The flight to Jordan was nicely uneventful: the kind of pleasant meal you used to have on all planes until a few years ago, time for one and a half Hollywood comedies that leave your brain totally untouched and we were in Amman and at our hotel a little before 2 am.
By 9am everybody had boarded the VIP taxis that would take us across a sprawling but beautiful Amman to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and an unknown number of hours waiting to cross to the other side. First we had to go through the Jordanian border which already took a bit of time. Then we boarded the bus that took us through the no man’s land. In my total ignorance, I thought that coming to the West Bank from that side, one was entering occupied territory under the Palestinian Authority administration. Actually this is Area C, under full Israeli control, so we were actually entering Israel. But for Palestinian residents of the West Bank, this is more or less the only way they can go in or out. We only had to show our passports and get our luggage checked 3 or 4 times. We were told not to mention PalFest or the West Bank. It was fine for most of the group with the exception of the 3 people who could be Muslim, although 2 had UK passports. They were detained for 3 hours which we spent waiting for them in the vast hall that is the checkpoint. Fortunately because it was the start of Shabbat, the border closed at 3.00 pm by which time they were released. Any logic or good reason why they were suspicious is yet to be explained to us.
The day was spent getting to know each other and in lots of conversations which went from horoscopes, our favourite foods (great topic when you haven’t eaten for 8 hours…), to religion and how to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict of course. There are several people in the group who were either born in Jerusalem or whose family was from Palestine and were expelled and lost everything. For them there is no doubt that the one state solution is the only solution. As one of them was telling me, just make this land again a place were people from all religions can live freely and peacefully together whatever it’s called (although most probably not Israel). And yes, what happened to the Jews during the war was horrible but why did they have to take it out on the Palestinians.
One of the writers whose parents, Christian Armenians were expelled from Jerusalem in 48, was coming back after 15 years and was shocked by all the building that made Jerusalem and its outskirts so unrecognisable she missed the expected view of the Dome of the Rock. We finally arrived at our very nice hotel in East Jerusalem around 4.30 pm, a 7 and a half hour journey mostly spent waiting around for the sake of an exercise in power control.
Tonight was the opening of PalFest at the African Centre in the Old City. A half-hearted checkpoint had been erected on the road leading to the centre and we thought for a minute that there would be a repeat of what happened a few years ago when the first night of the festival had to be moved to a different venue for no reason at all. But no, this was again just a benign but humiliating show of who is in control. It may still be the reason why the band of street kids who were supposed to play for the opening never showed up. In the end about 80 people turned up for a talk on the globalisation of literature with Gary Younge, Bidisha, Richard Price and Mohammad Hanif. They talked about the fact that great literature is actually specific and about the human condition (reminding me of Amos Oz -a name sadly not to be brought up- making the difference between international booksellers, ie crap, and Literature which is local), about the difference between writing columns with a political or informative message and writing a novel which tries to be true but does not necessarily have a message, about the colonialist hold of the English language on world literature and the lack of actual globalisation. Asked about their feelings about being in Jerusalem, they obviously went back to the debasing and unnecessary experience of going through the checkpoint, not having had time to see much of anything else.
This was followed by a delicious dinner drowned in live music. Munther, the bookseller threatened of deportation by the Israelis, was there, dancing away. The PalFest authors’ books are still held at the airport. Don’t ask why. But everybody was happy to be there.
This is going to be a very interesting experience. Someone asked me if I had been brought up in a Zionist household. My parents cared about Israel but never went because they were too cowardly and waited for peace. They never thought of it as a possible homeland but celebrated its victories and trembled for it whenever it was attached. Were they aware of what happened to the Palestinians in 48, certainly not and were too busy rebuilding their own lives after the war in Europe. They were not part of the story I grew up with. But today, when I was walking around the old city with people whose families had been expelled from Jerusalem while seeing orthodox Jews in 18th Eastern European garb hurrying home for Shabbat, it felt distinctly weird.
It’s late. I won’t solve the problem tonight or ever. I’ll just go to bed and dream of a place where people can live together and human beings are more important than flags.