Palestine, day 1

2009-04-07 00:00

There was quite a bit of weeping going on at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem yesterday where we finally arrived late yesterday afternoon after two days of largely sleepless travel. In the smaller section where women are permitted to pray, many were dabbing tears away as backed away from the wall. But one young Jewish woman was sobbing - great wracking sobs - against her prayer book and I was torn between feeling like a voyeur caught up an intensely personal moment and wanting to join her out of sheer fatigue and gratitude at being able to gaze on the golden beauty of the temple mount area.

Israel of course inspires intense emotions. How could it be otherwise in a place where every space is heavy with political, religious and cultural contestation and the presence of Israeli police a constant reminder of that contest?

Floored by my own tiredness, I had no means of dealing with my emotions and turned back towards the hotel to sleep, passing back through the police check point where earlier my attempts to offer my passport for inspection had been studiously ignored. It was only the passports of my Muslim companions, also carrying the green South African passport, but cloaked in traditional attire, that were of any interest and necessitated a phone call to an invisible official before we could continue.

Will I get used to this discrimination? At the Israeli border crossing from Jordan earlier in the day, I was separated from my companions and made it through the slightly shambolic customs and immigration in roughly half an hour. I was given a bit of a grilling by a tough-talking customs official who had youth, looks and the might of the Israeli state on her side and who kept on addressing me, overly loudly I thought, by my first name. But it was nothing compared to what my Muslim travelling companions had to endure. They were separated from each other, ushered into smaller rooms and questioned for over two hours about their reasons for coming to Israel.

They had warned me that they would be delayed, but clearly I hadn’t taken it seriously enough, I realised, as I waited for them with rising impatience and anxiety. When we were finally all able to climb on to a bus bound for Jerusalem, it was a great relief, but we were soon reminded that we're not completely free. Just before the city, the bus was pulled over for another desultory inspection of passports. I handed mine, emphatically, to the young policeman, even though he didn’t ask and didn’t seem at all interested.

Above: Temple Mount looking towards Western Wall.

Now that we’re staying in the bustling Muslim quarter of the Old City - which makes me feel like I’m on a medieval movie set, by the way – I have become more accustomed to the fact that the composition of our party draws curious stares. Can I say it? It’s a lot like the old South Africa.

 

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