Palestine, day 2

2009-04-08 00:00

“Sharon” isn’t the kind of name you readily want to admit to having when you’re surrounded by scores of boisterous pre-pubescent Palestinian boys in the Arroub refugee camp in the West Bank. But hey, I was asked.

Our taxi driver-cum-West Bank tour guide, Khalid, explains with an amused curl to his lips why there’s so much excitement about my name. I humour him, allowing him to share with our young street audience the details of Sharon’s controversial stint as Israeli Defence Minister during the Lebanon war.

Khalid says a lot of the children are second generation refugees who have never seen the lands from which their families were forced to flee but they too all live with the hope of a return. Although not a refugee himself, Khalid had earlier expressed strong views on the issue: “There is many speaking, many walls, but nothing new. We just wait.”

The hope of return is symbolised in the huge mural across the road from where we are standing. It shows four figures reaching out to a large black key. Atop the key is the date “1948” – the year of Israel’s independence and the beginning of Palestinian dispossession --- what Palestinians call “al-Nakba” or the Catastrophe.

The crowd of boys grows fast and I become the centre of attention. I allow one of them to use my camera to take a photograph of me. While I’m chatting to an English teacher from one of the three United Nations-built and run schools, the crowds build up even further, I’m ushered into the waiting taxi and we make our way. One of the more exuberant boys tries to kiss my window as we pass.

It’s a busy day with a lot to absorb. Taking a trip out of Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the West Bank by bus involves being pulled over by Israel’s achingly young security force members with guns who seem to exude an authority way beyond their years. Passports of all native Palestinians are thoroughly checked before we can proceed.

The journey also involves crossing a border physically demarcated by Israel’s big security wall and a cavernous, spooky terminal where soldiers sit almost unseen in cubicles and issue curt instructions through a kind of loudspeaker.  As usual, no-one’s interested in seeing my passport and I’m nodded through the heavy turnstiles and then I turn to wait for my Muslim companions who are of more interest to the Israeli authorities. There’s something about the clunk of the turnstile, the metal pens through which you walk and the confidence of the young soldiers which unexpectedly makes my blood boil. I get a grip and follow the “exit” signs out into the bright spring sunshine to examine the wall.

On the Palestinian side, its edifice is covered in graffiti, which seems to soften the impersonal, towering horror of it, but its scale is overwhelming and leaves me feeling empty.

At this point we meet Khalid who agrees after much bargaining undertakes to take us to Jesus’ birth place in Bethlehem, to Hebron or Khalili as the Palestinians call it, and the Dead Sea, with a few stops along the way.

At the church of the Nativity which marks the site of Jesus’ birth, there’re a lot of comings and goings with various services on the go, the church being used by a range of denominations. At the birth place, I am given a few seconds for a photograph before the Greek Orthodox service begins. Others are waiting behind me to kiss the 14-point star on the floor of the grotto. I can’t find the space to appreciate any of it. Tour groups arrive en masse, but my guide, Issa, says business is bad, largely because of the global recession. “This time last year, I would be easily make $100 a day. Yesterday, I only made 50 shekels.” Another taxi driver joins us, saying his income has been affected by the wall, which now blocks his taxi route into Jerusalem where no Palestinian is permitted without first applying to the Israeli authorities.

We visit the half-mosque, half-synagogue in Hebron where Abraham and his family are believed to be buried. After a massacre of Muslim worshippers in the early nineties, the mosque section is off-limits to Jews. We stop at a nearby soup kitchen which feeds between 250 and 500 people a day. A young man selling trinkets then invites us to see his dilapidated home and shows us the room where his brother died when it was gutted by a bomb three months ago – I’m told as part of a campaign to aid Jewish settlement.  He implores me to buy some of his wares. I become the owner of a Palestinian head scarf. And a key ring.

We head off into the desert and begin the descent towards the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth at 400-odd metres below sea level. Bedouin settlements are visible along the way, reminding me of the homes of South Africa’s shack dwellers. When we arrive at the Dead Sea, it’s dead hot, although we’re nowhere near the summertime temperatures and there are lot of Western tourists running around covered in the lake’s black slimy mud and shrieking with the delight of easy floating. The water is tepid and when I put my finger to my lips, I’m shocked by the saltiness which stays on my hands for the rest of the day.

When we finally get back to Jerusalem at the end of the day, I eat my first proper Middle Eastern falafel “sandwich”, take in the hotel’s rooftop view of the Old City and I’m ready to retire. As I write, it’s 9.45 pm and a mini tractor is still trawling the alleys underneath me in the Old City taking out the merchandise sold by the frenetic street traders.

* Sharon Dell’s trip to the Middle East is made possible by local Muslim sponsorship.

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