Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Bug in the Works

I’ve been ill with a flu virus. An inconvenience, naturally, but it has given space for rumination, downtime, processing time on a deep level. Dreaming deeply, I’ve been unconsciously reorienting to returning to England in a few weeks’ time. More has been going on too, emotionally, psychologically and concerning the shape and direction of my life, my place in the world, my future. I’ve been wondering who and what I belong to.

I haven’t been wondering what I’m here for or who I am – this I’m clear about. Arising from the choices I’ve made in life, I’ve made progress on this front and, as a result, I have much to give and a fine stock of skills with which to do it. I’ve taken a dissident, alternative path through life and, though this has charged its price, I have few regrets. Except it has given me a good buffeting, at times painful, bringing me loss. Yet I’ve gained so much and, here I stand, qualified, trained and experienced in aspects of life which, in today’s world, are not conventionally valued.

Many people love me yet I’m strangely alone. I have no home or partner, I have money for now but it will not last. In my sixties with no pension, while I have plenty of work to do I have no job or security. I’m open-hearted but women perhaps wisely stand clear – perhaps my freedom and commitment to my path daunts them. This has mattered to me recently. Sometimes these facts are disheartening but I have deep trust in the benign support and protection of ‘providence’. I’m much blessed yet vulnerable. This is what has come up as I’ve been lying in bed aching, sweating and swirling with the bug that hit me on Saturday.

One of the Yatta girls
- ain't she sweet?
I was down in Yatta, south of Hebron, giving an English class to forty or so girls of fifteen, at Nofa’s school. Nofa was there too and couldn’t leave, for here was a guy telling the girls in clear, simple English about his country and his life, being quite risqué and political about it. I told them how, 1,500 years ago, my own country was subject to ethnic cleansing, land-clearance and destruction (by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans) just as theirs has been in recent times. I showed how these atrocities turned us into imperialists who came to occupy their own country from far away. I related this to the Jews occupying their country now. I told them of the attempted revolution I was a part of when just a bit older than they, relating this to the failed intifada their parents had been in. The girls were surprised when I told them my age. “But you are like a young man”, said one, and I nearly cried. Without knowing it I was already wobbling inside, surreptitiously being prised open by the flu bug.

I feel so close to these people yet the cultural distance between us is vast. In the preceding blog I wrote about Nofa and her recent personal crisis, and part of me would love to scoop her up, take her away and give balm to her heart and soul, but no, this is not possible – she or I could even be killed for it. While she and I are open people, serving humanity, she could not encompass a Western aged hippy on his radical, self-defined life-path and I could not encompass her life in a Muslim society in a relatively conservative area.

So we can but signal each other from afar, souls greeting each other across the void. This has been the case with so many people during this trip – so near yet so far. I recognise you, you recognise me, and may our souls bring solace in this brief encounter. For me, humanitarian work is precisely this, a heart-encounter, a touching of souls to say, it’s alright, somebody sees you, somebody loves you, go forth from here in faith and hope and, whatever happens, live out your life as best you can.

On the way back, Ishmael, who had driven me to Yatta, invited me to his home in Deheisheh for tea. I love his family and they have taken me in, this benign stranger. Ishmael has looked after me, thought of me, and his family have watched and taken note: perhaps there is hope if people like this exist. A while ago he shared his concerns, amongst other things about funding his son Tareq through university, following his time in Israeli jail. He was imprisoned for standing up for his right to a good life, for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who were breaking the Oslo Agreements and invading Deheisheh Camp to arrest people who, in the end, were standing up for the rights of their people against a military megamachine.

I rooted around in my bag and gave him leftover banknotes from countries I’ve recently visited – Euros, Swedish Kronor, Swiss Francs, Jordanian Dinars, British Pounds – and it probably amounted to £300/$400 once he’d been to the money-changer. With this he funded his son through catch-up classes to prepare him for Al Quds university. Well, Ishmael, people have helped me when I needed it, and this is why I help you. Keep the flow going when you have the power to give, for all things come from and return to Allah, and we are Allah’s hands and feet.

Then I went home and sat writing. My back was aching and I did my exercises, then I decided to go down to Beit Sahour for a lecture about the revitalisation of Hebron, a city under attack from Israeli settlers and soldiers. Standing outside in the cold, waiting for Ishmael to pick me up, I suddenly felt shivery and weak. By the time I got there I wondered whether I’d survive the lecture. I took notes to stay focused. When socialising time came afterwards, with the foreigners who gather at AIC on Saturday nights, I couldn’t stand any more.

Ishmael goes to bed early so I rang Mohammed (no, not that one, another one), an all-night taxi-driver who does it to fund his own studies at Al Quds. He couldn’t come. “I need help, Mohammed – I’m unwell.” “Just wait, Balden.” He rang back soon. “My friend, he meet you at Souk Shahab, three minutes.” Bless you, Mohammed. I got home and fell into bed for a night of sweating and virulent dreams. Next day I just sat it out, doing a bit of writing. A friend from England skyped and started rattling on about this and that and I had to say, look, I can’t do it – I’m ill. “Oh, well, goodbye then”, as if I’d hurt her. I fell back into bed.

Next day I’d burned much of it through but still felt weak. The wind was howling around the school and the sound of the kids downstairs echoed around my psyche as if in an acid trip. I felt like an ET dropped on the wrong planet. I steadied myself and worked on completing the website for myforthcoming book. The results were surprisingly inspirational. I even managed to crack some knotty technical issues.

My heart was aching and in some ways I felt lost. I love many people yet they are far away, culturally, like the Palestinians around me, or circumstantially, like my family and friends in Europe. Two loving relationships in succession have failed in recent years and, while I’m doing my best to let go, I miss these dear women and wish it had been otherwise, in both cases. Perhaps it’s my inner feminine I’m struggling to merge with and, had this not happened, I probably wouldn’t be here. Or perhaps this is simply the flipside of open-heartedness.

Last week I was sitting at my desk working and looked up. It was raining, softly and quietly. There’s lovely view from my window over the monastery village of Artas, with the Judaean Desert behind. A wonderful, clear, bright rainbow was sitting there. It was there for twenty minutes, at times becoming a double rainbow. A rainbow of blessing, it brought a message: all is well, all is well. Posting a photo of it on Facebook I added a comment adapted from that of an Israeli healer and friend, Jeff Goldstein: the Holy Land is already at peace – it’s just that most people are stuck in the past and haven’t realised it. Yes indeed.

The day before, my friend Alaa Din had scooped me up when I was down in town, taking me to a village south of Bethlehem to meet a friend of his. We landed up at a place with big USAID signs and a high fence and security cameras. It was a water pumping station. That’s nice, I thought. Being in a Palestinian area, I thought this must be an aid project to help Palestinians deal with their water shortages.

We went inside. His friend guards the place overnight and oversees the pumping controls. The station draws water from an underground water source there. He had lived in America, and we had a good conversation. But soon a distasteful truth emerged. Eighty percent of the water goes to the Israeli settlements north of Bethlehem – Har Homa, Gilo and Har Gilo. Twenty percent supplies the Palestinians.

So here we have it, plain as daylight. American aid supporting Israeli settlement-building, with a token 20% for the Palestinians. They pay a higher price for their water to subsidise Israeli settlers’ water bills. Israelis are drawn to the settlements by cheap housing, reduced bills, good facilities, tax breaks and other advantages, and the cost is covered by Palestinians and American taxpayers. Yes, this is the way of the world around here.

American aid finances the settlements and also embeds the occupation – what Jeff Halper of ICAHD calls the warehousing of Palestinians. European aid comes in to soften the blow of the occupation, keeping Palestinians quiet and prevent a humanitarian disaster or an uprising which would compromise the occupation. Meanwhile people like Ishmael and his family in the refugee camps are provided with cheap and free power, water, rents and facilities by UNRWA, making them dependent on aid. Leaving the camps thus involves a big climb out of a poverty trap and losing the solidarity of fellow refugees. Generous aid from America, Europe and the wider world thus legitimises an outrage. We Westerners all partake in a crime against humanity – and this isn’t the only one.

That’s why Tareq, Ishmael’s son, threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He expressed his youthful rage at a situation that he and his people are locked into. He saw these soldiers, many of them roughly his age, as oppressors – and indeed they are. Like the Nazis in the Nuremberg Trials, they are just obeying orders, just doing their national service, yet they have moral choice too, a choice before their God. Yet they too are victims.

So many former Israeli soldiers end up in India getting out of their brains on drugs after military service – three years of it, a long time at age 18. Others internalise their anger and become right-wing, or they get into family violence or become go-getters, shutting down their hearts because they can’t stand the pain of opening them up. These people are fed illusions and lies as they grow up, about being endangered chosen people persecuted by the rest of humanity, about the rightness of the Israeli mission and how this justifies everything. They’re told that, to protect their people, it’s legitimate to oppress and to kill because Jews suffer more than anyone and thus their security is more important than anyone else’s. Some are taken to Poland on school trips, manipulated emotionally to see the world as Jew-hating and the Jewish mission as one of survival at all costs.

These people are oppressed too, though only some see it and only some of these can stand acknowledging it. But they aren’t too different from you and I. We Brits are told that it’s okay to bomb Libyans, Afghans and Iraqis for the cause of peace, freedom and democracy. We’re told that nuclear power is necessary to keep the machinery running, to keep our TVs pumping crap at us. We’re told that pharmaceutical medicines will save us, that pensions and insurances will protect us, that qualifications will make us good citizens, that supermarkets and corporations care for our very need. We’re told that endless economic growth and development are the only way, and we sign up to the deal or at least yield to the pressure – what else can we do?

I’m one of the many, yet so few, who have shone a light on this, rendering myself into an outsider, an irritant, a subversive, a security risk, a time-waster. I’ve lost much for it and thereby, as Ibrahim Issa puts it, become an ‘honorary Palestinian’. Like many of my colleagues, I could have been a high-flyer – when I was twelve I aspired briefly to become prime minister until I started seeing what was truly going on.

I’m glad I did it, even if the battle ultimately is lost. It won’t be lost. But as the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan once put it, one must do one’s dance as if one will succeed while knowing that all could be lost. The bit he didn’t say was that, with this attitude, a nugget of strength is generated within, a ‘cubic centimetre of consciousness’ which nothing and no one can take away. In doing so, a mountain can be made to rumble, and the impossible can become possible.

Open-heartedness and vulnerability aren’t there to be protected – they’re there to help us step forward and take a big risk. I’m by no means perfect at this. When I was with the Tibetan Lamas in my twenties, I sought enlightenment in this lifetime yet, here I am, in my sixties, lost and found, weak and strong, thoroughly screwed-up yet rather clear, and the dance of life continues. It doesn’t even end at death’s door. Joy and sorrow, these are the nutrients of life on Earth, and I’m glad to be here.

For me, life’s task is to make good out of a dire situation. Hence I come to Palestine. I’ve become a pathological servant of humanity and it’s dreadful and blissful simultaneously. I’m much loved yet a person to hold at a distance. Yet were this not so, I’d have missed that rainbow that gave a message of blessing, that flu virus that gave a gift of truth. I’d be a slave to success and prosperity with a doctorate and six-figure salary, afraid that it all could end.

Influenza is a catalyst of transformation, an attack on our precious immunity. Israeli soldiers are catalysts of awakening, bless them every one. The phantasmagorical terrorists they fight are bringers of peace. Corporate executives are agents of truth. Yes, we’re in a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity and remember, you might sometimes feel you’re a pawn in somebody else’s chessgame but you’re a radiant sun too, it all revolves around you, and together we’re a universe created to allow the Unspeakable, the Unborn and Undying, to find out what it truly is. This is the stuff of life and, believe me, if you were up with the angels in heaven, you’d want to come down here for a slice of it, a taste of the chocolate, available only here on Planet Earth.

Yet we’re heading for a new world, and this stuff going on around us is not all that can happen here on Earth. There’s more, and we know it. It’s all going to change: it’s just that life is asking us are you sure? Are you sure you really want happiness? Are you ready to really exercise your free will, to create it with your hands? One reason I work in Palestine is that I feel they’re closer here to making that choice than many other people – it’s being wrung out of them relentlessly. This is what’s holy here. Amidst this tragedy is deep spirituality, a proximity to truth. The possibility of escapism and denial is reduced here. In this sense, doing humanitarian work accelerates my growth and the risks and insecurities are well worth it.

When I return to Britain and catch the train back to Cornwall, people will be busy reading the newspaper and twiddling their smart phones. I’ll pity them as much as I pity Palestinians, for all of us are oppressed and only some of us see it. We’re self-oppressed, permitting oppression and going along with it. In the end, we do this to learn the value of true freedom, true love, true smartness, to get ourselves to a stage where we’ve really had enough. We don’t need to rise up against the bankers, the Israeli soldiers, the Illuminati, since the uprising, the throwing-off, the intifada of justice and peace arises within ourselves. When we’ve got this clear, the world will change. It’s wonderful. We’re on the edge of something.

There are a lot of Mohammeds around here in Palestine, and this afternoon I’m going to meet one of them. I met him in Manger Square when the people from the War Trauma Foundation were visiting. He’s a Bedouin and an anglophile. We’re becoming friends. A lot of people have had the flu, he said on the phone yesterday – it comes on the wind. Well, I hope they get some of the insights I’ve been getting. And Allahu Akbar, God is Great, for now I’ve at last finished this rather gruelled blog, and Allah is about to give me a cup of tea. Thanks for listening. You can have one too! We're all in this together.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Trauma and Joy

It was one of those days when it’s just wonderful to be in Palestine. It was a friendly, sun-toasted day and people we met have been so welcoming. I’d spent two days with three people from the War Trauma Foundation in Amsterdam, Netherlands, who were visiting Hope Flowers to discuss ‘capacity building’ – helping the organisation work better in the longterm. Ibrahim and I took them to meet people in the South Hebron area that Hope Flowers works with.

A bright golden morning, it was a well-deserved change after a long period of wet, cold, grizzly weather. We set off to Al Arus near Hebron to meet the regional director of education and the counselling director of South Hebron governorate. As we drove along our visitors were fascinated to see how green the landscape is – though it is so only at this time of year, the wet season (roughly December to March), and the rest of the year it’s much drier and browner.

Hebron area is more strongly controlled by the Israelis than many other areas of Palestine because its people are independent-minded and resistant to the occupation, so there were a fair few military vehicles and watchtowers for our visitors to espy, and some classic fort-like Israeli settlements too. They’re accustomed to visiting post-conflict zones such as Kosovo, Sudan or Chechnya, but only one of them had visited Palestine before, and they were all rather gobsmacked to see the many signs of occupation and conflict all around.

Interestingly, one of them, leaving earlier than the other two, rang them from Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv after she had been through the lengthy security checks. Bizarrely, the process of exiting Israel is more difficult than the process of entering, with far more questioning involved. “Don’t tell them you’ve been in Hebron”, she said. Ooops, she’d been too honest. But she got out.

Entering the country on legitimate business, they had been shocked at the questioning they had gone through and the time it took. All for security reasons, of course. When talking about this to Ibrahim he simply said, “It’s because one of you is Italian”. Yes, Italians are regarded by the Israelis as the most dangerous of Europeans, mainly because the biggest and most assertive single group of Palestine activists comes from Italy.

The director of education
At the directorate of education we met the boss, who was very friendly and a good friend of Ibrahim’s. One of our visitors needed to interview him about the provision of trauma counselling in the area, how it is done, what the challenges are, how people respond to it, and further similar questions. The area has 180 schools, plus youth and cultural centres, kindergartens and other facilities, and they have counsellors in 60% of schools – the rest being underprovided because of fund shortages. So the South Hebron district is quite an operation. Remember too that, since half the population of Palestine is under the age of 22, and since Palestinians value education highly, schools are a big thing here.

The director of counselling
When trauma counselling was introduced some years ago there was some scepticism at first, but many parents nevertheless responded well when offered counselling for their children and family counselling for themselves – not least because they were personally aware of behavioural problems in their kids and of family stress, and they were relieved to find there were ways of dealing with it. The main obstacle was to overcome the sense of shame families can have over such matters – traditionally, psychological problems have been seen as a weakness which should not be shown in public. They are regarded as an illness and a failure, not a naturally-arising thing in a conflict-ridden country. But counsellors have softened up this sense of shame by being friendly and supportive, employing many of the techniques taught by Hope Flowers, a pioneer in this field of work. Counselling services are nowadays over-subscribed.

The two directors were interested to answer the intelligent and knowledgeable questions that were asked. The War Trauma Foundation works in Chechnya, Kosovo, Nepal, Sudan, Palestine and elsewhere, and it knows its stuff in the field of ‘psycho-social intervention’. I hold them and their approach in high regard – they have good hearts and open ears as well as a good stock of technical knowhow and understanding. Interestingly, the foundation was founded by a Dutch Jew and Holocaust survivor.

Rounds of coffee and then tea were brought in, and the directorate’s PR person and other specialists became involved too. I hit it off with the PR woman straight away and, before long, hearing that I am an editor by trade, she was collecting my address to request my help in finalising certain important documents in English – which is one aspect of my work here. Many Palestinian professionals have pretty good English but, unless they have actually lived for some years in an English-speaking country, their English has weaknesses, some of them rather comical.

Plans and Palestine don’t mix and, of course, we overshot our allotted time. The director had given us twenty minutes but we were still there, an hour later.  He was enjoying himself, appreciating the quality of the questions and the diligence of the WTF representative interviewing him, rattling away on her computer taking notes. The WTF visitors also appreciated the kindness and attention of our hosts, impressed with their answers and the high standards of trauma work here.

The refugee camp at Al Arus
South Hebron is regarded by many in Palestine as a backward and conservative area but actually, in this field, it is progressive and advanced, not least because of sheer force of need. It’s an embattled area where there is a lot of aggressive settler and military activity. Just imagine what it’s like being a child of four, watching outrages going on, wondering why and sometimes directly suffering from them. Imagine watching your family home being demolished or your dad or big brother being taken away by soldiers. Imagine how you would feel watching your mum going through her fear, and what the effect would be on your development.

Nofa, headmistress
We landed up in Yatta, south of Hebron, visiting a girls’ school there. Yatta has a population of 110,000, with 60 schools – it’s the main centre of the South Hebron area. Hope Flowers has done war-trauma work and women’s empowerment courses here at this school, and the school director, a delightful lady called Nofa, has over 25 years built up a tremendous community atmosphere amongst parents, teachers and members of the wider community. She’s a heroine, an exemplary human with a radiant smile. Beyond her normal duties she has supported villagers in outlying villages who are under pressure from settlers and the army.

In one such village there were house demolitions and much loss of land to settlers. Younger adults, most of them parents, were leaving for the towns to find jobs and the village was slowly dying. Nofa organised a campaign to persuade parents to leave their children at the village with grandparents and remaining villagers, then she started a school there, at first in a simple shack. Then she organised some agricultural projects and the life of the village started reviving. Parents started returning. Hope Flowers helped fix women’s empowerment courses and income-earning projects, mainly with embroidery and food-production. The village now has a proper school and its life has returned. This is non-violent resistance par excellence. This is how a society under duress can survive.

There’s a tragic story though. Nofa’s husband was the imam of the local mosque and he was found dallying with a young lady. He was hounded out of town. This reflected back on Nofa herself, and great shame was projected on her and her family. She had to fight hard to survive (she has six kids), to keep her job and maintain her role in the community. For her it all eventually blew over but, in this traditionally conservative area, she could not divorce her husband – and I think she still cared for him even though he had brought shame upon them all.

Holly from WTF with Ibrahim Issa of Hope Flowers
Divorced women are on the shit-pile because marriage here is not just a contract between two people but a merging of extended families, property, connections and resources. It’s a social bonding without which individuals are lost. In Palestine, if you’re cast out, you’re done for. Re-marriage is rare – a divorced woman is ‘damaged goods’. So Nofa has a tragic and challenging situation to deal with. The good news is that her fortitude and integrity have carried her through, and her standing in the community has risen. But it’s difficult.

The WTF folk met up with and interviewed Nofa, various teachers and parents, and we were plied with coffee and sweets (cakes). Nofa’s office was filled with twelve or more people, coming and going. The atmosphere was lovely. When we emerged, the girls were finishing school and we were mobbed by teenagers wanting to talk, asking if we would be Facebook friends, asking questions, shaking hands and giggling. “Ever thought you’d get rock-star treatment for the work you do?”, I asked one of the people from the War Trauma Foundation. Her eyes were moist and her lower lip quivering.

Returning to Bethlehem, I wandered around with our three visitors while Ibrahim went back to work. In the sunshine we moseyed along one of the shopping streets in the Old Town and people were overwhelmingly friendly. After a gruelling period of cold, bad weather, Bethlehemites were out and about, beaming and sociable. My friends were getting accosted by all sorts of people, and they were fascinated too at the way I was having my hand shaken by so many people who knew me. What yorr name? Where you come from? How long you stay? How many children you have? When you come back to Beit Lahem? Our guests were overwhelmed. Is this a conflict zone, or what?

One of the parents at Yatta school
- this lady has probably had nine kids
Yes it is. These people are friendly because they have too little contact with the outside world. They’re stuck behind walls and checkpoints. They just love foreign visitors. They love being photographed. Tell them how many kids you have and they’ll be rooting around for gifts for them. “Please bring your children to us in Falastin!” They mean it.

Having got some souvenirs, we landed up down in Manger Square. There we were accosted by a Bedouin who started talking in very good English. One of our party, an Englishwoman, managed to establish that he had lived just down the road from her in Manchester. He was really excited, seemingly with fond memories of the place. When they went off for a further meeting with Ibrahim, I sat with him and we talked at length, sitting in the warm afternoon sun in the square. He was fascinated at my story of why I was here and what I was doing, thanking me profusely. Well, my friend, it’s my honour, it’s good for my soul and I just wish I could bring some of my friends.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Summary Justice

Let me tell you about Khader Adnan. There’s a sub-plot to my story too: I’m going to show you how Palestine is on the edge of exploding. You might have heard of Khader’s name in the media, if you read further down on page nine or fourteen of a good newspaper. From the Western media’s viewpoint, he’s yet another suspected Muslim terrorist who, rightly or wrongly, has been imprisoned by the Israelis and, inconveniently for them and everyone else, he’s on hunger strike and heading toward death.

He was arrested on 17th December and he’s in Israeli ‘administrative detention’. This is shorthand for not being charged or having a fair trial – he’s technically in jail until 8th May, but people in administrative detention are frequently re-detained afterwards, indefinitely and without trial, at the mercy of the Israeli authorities. He is 34 years old and he’s at Palestine’s premier university, Bir Zeit (near Ramallah), a leader in the Palestinian youth movement. He’s also very popular and respected and his arrest has made him a symbol of much that is wrong in Palestine.

It’s rather akin to Princess Diana’s death in Britain in 1997: she was someone only some people cared about until she died, but her death exposed more truth about the state of the nation than anyone could have foreseen, and it uncovered public feelings and perceptions far beyond expectation – not least because her death was suspect, even to this day.

Khader’s detention has activated raw nerves around the country because he represents a solution for West Bank Palestinians. They are tired of their situation, their ongoing helplessness in the face of Israeli and international pressure and the injustice this has brought. The Israelis have a way of using administrative detention and imprisonment as a way of decapitating Palestine of its popular leaders. It does this by calling them terrorists – and, of course, the rest of the world locks into step, implicitly accepting the judgement, shrugging its shoulders or, at best, writing advisory notes, and there the matter ends. Many key Palestinians are rotting in jail – another being Marwan Barghouti, seen by some as ‘Palestine’s Mandela’.

Currently there are 340 prisoners under administrative detention, including 23 members of the Palestinian parliament, one well-known professor from Hebron and many leaders of political and civil society groupings. Their main crime is that they have spoken out, giving voice to different bodies of opinion in Palestinian society – and some haven’t even spoken out.

Some are members of political parties, some of which are designated terrorist organisations because, mostly in the past, they have had active militias fighting for Palestine, such as the PFLP, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Sadly, the PA under Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has been instrumental in their detention, either arresting them for the Israelis or for their own reasons, and handing them over. So this means that the PA, on a bad day, are seen by many as being in league with, or the pawns of, the Israelis.

All this goes back to the 1980s and the first intifada of 1988-1993. At that time Islamism and a new dynamic in Palestinian society were on the rise. The older forces of resistance against the Israelis, the PLO, were in exile with Yasser Arafat. The Israelis, who earlier in the 1980s had even covertly helped fund Hamas in order to create a counterweight against the PLO and divide Palestinian society, suddenly decided to change tack, recognising the PLO as the representatives of the Palestinian people in order to block the rise and rise of Hamas and other Islamists.

After the Oslo Accords of 1993 Palestine entered a path of democratic development which culminated in the free and fair elections of 2006, which Hamas, to everyone’s surprise, won with a thumping majority. But these were the days of the war against terror, which the Israelis had exploited fully to further their own cause, posing as a legitimate democratic government fighting violent illegal terrorist groups in the cause of freedom, American-style.

They accused these terrorists of wantonly killing innocent civilians, successfully obscuring the fact that it was they who were killing civilians, not least children, far more than the terrorists. The odds were stacked against the Palestinian resistance, and the whole world went along with it, disapproving of the resistance and supporting the Israelis.

This led to the annulment of the election by 2007 by Israel and the Americans and the brief, fatal civil war which made Hamas the government of Gaza and Fateh (the PLO) the government of the West Bank. To consolidate power, both sides hounded dissenters in their patch – in the West Bank, members of Hamas, PFLP, Islamic Jihad and other smaller groupings were rounded up and handed over to the Israelis.

This has continued until today. Sadly, the PA, as the only recognised representative of the Palestinian people, is partially supported by Palestinians because it is all they’ve got, and it is partially doubted and opposed, because the peace deal with the Israelis (which the Israelis adhere to only when it’s to their advantage to do so) represents a betrayal of the ultimate interests of the Palestinian people.

The PA, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, is forced to accept the will of the Israelis and the largely Israeli-compliant international community because the price of not doing so could be enormous. Some of the PA security forces work for the Israelis too, and sometimes the interests of the Israelis and the PA coincide – after all, the PA is not a legitimate government, though it is recognised by the wider world as Palestine’s government.

Khader Adnan was once a spokesman for Islamic Jihad but, during a previous detention, he changed tack, withdrawing from advocating the use of violence and joining the new, growing non-violent movement for justice, prevalent particularly amongst young people. He had children and a family life which he wanted to protect. He was still a member of the political but not the military wing of Islamic Jihad: it is often forgotten that organisations such as this are mainly political reform parties, though the existence of their militias and their past history have caused them to be seen by the West as terrorists. Like Greenpeace, they campaign politically but they also have an activist wing.

Actually they are freedom fighters. One might have views about the advisability of the use of violence but my own father and many of his generation were freedom fighters against Nazism. Had they lost, they too would have been treated as terrorists and Winston Churchill, if alive, would have had been in the dock in the Nazi equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials. (Also the Middle East might have been ruled by Nazis and Israel wouldn’t exist.)

Why is Khader Adnan on hunger strike and determined to go through with it? Well, rarely in our day, he’s a man of principles, and he’s holding to them. This is why he is liked and respected by many in Palestine, who see politicians and leaders acting self-interestedly or toeing the party line to the detriment of the ordinary people. They see the PA as a mixture of an answer and a problem, and many are not happy with Hamas either.

Many people support Islamism because it’s the biggest idea in town, presenting an alternative viewpoint to the otherwise overwhelming and insidious values of the West and the international community, whom they see to be supporting or acquiescing to Israel. But people are not necessarily all religious in their politics, just as most supporters of the Labour Party in Britain aren’t raging lefties, saboteurs and militants. Thirty percent of Palestinians are seculars and the majority are moderates.

Remember, the Arab Revolutions were set in motion
by a young vegetable seller's death in Tunisia
It’s the young for whom Khader Adnan is a voice. Young people across the Middle East have started a revolution and a wave of historic change. Their weakness has been that they have no clear ideology or platform – they seek positive change, that’s all. As one young Arab revolutionary has said of the ruling elites: “If you won’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep”. As a consequence, well-organised Islamist parties are gaining power, a step forward that should have happened 20 years ago, but it isn’t what the young were seeking, and even Islamists are slowly becoming a thing of the past, the representatives of a middle-aged generation who, in the eyes of the young, failed to deal with the onslaught of the West, its arms and its oil money.

Young people in Palestine – literally teenagers – have been responsible for the last two intifadas. They were the first Arab revolutionaries. They want a better life and a decent chance. They aren’t political radicals – they want rights, jobs and prospects, a proper environment in which to raise their kids and aspire to improvement. They’re also half of the population (half of the Palestinian population is under 23). Khader Adnan is an articulator of their ideals. This is why the Israelis want to stow him away.

They don’t really care whether or not he dies. They know that the international community will do nothing significant and, if young Palestinians rise up, it just proves they’re barbaric terrorists who seek to drive Israelis into the sea. But they’re being unwise, suffering from their own chutzpah (arrogance), since there is a risk things might turn against them in future and, to cater for that, they need Palestine to have good, legitimate, popular leaders who might restrain the mob, act wisely and give Israel a chance. They need Palestine to have its Mandelas. But they don’t see this far – especially under the Netanyahu regime.

Khader went on hunger strike because of the way he was treated, and to shine the spotlight on the way Palestinians in general are treated. He was forcibly arrested and beaten at night at his own home, in front of his wife and children, then carted off. Against the Geneva Conventions he was taken to Israel and detained without trial. He was interrogated, threatened and beaten for ten days and refused to speak. He was not allowed a shower or a change of clothes until 15th February (this is a common Israeli tactic). He is now in hospital, having been on hunger strike since December.

The Israelis are playing with fire. They assume they can control the Palestinians. This is what various fallen and embattled Arab regimes have assumed too. What they don’t realise is that strange subjective forces arise in heated times like this which lead ordinary people to see the light and lose their fear. They don’t realise how quietly frustrated the Palestinian people are – not just the young.

They don’t see how delicate the position is of Abu Mazen and the PA, or how the PA could lose control or even step down, leaving Palestine ungoverned, unrestrained. They do not realise how much Khader Adnan, if he dies, symbolises the plight of the Palestinian people. His death could be a trigger, if not immediately, then ignited on a slow fuse.

This lady has lived through two intifadas
and she might see a third with
her own children and grandchildren driving it
They don’t realise how the accusation of terrorism has been exhausted as a propaganda ploy. They fail to realise how much the political helplessness of the Palestinian people is building up pressure and could explode, setting in motion a possible avalanche of events across the Middle East. The rest of the world fails to fully realise how unstable the situation is, how lectures about avoiding the use of violence no longer impresses people when they themselves are being violated daily.

The Israelis are now caught between a rock and a hard place without fully knowing it. They cannot release him because this would set in motion a flurry of further hunger strikes by prisoners who should, by all the normal rules of justice, be free. They’re relying on the passivity of the Palestinian people and the acquiescence of the wider world, and neither can be relied on. They face the collapse of the dishonesties which have propped up their occupation of the Palestinians for sixty years.

This is the significance of Khader Adnan’s detention and hunger strike. He is following through, likely to die soon, to become another hero-martyr of the Palestinian people. He’s a popular man, a father of young children whose loss could detonate something. To you in the West, he’s just another name, just another Islamist with a beard, but to Palestinians he acts as a marker, one who is drawing a red line, who has set alarm bells ringing. His death will raise the heat one further notch. Expect trouble.

Today’s headlines on the Ma’an News Agency site sum up the situation: Israeli troops clash with Palestinians at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; Israeli warplanes fire on Gaza, injuring four; Israeli settler outposts impinge on Palestinian Territory (yet again); Swedish politician urges Sweden to recognise Palestine (but they won’t); Israel refuses to release a mentally-ill detainee; Gaza father appeals for information on missing son; Israel raids homes of Palestinian lawmakers. This is what’s happening. There’s more to come.

Or, as Rico Lightpiraten, a German friend, recently said: “Everything works out okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end”. I've quoted this before, and it's well worth repeating.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Strange Worlds

Goodbye Sinai
There was a guy spray-painting three life-size plastic dolphins in the middle of a drained pool. Behind him were artificial rocks with a big waterfall smelling of chlorine. I’d dropped into a very strange world in Eilat at the southernmost tip of Israel, to visit an old friend from Jerusalem, Yitzhaq, who was staying here. He contacted me in the 1980s while visiting Glastonbury. He’s a former friend of the late geomancer John Michell, with whom he did a lot of work on the New Jerusalem and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

But here in Eilat, this was fin du siècle stuff, bizarre, sci-fi, a completely different planet from the Rock Sea Camp down the coast in Egypt. I had ridden up with Mohammed, a Bedouin taxi driver – not the last Muhammad but a different one – to the border crossing. The scenery was spectacular yet all along the coast we passed deserted ghost-towns of holiday resorts and hotels, deserted because of the utter collapse of tourism in the Sinai.

It has happened because of the recession in Europe, the Egyptian revolution and the patchy Bedouin revolt that have been happening in recent years. The Mövenpick and Ramada hotels were deserted, some just half-built, with sand piling up around them and palm trees unwatered and dying. But at least, as I said to the taxi-driver, the Sinai is returning to the Bedouin after the anodyne invasion of faceless tourists over the last two decades. Dreamworld paradise had come and gone, written off as a bad investment. He agreed. “We want Sinai back – this is our home.”

It took three hours to get through the Israeli side of the border. I was stuck behind a coachload of Koreans and a party of Ukrainians, in a long queue going nowhere. The computer system had apparently broken down, and applying human ingenuity to clearing the queue was clearly not on the agenda. Nevertheless, I was interviewed twice by the security people, clearly a suspect, then once by an immigration official – useless questions which revealed little.

“Are you carrying a weapon?”. I was asked this twice. Well, if I were, they’d have picked it up in the scanners – if they’d been watching attentively. Also, if I were carrying a weapon, they’d nick it, so I’m not sure I’d declare it. The other questions were stupid too – I could have told them anything. I wonder if the Israeli security service would take me on as a consultant, to help them actually get their security system to work? Luckily for travellers like me, I get the feeling they wouldn’t.

This reminds me of the Palestinian Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem who, intercepted at a checkpoint, was asked by the soldiers whether he had a weapon. “Yes, I have”, he said. Guns rose and were cocked. “Bring it out.” He reached down into his bag and pulled out his Bible.

The border official was quite interested in what I had to say, once the queue had shrunk and my turn came. Apart from all the Israeli places I would be visiting – Jerusalem, Kvar Etzion (that impressed them, being a West Bank settlement) and Tel Aviv, with Herzliyya thrown in for good measure – I said I’d be visiting a school in Bethlehem. He was interested when I started rattling on about trauma recovery and removing the causes of violence through psycho-social intervention in the trauma of young children.

“What kind of trauma?”. “Well, if you were four years old and you’d watched your home being demolished by a military bulldozer, you’d be cut up about it, my friend.” “Hmm, ‘spose so.” I quoted Hussein Issa’s saying, that every act of violence starts with an unhealed wound, and he rather liked that. We chatted on until the official in the booth next to him said in Hebrew (I guess) “You’re taking too long”, and the official came to his senses, concluded the conversation and stamped my passport. Paldywan’s charm technique worked yet again. Smile, be nice, take control of the interaction and give them something interesting to brighten up their day – that’s how to do it. I was now the proud possessor of a three-month visa.

Then into town, where I needed a cash machine and a cup of tea. “No worry, don’t hurry” said the sign at the cafe. Indeed, they didn’t hurry – it took ages. I people-watched, observing fat, ungainly Israelis strolling around using up their lives in leisure, and soldiers, guns clattering against cafe tables, taking a break from guarding their country, and black Eritrean immigrant workers cleaning the pavement, and an old beggar rifling through the litter bins.

I found Yitzhaq’s time-share hotel, a sick fantasyland place with its canned muzak, plastic dolphins and parrots, and spent the rest of the day with him discussing peace plans, the Book of Ezekiel, water shortages in the settlements, ancient geomancy, migrating birds and the weirdness of the two towns sitting next door to each other, Eilat and Aqaba.

Yes, this is a strategic enclave where Egypt meets Israel meets Jordan meets Saudi Arabia, all in the space of five miles of coast at the top end of the Gulf of Aqaba. It’s Jordan’s only access to the sea and Israel’s main port for its Asia trade. The Israelis are currently discussing giving a concession to the Chinese to build a high-speed railway across the Negev Desert from Eilat to Tel Aviv – they want the railway but they’re not sure about the Chinese workers it would bring. But the railway would enable the Chinese to have an alternative route to Europe, bypassing the Suez Canal, and it would enable the Israelis to import Toyotas and export arms more easily.

“Eilat is just like Las Vegas” my friend Liz had said. She had stayed with me some weeks ago, then to spend a night in Eilat before progressing to Egypt on her search for clues about Byzantine icon-painting. If I were showing an ET around Planet Earth, this kind of place would be most embarrassing to try to explain on behalf of my fellow earthlings – an utter waste of resources, a reality-escapologist’s dreamscape in concrete and glass. Eilat even has an airport runway running through the centre of town.

When I came here twenty years ago it was small, quiet, provincial, a nowhere-in-particular kind of place, but now it’s full of casinos and consumer resorts of the tackiest kind. It’s out of the sight of the Orthodox Jews who are gradually taking over this country, out of Torah territory, where secular Israelis may sin to their hearts’ delight.

The Dead Sea valley
as seen from the Herodeon near Bethlehem
I couldn’t get a ticket for the 10am bus to Jerusalem – it was full. So I had to wait in this godforsaken place for the 14.45, probably to arrive too late in Jerusalem for the 21 bus to Bethlehem. But I cooked up a plan. I decided to try to get the driver to drop me off outside Ma’ale Adumim, the mega-settlement east of Jerusalem, so that I could get Ismael to come and pick me up – that would cut at least an hour from the journey.

Ismael is not permitted to enter Jerusalem, but he can get to the perimeter of Ma’ale Adumim. So I tried that, and it worked. I didn’t want to stay a night in Jerusalem. I don’t like it: its tragedy and not its charms are what I tend to see in it and, frankly, if this is what holy cities are about, I’d prefer to give them a miss.

It was the lapping of the waves down in Sinai that was holy to me. There are light-years of difference between the inspiringly healing quietness at the Rock Sea Camp and the tourist nightmare of Eilat, this inadequate parody of heaven with its plastic dolphins, extractor fans and security guards. Certainly, it takes all types to make a world, but does our dear struggling world need this?

No matter. I was off back to my Beit Lahem eyrie overlooking the separation wall for a series of meetings, trips and other encounters over the next month. Up on the 444 bus along the rift valley, the continental crack, past the ruggedly captivating mountains and down to the Dead Sea. It is indeed dead, so salty that nothing lives in it.

The Dead Sea from the Herodeon
As we drove along, the sun played light-tricks on the Jordanian mountains, shining rays of light through the cracks between the clouds. After two hours of desert we descended into the lowest place on Earth to the tranquil Dead Sea, passing along its western side past the salt pans and the occasional resort and historic site. The endless Judaean Mountains to our left, jaggedy, ridgy, mysterious and seemingly impenetrable, rolled on.

I sat next to a young Israeli lady with a newborn baby, and I told her about my new grandchild, recently born in Lappland (with a temperature of -42 outside). I looked at the little baby, gurgling in its baby-seat, and wondered whether, in 18 years’ time, it will have to do three years’ national service fighting ghosts, like most of the other children of this land.

The road to Be’er Sheva, once the Bedouin capital on the edge of the Negev, now a significant Israeli town, peeled off to the left. A flock of birds heading north flew alongside our coach for some miles, following the rift valley, probably to fly over Syria without knowing what’s unfolding there, heading for Turkey and possibly the Black Sea. In the infra-red light of the evening, the Dead Sea shone aquamarine. The intricate folds of the mountains were picked out in 3D by the sinking sun. This weekend they’re promising snow in the mountains of the West Bank, from Russia with love.

A famous Palestinian
cartoon character -
whose name I've forgotten!
That’ll be fun. On Monday we’re having a visit from members of the War Trauma Foundation in the Netherlands, who are coming to discuss capacity-building at Hope Flowers. Aware that their ability to support us in the longterm could decline, they’re visiting their clients in Kosovo, Chechnya, Ossetia and Palestine to help us all strengthen our organisations in preparation for a new time when money from the West could dry up. Very wise.

But there’s just one problem – it’s one of the syndromes of foreign NGOs. They’ve allowed just one day for the whole visit. Of course, they’ll find out that this is insufficient. It’s utterly predictable. They’ll come all this way, with no time to do full justice to the meeting or to see Bethlehem or meet any of its people. Classic.

This is one of the fundamental ways NGOs get things wrong. They fly business class and stay in westernised hotels – naturally, because operating at that pace, they need to – then they never find out what’s really happening in the countries they’re dealing with. They could have stayed with me, saved money, met real Palestinians and found out ten times more than they otherwise would. This is why I cannot work for an NGO: I choose to live and work in the real world.

But no, no time. Got to be productive – productively failing to find out what they really need to find out. Failing to meet folks like Ismael and his family in Deheisheh, failing to meet the school cleaner with her sick husband, his life ruined by a spell in an Israeli jail. Failing to get a real-life taste of war trauma and its real effects. But they’re good people nonetheless, and I like them. At least they come here in person, rather than sending misplaced recommendations and demanding reports and statistics from afar.

Back in Falastin!
Well, I got back to Bethlehem. It was cold. I spent the next day at the computer catching up on things and hiding away from the rain and wind. Last night a full-scale gale was blowing, howling around the school. Palestinians wisely cower in their houses until it ends. Palestine has had a national tragedy too: a coachload of children killed and injured in a collision with a truck, up at Qalandia, near Ramallah. However, there was remarkable cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian rescue and medical services.

On for the next chapter. Tomorrow, a trip into town to start tying up loose ends with friends and contacts there.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


Rock Sea Camp, Nuweiba, Sinai, Egypt
I’m ready to leave now. On Sunday, the day before my planned departure back to Bethlehem, I suddenly realised I was pushing the river, returning because I felt I ought to, because I’d said so. But when I rang Ishmael and texted Ibrahim, they were both encouraging of me to stay.

Which is just as well, for the sun has been wonderful and, one of the purposes in my coming here being to warm up after a cold winter, I’ve now received my medicine. My skin has that slightly toasted feeling you get when you’ve had just enough sun but not too much.

Besides, my clothes need a wash, and there’s a meeting on Monday with a Dutch charitable trust which supports the school. I must get back before the crazy multi-faith weekend starts – Muslims on Friday, Jews from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday and Christians on Sunday – when transport gets tricky. All nicely confusing, especially if you belong to none of these faiths.

Muhammad the camel-rider came swinging through today, with his mate. They didn’t stop. He was pulling another camel behind. The donkey along the beach brayed plaintively as they passed him and the camel at the back snorted in return. One of the German camera crew, who had come from spending a month in Cairo making a documentary about the revolution, was stung by a spiky critter called in German ein Griffelseeigel while swimming above the reef – who knows what the English name is for a heterocentrotus mammilatus? Eitherwhichway, the Bedouin cook made him a decoction of herbal tincture with olive oil and that did the trick. Another German, who has come from Ethiopia, is busy building a new hut at the camp. There’s one woman here and eleven guys – Dutch, Belgian, British, Bedouin, Egyptian and, of course, Germans. I told her she’s spoiled for choice. She grunted and carried on reading.

My only regret is that I’ve seen no dolphins. Here they have bottlenoses, spinners, Rissos, quite a few sharks, barracudas and also dugongs, and I didn’t see one. But the privilege of staying here far outweighs any unfulfilled hopes.

Yesterday my Jerusalem friend Yitzhaq swung by with a friend of his who was returning to Sinai thirtysomething years after he served here in the Israeli army, around the time of the Yom Kippur War. An architect, we talked about shaping empty space and the editing of books. I’m editing a short book right now which is about Merlin and King Arthur I asked what they were looking for in their visit. “God”, they said, streaking off to Santa Katarina Monastery and Mount Sinai after eating a thoroughly unkosher pizza with coffee. Well, I’m happy to quote Lao Tzu (and George Harrison) who said, “Without looking out of your window, you can see the ways of heaven”.

I’ve felt no need to go streaking after monasteries and Moses’ mountain. Answers have seeped into me through the endless washing of the waves, reaching into hidden recesses and loosening the accumulated sediment and crustaceans of life’s experiences – deposits I hardly knew were there. But I came to know of their presence: they became visible as they dislodged and floated free. I had a few too many big issues competing for space in my psyche. Now, the open questions are still there but defragmented, no longer struggling, and a new acceptance and openness to infinite possibility has settled upon me.

In the Middle East, wires have the habit
of crossing the best of pictures
Yitzhaq and friend returned today, on their way back to Eilat. With them were their Bedouin driver and an Egyptian government agent – presumably to guard them because they’re Israelis. Israelis are rather kidnappable around here, especially since the swap a few months ago of one Israeli soldier for over a thousand Palestinians – this makes them a valuable asset. The Koreans kidnapped a week ago were carefully chosen to send a message to Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations. The Israelis plunged into the sea, had coffee and a sweetmeat, then charged on up the coast. Obviously the agent was getting restless to get home to his dinner.

This place seems to serve as a refuge from the revolution over in Egypt proper. Judging by people’s stories, it’s not quite as bad there as the media suggest – though it’s still intense, fluid and unpredictable. The media report on the worst places and the worst times, focusing on the negative, so dramas get distorted, filtered through the lens of what the media want us to believe.

The German TV team did, however, say that it was difficult to tell who was who, who was on what of many sides, and how to deal with each individual they encountered. They were quite worn out, happy to jump out of the frying pan and land at the Rock Sea Camp. They’ve canned their footage and now it’s back they go to Germany for the editing.

Tomorrow, Israel. Back into my own frying pan, with quite a schedule to fulfil over the next five weeks. I’m not ready to return to Britain yet but I’m making progress.

Who knows what’s next? I must take things one day at a time. This is 2012 after all, the end of a 5,000 year cycle, and history is rolling the dice. I feel that one of life’s big junction-points is coming up, without knowing what it implies or leads to. My first major tasks in Britain will be to reconnect with my family, establish a home-base and get my book Pictures of Palestine finally published, two years late. Then… blank space, variables, unknowns, in random order. One thing seems clear: normality as I knew it is not returning.

God bless the Bedouin, the Rocks and the Sea.
Thank you for your nurturance.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Inshallah, just plans

Today it has been warm and sunny – skin getting browner and hair blonder. Ah the delights of February!

Three German guests left the camp today. One was going home to her North Sea island where she works on a nature reserve, and two guys were on their way to Cairo – one of them, an academic, was to deliver a lecture this evening. We cringed: they had a tight timetable and, well, this is unwise in the Middle East. It’s fine to have a plan, but inbuilt into it must be plenty of flexibility. Yet flexibility works both ways – sometimes things are more difficult than planned, and sometimes they are easier. You must be flexible enough to allow simplicity and magic solutions to come through.

To get to Cairo you need to have a special visa. When you enter Sinai you get an automatic two-week tourist visa for Sinai only. But Cairo? Well, that’s another matter. They had been told they would have to go up the coast to Taba, cross into Israel, go to the Egyptian consulate in Eilat, get a visa, cross back, then start their journey. This they hoped to do as quickly as possible so that they could do the 600km trip to Cairo in, they hoped, seven hours. That’s why we all cringed. I imagined urgent phone calls from the desert to Cairo explaining why they weren’t going to get there on time.

Well, they left at seven in the morning and we wished them well. Erm, correction, we had wished them well the previous evening – no one except Rock Sea’s trusty cook gets up at that unearthly hour. Seven o’clock is the time you throw off your blanket, open the door, hop back into bed and lie there in the rising sun, dozing, letting the sun and shadows ooze languidly across your body.

There we were at ten, sitting in the cafe drinking tea and chatting, half auf Deutsch and half auf Englisch, swatting flies and watching the cats as they mooned around hoping for scraps. Yes, this was one of those mornings where the cats getting a scrap of bread or egg was a big event. Even the waves in the sea were being lazy. Saudi Arabiyya, over the water, was mountainously lying there, waiting for nothing to happen.

Then something actually happened. A car drove up. Out tipped our German friends. Had everything gone wrong? They tumbled in, sweating, looking pleased with themselves. Hmm, what’s this?

Well, they had gone to Taba and discovered something about the Middle East. As you might gather, it’s not quite the same as Germany, and just because someone says that things work in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that they actually do work that way. They had reached Taba, asking how fast they could get to Eilat, get a visa and get back. No need to go to Eilat, they were told. For a 150 dollars each, I’ll give you a visa.

This is summed up in one simple word: baksheesh. In Europe we have taxes, service charges, parking fees and hordes of shareholders to keep alive but here, here we have baksheesh, the local unofficial tax charged by anyone in return for a favour. It’s a people’s tax. In Eilat, at the consulate, on a good day, a visa costs $20, and it could take a day to get it. By the time you’ve paid taxi-fares, had some food and incurred sundry other expenses, $150 or more disappears into all sorts of pockets and cash registers.

So they accepted the price and, because they were good guys – just a bit naïve and Western, that’s all – the price went down to $100. Not only this, but the man fixed them a flight on a plane from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo at no extra charge. Apparently two Koreans had been kidnapped on the road along the Sinai north coast and the road was closed to foreigners anyway, so they wouldn’t get through.

The Koreans will be let out within 24 hours if they behave themselves – probably well fed and watered too – so it’s all rather a farce, just a slight disruption of everyone’s plans.

Why the kidnapping? Well, the Sinai Bedouin are not happy about the way the Egyptians rule them, make all the money, get all the good stuff and treat the Bedouin like sh*t. So they’re practising a centuries-old tradition – they have long been guardians of camel caravans, groups of hajjis bound for Mecca and saviours of travellers lost in the void and naturally they charge their price. After all, foreigners are so scared of inconvenience or death that the Bedouin just have to do a few symbolic actions to scare them and they all run away like chickens with a plastic fox in their midst.

This hurts the Egyptian economy of course but, since the Bedouin receive few of its benefits, getting all the worst jobs and living off the scraps thrown to them, why should they care? It’s their own way of levying a tax. These Koreans can probably afford a few hundred dollars to buy themselves out of trouble, once they’ve got over their cultural conditioning and started talking as equals with the Bedouin, so why not? Bedouin are gentlemen of the desert, with morals far more advanced than Egyptians or Westerners, and they would harm a person only if that person is stupid, aggressive or arrogant – which, of course, quite a few are.

So our German friends had a cup of coffee and piled into their taxi, bound for Sharm and their flight. This would get them to Cairo three hours before the lecture starts. Magic happened. Even if they had got their visas quickly – unlikely – they would have missed their appointment, because driving 600km through the desert in seven hours is, well, fantasy – especially with a Bedouin driver, for whom the word ‘time’ means an elasticised sequence of events which might or might not unfold as expected, not a precisely-measured temporal structure that seems to be a cause of slavery in the West.

Yes, they have slavery in the West, said Muhammad yesterday, quite convincingly from the top of his camel as he stopped by on his way to Nuweiba, and I was obliged to agree. But what really impressed me was not this, but the way he managed to avoid spilling his tea as the camel went down on its haunches to rest. If you have ever ridden a camel, the first time you experience this is a big shock.

To go down on a camel, first it goes down on its front knees and you are tipped forward until you’re almost flying out of your seat. Then the back legs go down all the way, and you’re thrown backwards, then finally the front legs go all the way down and you’re tipped forwards again. It’s great fun once you’re used to it. The reverse happens on the way up. But keeping your tea in its glass while going through this quadrupedal ritual is something I suspect only Bedouin can do – I don’t think I’ll try it anytime soon.

So, the moral of this story is to take things as they come. If Allah is with you, all will go well. Not in the way you thought, perhaps. But the universe is efficient – far more efficient than Westerners can fix, with our statistical, rational, right-angled approach to life. Just as well we don’t apply it to sex, or the white race would have died out long ago.

Europeans doing what Europeans do
Now this is important, because the West is falling apart. It’s moving into increasing chaos, and reality is becoming more and more disobedient. This is the true deeper meaning of the term ‘sustainability’: reality cannot be forced. Just because there’s crude oil under the ground, it doesn’t mean it should all be dug up until exhausted to power our transport modules – this is counterintuitive, and people like me and my friends have harped on about this for at least forty years. We do have to go along with Allah’s will and work within the constraints of Nature.

This is something the people of the Muslim world are teaching us, but we still believe we’re above all this. This is what the ‘clash of civilisations’ is all about: we don’t believe it, but Muslims are trying to save us by teaching us a few things about family, community and respecting the will of God (or whatever you might call it). We think it’s an inconvenience, that we’re right and they’re getting things wrong, or that some technological or banking fix will solve the problem. But the moral of this tale is that, actually, if we quit competing with God and Nature, things will get easier and they will work.

Egyptians doing what Egyptians do
This is how the people of Gaza survive the full might of the Israelis. This is how, when foreign observers visit the West Bank, they look at the GNP figures which show high levels of unemployment and low levels of income per capita, then they look at the people in the street who are all happy enough and well enough fed and housed, and it doesn’t equate. But it’s simple: half of the economy runs without money – people help each other out and mutually support each other through the sheer productive capacity of their families. They flow with the will of Allah, and everything works out – well, sort of.

Cat doing what cats do
And it looks as if our friend’s lecture in Cairo will work alright this evening. It wasn’t his German organising capacity and ordentlichkeit that did it, though he tried. It was a smile and a little baksheesh, which landed up saving him money anyway. And that’s the way it is, hamdulillah, ‘Thanks God’. There’s something to learn from this. It could save civilisation as we know it, inshallah – if God wills it. If he doesn’t, something else will happen,  and that’ll be fine too.

Or, as a German friend I’ve met here said today, “Everything is alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it isn’t the end”.