Saturday, 31 December 2011


I was eating my breakfast and suddenly noticed something strange. Over by the separation wall, 400 yards away over the valley, about sixty people were weaving their way along, following the course of the wall on our side. Where the wall ends, just below the settlement outpost of Givat HaGadan, the cut up to the road by the outpost. They weren’t soldiers – they were hikers of some sort. Out came my camera on full telephoto.

I couldn’t tell whether they were Israelis on a gloat tour – sometimes they come to espy the land in the valley, possibly to size up what they might hope to be the next land-acquisition – or whether they were Europeans on a conflict tour – groups touring Palestine to visit the conflict hotspots. Either way, they had a purpose, for if you wanted a pleasant hike you’d walk somewhere else, such as along the top of the hill. The only non-political reason for walking alongside the wall would be lizard- or ant-spotting, since the area adjacent to the wall serves only as an unintended nature reserve. This world, and this Holy Land, is run mostly according to the law of unintended consequences, if only we could acknowledge it.

Just a few weeks ago, the land just over the wall from the school was designated for settlement-expansion – houses will presumably be built in the next couple of years. Our land on this side of the wall is, I suspect, next on the list. This, I think, is one of the reasons the wall has not been completed over the valley, in order not to fix the border. Though, some years ago, the Israeli government stated that the wall would not constitute a border – I guess they really meant they intended Palestine not to exist as a nation – it does establish facts on the ground, no matter what the international community might say about its legality or acceptability. But then the Israelis aren’t exempt from the law of unintended consequences either.

Anyway, I didn’t have time to pursue the matter further, and perhaps it was harmless. Ismael was coming to pick me up at 9.30. I was on my way to the village of Al Aqabah in the northern West Bank, and it would be a three hour journey, inshallah. But first I had to go into Bethlehem to confront a classic problem. More unintended consequences!

I had asked for an embroidered coat to be made for me and the price had sky-rocketed. I had anticipated this and set a price above which I was not prepared to go. The shopkeeper arranging it with two ladies living in a village close to his own, south of Bethlehem, had rung me to ask for a second down-payment to help the ladies pay their bills. Okay, fair enough. Then he added in passing that the price had nearly doubled. He insisted that very special work was being done, and the ladies were working very hard. Well, okay, that might be true but I wasn’t happy about this and told him so, in my firmly diplomatic way. I didn’t want to sour or stall the project, but I needed to speak my truth. He didn’t get it. It was a delicate situation: one must never cause shame in a Palestinian. I needed to speak to him about it some more.

This highlights a classic Palestinian problem in interacting with the rest of the world. The idea of working to an arrangement and to a budget is alien to them. What they tend to believe is that, if they do a good job, the buyer is almost honour-bound to pay for it – not least if they’re a ‘rich Westerner’. What matters to Westerners is to make an arrangement and stick to it – or to negotiate in advance if there is to be a change. I had been clear with him but he hadn’t understood. He didn’t want to understand. Westerners are walking ATMs, and it’s the deservingness of Palestinians which matters most. Well, the problem is that this kills future business, and Palestinians then wonder why Westerners give up and walk away.

I arrived in town and my friend the shopkeeper wasn’t there – his brother was standing in for him. I presented my case carefully and he looked unsettled, defensive. I had to turn the tables round, to help him understand. “Look”, I said, “If you order a Volkswagen for a certain price and the man comes along with a Mercedes at double the price, telling you it’s a better car and you’d better pay for it even though you don’t want it, you won’t be happy, will you?”. He got the point. I spoke on the phone to his brother the shopkeeper. He understood, but I have a feeling it’s too late. This is going to be an expensive culture-clash. I’m hoping the coat will end up being worth it.

Off to the north. I walked through Bethlehem’s Christian Quarter to the service (pronounced ‘serrveese’) taxi station and took a service to Ramallah. Off we went along the dramatic main road to Ramallah, swirling, dipping and rising along through the Judaean hills and valleys for an hour. Ramallah means ‘Hill of God’, though frankly this town is probably the most profane of all Palestinian towns, being the PA capital and the main sink-hole for foreign funding and influence.

Nevertheless, when I got out the Friday prayers were in full swing, with a full-scale sermon going on in the nearby mosque, which was packed out. Hundreds of men were crowded around in the streets outside too, listening to the sermon blasting out over the town through the mosque’s loud speakers. It’s moving to see hundreds of men in the street praying together, and listening intently to the sermon. I’d have loved to have photographed them, but there are some things it is disrespectful to photograph, so I didn’t.

Eventually I found a service to Nablus, ready to go. I sat in the wrong seat. A service taxi has two front seats, one of them for the driver, then a middle and a back row of seats for three people each, and the guy in the middle row by the sliding door has to get out every time someone else wants to get in or out. The seat I was sitting on pulled up to let people out from the back row. Oh well, good exercise, and I performed it at As Suwaya, Huwwara and two spots in Nablus.

The scenery north of Ramallah – the region called Samaria by Israelis – is lovely, and this time of year it is relatively green. The hills are high, the valleys deep, and the ancient terracing on the hillsides speaks of centuries of occupation and farming. I can see why the Israelis want Samaria – not only do they see it as a Jewish heartland from 2-3 millennia ago, but it is far more scenic and lovable than lowland ‘Israel proper’, which is relatively flat, urbanised and unexciting. Except Samaria is the Palestinians’ home, and they still form the majority there.

The road winds and pitches tortuously along the valley-sides, and service-taxi drivers cannonade along in a most freestyle and artistic manner – they’re good drivers though. The taxis are powerful six-gear VW vans. When they’re driving along mixed Israeli-Palestinian roads they scare the hell out of some Israeli drivers – the conflict doesn’t always go in Israelis’ favour!

I had learned something from Aisha about these drivers a week ago: I had always wondered why most of these guys seemed to be around the same age, in their early forties. Her answer was that most of them were students around the time of the first intifada twenty-plus years ago. Their universities were closed by the Israelis (as hotbeds of revolt) and many of them got jobs in the then new business of service-taxi driving. As time went on they stayed in the trade – it’s a bit like being a boat skipper in a maritime nation, with some kudos attached. They get you to your destination fast too.

In an hour we arrived in Nablus. I was on my way to meet Morgan, the American who had visited me at the school just before Christmas, at Al Aqabah, where she works. I rang her from Nablus to check out the details of getting from Tubas to Al Aqaba. “I’m in Ramallah!”. “Aha.” “We’re coming up soon!” “Oh yeah? Who’s we?” “I’ve got some people who are couch-surfing at Al Aqabah tonight.” “Okay, so shall I wait for you in Nablus?” “Yeah, okay – see you soon!”.

So I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Nablus. I’ve never been here before, though the place has always tugged at me. It was founded as Neapolis in Roman times just west of an ancient Samaritan village, located in a deep valley between two ancient holy mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. The town is long and thin, with a population of 130,000.

Today’s city is less prosperous than Ramallah and Bethlehem, not least because it is frequently blockaded and roadblocked by Israel. Though religious Israelis claim it as an ancient Jewish birthright, there is no evidence of early Jewish settlement there – if anything it is historically more important to Christians, though few Christians now live there. Jews and Samaritans were quite numerous a thousand years ago.

However, Jews claim it as the site of the ancient Jewish city of Shechem, and two sites, Joseph’s Tomb and Jacob’s Well, crop up periodically in the news when army-backed settlers enter in coaches, officially to make their prayers. There’s a provocative aspect to it, including desecration of mosques. Perhaps this is retaliatory, since Nablus was a centre for militant actions in the second intifada, during which 522 residents were killed and 3,000 injured. In the last municipal elections in 2005, 13 out of 15 representatives were from Hamas, and only two from Fatah.

Nablus is quite unpretentious – it reminds me of Swansea in Wales – and it receives few foreign visitors. Yet its valley location, with buildings clinging to the edge of the mountains, makes it special, a city to remember and rather pleasantly unmodernised. One rather nice aspect of it is that foreigners are treated as objects of friendly surprise rather than as walking ATMs.

There’s a lovely Ottoman old city in the centre of town. I love Ottoman architecture. They were big developers, the Ottomans, whose 300 year rule ended during the First World War. What’s so nice about Ottoman urban areas is that they’re human-size, built for pedestrians. They have lovely arches, domes, courtyards, alleyways, buildings, nooks and crannies.

So I wandered around Nablus taking photos, having some food and enjoying the ambience of the place – helped partially by its being Friday (the equivalent of Sunday in the West). Then I rolled along to the service taxi station for services heading north, bought some Arabic sweets (small, sticky cakes) to take to Al Aqabah, went to a coffee stall where I received a lecture from the man about how bad Britain is – though he accepted that this was one reason I was here sitting with him in Nablus – and finally I sat at the bus station watching doves and waiting for Morgan & Co to arrive from Ramallah.

When they came we didn’t have to wait for the service taxi to fill up because we filled it! Morgan had four people with her, and the driver’s friend and I made a full complement. So off we went, screeching along the winding roads through the inspiring landscape of the northern West Bank, this time to Tubas. When we got there the driver asked where we were going and agreed to take us there for an extra five shekels each, and there we came. Al Aqaba is in inspiring hill landscape with a big gap to the east, where the land falls away into the Jordan valley, the lowest place on Earth.

Photo by Morgan (not in the picture)
We met the mayor of the village, Hajj Sami, a staunch campaigner if ever there was one – he’s in a wheelchair after having been shot in 1971, when he was young – and we had dinner with him. At least, the others did – it was chicken and rice. The usual looks of horror appeared on villagers’ faces when Morgan said I was vegetarian. I ended up eating just rice and salad. Well, I’m used to it.

I spent the evening with five lovely twentysomethings from Chile, Switzerland, USA, England and the Czech Republic, chattering, watching videos and playing cards. We watched an instructive video about Jews’ perception of anti-Semitism, called Defamation, by an Israeli called Yoav Shamir. To me, the most important statement in the video was an observation by a Jewish lady who definitely felt the world was against her and other Jews: she said that, since the Jews had suffered so much, the suffering of others was of less consequence. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Unfortunately, contrary to this lady’s belief, it justifies nothing in terms of the way Israelis now treat Palestinians.

More pictures of Nablus

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Christ Mass

The Nativity Church, Beit Lahem
The day following the trip to Hebron, Morgan went home and Aisha and I went into Bethlehem. The town was crowded, mostly with Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, who come from around the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel, but also with a much larger number of foreigners than usual. Eventually 100,000 visitors hit Bethlehem by Christmas Eve, the largest turnout for at least a decade.

We went to the Nativity Church but it was packed with visitors and we didn’t stay long. There are two halves to the church, Orthodox and Catholic, and the place was crowded mainly with Italians, flashing their cameras and forming long queues to visit the shrines. We didn’t stay long. I don’t think Jesus would have done so either – though I can’t really speak for him. I reflected on the strange fact that, whenever I come to this church, I seem to be brought here by Muslims.

Aisha had to go home to Ramallah, so we had hummus and falafel at a friend’s cafe and then trogged up through the Old Town to Bab-al-Sqaq where she caught the 21 bus to Jerusalem. She was trying out this route because, though it requires passing through two major checkpoints near Bethlehem and Ramallah, it’s shorter and cheaper than going along the circuitous Palestinian main route around Jerusalem, staying within the West Bank.

I walked back as darkness fell toward Manger Square, taking photos and chatting with people. The square was heaving by now, with people streaming in from all directions. I spent much of the time with an enterprising young coffee seller, Mahmoud, who places his big charcoal-fired coffee pot on a concrete pedestal and does a roaring trade, selling coffee for a shekel (20p). We have an ongoing dialogue, and he likes his pet Englishman – except that I don’t support Real Madrid, but no one is perfect. I somehow doubt that Jesus supports Real Madrid either, or Barcelona for that matter, and told him so. “Ah, but Mohammed the Prophet supports Madrid!”, he joked.

Bethlehem has many beautiful mothers with even more beautiful kids!
And this guy is probably a father of at least six children
Here come de sheikh... Sheikh Yabuti?
O Little Town of Bethlehem

Soon a weird and very loud concert cranked up, by an Indonesian Christian rock band. The concert was sponsored by an Indonesian evangelical foundation. I heard the best rendering of the Lord’s Prayer that I have ever heard, quite tastefully done. One of them gave a lovely rap about harmony between Christians and Muslims, and everyone cheered, even though there was an embarrassing moment when he asked Christians, then Muslims, to stick up their hands, and the Muslims outnumbered the Christians by three to one – oops!

Before long I had had enough of harking the herald angels, soon degenerating into Santa and sleighbell songs, even though the music was rocking and rolling with vigour and aplomb, Indonesian style. Do Indonesians, or Palestinians for that matter, actually know what sleighbells are? I took refuge at my friend Alaa ad-Din’s shop, sitting people-watching as the endless crowds streamed down the narrow street. An old taxi-driver I knew drove past and I asked him to return in twenty minutes to pick me up.

I’ve never been one for Christmas – usually I go quiet and into retreat. This year I have felt more sociable about it but, suddenly, I realised that Bethlehem was becoming a nightmare. Why, in this source-point of the Christmas tradition, do they have to import all the Santa razzmatazz, all the commercial crap that has so ruined the spirit of Christmas, burying peace and goodwill under a mountain of consumptive blindness and artifice? After all, this is Bethlehem, the home of Christmas – it doesn’t need to import anything, and in fact it should set the tone. When I had mentioned this to Aisha, she had said I was welcome to come to Ramallah to escape. Suddenly I knew I was going to Ramallah tomorrow, on Christmas Eve.

The taximan never came. After an hour of waiting – allowing for Palestine Inshallah Time – I waved goodbye to my friends at the shop, who were duly worried that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I was just fine. In truth, if they stopped deluding themselves, most people in these crowds didn’t seem too happy to me either. But then, as someone aptly wrote recently, if you live inside a myth it looks like reality – though the gentleman in question was referring to the growth-economics of recent decades. Yet this rendering of Christmas, in my judgement, has more to do with growth-economics than Jesus, peace and goodwill. Or perhaps I’m just being Scrooge-like and grumpy?

It took a while to find a taxi, and then we had to weave around backstreets dodging the traffic-jams. People were nominally enjoying Christmas perhaps because they felt they had to, but really, something else was happening. It’s tragic too that the majority of people here were Muslims. This in itself isn’t a problem – it’s a blessing, saving the Christmas celebrations from moribund decline. What’s sad is that the Christian presence is so thin. Most of Bethlehem’s and Palestine’s Christians have emigrated.

I had an image of Jesus coming down the street ranting at the desecration of his memory, vaulting onto the stage in Manger Square to unplug the amplifiers and tell the privileged visitors in their allocated seats in front of the stage to yield them up to the poor and needy. Or perhaps just to go home and get on with the job of building Heaven on Earth and acting on His teachings. I’m sure there are spiritual moments for many people here, when they contemplate the tender meaning of the Christ Mass, of the shepherds who came up from Beit Sahour to see the newborn babe and of the Holy Mother and Child, but this… this is something else. I was glad to get out.

So, to all my dear readers, my apologies for omitting to give you a warm and toasty image of Christmas in Bethlehem! I’m sure it has its finer side, and it certainly puts this walled-in city on the world map, at least for a few days each year. It’s good to make a bit of a fuss about peace and goodwill, but why don’t we do this all year?

Next day I pottered around the apartment tidying up and exercising my fingers on my computer keyboard, then I rang Ismael and left with him for the service-taxi station, to go to Ramallah. Ismael was a happy man – his son Tareq had just been released early from jail, thanks to Hamas’ clever politics in exchanging a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one woe-begotten Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. This says something about Hamas’ strategy: they doggedly hold out for their principles without budging an inch, and this time it worked. Israel, which desperately believes Hamas is a bunch of terrorists, did the deal and paid the price. Ismael’s son was free.

Ismael had driven with his wife to the prison near Ramallah to meet him, but the Israelis kept everyone waiting until late into the night, to prevent an outburst of celebration and protest – though it hadn’t worked. There had been a near-riot outside the jail, and Ismael and his wife had beaten a retreat until things calmed down. Ismael is a respectable gentleman, by profession a surveyor but now redundant and a taxi-driver, and quite poor. But they found Tareq and brought him home at last. Their house had since then been busy for some days as people came by to congratulate the son and family, bringing gifts and partying. Released prisoners are heroes in Palestine. Tareq had been jailed for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who were raiding Deheisheh refugee camp, themselves breaking the rules of the Oslo Accords. But of course, Israelis always have to be right, and Palestinians, the UN and much of the rest of the world is wrong, so that’s that.

Ismael is trying to get Tareq into Abu Dis university. But he’s worried because the jail term has delayed his son’s entry into university, meaning that one of his daughters has reached the age for university too. He can’t afford to pay for both of them. This is deeply vexing to him, because Palestinians value education very highly. A while ago I had given Ismael 400 shekels toward the 8,000 shekel (£1,600 or $2,000) fine he would have to pay for his son on release in about nine months’ time, except the Hamas deal had cut this short and saved the fine, so I told him to put it in Tareq’s self-help fund. He was so grateful, it was touching, and we both cried a few tears together.

Bethlehem was choked with traffic. The place was crawling with armed security men too because Abu Mazen, the president, and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, were on their way here to deliver annual Christmas speeches – a tradition started by Yasser Arafat. There were loads of big SUVs everywhere, the cars of privileged members of the PA hierarchy – people who have got rich from the Western and Gulf subsidies that support this nation. Unfortunately these subsidies support the hierarchy more than the nation. There’s no crime in Palestine except for this.

Eventually we reached the service-taxi station. I bundled into a van and we were soon off, down through Beit Sahour and onto the main trunk road northwards. Most of the traffic was coming the other way – not least the armed motorcade of the president and prime minister, with flashing blue lights and a swarm of big motorbikes out in front and in the rear.

This is a trunk road not because of its quality – in British terms it’s a bumpy old ‘B’ road – but because it’s the only road from the southern to the northern West Bank, from Bethlehem to Ramallah, avoiding Israeli controls. Most Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel proper or Jerusalem, which would be the shortest route – 25km instead of 70km – so they have to go round Jerusalem along this convoluted mountain route.

Looking over toward East Jerusalem
This road is dramatic, a tremendous ride. At first it weaves along the top of the limestone plateaux east and north of Bethlehem, where there’s a view down into a deep valley and then, on the other side, high up, the walled-off outskirts of East Jerusalem. This is vivid enough in itself, but then it suddenly plunges dramatically 1,000ft (300m) down a steep switchback into Wadi Nar, the Valley of Fire, where it changes from a winding old road into a new USAid-modernised dual carriageway heading north to Abu Dis and Al Azariyah, through more wild semi-desert mountain landscape, and winding tortuously through Wadi Nar until it eventually joins the Israeli east-west Route 1 from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the King Hussein Bridge and Jordan. This is a full-scale modern dual carriageway, financed in the 1990s by the Japanese government as a peace road linking Jerusalem and Amman – except peace never came. As far as I know the Japanese never asked for their money back.

The new road along Wadi Nar
We cannonaded down this road, past the Ma’ale Adumim Israeli settlement, perched on a hilltop to the right, then we turned left toward Ramallah. More dramatic landscape, and a few impoverished Bedouin shack-villages. This certainly is a memorable trip, this road. It weaves around hither and thither, and the service-taxi drivers do it at breakneck speed – mercifully they seem to be good drivers. Eventually we reached Ramallah – and it suddenly started raining! This was the first rain for over a month. It was tipping down. I waited to meet Aisha at Manara Circle, the centre of town – a funny bi-directional roundabout with a monument in the middle, dating back to British Mandate times. The British used to come here to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy themselves – rather like a hill-station in the Indian Raj.

Aisha took me to a Latin (Catholic) church for the Christ Mass. It’s the first time I’ve been to a church service for, er, well, must be over a decade, heathen that I am. The service was in Arabic and the church was packed. I floated off into another world, standing up and sitting down when required, looking as if I knew what I was doing. I had been in rather an altered, spaced-out state during the day – I think my ET angels are probably operating on my psyche – so it was rather nice to let myself drift along with the choral singing.

Again, I had been taken to a church by a Muslim. I didn’t understand a word of the sermon, but the priest, dressed in white robes with lovely embroidery on it, spoke quite clearly and slowly – useful to listen to, picking up Arabic words I’m beginning to recognise. I hadn’t realised until now that Christians also use the term ‘Allah’ in Arabic. But then, he’s the One God, so why shouldn’t they? For your interest, Allah means ‘The God’ – it has a slightly different nuance to the Western personalisation of ‘God’ as a name, while the Arabic term is a noun.

We emerged from the church into the pouring rain, dodging torrents of water, and found a taxi to take us to the village outside town where Aisha and her husband Ahmed live. He’s a web-designer and film-maker, and we had lots to chatter about. They’re moving to England in a few months’ time to work and study (inshallah, if the British do the right thing with his visa, at a cost of £800). Ahmed likes the relatively high educational and intellectual standards of the English. The idea of living in London gives me a sinking feeling, but they’re excited about it. Perhaps I’m just a provincial country bumpkin with moss in what’s left of my brains.

Next morning, Christmas Day, I sat writing my blog – I was falling behind – while Aisha went out and Ahmed updated websites. It was raining hard – not a day for sightseeing or footling around outside. It was a slow, do-nothing-much day. The calling to prayers at the local mosque was particularly tuneful – though Aisha later told me that, unlike Bethlehem where it is sung by live singers and therefore quite variable in quality, this was pre-recorded by star muezzin from Mecca or Medina, and subsidised by Saudi sheikhs. Then we had a chat and a late lunch, and I bade them farewell to return to Bethlehem. I was still feeling rather wobbly inside, and wanted to get home to be in my own space.

At the service-taxi station I had to wait some time for the taxi to fill up – it has space for eight passengers. The driver thought I was German, but when I told him in German that I wasn’t, and came from Britaniyya, he didn’t understand, so I stuttered it in Arabic. He was fascinated when I stood outside smoking my pipe – around here, the only pipe-smokers are wizened old Bedouin out in the hills. Eventually people came and we started out.

The fatal switchback above Wadi Nar
It was still swilling down with rain and progress was slow. Palestinian roads aren’t built for handling rain, so there were massive pools and floods around, and we had some great moments of aquaplaning. Heavy rain in a desert landscape is quite paradoxical. When eventually we reached the steep, winding switchback at the far end of Wadi Nar there was a big traffic jam. People had ground to a halt on the 1-in-3 hill and, the road being covered with a film of rubber and oil from the customarily hot weather, they couldn’t get up. Neither could they back down because of the traffic jam behind them. But Palestinians are good at crises, and it sorted itself out in due course.

When we reached Bethlehem the taxi-station was closed. Since it was still bucketing down the passengers nagged the driver to take them up toward Manger Square, which he duly did, and we tipped out into the monsoon, running everywhichway. By now I was not just wobbly and vulnerable but cold and wet too and, being a thin pile of bones with a few hairs growing on top, I decided to run for the nearest shelter to ring Ismael, to ask him to come and rescue me. The nearest shelter was a coffee bar called – wait for it – Stars and Bucks, a Palestinian chain that has taken the name to dig Starbucks in the ribs for avoiding setting up in Palestine. Some global corporations (such as Coca Cola, Wall’s ice cream or Nestle) come to Palestine and others don’t, and the Palestinians do their best to let the latter know they’re getting things wrong. So it looks like Starbucks has lost its chance for business in Palestine – though they probably don’t care.

Whatever, Stars and Bucks had a heater on and served a good cup of tea, and I waited for Ismael. The guys there interviewed me about what I am doing in Palestine: Palestinians are so interested in foreigners, especially the ones who stay a long time and return repeatedly. The usual questions came about my family, my (non-existent) wife, the customary expression of surprise when I said I had grandchildren (to them I look young), the questions about my work, where I was staying, and then the riveted attention watching me lighting my pipe.

Ismael arrived at last and off we went, weaving around the Old Town, slowing for the virulent speed-bumps, stopping at a shop to get a few provisions and then water-skiing back to Al Khader. I promised to come to visit his son soon. We waved goodbye. Ismael and I are getting like brothers of the soul – he looks my age but he’s ten years younger. I’ll miss him when I go back to Britain, since it’s so good having someone who thinks of me and rings me up regularly to make sure I’m alright. He also knows that, as an old revolutionary and dissident who has had his own problems with police and authorities, I understand his son and I have a few survival secrets to share with him.

The apartment was quiet and cold but, once I’d had a bite to eat and a cuppa, I put my hot water bottle on my lap and wrapped a big blanket around myself, finished and uploaded my blog about Hebron, processed my latest photos, did a few e-mails, did my meditation and then staggered off to bed.

Next day was quiet and I didn’t even change out of my jalabiya – a long, flowing, dark red robe with gold embroidery. This means I’m off-duty. This is what Ibrahim Issa needs to learn – how to be decidedly off-duty and unavailable. I found out that, while in Germany, he had had heart problems, and again on Christmas Day after his return he was in hospital. He has worked and shouldered too many worries and responsibilities for far too long, and now his soul is telling him to stop. He came round today and I hugged him. He had a troubled look. Yet he’s getting the message. He doesn’t know what to do about it yet. The trouble is, people turn to him for answers and he never says No. But he must, or Allah will take him away.

Ibrahim Issa - currently a disheartened visionary
I told him that it’s no longer a question of whether he should either pull back from his duties or resign. It’s now a question simply of how and when, and he has little choice. I said that the universe holds back with solutions until we’re 100% clear about what we need to do. It does this to oblige us to get to 100%, without reservations. But once we get there, once we make the commitment, the solutions come. He understood. Bless him: Ibrahim is a hero, an altruist Piscean who now must attend to his own interests, or die. I told him I’d stand by him, whatever happened. He went away feeling a tad lighter. Hope flowers even in the darkest of times. The name Ibrahim Issa means 'Abraham Jesus'.

So much for Christmas. Next comes 2012.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Visiting Abraham the Patriarch again

To me, this picture pretty much sums up the situation in Hebron
All the service taxis were full. We were standing on the main road at Al Khader, trying to wave one down for a ride to Hebron, 25km away. But service taxis wait in Bethlehem until they are full and then set off so, of course, they were full! Eventually a guy in a car stopped and gave us a lift. But he had a motive. I was standing there with a fanciable blond.

He saw a marriage opportunity in my friend Morgan and, while travelling along Route 60 toward Hebron he tried her out, asking her hand in marriage, in Arabic – she speaks better Arabic than me – but he was polite with it. She’s used to it, but I guess she must be fed up with it. To many Palestinian males, marrying a woman from Amrika, Britaniyya or Allemanni means a passport to heaven, where they can get rich and feel free. I try to disabuse them of this belief, but they don’t want to know – anywhere must be better than here!

Morgan is a young American who lives in a village called Al Aqaba, near Tubas in the northern West Bank. She has been teaching English there and has evolved a plan, with the village mayor, to develop the village guesthouse to welcome guests and parties from abroad so that they can have a genuine Palestinian village experience. It’s a noble plan. She had outlined it at a meeting at Beit Jala of the Center for Emerging Futures, where we had met more than a month ago, and a load of us are going to go up to Al Aqaba soon to act as an inaugural group – and we’re promised a shadow-puppet show!

We were off to Hebron. Morgan had never been there and I felt it was time to visit my old friend Ibrahim the Patriarch (Abraham), father to the Arab and Jewish peoples, who lies in his tomb in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron – Islam’s fourth holiest place. Eventually we arrived in Hebron, Morgan remaining thankfully unmarried, and we walked the streets down toward the souk, the old centre of town.

Hebron is the West Bank’s largest city. A full-scale city it indeed is, friendly and bustling. Historically it has been a great trading city, where in ancient and medieval times traders from Egypt and Arabia met with traders from Mesopotamia and the Levant – but nowadays it is relatively isolated because of the appearance of Israel 60 years ago, and the subsequent forced insulation from the surrounding countries, as well as the insulation of the West Bank within Israel. But Hebron still bustles – it’s the West Bank’s main industrial and business city, where they do engineering, glass-blowing, food-processing, crafts, textiles and ceramics.

We stopped for a falafel sandwich at a cafe, a very friendly one but certainly not complying with British-style health and safety regulations – though the payoff was that our meal cost less than most British cafes would charge for a mere cup of tea. Then we headed off down into the souk. This is an edgy, tragic place, the historic heart of the city, now besieged by soldier-protected settlers of a particularly aggressive kind, notorious amongst Palestinians.

Jews lived in harmony with Arabs in Hebron for centuries. They eventually were moved out by the British following a massacre in 1929 which arose partially from Britain’s own colonial policies. In Jerusalem there had been a bloody dispute over access by Jews to the Western (Wailing) Wall in which people on both sides were killed. This unrest overspilled to Hebron, where 67 Jews were killed – though another thousand Jews were sheltered by Arabs too. They had been friends and neighbours for generations. The British moved the Jews to Jerusalem for their safety, ending an ancient Jewish presence there and also increasing the social separation between Jews and Arabs – a trend which was to lead to the eventual creation of two sundered peoples with a high wall between them, decades later.

Ultimately moving the Jews out was unwise because it led to a situation long afterwards, shortly after the 1967 Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where Israeli settlers moved back, led by a mad rabbi and backed by the guns of the IDF. They occupied the main hotel in town and started spreading out from there. But these people were different. The original Jews in Hebron had been Palestine’s indigenous Misrahi Jews who for centuries had played their part in its multicultural landscape and were integral to it. The settlers who moved in were immigrant Ashkenazi Jews from France and America, led by a ferocious radical rabbi, Moshe Levinger. They had no intention of coexisting in a mixed community: they wanted to reclaim Hebron and drive Palestinians out. Had the British left the original Jews in Hebron, this might not have happened – or at least, not in the same way.

There are only about 600 Israeli settlers in Hebron yet they control 20% of the city, with the help of the IDF (the army). Just outside Hebron lies the settlement of Kiryat Arba with around 6,500 inhabitants, swelling the numbers. Meanwhile, Hebron’s Muslim sector, taking up 80% of the city, has nearly 200,000 people. The areas were formally separated as part of the Oslo Accords of the 1990s. They are divided by urban roadblocks, most of them barred gates, barbed wire and piled-up rubbish. But some Palestinians still live in the Jewish area, doggedly refusing to be ousted and going through significant humiliation and insecurity for doing so.

An Israeli urban settlement with army watchtower
It’s a heart-rending situation. It’s not exactly the presence of Jews that is problematic: it’s their attitude and approach, one of arrogant certainty, provocation and hard-heartedness. Their technique is to provoke incidents, drawing in the IDF to protect them and do their dirty work, then to occupy properties as if justified by the incident to do so.

I find it hard to understand how people can live like this and raise children in such an atmosphere. But they do, and one thing that happens in Palestine is that people are regularly faced with a choice: you can eat your heart out over what’s happening, or you can get on with life and make the best of what you’ve got – and survival is best furthered by getting on with life.

Quite a lot of the souk has been closed up by the settlers, who have a nasty habit of welding shut the metal shutters in front of the old Arabic shops. The whole area has a distinctive Ottoman architecture. The souk follows a covered lane passing down a valley leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque.

As you walk down you pass people who are exceptionally friendly and welcoming to visitors, though what’s distasteful is that, as a Westerner, if you get money out of your pocket to buy something, others swoop in on you demanding you buy from them too and, since you visibly have money, you’re duty-bound to support them by buying something. This is sad, and sometimes it’s necessary to be firm in drawing a line and shaking them off.

What affects me most about this is that this happens on the way to a holy place. I find that, once I have been to the Ibrahimi Mosque, I’m in quite a sensitised state, and encountering these guys on the way back is a bit like psychic attack. But there are other Hebronites who recognise this and assist – they know that if foreigners get hassled, they won’t come back.

Returning later from the mosque, one guy affixed himself to me and wouldn’t let go – they’re not violent but clingy, trying to convey the idea that if you don’t support them they will die, and tugging hard on your heart-strings. In fact this approach is more a mental state than a fact, since some of them aren’t desperate. They can suffer a limpet-like victim approach which is a sad effect of the deprivation and loss people have been through, and the feeling of helplessness some Palestinians feel.

At one point a young chap came along, leading us along a side-street to show us the empty shops and then a roadblock – an unsightly tangle of barbed wire and rubbish preventing access to the Jewish zone. Then he showed us an urban Israeli settlement through a gap in the old Hebron buildings, resplendent with Israeli flags. Then he led us up some old stairs into a house, up some more stairs and out onto a roof with a view.

Down on the next building was an Israeli soldier – he looked as if he might be a Druze, used by the IDF in sensitive areas where the Arabic language and the conflict-management skills of the Druze are useful. Further down in the street a situation was developing – a soldier was searching a few Palestinian youths while other soldiers looked on, guns trained. Here it was before us, a normal day unfolding under military occupation. It wasn’t even tense – it was just boringly routine. A bit like British police on a Friday night, searching hoodies and young Muslim men.

Eventually we reached the checkpoints preceding the mosque, but it all worked quite well. At the first you go through a turnstile where a soldier with a machine gun eyeballs you, saying and doing nothing – I’m not sure why he’s there. It must be a killer to wear those helmets all day and every day. Then you come to a checkpoint where usually they examine your bags and the contents of your pockets. I readied myself to open my camera bag but, no, the female soldier just smiled and asked whether I had anything sharp. The soldiers were quite friendly this time – I had a nice chat with the woman, who was more interested in us as people than as potential security threats. Then we progressed up the steps to the final checkpoint at the door of the mosque, where the soldiers, one Russian, one Ethiopian, were just plain bored and waved us through.

Then came a surprise. The Muslim warden at the door, usually cagey and nervous about non-Muslims entering the mosque whenever I’ve come here before, was very welcoming. I think he recognised me. He produced a light hooded cloak for Morgan to wear, to cover her head and the profane jeans and sweater she was wearing, then he took us through to the place where we remove our shoes. He was smiling and seemed happy to have foreigners visiting.

We entered the vastly carpeted main hall and wandered around. The arched ceiling is lovely, and the tombs of Isaac, Rebekah and others of Abraham’s family are there, containing remains thousands of years old. It’s a bit like a carpeted cathedral.

Then we went into Abraham’s tomb. I find this place stirring – the energy here is so dense with holiness and power that it makes me feel weak in the knees every time I come here. Two other guides were watching, fascinated at how this (they thought) tourist had obviously gone into a deep meditation, standing quietly before the tomb, transfixed.

I stood there awhile, losing track of time. I love the Ibrahimi Mosque. It’s deep, profound. The sense of presence is captivating. If you want to experience true holiness, come here.

Before long we were out. Time was actually pressing. We needed to get back to Bethlehem because Aisha was coming to stay the night and I needed to let her in. I collected a camel-hair rug which, on the way down, I had bought from a trader who has become a friend. He’s a Palestinian with the nickname ‘Manchester’ because that’s where he lived before returning to Hebron. He has lovely, colourful traditional hand-woven rugs and hangings made in the villages south of Hebron – I’d love to buy a truckload of them to distribute around my friends. But I bought just one for 350 shekels (£70), which I shall treasure. We continued up through the souk, emerging into the crowded main streets of lower Hebron and soon to sit in a bus for Bethlehem.

I feel I have a past-life connection with Ibrahim the Patriarch. Having taken Morgan to see him felt right – almost as if ordained. She has been really taken by Palestine, and this event will be a highlight, methinks. An old friend from Glastonbury is coming to the Middle East in January, visiting Jordan, Palestine and Egypt, and I think I’ll bring her here too. I have sent out so many signals to old friends, offering a place to stay for free, and a memorable adventure, and she’s the only one who has acted on it thus far. A ‘new age Christian’, she’s a dedicated community activist in Glastonbury, and I know in my bones that this will be a pilgrimage of the heart for her, a journey of reconnection with something deep down. Perhaps she’s starting a new chapter in life. I feel privileged to pay my part.

When we got back to the school, two of Aisha’s English students were there in their car with her. Though many Westerners think this is a male chauvinist place where women are controlled by men – not entirely true because many of the submissiveness patterns in Arab women are actually passed down from mother to daughter and chosen and reinforced by women – there’s a touching side to it. Women are very much protected by men. Apart from the fact that it gives them an extra half hour of informal English-language chattering with Aisha, these guys go out of their way to save Aisha taxi-fares and getting around alone. Palestine is not at all dangerous for a woman on her own but it is haram, sacred, to protect and support women, and there’s a touching and honourable side to it.

That evening I was honoured and blessed to cook for and look after two ladies. Morgan visited Palestine a year ago with her brother, returned to the States and came back here as soon as she could, and she is thinking seriously of finding a way to stay here longterm. She has fallen in love with her village of Al Aqaba. It was valuable for her to meet Aisha to find out more about the ins and outs of marrying into Palestine. Aisha (pronounced Ay-ee-sha), English, seems happy to have done so. Whether it’s right for Morgan I cannot tell, but she’s not entirely American, having grown up in Japan, Hong Kong and India. It’s a big decision to make.

Whenever I go to Hebron, my soul gets rumbled, shaken and quaked. Something is going on inside me. I don’t know what it is, but it feels alright. Perhaps my angels are rearranging my inner circuitry. Or perhaps I’m making a deep decision I’m yet to become aware of. Or perhaps I have a case of immaculate concussion. Whatever it is, 2012 is starting soon, and I don’t think this is going to go away.

Bethlehem, capital of the Christians

Bethlehem is an ancient city going back to the time of the Canaanites, first mentioned in the Egyptian Amarna Texts from the time of Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun, around the mid-1300s BCE. It is located on a hill 2,700ft (800m) up in the limestone highlands of the West Bank, watered by wells which go back thousands of years. It was already a holy place before Jesus’s parents ever got here.

Its first claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of King David, king of the Judaeans who first ruled from Hebron but then, on uniting the Jewish tribes of Judaea and Samaria, took over Jerusalem as his capital from the Jebusites, who had themselves been ruled by priest-kings, the most famous being Melchizedek.

I’m not sure whether the story of the census, which caused Mary and Joseph to come to Bethlehem, is true – it might have been a convenient item in the narrative which portrayed Jesus as descended from the royal line of David yet born and raised in humble circumstances, distinguishing him from the priesthoods and nobles of the time and creating an image of him as a religious reformer and holy man who stood outside the elites and the more constraining traditions of the time.

Of course, much of the Jesus story was written down and re-edited by the early founders of the institutional Church, in the decades and centuries following his life. But there’s one thing which I have observed here (having a lifelong interest in power places and earth energies): the energy and archetype of the mother and child is strong here, and I don’t think it’s just a manifestation of Christian faith-building and tradition. I get the feeling Jesus was born here because of that atmosphere. I say this because today, though the town is now predominantly Muslim, the matriarchal nuance of the place is good and strong, and children have a strong presence here too. It’s a nice place, friendly, nurturing and familial. As soon as you get off the 21 bus from Jerusalem you notice it: someone comes up to you saying welcome, asking your name, where you’re from and how long you’re staying. There is plenty of room at the inn. People’s hospitality and generosity is at times overwhelming.

Bethlehem is now a small conurbation of, I’d guess, 80,000 people. It is made up of the joined-up ancient towns of Bethlehem (Beit Lahem), Beit Sahour (Shepherds’ Fields) and Beit Jala, plus several expanded villages such as Al Khader (St George’s) where I live, together with refugee camps such as Deheisheh and Aida, with infill building everywhichwhere which has occurred since the influx of ethnically-cleansed refugees from what is now Israel around 1948, and because of natural population growth. Then there are many surrounding villages – to the north, many of them are separated off by the separation wall or they’re being encroached on by settlements or cleared by settlers and the Israeli army. But to the south there are lots of villages in what is still Palestinian territory.

Bethlehem used to be 90% Arab Christian but no longer, populated by members of the Syriac, Melkite, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and other churches of Christianity. Now it’s around 10%. This is not the fault of Muslims except inasmuch as, around 1948, they flooded in as refugees, tipping the demographic balance of the place.

There’s another reason the Christian population has declined. Being culturally and ethnically more closely connected with Europe and the West (many of them are descended from ancient Greeks, Romans or medieval Crusaders), more of them have left Palestine than is the case with Muslims. Many of the Palestinians you meet or hear of in the West are Christians. They have been Christians far, far longer than people of European stock.

It’s also the case that churches and Western NGOs have helped and encouraged Christians to leave. There has been a tendency common to many emigrants whereby, once an enclave is established somewhere in a host country, members of the wider family and clan follow them there. Nowadays Christian families in Bethlehem have networks of relatives abroad, and young emigrants get passed around the family overseas and protected by them, even entering businesses owned by them. But the churches have played a key role in this emigration.

It has been motivated no doubt by compassion and care but, in my judgement, there has been a regrettable side to this inasmuch as the Palestinian Christian community has thus been weakened and, slightly more sinister, it frees the churches from feeling responsible for supporting their members in the Holy Land. This is a political issue, rooted in historic frictions between the Church and Jews and, nowadays, between the Church and Israel – the Church seeks not to confront Israel.

This is, to me, questionable. It frees the Church somewhat from walking its talk – Christianity is after all a religion of peace – and from incurring economic and political expense. But it also renders the Israel-Palestine conflict into a two-sided rather than three-sided situation where the Christian element could conceivably act as a balancing and mediating force between Jews and Muslims.

Jews, if they think about it, are fine with the Christian defection, and have helped it. Muslims regret the emigration, though they understand it and many of them wish they could follow. There is no conflict between Christians and Muslims here. Not that, usually, there is inherent conflict between them in other Middle Eastern countries, except inasmuch as ruling elites or factions in places such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have created friction between them for their own ‘divide and rule’ ends – Christians and Muslims in the Middle East have, throughout much of history, got on just fine, at least at street level. But the 20th Century and even the last decade have seen conflict increasing, but not in Palestine.

There have been scrapes between the Muslim and Christian communities here. But it has largely taken place during periods of conflict-intensification. One example took place in Beit Jala during the first intifada in the late 1980s, when Palestinian Muslim Tanzim fighters fired at the Israeli settlement of Gilo from near a church, knowing that the churches worldwide would make a fuss if the Israelis shelled it back. Beit Jala Christians naturally didn’t like this.

Israelis accuse Palestinians of using ‘human shields’ – even today in Gaza – as a military tactic, as if to demonstrate what barbarians the Palestinians are, but Israelis have used a similar tactic too. They site settlements in Palestinian areas and, when Palestinians have resisted or threatened these places – hardly happening nowadays – Israel uses it as an excuse for massive retaliation. Extremist settlers have used this tactic a lot: they invade a Palestinian area or stage attacks, whether or not this is supported by Israel, and then, when they come under pressure or resistance from Palestinians, the army comes in to protect them. However this is now coming under strain because extremist settlers are giving Israel bad international PR as a result of their incendiary ‘price tag’ attacks, and the Israeli army has even started defending Palestinians against them.

But Muslims get on fine with Christians in most circumstances and, at Christmas, they happily swell the diminishing crowds of Christians simply because Christmas is a phenomenon where Palestine comes into the spotlight – and Jesus is also a prophet of Islam. It brings some energy and fun to Bethlehem – and they need it. They accept Christian ways – even such things as drinking alcohol – and interact freely.

Don’t believe people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury who, unwisely, has recently placed some blame for the Christian situation in Palestine upon Muslims. It’s not true, he should know better, and he should not confuse the Christian-Muslim conflicts in other countries or in the West with Palestine. This has been offensive to Palestinians both Muslim and Christian.

So Bethlehem needs its Christians back, in my estimation, but they are now living on faraway shores, and many of their young, born in Europe and America, no longer have personal memory of Palestine or inherent links with it. And there’s not much future here. Bethlehem has become predominantly Muslim, though the Christian presence and holy sites here are under no pressure from them. It’s rather sad, actually: the Christian quarter in Bethlehem is notably empty and quiet, and the Muslims have not moved in and settled it as Jews might, if they had the chance.

It’s sad also about Christian pilgrims from abroad. Many ignore or are under-informed about the situation in Bethlehem. Some erroneously believe Bethlehem is in Israel – this is even reinforced to some extent by such things as Google, which plays down the Israel-Palestine conflict in its online maps, tending to give greater cartographical attention to Israeli settlements than Palestinian towns and villages – yes, the conflict even plays itself out in maps, which are supposed to be objective and authoritative.

The Israelis have also captured the pilgrim trade, discouraging Christians from visiting Palestine. The two other main Christian sites, Jerusalem and Nazareth, are in Israel. Christian pilgrims come in on luxury coaches from Jerusalem, to be shunted through the Church of the Nativity in large guided groups, then they are taken to approved souvenir shops, perhaps to an approved café, and then they are taken back to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, pilgrim-related shopkeepers such as my friends Adnan, Mohammed and Alaa Din get hardly any business, and the ordinary townsfolk of Bethlehem are prevented from having any meaningful interaction with pilgrim groups. The pilgrims are fed stuff about the Palestinians and their streets being risky and dangerous. It’s criminal, just one part of the throttling strategy Israel carries out.

Another is the wall and settlements. Bethlehem has been encroached upon by the wall, which at one point at Rachel’s Tomb stretches right into town, and by settlements such as Gilo, Har Homa and Efrat. The main road from Jerusalem to Hebron, which used to pass through Bethlehem, has been bypassed by a road protected by walls and tunnels and sealing off Bethlehem’s northern edge. As a result, property prices in Bethlehem have shot up, making life more difficult economically, and population density has increased. Just next door to the school a three-storey house is being raised by an extra two storeys to accommodate new generations of the family, simply because there is no space to spread out.

Peace and goodwill to all. This message emanates from this place and, at Christmas, people sing of that Little Town of Bethlehem lying sweetly in the peaceful landscape of the Holy Land. Silent night, holy night… well, it does happen, sort of. But Christians worldwide should come here to take a look and see what has happened. It’s tragic, and the capital of the Christians, while still alive, is not too well. That Christianity is a faith advocating peace has led to a sort of indifference, a turning away from the awkward facts that have arisen in the Holy Land.

I have a lot of respect for the ‘true’ Christians who come here to carry out humanitarian work – some of it courageous, such as the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who accompany and assist Palestinians in dealing with settlers and soldiers. But it is also Christians who are supporting Israel in its invasion and oppression of Palestine, either actively amongst Christian Zionists and Neocons, or passively by simply turning away. Jesus needs to have a word with them, and they need to listen.

Meanwhile, many of the humanitarian volunteers here in Bethlehem aren’t Christians – they’re people, many of them young and secular, with a clear sense of justice and human rights, and oddbods like me, an aged hippy peace-and-love citizen diplomat with a compassionate heart. So be it.

Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas from Bethlehem. Please put in a prayer for these people. Please come over here to visit sometime – it’s not dangerous, and more women tend to come here to visit and stay than men. For even if you just talk and listen and give people a little business, and even if you’re on a budget, you’re bringing good to these isolated people.

After all, Jesus’ granny was a Celt from Brittany, St George (who lived here in Al Khader) was a Greek living in what is now Turkey, and European pilgrims used to spend years journeying here a thousand years ago… so in these days of cheap flights, it’s not difficult. And you might find it’s the best trip you ever made.