In a few hours, Israel will celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and repentance. Everything will be closed for 24 hours. Tel Aviv Airport shuts. No planes land or depart. The border crossing to Egypt or Jordan is similarly closed. Everything shuts down. When I sit and speak with Muhammad in Abu Dis, I realize that he sort of celebrates Yom Kippur every day. This is his normal life. Always shut up behind a wall and military checkpoints. He no longer has a car, he is in any case unable to travel outside Abu Dis. For us foreigners, Yom Kippur gives us a day off. But many of us still complain. Feel as if somebody has stolen our freedom. We’re unable to drive a car, go shopping, go to a café. Tomorrow I was myself thinking of going to Egypt via Eilat, hoping to make use of the day off. But my meeting with Muhammad a few hours before Yom Kippur gives me another diving experience. Instead of diving into the wonderful Red Sea, I got to dive freely into the intellectual life of Muhammad, the prisoner serving a life sentence behind the wall in Abu Dis. Yom Kippur is the day during which we can to some degree understand how all Palestinians are faring behind closed walls. Feel how it is when everything slowly shuts down, ends, becomes nothing. But the day after tomorrow, we restart the car and next weekend I can cross the border to dive among corals or visit the desert town of Petra.
The sun sets early now. I am sitting on Muhammad’s veranda. He tells me that the family used to sit there every evening. You could see how the sun was reflected in the round, golden dome of the Dome of the Rock a few kilometers away. The family had a wonderful view over the holy city, the Mount of Olives, the old wall and the fine stone houses. Every Friday, Mohammed together with his nearest and dearest went to the Al Asqa Mosque to say the important prayers of the week.
In those days, they used to watch how the sun went down in the distance. In those days, the sheep used to graze under the olive trees high on the hillside. Trees that were planted over a hundred years ago and were protected since each and every one of them were part of the common heritage. In those days, Muhammad used to bring the animals home at dusk and stop for a while where he had the best view. In those days, Muhammad’s sister used to have the Turkish coffee ready on the veranda immediately before the fifth hour of prayer approached,
Now Muhammad is shut up in a prison. Not in a cell, not in a little room, but in a lost future, a lost history, a lost dream. The view of the gilded dome has changed now. Every morning when Muhammad comes out onto the veranda he is met by a nine meter tall, dead, grey concrete wall. It snakes its way up through the beautiful olive covered hillside like a dead, grey dragon, the dragon is dead, but it still kills. It kills everything on the eastern side where the sun no longer sets in the distance; it kills everything where the twilight comes early.
The wall holds sway on one side, Israeli checkpoints on the other. Muhammad con no longer leave the Abu Dis district. He cannot go to Jericho, to the Dead Sea or to the old city in Jerusalem.
Four years ago, when I met Muhammad for the first time, he was still strong. You could see the wall in the distance, the dragon had started to approach, but it was still a little way off. Muhammad talked about his work. How he had worked throughout Israel as building contractor and build houses in Tel Aviv and Haifa. He talked about Israeli friends and joint building projects. He pointed to the dragon, to its folly, but in those days he was able to hope and believe that the wall was temporary, that the world would react, that the ravaging would be stopped.
Now that we have met many times he personifies a national tragedy. He shows me how the dragon kills, crushes your soul, destroys your gaze, paralyses your arms, and crooks your back. “The wall is long,” he says. “It has brought death to every house along it. And you, Mats,” says Muhammad, “What are you doing? What have you been doing all this time? What have you done with all the reports, all the pictures? Next time you come, I probably won´t be here anymore, I can´t go any longer. The dragon is going to devour us all.”
MATS SVENSSON, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine. He can be reached at email@example.com.