At the border with Jordan, they took away five passports. I was the first to get mine back. The others — an American Palestinian, a British Palestinian, a London-born Turk, another Londoner who was half-Egyptian, and a young man from Manchester — were kept waiting until it was time to close the checkpoint. One or two had been called into a room and questioned; I’d only been asked to spell my grandfather’s name over and over again though I said he had nothing to do with this country.
We were a group from England — writers, a cameraman, a blogger, travelling for the sixth annual Palestine Festival of Literature. From the border we took the bus into what seemed to be no man’s terrain: rocks, deserts, a few villages, some Arab, some Israeli. And then we were in Area A, designated Palestinian Territories, signposted with a warning that no Israeli citizen should enter. (And yet they do. They pockmark the landscapes with their buildings, their antennae, their flags.)
We reached Ramallah, a haven on a hill. That evening, novelist Gillian Slovo read from her novels in a garden. She was accompanied by a singer and two musicians. When she left the stage, the haunting music went on; the garden was full of people, both local Europeans and Palestinian, moving around and sipping fresh fruit juice and coffee from paper cups. The breeze was bracing, cool. With just a stroke or two of the brush this picture could be changed into one of many literary gatherings I’ve attended.
The next morning, at Birzeit University, I met a group of students to talk about the short story. I soon realised they knew most of what I had to tell them and tried to go deeper. I read a passage from one of my stories and they all recognised the Surah Maryam from the Quran. The exchanges soon moved from the normal stuff of workshops to the subject of history and myth, experience and memory. One young woman in a headscarf said she’d had a very normal life — no relatives murdered, no one in prison or in exile, and yet she couldn’t escape history. A young man said he wrote Sufi parables to escape the absurdity of existence. He must have been about 19. As they left, he handed me a sheaf of stories.
Then, a few hours later, Qalandiya: one of the infamous checkpoints. Nothing I had heard or read had prepared me for the experience. Adolescent Israeli soldiers barking over mikes from their glass booths. Narrow corridors in which you waited until a green light came on and then you had to walk single file, dragging your luggage towards revolving gates so oddly angled and narrow that you were sometimes stuck in them with your suitcase as you tried to get through. At the other end, a boy behind a window told me three times to take my spectacles off while he checked my passport.
We reached East Jerusalem, and were driven to the neighbourhood called Shaikh Jarrah. Two women at a local community centre told us how people who’d been living here for decades had been chased out of their family homes on the pretext that they were settled there illegally, to make room for more and more settlers. They took us to meet Hajja Fatima, who had come back to Jerusalem after ’48 with her husband to live with her ailing parents. After their death she had been constantly beleaguered by the authorities who told her she had no right to live there. (Try to repair, rebuild, renovate and the Israeli authorities crack down and make you pay to undo what you’ve done.) As we walked away, I put my arm around Sara’s shoulder, the Palestinian-American I’d known for a day, who like many of us was crying.
We walked down the Via Dolorosa, lined with people selling fruit, spices and souvenirs, to the church where Jesus’s body had rested when he was taken down from the cross. A group of South Indian pilgrims bent, one by one, to kiss relics. Deeper, in the belly of the church, a choir of Armenian boys sang. At some point of their chant they began walking, still singing. When they stopped, a group of worshippers bent to touch the earth, kiss their fingers, and bring their fingers to their foreheads.
At the exit, another checkpoint. Behind me, I heard the sound of altercation: an Israeli soldier had grabbed the documents of Muna Hasan, the young activist who was with us, and pushed her back from the barrier when she took them from him. As she stepped away, a soldier with an American accent told her she had to go the long way round. I guessed that her Hebrew, though she wasn’t speaking it, was better than his.
The next morning we went to the Mount. I’d been told that we probably couldn’t visit Al-Aqsa, but as we entered the courtyard Sara and I looked at each other and decided to stand in the doorway to see if we could look in. An elderly man approached us and spoke to us in Arabic. “You want to go in?” Yes. “Go then.”
From the side, two young men called out and asked me to say a prayer as proof of my Muslim identity. I recited the Fatiha; after hearing me read the first two lines they let me pass. Epochs converged in the serene space of the mosque’s great hall where I stood for a few minutes.
We went to Bethlehem. As we got off our coach, a woman who looked as if she might have stepped out of a fashion magazine approached us and took us to the emporium where her family had been selling Christian souvenirs for decades. But Claire Anastas — that was her name — wasn’t selling us souvenirs. She was telling us about how she couldn’t enter parts of her own house because the Israelis had decreed them out of bounds. Too close to the wall. Her story had been honed and polished by multiple tellings; no one has done anything for her, to relieve her pain, and she seemed destined to endless repetition. Part of the house, I seem to remember, had once been a guest house, but now her business has slumped; hardly anyone visits that divided corner any more.
In front of her shop is the wall that cuts off a part of Bethlehem from its natives — the tomb of Rachel, the Jewish matriarch, lay beyond it. This wall was once a blank page, which residents of the town have covered now with their testimonies of exile and return. There are messages, too, from those who, like Claire and her family, refused to leave.
“What we all want is the right to live in dignity and safety, to live where we belong,” novelist Ibtisam Azem said as we looked over the rooftops of Hebron the next morning. “And the choice to leave freely, without constraint.” (I had first met Ibtisam the night before; she read from her work in Jerusalem, and spoke about the uses of documentary material for the imaginative writer. For some years she lived in Germany and then moved to New York.)
As we walked down the streets of Hebron to the mosque of Abraham, a child followed us and asked me in Arabic, “Ya Haj, where have you come from?” Ibtisam explained. When he heard I came from London, he remarked: “Why would you come here to Hebron, of all places?” His eyes were so blue they were almost violet. “It’s a ghost town,” his friend added in English.
It was indescribable. A settler woman dreamed that Sarah had once bathed from a well on a hall on the other side of the town’s main shopping street. So the settlers decided to take over the main part of the town. They blocked access to Palestinians who wanted to move from one part of the town to another. We walked through the main artery of the town, with its shops selling everything you can imagine. Above our heads were ugly additions settlers had built to old houses so that they could squat there. They liked to provoke the locals by flinging rubbish at them: broken bottles, rotting food and even excreta. As we looked above our heads we saw nets the locals had built to protect themselves from the shower of trash; they were burdened with detritus, as if some mad artist was trying to create a crazy installation to cover the entire town.
We passed through another checkpoint to get to the other side of Hebron. As we waited for the younger, darker members of our group to come through — this had become a predictable occurrence — an Israeli guard (they say there are two or three guards in the town for each settler) said: “Move away, they might throw stones.” “Who are they?” Gillian asked. “Oh, them,” the boy, who looked about 18, muttered as he moved away. And “they” were glaring down at us as we sat on the terrace of Issa Amro’s hilltop house; a man with a long orange beard and his guard (or two? I couldn’t tell because the afternoon sun was in my eyes.) Sometimes the guard would point his gun in our direction. The settlers are trying to chase the locals away from the hill. From the town.
In the ancient mosque, surrounded by the sanctuaries of Abraham and his family, I found myself praying again, every prayer I could remember, for freedom and protection and for the time the town would be safe and whole and undivided again.
Hebron, or al-Khalil as the locals call it, was a beautiful Palestinian town, with its winding lanes and its stone walls built to welcome the breeze in summer and give shelter from the wind in winter. And the people of the town are trying to rebuild it. As we walked down the streets, Walid, who was leading us through his city — or through those parts of it he could enter — remembered a young boy in his teens, deaf perhaps, who was shot down here for no reason. It was his birthday; his 17th, I think.
On the way back to Jerusalem, two Israeli soldiers jumped into our coach and wanted to see our passports. They seemed to have an instinct for spotting Palestinians, even a generation or two away from their origins. This time they targeted Ibtisam and started asking questions about her papers. She responded in what sounded like fluent, idiomatic Hebrew. After the usual delays, they let us pass.
In the evening we reached Haifa, where it was to be my turn to read from my work, but I was too drained to shower or change. I sat on the terrace and looked out at the sea, sipping a Turkish coffee. The concert hall was packed when we got there, late. The programme had been altered and I was one of the last to perform. The night before, writer Haneen Namnih, who had translated my story, ‘The Tree at the Limit,’ and poet Najwan Darwish, who had selected it for translation, had suggested I read it to the audience. Haneen, in particular, was taken by the story’s central image, of Sidrat-ul-Muntaha, the tree with the leaves on which the names of those who are to die are written. By the time I was on — between a ventriloquist and a violinist, as one of my companions later quipped — I was exhausted and wondering what relevance this imagistic fiction of another time in Pakistan, when religious scholars were accused of transgression for interpreting certain traditional stories as allegories, could have for my audience; I couldn’t tell, and I couldn’t hear the translation on the earphones. I hadn’t been writing since I got here, and though I was officially visiting the West Bank as a writer I hadn’t been thinking about writing at all. I told the audience I felt that it was an anticlimax to read a short story after everything I’d seen in the past three days.
But the next day we were back in Palestine, in the resplendent city of Nablus. In a courtyard we watched the sun set while the iconic band al-Turab played songs with inflections of jazz to an enormous audience. Many of the songs were poems set to music, some by Najwan who was supposed to make it from Jerusalem. Halfway through the concert we heard he had been held up at a checkpoint and wouldn’t be there. Basil, the lead singer, picked up his oud and sang a song that sounded like an ancient dirge, as if it had been crafted from stones and the memory of a river not far away.
The next night in Ramallah would be our last in Palestine. As I sat talking to Basil at dinner we heard Najwan had arrived. Their delayed performance took place in that garden in Ramallah.
I was thinking how, in these few days I’d been in their land, I’d heard Palestinians make music and poetry and stories, and on the way across the border Jerusalem-based journalist Maath Musleh had told me stories of the land from Ottoman times until the present. I’d kept expecting to hear the familiar lines “but you wouldn’t understand, you haven’t lived through this,” but instead I heard the opposite: stories that included the listener, songs that drew me in, poems that made me feel I lived within them.
Late that night, I was dropped at my hotel by poet and novelist Mustafa Mustafa, who had been asking me my impressions of his country and answering my questions. When I reached my London flat less than 20 hours later I had a message from him, continuing our conversation. I had been too busy to take notes on my trip, too absorbed in what was around me to write in my journal. So I thought I’d end this piece with his words. I want you to tell my Pakistani readers something about yourself, I said to him. Here is his reply:
“As a writer based in Jerusalem, I have an intense relationship with history. I feel that now, in a time of occupation and checkpoints, what I write is necessary in order to encapsulate and diffuse the present, but also how this period will be understood in the future.”