does not permit them to erect any permanent structures. So they build these tiny shanty towns, which then get periodically demolished by the army, leaving them homeless once more. To my eyes this looks like the worst living conditions of anyone in the west bank that I have seen so far.
The journey grinds to a halt as we wind up the side of the valley which leads up to a checkpoint at the summit. A queue of stationary traffic stretches ahead of this. If you are going to get detained at any checkpoint then this is the best one. Not because of any different treatment you will get at the hands of the soldiers, but simply because the setting means that it has excellent views out across the valley. Might as well have something nice to look at whilst being held and interrogated, right?
Initially the service taxi sits stationary in the queue, and for a while we take the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs by taking a walk in the sunshine. Eventually though our driver gets exasperated with the wait, and decided to take matters into his own hands by breaking out of the queue, tearing up the nearside edge of the road and pushing in again right at the top where the soldiers are searching the vehicles. Surprisingly this doesn’t seem to bother anyone, not even the Israelis. If I was them and a vehicle broke out of the queue half a mile down the road and sped towards the checkpoint then I would be very alarmed, but this does not seem to phase them.
The soldiers finish searching the car in front and turn their attention to our van. They ask for papers from everyone. At the time time I did not really realize what was happening – I assumed the checks were to search people on their journeys to look for weapons and the like. What I did not realize is that Israel has divided the west bank into small fragments and does not permit movement between them without an appropriate travel permit. This is what was being checked here, and as Katie and I are obviously not Palestinian then we have to hand over our passports – her’s US, mine UK. It’s a tense moment – Katie has some passport problems and we have to hope the soldier does not realize. Luckily he takes far more of an interest in me.
“Where are you going ?” he asks
“Ramallah” I tell him.
“And what are you going to do when you get to Ramallah ?”
Erp! I wasn’t expecting that as the next question. I was busy thinking of a reply to “what are you doing here?” instead. I am completely unprepared and so I do precisely what I am always being told not to do in these situations. I open my mouth and tell him the absolute literal truth.
“I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea.”
Just for once, it happens to be the right thing to say. The soldier stares at me, looks down at the visa in my passport, and hands both of them back without checking Katie’s. The service taxi lurches into life, and with a great sense of relief the checkpoint disappears into the distance.
Attending a wedding
If you has asked me what I thought I might find in Palestine before I went then I would have given you several answers; Arabs, settlers, soldiers, police, etc… but one of them would not have been “Anglicans”. Yet, a few hours later I find myself sitting in a church pew with Katie awaiting the arrival of a bride. It’s a pretty traditional pew, in a pretty traditionally decorated building. We have stained glass, flowers, a priest, an organ with the usual somewhat variable organist, and a congregation which could have been plucked from somewhere in the home counties. Had I taken a photo you would have been hard pressed to identify it as not being a modern church somewhere in Sussex.
It’s very hard to describe what it is like to watch what I would normally have referred to as ‘an English wedding service” being conducted by Palestinians, almost entirely in Arabic, including the hymn singing to organ tunes I know so well from school. I am English, and am used to the “decaffinated” version of Christianity we have in this country. I would never describe myself as a Christian – yet I realize that in Palestine I am one, despite my atheism. Belief doesn’t matter – these are my cultural reference points, this is the framework of my value system, and hence this is the visible social minority to which I belong. I can’t change that, it’s part of me, I just didn’t realize it before. Sometimes you need to see something out of context (or possibly in a better context) to understand things about it.
It’s a beautiful service too. I have a fondness for weddings – I have somehow managed to miss the cynicism regarding them which affects so many of my friends. They make me happy, and especially here, with all the misery being inflicted on these people, being able to see a couple doing something unequivocally positive is very welcome. I sincerely hope they carve out a happy life together.
Shopping in a five star prison
After the ceremony Katie has to go home and work – she draws political cartoons for a Palestinian newspaper – so I spend the rest of the afternoon with Katie’s friend Neta and her children. We go shopping for books, and then sweets for the children. Neta is great company, and an engaging person to talk to as she is the first actual Israeli I have met living in the west bank. She tells me how she grew up in Israel and met her future husband through a programme to try and get Israelis and Palestinians to mix face to face to encourage understanding and trust. In her case it worked rather better than expected as she now lives in Palestine with her husband and children.
It’s also the only chance I have to hear even a small part of the Israeli side of the story first hand. She talks to me about how growing up in Israel she was conditioned to be scared of the Arabs, to believe that they all wanted to attack and kill any Israeli, and that it took years for her to get over it, even after marrying a Palestinian and moving to the occupied territories. I have heard this from other people, but never directly from someone who grew up there. I tell her about what I’ve seen and we talk about the checkpoints, the occupation and the wall – how it seems to be an attempt to turn a whole country into a prison.
“Yes” she says, “Ramallah is nice, but it is a five star prison. Hebron is maybe a three star prison, and Gaza is a one star prison. But they are all prisons”.
I look around me, at the people bustling in and out of the cafes and shops. She is right of course. Life here may look OKish but without a permit to enter east Jerusalem they cannot cross through Qalandia to go into the city, and they certainly cannot go to the airport and leave the country. All require permits, and permits are virtually impossible to get without a very good reason. But I am not in prison, I can go and wave my UK passport like a magic card and pass through checkpoints with relative ease. Most importantly, I can get out of here any time I like.
The boys from the Mersea and the Thames and the Tyne
Eventually we tire of shopping and Neta and I go to an upstairs restaurant for some tea, where we bump into a number of other friends of hers who are also guests at the wedding. She knows a lot of people it seems. I feel somewhat foolish in retrospect actually – at the time I just assumed she was some friend of Katie’s, but upon coming back I have realized that she is actually one of the founders of the ISM, a high profile figure in Palestinian activism and also someone I have read numerous articles by on the internet when reading about Palestine before I went. Doh! Maybe, though, it’s better to meet someone that way, not knowing anything about them and just taking them as they are. To me she was just a really nice person whom I got to spend an afternoon and evening with.
So I sit there, and chat to the others round the table, including one person working with a human rights organization. One thing which I have skipped over in writing these accounts is the conversations I had with other activists I met out there. Katie once wrote in her journal that NGO’s in Palestine are like scenester bands in San Fransisco, and I now realize what she means. I had only really heard of ISM before I went, but in actuality there seem to be innumerable small organizations working out there and the first question you get asked is “which organization are you with?”. Trying to explain that I wasn’t “with” anyone per-se, I just happened to be out there visiting a friend for the weekend seemed to somewhat perplex people. They always seemed happier when I explained that my friend was with ISM, as if I didn’t quite make sense unless I could be attached to an NGO of some kind.
The west bank appears to be stuffed with internationals – including a sizable contingent of brits, to the extent that on two separate occasions I met someone who recognized me from back home. Small world. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are what you might expect them to be, young, idealistic, and enthusiastic, whereas others are he opposite, retired older people doing something they see as a good thing, with determination. All the people I had met up to this point had one thing in common though – they were volunteers. Which was why I was very interested to meet someone who was a career human rights worker for the first time, and who had worked doing the same job in other parts of the world. We talk for a while, until she says, almost as a throwaway comment when discussing something else “Yes, but I am not out here for ‘The Cause’ or anything”.
Now there’s something to stop and think about. Because, despite my statements about visiting a friend, I am also most definitely out there for The Cause, as have been all the other volunteers I have met. I try not to see anything in black and white, but despite all the shades of gray I know who’s side I am on in the overall situation. It’s so obvious to me that what’s being done is wrong that it is hard to imagine anyone seeing it and maintaining a neutral point of view. At the time it irked me a little, but now I can see a bigger picture. There are a lot of trouble spots in the world, and a lot of people suffering. If you want to go in and try and alleviate that in all those places then you can’t afford to get involved in the politics, and you can’t chose sides. It’s not about a neutral point of view, it’s about maintaining a detachment which enables you to do the work, and then get up one day and move to Sudan to do whatever is necessary there. Concentrate on the people, ignore the overall battle.
I have a lot of respect for that, because it is not something I am capable of.
Dancing and singing
Inevitably of course I end up at the wedding reception. At this point I am starting to feel a bit self conscious. I am not really dressed for a wedding; the only footwear I have is my paraclogs, and due to the lack of my luggage I have been wearing the same clothes for rather too long and have four days worth of stubble. I look like something the cat dragged in, and gatecrashing has never really been something I was comfortable with anyway. But my new found friends insist that nobody will mind, and that I look just fine.
Hence I find myself lining up with everyone else in smart shirts to shake hands with the happy couple and their relatives in the wedding line and thence to the hall where places are set with food and refreshments. Unlike an English reception everyone starts dancing immediately. I decide to remain diplomatically seated and inconspicuous. This lasts precisely as long as it takes Neta to arrive. She’s having none of my wallflower act and immediately drags me onto the dancefloor with all the rest. So I try and copy everyone else and shimmy away clicking my fingers over my head. I hope I didn’t do too badly.
In actual fact it is great fun – an awful lot more fun than a number of weddings I have been to back home. People are friendly and enthusiastic about enjoying themselves. The cake arrives and is cut with a sword whilst tow roman candles of the kind you would have outdoors in this county do their best to shower everyone with sparks a few feet from the bride and groom. The DJ relays telephone messages from absent relatives to the room, and there is a very surreal moment where the local music is replaced with some English music, presumably for the benefit of some of the guests on the grooms side, and everyone sings along to “I will survive” followed by “YMCA”. Luckily for good taste the soundtrack returns to a more middle eastern beat within a few songs.
We even have alcohol – Taybeh beer, brewed locally in Ramallah and bearing the proud boast that it is “the finest beer in the middle east”. Now I suspect that there isn’t much competition for that accolade, but I sample a bottle and it is indeed good stuff. There is also an extremely potent spirit which I forget the name of but is very similar to ouzo. The food is excellent, and the people I meet are friendly and chatty so that I lose my ‘univited guest’ complex very swiftly.
Eventually the evening winds to an end and I leave to go back to Katie’s sharing a taxi with Neta and her children. If there was ever a day of contrasts then this was it – I went from the still grimness of Tel Rumeida in the morning to the noise and happiness of the party in the evening. The latter was a good antidote for the former, and I am glad I took part in it.
This was my last night in Ramallah. The next day would be my final day in Palestine.