Thursday, 15 July 2010

Innocent Abroad

"The word Palestine always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history."

I was dreading landing at Ben-Gurion, I had heard so many different stories. The story of an American student’s laptop being shot three times actually deterred me from taking my laptop[1]. My passport had ‘Born: Kabul’ – this was enough (as I expected) for them to ask me to step aside. They took me into a side room where I waited. “Who are you staying with? Whats your father’s name? Whats your grandfather’s name? How much money do you have?”

The border control guard must have realised I was nervous.

“Are you nervous?”
“Yes, I think you’re going to send me back”
“Why should I have a reason to send you back?”
“Because I’m from Afghanistan.”

I also had a Turkish visa from my trip last year which couldn’t have helped. The border control guard was either bare-face lying or trying to comfort me (or both?) when he said “You weren’t taken aside because you were born in Afghanistan, every 5 people are randomly taken aside.” This was obviously baloney given that the flight I came in on (and I imagine most of the flights) were overwhelmingly white yet the side-room was 60% ethnic (I was surprised to actually see as many white people as I did). I was made to wait and then eventually let go. It was only after that my host told me that the border control guard told him that Shin Bet would call him. My Israeli(-Jewish) host joked that he was “on the Shin Bet grid now.”

When Israel is mentioned in the news, its painted as this military society. But despite the soldiers walking around with guns, I didn’t really get that impression. Even the female guards who were to left of where I was waiting were talking about my hair. My host told me the “biggest safety risk” was dehydration. He complained about vehicular casualties. It really wasn’t a ‘society at war’ or as La Guardia says you sense the “war Israel lives under.”[2] You don’t. It’s just like landing at Heathrow – with an extra dose of annoyance. The only time when I was reminded that there was a “war” was while I was in the Dead Sea and an Israeli F-16 flew overhead.

“And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.”[3]

On my first day, I went to Jerusalem and had the typical tourist’s tour. The tour was remarkably balanced and he recalled a story about a woman when Jordan occupied the West Bank. During 1948-1967, there was a ceasefire line that ran through the middle of Jerusalem. An old woman was looking out from west Jerusalem and her false teeth fell on to no man's land. To get back her teeth, there had to be negotiations. There were nine UN meetings to discuss this woman's teeth. Eventually, a representative of the UN went down and found her teeth in the rubble. And who says the UN isn’t useful?

In east Jerusalem it smells, its crowded and more nerve racking than Israeli security in airports. Its filled with Arabs trying to con you. Most sales start with the shop-keeper saying “It’s 200 shekels,” you walk away and you can manage to get it down to 20 shekels. I felt sorry for the tourists who wouldn’t try to haggle. I managed to buy a baby Jesus for 40 shekels, down from 150. There are people (mostly Arabs) who walk around Jerusalem who try to get you to come on a personal tour – don’t do it. They don’t know enough, they’re quiet and they charge extortionate prices.

I decided that given I could pass as a Muslim I would try to get into the Dome of the Rock compound during prayer time (I think thats why they weren’t allowing non-Muslims in). What followed was interrogation – more than Israeli passport control. “Are you a Muslim?” I had debated with myself whether I should lie to get in. I finally decided that I would – “Yes.” He then rather quickly said “Show me your passport.. So you’re from Afghanistan? And you’re a Muslim?” I said yes again. “Say something in Arabic” – I said the only thing I knew (aside from ‘Khaybar al Yahud’ [Slaughter the Jews] and ‘Allahu akbar’): “Bismillah ira-ach mana raheem. layla illah-lah mahummad-a rasu-lala”

This wasn’t enough: “Now say a Surah from the Quran” – I didn’t know anything like that. I knew English translation of certain passages but that wouldn’t fly. “Every Muslim can say one..” He then proceeded to recite one to me. “And you are a Muslim?” for the third time. I said yes again and he finally let me in.

They were holding a rally inside the compound. I kept hearing ‘Al Aqsa’ and when I asked someone what it was about, he said in broken in English “Because.. of Al Aqsa.” I usually don’t really think much of children playing with toy-guns but when I saw the Arab children running around with them I had an awry feeling. I was approached several times by groups of boys (apparently still stuck in the 90s where they would walk around trying to impress people) “Are you a Muslim?.” It must have been what I was wearing; shorts and a shirt. I may have also been confused for a Sephardi Jew (my host said I really looked like a Yemenite Jew).

I decided to leave – it wasn’t very welcoming being questioned every 30 seconds and the rally seemed to be filled with anger. I was reminded of Fairuz’s poem: “This House is Ours.. Jerusalem is Ours.[4] On the way out, again I was asked if I was a Muslim. “Are you carrying a weapon?.. Let me see your bag.” I had only just remembered that I had bought a model of a baby Jesus for a friend and it was in the bag. I was shit scared. Whether they would have done anything, I have no idea – but it would suggest I was lying about being a Muslim. Luckily he didn’t check inside the plastic bag.

Pilgrims, sinners and Arabs are all abed, now, and the camp is still.

During my stay I went on a tour with Breaking the Silence (an Israeli NGO which takes testimonies from IDF soldiers – usually describing abhorrent behaviour.) They took us on a tour of the Hebron Hills. The guide was quite partisan and he told a few falsehoods. As we were driving down Road 60 he said that Palestinians weren’t allowed to use the road – but as we were driving, there were Palestinians with their donkeys using the road.[5] I hope others saw this. We were taken to several Palestinian villages (where we spoke to the villagers) and shown Jewish settlements. Palestinian villages are really just collection of tents. They are harassed by both soldiers and the minority-ideological settlers – the extent this happens is hard to tell. The settlers also, according to Breaking the Silence, falsely accuse the Palestinians of being violent (whether this is true is also hard to discern).

We walked to edge of Lucifer’s Farm – land which Yaakov Talya essentially stole. His farm is named aptly. Talya was a South African who converted to Judaism after the Apartheid regime ended. He used Ottoman laws which stated that farming land which wasn’t used for 7 years could be claimed by those who worked on it. The farm is really owned by Palestinians who travelled to the farm only during certain parts of the year. So Talya took the farm and patrolled “his” land for 7 years to insure that no Palestinian entered for 7 years.

On the way back, an Israeli soldier asked if he could hitchhike with us. “He must not know who we are” the guide joked. Someone asked the tour guide about what he personally thought of Zionism; “Zionism is racism.. there was a resolution passed in the 1970s which said exactly this and its right” – he omitted that this has since been repealed. To his credit, he did seem to argue against the pro-Palestinian activists on the tour; “No, the wall has helped... Israel is a democracy, its why I am able to do this.. We don’t get threats.”

I also went to an Israeli NGO which in contrast had a pro-Israel agenda. NGO Monitor does what it says on the label. I met with one of their researchers, Naftali Balanson. “I want you to find what the Rachel Corrie Foundation is doing that isn’t on their website” he said to one of his workers. We then had a lengthy discussion about NGOs and whether they had political bias. The discussion didn’t yield any new information I wasn’t aware of but was interesting nonetheless.

On the way to NGO Monitor, I met a taxi-driver of Afghan descent. “My mother is from Herat... You know there are only two Jews in Afghanistan now?” I told him that one of them had died and he seemed a little upset. He pointed at a bar in Jerusalem “You know here, Arab came and blew himself up? Very bad.” In another taxi ride, I had a Palestinian driver. I decided to play dumb and ask him what he thought should happen to Jerusalem. “They cannot divide it.. it must be one.. So should the whole of Palestine.. Not like Fatah, like Hamas.” Continuing my act, “Don’t Hamas hate Jews?” He replied “No.. this is not religious.. they just want them to give back Palestine.”

“We don’t have horns, you know”

Most Israelis speak English which meant I didn’t really have to pick up any Hebrew. I didn’t experience any animosity but hospitality. While I was walking in Jerusalem, I got lost and asked a soldier for help. He and his girlfriend walked with me for 20 minutes and then decided to drive me to the station. He had just returned from his service on the Jordanian border. He must have thought that I was thinking he was a murderer or something because he said “We don’t have horns, you know.”

Speaking generally, Israelis are just like us: Westerners. My host told me that Israelis didn’t want war, “Fuck Lebanon, we don't want war. There is just no reason." He then went on to tell me about one of his experiences in the 2006 war in Lebanon. He works as a meteorologist for the IDF and he was just by the border marking points for fire. He did this for 34 days straight. During this time, he and his comrades became frustrated – with the heat, the bad food and the way the war was going. Instead of deserting the IDF (which my friend definitely wouldn't want), they decided they wanted pizza. They went to a village in northern Israel which wasn't far from the border. The village was empty because the people had fled because of incoming missiles. It should really have been a sign because his unit was then bombarded with missiles. They drove away as fast as they could but managed to stop by a shop– the owner seemed to be the only person around. By chance, pizza was available. "Here, just take it and get out of here"

Returning from Tiberias and the West Bank, there was a lot of traffic. Gilad Schalit’s family had organised a 10,000-strong protest on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Graffiti in Tel Aviv read “Free Gilad” and banners were everywhere. An apartment below the one I was staying in had a sticker which had a vector of Gilad. I didn’t hear much about the 8,000 Palestinians being held in Israel.

The state of Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is like a completely different place to the rest of the country. The streets are filled on the Sabbath. Israeli soldiers walk around with their guns – for me, it made me feel safer. Soldiers were of multiple creeds – Ethiopians, Druze, Ashkenzai, Sephardi. The streets outside the Central Bus station were filled with black people. When crossing the road, cars may still come at you because in some places a green man means that you are given a priority, not a monopoly over the road. This means you may shit yourself on the road a couple of times.

Walking on the coastline is so picturesque that I didn’t really believe a photo would do it justice. There are memorials in several places. Outside a bar on the coast where a suicide bomber killed 19 people there is a memorial which speaks of a “bloody attack by terrorists.” There is also a set of huge stones which document the ships that arrived in the 40s from Europe filled with Jews.

The road which follows the beach has two flags on every lamp-post. I wasn’t surprised at this manifestation of nationalism but it did create quite the contrast to London. In the residential streets, there were far fewer flags hanging from the windows. My host told me that they were mostly left behind from Independence Day. Because of Tel Aviv's exceptionalism, its called 'the state of Tel Aviv'. Its rare to see an orthodox Jew. When I was in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, I wanted to take a picture of them. As I raised my camera, they all ducked and covered their faces and went around me. My host told that he and his girlfriend were walking and an orthodox Jew covering his eyes walked passed. The settlers in Hebron are worse - they throw rocks at those who they consider friendly to the Palestinians.

The University of Hummus

After who started the Six Day War, where the best hummus is in the Levant is the biggest debate in Israel. Israelis take it really and ridiculously seriously. The Lonely Planet guide talks about a place which has the 'hummus to end all hummus''. I asked my host where he thought the best hummus was in Israel and he said "Hummus is like a philosophy... There are different schools of hummus." When I and said I had had the best hummus in Jerusalem according the guide he scoffed - "What do they know? They probably never had decent hummus in their life."

I went to Jaffa because the guide said it was the best hummus in all of Israel. It was in the middle of nowhere but as I turned the corner there was a huge queue. A man from Ariel (a settlement in the West Bank) which is around 2 hour drive from Jaffa was waiting as well. I don't remember how but we started talking. He told me that he drives down to Jaffa every 2-3 weeks to buy hummus from that hummus place (Ali Caravan). He asked me where I was from. I told him that I'm from London and then he looked away in disgust. I thought he doubted I was from London so I asked him why. "They have fake hummus in London." He managed to get me a seat (the line was so large that 20-30 people were waiting for a table). It was the best hummus, I would drive 2 hours for it.


Back at Ben-Gurion I was approached by a female official. She looked at my passport. “You will have to follow us.. we think you may be used to put a bomb on the plane.” I think she was a bit insulted that I wasn’t surprised and seemed more interested in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. She then put a sticker with the number 6 on my passport and baggage. I knew what this meant after having read the following at Mondoweiss a couple of months a go;

“1” is awesome, “6” is you’re fucked. 1 is reserved for white Jewish Israelis, 2 is for white Jewish non-Israelis and friendly internationals, 3 is a suspicious Israeli or international, 4 is sometimes given to non-white Israelis, 5 is for Arab Israelis or questionable internationals, and 6 is for Palestinians, Muslims, and hostile internationals.[7]

They searched my bag and then patted me down. And that was it. I was led to the gate by an official. Again, playing dumb I wanted to know more “Is this a 9 or a 6?” – He replied: “It’s a 6 – its a lucky number” I didn’t have to have my hand luggage checked, “See, I told you it was lucky.”

On the plane ride over, around 2 hours in a group of Orthodox Jews went to the front of the plane huddled in a corner and started humming and moving back and forth – praying. If these people were doing this under any other name they would be classed as insane. I arrived in London and appreciated that it took 2 minutes to get through passport control. It confirmed that I was home and that I was ‘one of them’.

And then I just chundered everywhere.


Mark said...

Awesome story! Good job!

Anonymous said...

Great story.

Michael W. said...

Love this post!

-First time reader

Anonymous said...

Hm, I was white 100% non-jewish & non-israeli, and they gave me No 1.
Questioning was very long & iritating - but secured me fantastic seat in overcrowded airplane, though :-)