This morning we went to East Jerusalem. We had to go through the Qalandiya crossing, a pretty unpleasant place. We all got off the bus and stood in line. You first go through an iron turnstile activated by the Israeli soldiers, young kids, sitting behind a reinforced glass window. You put your stuff through the X-ray machine, still directed by them. Then you show your passport. I just had to hold it in front of them and show them the page with the visa and they let me through with a smile. Not everybody got that treatment: all our darker skinned friends attracted a little more interest and a couple got yelled at. A few of us were pretty dazed and did not quite know what to do, slowing down the process for all the Palestinians who are so used to it and probably resented these fumbling foreigners. It is a really ugly and dehumanising experience.
We got to Jerusalem where we were given a tour of the old city: the Arab quarter and the church of the Holy Sepulchre as busy as an airport on the eve of a bank holiday week-end. I was amazed to see, on the rooftops of the Muslim area, a fenced area with an Israeli flag and a play structure for kids. I just don’t understand the settlers’ mentality: who would want to bring up their own kids behind bars in the middle of a hostile environment just for the sake of making a poltical point?
The Jewish quarter, on the first day of Passover, was much quieter, making the contrast even greater with the bustling and crowded Arab quarter. The group was shocked to hear most of the old Moroccan houses had been destroyed after 67, especially as our guide had not really pointed out that these Moroccans were Jewish (not that it makes it necessarily better but in our context, still quite different).
We then visited an amazing tiny library which has the most precious collection of manuscripts and antique books. We were told how the family had to fight to preserve it in 67 and then through 10 years of legal wrangling but it’s now secure. The oldest book is 1000 years old, absolutely exquisite and we were shown a few others written in Arabic and Turkish which dated back to the 15 or 16th centuries.
Then we went to the Temple Mount, a vast open area, such a contrast in this fenced up environment, which is really beautiful and incredibly peaceful. Groups of men were sitting around reading the Coran in clusters, oblivious to the tourists. We could not go into the Mosques as they are only open to Muslims but we could at least admire the architecture from the outside.
Then lunch in the old city: the crunchiest and lightest falafel I’ve ever had, hummus, aubergine and that delicious lemonade with mint I’ve become addicted to. It was another opportunity for me to get to know some of my travelling companions better and I have a feeling we’ve developed new real friendships.
On the way back, our taxi driver was very excited to talk to Adhaf Soueif, the founder of PalFest, about the Egyptian revolution. You can see the huge impact it’s had and how it makes people dream. I got to ask her about her views on Palestine. She believes it would not take that much to put an end to the impossible present situation and that it would be in everybody’s interest to live together as neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will go away.
I have met on this trip several young people involved with PalFest: our Turkish photographer, a young man from Manchester, half Pakistani, half Afghan, a young American woman in love with a Palestinian man who breaks into tears every time she tells her difficult story, how there is no permit to be obtained to live in the West Bank when you are American and how if she married him, she could be deprived of her passport for long enough to not see her family in the US for years. I am sure that they are the same kind of idealist young people in search of a cause or a dream who would have joined the Republicans in Spain in 36, gone to Cuba to support Castro or, supreme irony, come to live on a kibbutz.
Back in Ramallah, a small group of us went to meet Omar Barghouti, author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights“. He started with explaining the difference between citizens and nationals. The latter are Israeli Jews. The former, Israeli Arabs, they have the right to vote but cannot buy land, are barred from certain jobs (linked to the fact they do not do military service) and suffer from institutionalised discrimination.
He launched the BDS campaign with three goals: end the 67 occupation, end racial discrimination and obtain the right of return. He justified the cultural and academic boycott by explaining that any institution is complicit with the occupation. Mount Scopus is built on occupied land (although as far as I know it was founded long before the state of Israel even existed….), the doctrine of disproportionate force was developed at Tel Aviv university so professors teaching there are all complicit in his eyes.
The boycott targets institutions, not individuals, so that any Israeli academic invited to speak outside Israel is welcome as long as he’s not funded by Israel. He also said the Israeli government makes artists and writers sign a form declaring they won’t be critical of the state, something which certainly does not match my experience of Israeli writers who came to JBW and who certainly all condemned the occupation.
He is convinced that BDS is working. As to writers and artists refusing to come to Israel, again they are free to come as long as it’s not supported by an Israeli institution. I asked him if Ian McEwan coming and speaking his mind to the officials who had invited him was not better than Mike Leigh staying in London but, unsurprisingly, he did not agree. He much prefered Sarah Shulman’s tactic. Invited by Tel Aviv university, she turned them down but spoke in a vegan anarchist cafe and all the students left the conference to go and listen to her. (Can a vegan anarchist cafe accommodate as big an audience as a university lecture hall? Maybe….)
He is convinced BDS works. Apparently the Pixies cancellation was a huge blow (obviously rock groups I haven’t even heard of have a bigger impact than writers). There was even a debate at the Knesset. He thinks the Masada complex that will develop first is just the last stage before dissent starts and the whole system crumbles. His organisation works very closely with the people who brought down apartheid in South Africa. He also has faith in growing Israeli groups like Boycott from Within and the Coaliton of Women for Peace. He also said that the declaration against the oath of allegiance signed by hundreds of left wing Israeli intellectuals condemned Israel in such strong terms, calling it a fascist state, that even the Palestinians were shocked!
Apparently most people in the BDS movement are in favour of the two state solution even though he isn’t. He is convinced that Jews, Arabs and Christians can live together peacefully and equally. I still don’t think a cultural boycott is a good thing and I’m sure that if anything it will only harden Israel’s position even more. I must say the other members of the group I spoke with were not convinced either.
The evening continued with a slightly surreal event on writing auto/biography. The auditorium was absolutely packed. Ghada Karmi read extracts from In Search of Fatima. Anne Chisholm spoke clearly and with sensitivity about her own work and the Palestinian biographies she had read in preparation to PalFest. Alice Walker, the star of the evening, talked about her chickens (!!) and the need to care for the environment and our planet (!!!!) as if our audience did not have other more urgent things to worry about. and then a final speaker talked in Arabic about the biography of places (he was apparently very good but we obviously did not understand a word). Ghada -of all people- got attacked for having told a story told by an Israeli Jewish friend (two frogs fall in a barrel of milk and struggle to get out, the old one gives up and dies, the young one gets so worked up that it churns the milk into butter). The stupidity of the attack was both amazing and deeply worrying. Then as if we hadn’t had enough (past 10 pm by then), there was another event involving a translator who had just translated John Berger into Arabic and a poet, both certainly fascinating but not at that time.
We finally were free to go to dinner not before talking to an American woman who had been so inspired by Alice Walker that she was going to suggest to her brother to invite her along Hilary Clinton and Al Gore at an environmental conference he’s organising. I’m so happy to be travelling with people with the most fantastic sense of humour! I don’t think I had laughed so much in a long time!