Having arrived from Istanbul at Tel Aviv airport in Israel last month, I was queuing at passport control. The line was long but people were getting through quite quickly, and I was fairly optimistic that I might too. More fool me.
“I’d rather not have an Israeli visa stamped in my passport, if you don’t mind,” I requested when it was my turn at the box. “I’ve heard that this is possible.”
“Why don’t you want it?” the official asked.
“Because I might want to visit an Arab country in the future. Morrocco, for instance. I believe an Israeli visa is frowned on there and might make entry difficult.”
He picked up the phone and a young woman in army uniform came and told me to follow her to a waiting room where some frustrated foreigners were already waiting. They were summoned into adjoining offices to be interviewed and approved. Eventually I was the only one left. To try to relieve my boredom and stress I continued reading the book I’d brought along – Muriel Spark’s ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’, but I soon realised that although I’ve enjoyed other of her works, the main character in this one, obsessed with her Jewish heritage and Roman Catholic conversion irritated the hell out of me. After an hour I was called and sat at a desk and faced questions from another long-haired young military lady.
What was my religion? Did I know anybody in Israel? What was my email address? Did I intend to visit Palestinian territories? If so, why?
I told her I was a Deist, I’d come to speak to the director of a theatre company that might be interested in mounting a production of my controversial play about Jesus called ‘The Rich Young Man’, and I also wanted to visit the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. I was sent back to the waiting room for another long spell, then called back and asked the same questions by another unsmiling uniformed gal with a similar hairstyle. After another long period in the waiting room the first woman appeared and handed me my passport, saying I could enter the country, but would I first not wish to have an Israeli visa stamped in my passport? I replied in the negative and went to collect my lonely bag from the deserted luggage hall. Two and a half hours had passed since my plane had landed.
I caught an expensive minibus to Jerusalem and was dropped at the Damascus Gate, which I entered and found my way through the bustling alleyways to the Al Arab Hostel which I had chosen from the internet as the cheapest place to stay. It turned out to be twice as expensive as expected and pretty filthy, so I moved out after a couple of nights into the New Palm Hostel just outside the Damascus Gate in the busy Arab fruit and vegetable market. I thought it was was cleaner until I found myself bitten by bedbugs and decided to move out to the Petra Hostel just inside the Jaffa Gate. Then I contacted Sarah Halevi of the Way Out Theatre and arranged to meet her at a cafe in the German district of the city. She told me she’d read my play and liked it but couldn’t imagine mounting a production. A Jewish audience wouldn’t be interested, and Christians would stay away in droves when they learned of the plot, or even besiege the theatre in rage. She gave me a couple of other contacts that I might try. One didn’t answer, and the other, Iman Aoun of the Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah said she was out of the country until September 5th and told me to contact her then.
In the meantime I strolled around Jerusalem. I found a second-hand bookshop and swapped ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’ for a copy of ‘Down There on a Visit’ by Christopher Isherwood which I found much more interesting, particularly struck by one paragraph where a mystic states that there are really only three kinds of bondage: Addiction, Pretension and Aversion.
One afternoon I found myself at a vantage point overlooking the square in front of the Wailing Wall. It was full of brown uniformed young male and female soldiers of the Defence Forces rehearsing for the ceremony of Swearing Allegiance to the Protection of Israel. As I watched them practicing their salutes I couldn’t help myself from shouting out “Fascists!”at the top of my voice before making a hasty retreat.
I preferred rambling the narrow stone back streets of the old city to the crowded shopping areas selling touristic baubles bangles and rosary beads. There were loads of T-shirts on sale with slogans such as ‘I LOVE ISRAEL’, ‘SUPERJEW’, and ‘MY MOM WENT TO JERUSALEM AND ALL SHE BOUGHT ME WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT’, but suddenly one day I came across a black T-shirt hanging outside a shop emblazoned with the Palestinian flag and the words ‘FREE PALESTINE’ in English and Arabic. I went in and bought it.
At first I just wore the shirt for my morning yoga exercises, but then one night in my fifth boarding house, the Hebron Hostel, I thought to myself that I really ought to put it on when I went out in the streets during the day – ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’, so to speak – or rather ‘on my chest’. I’d be a hypocrite not to. After all, hadn’t I written an article condemning the pop star Morrissey for giving a concert in Tel Aviv without speaking out against Israeli’s racist policy? It was the the ideal way to let my feelings be known without opening my mouth. However, in all the time I’d been in Jerusalem I hadn’t seen anybody else wearing a T-shirt with anything about Palestine on it. Most young Arab men wore shirts with words like ‘I LOVE NEW YORK’, ‘CHICAGO’, ‘LIFE IS FANTASTIC’, plus the occasional ‘HARD TIMES COMING YOUR WAY’ and ‘WATCH YOUR THOUGHTS’. Slightly trepidatious, I donned my ‘FREE PALESTINE’ T-shirt when I went out for my customary breakfast of coffee and falafal on the grass in the shade just outside the Jaffa Gate.
Coming back in through the gate after I’d finished my repast I was stopped by a uniformed policeman carrying a rifle.
“What’s this?” he asked, tapping my chest.
“It’s a T-shirt,” I answered.
“Are you a provocateur?” he demanded.
“No.” I said. “I can wear what I like. I bought it at a shop in the city.”
He ordered me to show my passport, then told me to come over to some steps next to the Tourist Information Office where two other police officers, male and female, were slouching. There I was made to empty my pockets. He went through the contents of my wallet, sniffed at the tobacco in my packet of Golden Virginia, asked where I was staying, and made a call on his phone, muttering the words: “Free Palestine”. A crowd of tourists stopped to watch. Eventually I was allowed to go.
As I made my way down the narrow street lined with souvenir shops back to my hostel I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and faced a couple of Americans, a man and woman.
“We saw what happened,” said the man. “Good on you.”
“We’re with you,” said the woman. “We’re going to meet some Palestinians this afternoon who had their house destroyed.”
“This is the first time I’ve worn the shirt. I suppose there might be more trouble, but I’m not going to take it off.”
“Well, good luck to you,” said the man. He shook my hand and we parted. As I continued on my way Arab shopkeepers lounging outside their shops read the words on my shirt aloud, made thumbs up signs, and made comments like “very good shirt!”
It was a different story as I walked along the Golden Mile in modern Jerusalem in the afternoon, going to visit the Abraham Hostel where I’d stayed a few nights before to collect some books I’d left. This time I was met with stony stares and glares from the mainly Jewish pedestrians, and one tall young tough in a grey shirt and shorts said “Don’t cause trouble, you fuck!” in a threatening tone as he passed.
The next morning I phoned Amin Aoun at the Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah and arranged to come and meet her there at 4 pm in the afternoon. Before then I decided to go to the second hand bookshop in the Jewish quarter to change my Isherwood and maybe buy a new one. It’s easy to get lost in the winding alleys, but I thought I was heading in the right direction. Eventually I came to a street check point manned by Israeli soldiers. I put my bag on the X-ray runner and was about to pass through the scanner gate, when one of the soldiers stopped me.
“You can’t come in here with that shirt on!” he said, staring at the words.
“Why not?” I asked.
“This is a holy place!”
“What do you mean?” I looked round at another couple of people behind me. “Look! He’s wearing a ‘STAR WARS’ T-shirt! Is he allowed to go in?”
“He is, but you’re not. Sit down. A policeman is coming.”
I sat down in a plastic chair and a policeman arrived to ask where I wanted to go. It turned out to be an entrance to the square in front of the Wailing Wall.
“Oh, sorry, I don’t want to go in there! I just wanted to find a bookshop in the Jewish Quarter.”
I was directed up a nearby flight of stone stairs where some people were standing and watching. As I went up a young Palestinian man said: “This is a very good man!” I thanked him but denied my goodness, and hurried off, more than a little embarrassed.
I found the bookshop and was scanning the shelves when a big-bellied American man who had been using one of the internet computers got up and approached me.
“Why are you wearing that T-shirt?” he asked.
“Why not?” I replied, a little impatiently. “Do you approve of the situation in this country, where Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens, where their homes are destroyed and walls are built to herd them into ghettoes?”
“I don’t know much about it. Why don’t I buy you a coffee and you can explain it to me?”
Checking my watch I realised I had enough time, so I accepted his offer.
“Why not come back to my place? I can make you a cup of coffee myself.”
It wasn’t far, a ground floor apartment he was renting. The Jewish landlady in the flat above called out to ask who he was bringing in, and he told her it was an English tourist.
The coffee wasn’t bad, but we hardly mentioned Palestine. Instead, he told me his life story. How he’d been a devout Catholic atlar boy until the priest had socked him in the jaw for no reason. After that he’d turned against the Church and hung out with layabouts getting drunk, and then he’d saved up six thousand dollars and moved to California to do a course in Primal Therapy. After that he’d met a woman who was a Born-Again Christian, and he’d become one himself after he’d had a vision of Jesus walking down a hill in long white robes talking to Saint Peter and telling him that he was his rock. If I wanted to be saved I must accept Jesus as my personal Savior. There was no alternative. I told him I had to be going.
At the door he asked if he could pray for me.
“If you like,” I said, but I didn’t expect it to be there and then. He grasped my hand tightly and placed a firm hand on my shoulder, addressing God and Jesus and telling them to take care of me and protect me and let Jesus come into my heart. I prayed it wouldn’t last long.
“Hug?” he asked, and threw his arms about me and clutched me to him tightly.
“I’m not a very huggy person,” I said, longing to get away.
He let go and said he hoped I found God soon, as I let myself out. I thanked him and went back to the bookshop, where I bought a copy of ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ by Budd Schulberg, and also, after opening a page at random and reading the sentence: “Ramallah is 8 miles North of Jerusalem, on the top of a hill”, a copy of ‘Sherston’s Progress’ by Siegfried Sassoon.
As I was heading for the bus station a young storeholder admired my shirt and invited me in for a glass of tea. I thanked him but said I didn’t have time as I was on the way to Ramallah.
“You won’t get in,” he said. “They’re stoning orange taxis.”
“I’m going by bus,” I said. “But stoning? Why?”
“The whole town is on a one-day strike,” he told me. “It’s about the money.”
Sure enough, when I got to the station the driver told me that the bus was only going as far as the Israeli check point. It was quite a long walk from there into the heart of Ramallah. I phoned Amin Aoun and told her the situation. We decided to change our meeting until four the next day.
Checking the news in the morning I learned that the people of Ramallah had blocked main roads, burned car tyres and thrown stones at Palestinian Authority policemen and institutions in protest at the high cost of living, and there had also been demonstrations in Gaza, Hebron and Nablus, where protesers also called for the resignation of PA President Mahmud Abbas and chanted slogans against the Oslo Accords.
So in the afternoon I headed for the bus station again. As I was nearing the Damascus Gate I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned round and was faced by two young Israeli soldiers in dark sunglasses. One of them said something to me, pointing at my T-shirt.
“Sorry?” I asked, in an impatient tone.
“Are you a tourist?” he asked.
He waved me on with his rifle.
Getting into Ramallah is easier than getting out, I was to find. The towering grey apartheid wall is virtually graffiti-free on the Israeli side, but the frustrated detainees have really gone to work on the Palestinian side, a huge painting of Yasser Arafat near the checkout point and sprayed sentences, some of them in English – “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, “In my previous life I was the Berlin Wall. The beer was better there.” “What Would Ann Frank Do?” and of course “FREE PALESTINE!”
The centre of Ramallah was bustling with shoppers and groups of protesers with slogans being filmed by cameramen. There were still broken stones in the road that had been thrown the day before. The Ashtar Theatre, (a converted basement in an apartment building) was quite a walk and I arrived at about 4.30. Amin Aoun was there to meet me and we talked in her office. I told her about my play and she said it sounded interesting, but not the sort of thing that they would consider putting on. I admired the little black-walled auditorium and then headed back into town. This time I caught a minibus. On the way to the crossing I looked out of the window at groups of Palestinian youths in the rubbish strewn streets, listlessly sitting chewing sunflower seeds, facing a dreary wasted life. The contrast with the privileged youth of Israel was stark.
At the border a group of young male soldiers prowled in the road with their rifles cocked, their faces haughty and grim. All the passengers had to get out of the minibus and wait in line to go through a tall iron-barred turnstile one at a time, controlled by two women soldiers on in a thick plastic-glassed office on the other side. One Palestinian girl got trapped inside it for a short time and laughed nervously to her waiting friends outside. I was last to go through. Possessions were put through an Xray roller and then you had to hold your identification against the glass for the uniformed long-haired dolls in the office to inspect. I held up my passport.
“Where is your visa?” a voice crackled through a tannoy.
“I haven’t got one. I asked at the airport. They said it was okay.”
One of them made a quick phone call and then told me I could go. I pushed my way out of the next cage turnstyle with much relief and looked for my minibus. It had gone, but there were others parked, waiting to pick up those privileged enough to be allowed out from behind the apartheid wall into the blessed free territory of Israeli.
Next morning I went and found a travel agent in modern Jerusalem and booked a plane ticket back to Istanbul for Sunday afternoon. I could see no prospects of a production of ‘The Rich Young Man’ in Israel, my money was dwindling, and besides, after three weeks in Jerusalem I’d had enough.
In the evening, sitting on the roof terrace of the hostel drinking from a coca-cola bottle secretly laced with Ramallah brandy (good and cheap) listening rather boredly to another Born Again American fellow guest going on about the Final Judgement and the Second Coming, I heard distant music and excited chatter in the street. Saying I might go and hava nageela I went outside to investigate. Crowds of people, all Jews of various types as far as I could see, the Orthodox in their tall black hats and prayer shawls, the women in long black dresses and wigs, young guys with their curly sideboards and skull caps, girls in the latest fashions, and soldiers of both sexes in uniforms, were briskly heading somewhere, talking and laughing. I followed, curious.
Eventually we arrived at their destination – a checkpoint leading down steps to the huge square in front of the Wailing Wall. It was crammed with people, buzzing with raised voices and laughter. I tried to follow the others putting their belongings on the Xray roller and stepping through the scanner gate but I was stopped.
“Why?” I asked.
The guard pointed to my T-shirt and shook his head.
There was no arguing. I stood back and leaned against a wall just in front of the entrance. Hundreds of people were coming in and going out all the time, and I was visible to both comers and goers. I stood there silently and waited for over an hour and hundreds of people cast their eyes on the message on front of my T-shirt – ‘FREE PALESTINE’. Not one of them made a comment, and yet generally the happy frivolity left their faces for a few seconds. I was glad to have been a messenger. I could have stayed longer I suppose, but I put my timer on for 12pm, and when it rang I left.
I learned next day that the occasion of merriment was the leadup to Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of the Trumpets, the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 16th, and the chosen people flock to the Wall in the week beforehand to pray for forgiveness of their sins.
Apparently some believe that this Rosh Hashanah will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. Well, good luck to him. He’ll certainly have his work cut out for him in this country. As for me, I’m out of here.
Michael Dickinson’s play ‘The Rich Young Man’ can be read here – http://yabanji.tripod.com/id21.html