Palestine, day 4

2009-04-12 00:00

When I interviewed the Israeli ambassador to South Africa in Durban earlier this year, he observed that Durban reminded him of his home city of Tel Aviv. As we enter the city by bus, I see his point. After the sparse vegetation of Jerusalem and its surrounds, Tel Aviv feels distinctly tropical. The city is reached through a sophisticated network of modern highways – a contrast to the cobbled alleys and bustling streets I’ve become used to in my little piece of Jerusalem.

There’s a great sense of relief in travelling in official Israeli territory. There are no checkpoints or road blocks and there’s that freedom that usually marks large, cosmopolitan cities.

Excited by the prospect of gazing for the first time upon the romantic Mediterranean Sea, I am a little disappointed at how similar it seems to the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. Even the smell of the sea air is familiar. Still, it is wonderful to be outdoors in the spring sunshine and to watch the inhabitants of Tel Aviv jogging, shopping, walking their dogs and swimming along the beach front during the Passover holidays.

We flag down a bolshy taxy driver called Sara to take us to the ancient port city of Jaffa. When we try to negotiate a better deal around our fare, she becomes loud and excited, arguing with us about the Shekel/Rand exchange rate and recounting how much money she just spent in South Africa during her recent three week tour. “It’s not right what you are doing. If I saw a baby crying in the street in South Africa, I would give it money,” she says amidst the rest of her tirade. I try to calm her down with polite inquiries about her trip to South Africa. (Cape Town, as usual, comes out tops…yawn.) Needless to say, when we reach our destination, I hand over exactly the amount she asked for, and flee.

Apparently in a state of disrepair and marked by undesirable activity (prostitution, drugs and crime) after the 1948 war, Jaffa was taken in hand by the Tel Aviv Municipality. Under the auspices of the Old Jaffa Development Company, it was transformed into an artist’s colony. At the visitor’s centre, which covers an archaeological site dating back to the third century BCE, I read that residents of the area were re-located with mutual consent.

The result of the clean-up is a little kitsch, like the Old City in Jerusalem goes upmarket. But there’s a good view of the city on offer and I get a chance to refresh my memory about Jonah and the whale from the bi-lingual panels in the visitors’ centre. But I glean very little from the film presentation which, unfortunately, is only in Hebrew.

It was to Jaffa that Jonah apparently fled before being swallowed by the whale. There is a rich history to the port involving a number of conquerors, among them King David, Solomon and Herod. There are also historical parts played by the likes of Napoleon and, much earlier, the New Testament’s Peter. I also view the rocks upon which the virgin Andromeda was tied by the people of Jaffa as an offering to a sea monster to appease god of the sea Poseidon.

We return to the Old City in a taxi driven by a friendly Jordanian who lives in Jerusalem. Because he’s returning home himself, he’s willing to match the price of the bus fare. He agrees to take a detour to the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod where my Muslim companion is anxious to visit a mosque which adjoins St George’s church. Lod is believed by Muslims to be the possible site known as Babul Lud, at which Isa (Jesus) will return to slay the horrible one-eyed Masih ad-Dajjal, a death that will usher in 40 years of universal peace and justice. It is also the place where the apostle Peter healed the paralysed Aenas.

After quick falafel in the Old City, we set off on a walk outside the Old City walls to a densely populated Arab suburb of Silwan. Along the way, I take in the spectacular view across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives and the vast Jewish cemetery where thousands of Jews await the Messiah’s arrival. The gold domes of the Russian Orthodox church of Mary Magdalene peek out over the tree tops while the large Church of All Nations sits imposingly lower down to its left.

The splendid panorama of religious symbolism fades as we pass the City of David and begin the steep descent into Silwan where refuse collection is evidently extremely erratic judging from the overflowing garbage skips along the road. As in every part of this country, shabby looking cats, pop up everywhere. Men are collecting water in plastic yellow containers from a small open canal that seems to come down from the hill. We are in search of a “tent” under which Silwan residents hold a 24-hour vigil to protest the planned demolition of homes in the area to make way for a national garden. A friendly barber we ask for directions gets a youngster to drive us further down the valley. When we tell him we are from South Africa he says: “Ah, Nelson Mandela. He make good revolution in your country, no?”

At the tent, we are told that a delegation of South Africans from the consulate visited the previous month and registered their support for the people of Silwan in the visitor’s book. We take a look. It is signed by “R. Kuzwayo, Dep Rep”, and “E. Motsibi, First Sec”.

We meet Fakhir Abudiyab, the very serious resident of house No. 22 which is one of 88 planned for demolition. He says the garden planned for the site is part of a greater strategy to reduce the number of Palestinians living in the area. There is strong significance in the area’s physical proximity to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits somewhere high above us.

I round the day off with a long discussion with a young woman, formerly of Jerusalem, who now lives in central Gaza and is trying to get permission from the officials to return to her husband, who cannot leave Gaza. She brushes away a large tear while talking about her situation. She tells of food scares and electricity cuts and harassment by Israeli soldiers. Although she had the option during the violence in January of returning to Israel, she refused. “I am prepared to die with my husband,” she says.

When I ask her if she has hope of an improved life, she says: “If I have hope, it is very little. My time in Gaza has been the biggest lesson of my life, but we are not afraid to be strong.”

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