Copyright by David Turner, Paris.

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ISRAEL.  1997

16 March, 1997.

          The security check I had by El Al (Israeli airline) at Cairo Airport before boarding my 10.30 p.m. flight to Tel Aviv was very impressive – my first encounter with Israeli efficiency. Everybody had to be checked, of course, but especially me. Why me? I don’t know. I suppose, on paper, I had looked a bit suspect – non-Jewish, a man travelling on his own, a week spent in Egypt with no stated purpose, intending a brief stay in Israel with no stated address, not knowing anybody in Israel, my passport photo looking like a mug shot from the MOST WANTED list. First of all I was asked many questions about my recent travelling then if all the contents of my bags were mine. I was then asked to lay all those contents on the table in front of the supervisor and his assistant. The seams of every item of clothing and the buckles and clips of my shoulder bag were fingered with the skill of a professional safebreaker; my toothpaste tube and toothbrush were inspected and my shoes taken away to be x-rayed. My body was searched behind closed curtains. My camera and shaver, confiscated for “technical reasons,” were to travel with me unaccompanied in some other compartment of the plane. I knew one reason for the extra tight security was that this week there was to be the commencement of the construction of a new Jewish housing settlement at Har Homa in southeast Jerusalem. When the newspapers first announced this proposal Palestinians expressed heated disapproval and Hezbolla warned of reprisals. This week, too, was to be the annual biblical celebration of Purim when, for three days, all the Israelis in Tel Aviv would crowd the streets and fill the stores and coffee shops – a terrorist’s delight. It had been the same occasion last year when a bomb ripped through a busy department store in the centre of Tel Aviv killing 22 Israeli Jews.

          Finally satisfied, to compensate for my exasperation and by way of apology for having had to put me through such a procedure, I was handed an invitation to go up and wait for my flight in the El Al V.I.P. lounge where I would be able to help myself to snacks and drinks and the lounge-chair comfort of English newspapers. I would have the peace-of-mind comfort, too, of knowing that with security like this I was probably going to have a safe flight. On my way to the lounge I walked through Egyptian PERSONNELL ONLY areas without even being noticed.

          Shuffling in the queue towards the plane I could see we were probably a full load - mostly Americans - business-suited men, black bearded and black attired orthodox Jews, tired kids, a large group of garrulous Christians - southern blacks mostly (“The Good News Is Jesus” brandished on their tee-shirts), going to celebrate Easter at the biblical Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In front of me was an Arabic-looking man with a thin moustache. No sooner was I in my allocated seat then a gorgeous hostess came to have me escorted down to the front of the plane to fly, for my first time, first class. She offered me a glass of Israeli red wine. Why me? I asked myself again.

          Needless to say, the flight had been uneventful.


          It was after midnight when we arrived in Tel Aviv. I got my bags, retrieved my camera and shaver, changed some money then stepped outside into a temperature much colder than I was prepared for. A taxi-driver took me to a hotel he knew in Disengorf Street, in the city centre – anything would do at that late hour.

          As if to spite me for my dislike of things in Cairo, like my exposure to the hot, heavily polluted air, the overcrowding of narrow footpaths and bus stops, the men’s shoving when a bus did finally come, the unchecked decay of old embellished buildings and appalling workmanship of the new, the incessant neurotic blowing of horns in standstill traffic and my own frustrating lack of the language – it managed to give me a parting sweet kiss of dysentery, probably that last doubtful snack at the airport though it could have been Luxor the day before.

           For my first three days in Tel Aviv the weather was blustery and rainy by day and nights of numbing cold.


19 March, 1997.

           I have lodging in a small family hostel near Sheinken Street in the central coffee shop area of Tel Aviv. I will probably keep this for the duration of my three weeks stay. It is O.K. In the entry foyer there is hanging a framed photograph of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism. My room above is small but airy and clean with a bed, a basin and a plain unsteady wardrobe bereft of coat hangers and whose doors have the teasing habit of swinging open each time I go near them, as if desperately wanting to embrace me as it had all the other travellers before me, I suppose, poor thing. Amos, who runs the place, is an affable, complicated simple man who talks too loudly. His whole body limps heavily away from the leg he had crushed ten years earlier in a car accident that had killed his wife and two friends. In conversation he often cuts you in mid-sentence to rather talk about some new personal frustration he is suffering. I commiserate. “Oh well, life goes on,” he sighs. I am his only guest for the first few days and he watches my comings and goings through a crack in the door.

          Everyday, around the corner, there is a fruit and vegetable marketplace like you find in the centre of most cities. Today, on my first day of regained health and with a slight break in the weather, I amble out to do my first shopping. Direct from the cultivated farms of western Israel the quality of the produce is first class and in such abundance. After Egypt it reminds me of my arrival at the first bus resting station in Finland in 1991 after a few weeks stay in Russia. The Finnish refreshment rooms were polished immaculate white tiles and chrome taps and the shop displayed the full range of everything Scandinavian – yoghurts, cheeses, unsweetened biscuits and robust, rich-coloured fruits, shining apples bursting like young bosoms - all the things I had been craving. A peculiarity I notice here, apart from melon-size grapefruit, is the display of carrots for juicing: in large, lidded glass jars of water and skinned, they seem to be exaggerated in colour and so large and uniformly cut they appear like laboratory clones.


21 March 1997.

          There are beautiful women to be found everywhere, of course, all over the world. In Tel Aviv, on my first morning, I thought I was just having an exceptionally good day but by evening I realised it was a national trait. Jews have flocked here since the middle of the nineteenth century from all over Europe - the blue-eyed blonde Ashkenazis from the Eastern European countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany and Lithuania, and the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Morocco – dark-skinned and with copious black hair, curled or tightly crimped, gathered behind into a bunch wild as brambles, sometimes wisps of it escaping around the face, turning them into gypsies. A marriage of both of these groups produces the people I see walking the streets of Tel Aviv today. There is not only strength of character in their faces there is exuberance in their expression. The Israeli woman is seldom reticent and would never cultivate a look of dumb demureness - she is intelligent and she looks it. She is very feminine but it is a strong kind of femininity. She is affectionate and fun loving but also self-assured. Young men, too, are handsome, show early maturity, welcome conversation and are polite and intelligent. They feel their Jewishness strongly. Everywhere, these days, you see armed uniformed teenagers, girlfriends and boyfriends, patrolling the streets, groups of them in town squares, in buses, on rooftops. The politicians wrangle.

          When the young meet they do so with an embrace, a real embrace, not the furtive, impersonal embrace one sees on the streets of Paris. They run into one another and shriek with joy. They throw their arms around one another and hug with a long, strong affectionate hug as if it were a homecoming. It is, in a way. They are family. Everybody, it seems, can find a connection through family, either here or abroad. But just being Jewish is enough. They are all in the same stream of history. Through memories they share the weight of a heavy past, they suffer the tensions of today’s reality and fear the uncertainties of their tomorrows. At the heart of the Jewish embrace, it seems to me, there is something desperate and tragic.

          Today, Friday, is the first of three days of annual celebration of the Biblical occasion called Purim. The wind and rain of previous days have departed allowing us this most beautiful one. It is a perfect day. Crowds are coming into the park and all along Sheinken Street and, again, it seems everybody knows everybody, all laughing at one another’s fancy costumes – the girls dressed as cats, vampires, Santa Clauses, school boys and nuns; the men make great-looking Roman warriors or Egyptian pharaohs. A businessman, in his car, noses his way through the crowd, flourishing a long stuck-on curlicue moustache. I make my way to Nahalat Binyamin Street, recently cleared of all its cars to become the central flea market. All the coffee shops are crowded out onto the streets, so to be able to sit and see the passing parade, I decide to order a breakfast omelette. I am welcomed at a table by four others and we all enjoy the spirit of the occasion. The breakfast is delicious – so good to have regained my appetite.

          Strolling around the market I meet Riki, yet another beautiful lady. She is a regular stallholder and sells her own hand-dyed silk scarves. She lives in the neighbourhood and knows of some of the eccentrics that come into the marketplace. There is one passing by now - a whiskered old man shrugged in a heavy overcoat, dangling from his nose a long rubber penis. He walks up to people and laughs in their faces. I offer Riki a fruit juice from the shop nearby. A small crowd is gathering there. Everyone’s attention is drawn to a T.V. screen mounted above. Something is wrong. On the screen is a scene of panic, a street scene. Jesus, there has been an explosion, it must be a terrorist attack, I can see people being rushed away on stretchers. I command the person next to me to tell me what is happening. He tells me it is a coffee shop on David Ben Gurion Street, a few hundred metres away – a suicide bomber has just blown the place up. Now I can actually hear the police sirens. I can’t believe this is happening just around the corner. I look into the faces of the people around me and none of them are showing the panic I am feeling, just quiet sadness. While politicians continue to wrangle this has become a way of life.


          At a book reading about a year ago, in Paris, I noticed in the audience, a lady with a lovely, interesting face. In the gathering after the reading I found the opportunity to meet and talk with her. Her name was Deganit and she was from Jerusalem. In Paris she was staying at the Cite des Arts developing her skills in making sculptured jewellery. We saw one another only a few times over the following months. On the last occasion just before her departure, she invited me, if I should ever be in Jerusalem, to go to visit her and meet her family. I rang her yesterday and she sounded pleased. She said if I could make it to their home by 11.00 a.m. Sunday, I would be able to join her, her family and about fifty friends in a musical recital. Yes, I would love to go. It was only about one hour away by bus.


24 March 1997.

          On the early bus my attention was divided between the conversation I was having with the young soldier seated beside me and the barren hills of rocky desert that were passing by. He was doing the three years army service every eighteen-year old youth is conscripted to do (the young women do one year and nine months). He was in uniform, armed with an Uzi rifle with a range of only 50 metres, about the same as a Palestinian rock thrower. Patrolling all through Tel Aviv each day the soldiers carry mostly the U.S. made M16’s - much more lethal. He was taking a one-day leave from duty in Tel Aviv to be with his family who lived just south of Jerusalem. In conversation he was friendly, intelligent and responded carefully to the questions I asked him. He didn’t like having to be in the army, he said, but, even if he had been given the choice, in the circumstances, it was what he wanted to do, had to do. He would shame his parents, he thought, his country and himself, as well as the many Jews who had fought and died in their struggle for Israel, the homeland, if he avoided his duty. He had a great love for Israel, he said.

          Barren hills persisted, no villages, not even a single farmhouse. Sometimes a clump of cypresses or a single olive tree had managed to break their way through. Vinyards and figs might be possible here, certainly lizards and scorpions.

          Approaching Jerusalem, new apartment blocks, some still under construction, appeared spasmodically on the hills and then many more began to conglomerate in the valleys. We stopped at the outskirts of Jerusalem where I had to change buses.

          Entering the streets of Mea Shearim, the first settlement to be built outside the Old City a hundred years ago, I saw a ghetto way of life there that has never changed. Winding our way through its narrow, unguttered streets I saw peddlers, beggars, quacks and bent-over old people making their ways on sticks, others carrying heavy bags or wheeling barrows, resembling more the life-style that existed for centuries in the ghettos of Eastern Europe. This was the ultra orthodox Jewish way of life. Small, black holes for windows served airless overcrowded rooms of the Yeshivas that accommodated the disciples of the ultra doctrines engaged in full-time study and worship. They don’t pray or study in the commonly spoken Hebrew but only in Yiddish, the archaic language of their East European origins. Their savage bigotry and fanatical intolerance of other worlds of thought or ways of life, where any change is considered evil, places them in the far right of Israeli politics. I was tempted to jump out of the bus to take photographs but thought I might get pelted with stones. What a strange sight for me, to have seen so many of the townspeople dressed in their customary attire. I had seen some of this before in the Jewish quarter of Paris - black mormon-length coats or silk caftans belted and tied at the waist like a dressing gown and some with the cuffs of their trousers tucked into knee high socks that were sometimes black, sometimes white. Some of the people donned black, wide-brimmed hats like Roman cardinals, some black Homburgs, others wide thick cylindrical hats of fur, others still just the simple kippa, a knitted skullcap of pure wool. Typically, their faces are as pale as lard with full bushy black beards and heavy black-framed spectacles; sometimes, strangest of all, a single shoulder-length ringlet dangles down each side. The young boys are little-men versions of this, as much as they can be made to be. The moderate Jews refer to these ultra orthodox devotees as “penguins.”

          The bus was making its stops along the way and these ultra orthodox people were boarding to go to the Old City to make their daily prayers at the Wailing Wall, the only remaining remnant of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. They were all seated singly with their holy books open before them (The Talmud or The Old Testament). Not seeing anything else their lips earnestly recited the passages over and over. I caught myself staring at them like an innocent child does when fascinated by an unfortunate person with some obvious kind of affliction. The teenage girl opposite me had her eyes tightly closed while she memorised passages, nodding as if in a mesmeric trance. Around the head of the pretty lady from the Middle Ages was a black scarf, indicating she was married into orthodoxy. She, too, was reciting in whispers and, sensing my curiosity, catching my gaze, she gave me a lovely smile then went back and was reabsorbed. I had the Jerusalem Post on my lap and returned to reading about the grim situation in Jerusalem as it was on this day and she still had not progressed beyond the beginning of Jewish Monotheism of three thousand years ago.

          As the bus was descending there was an exciting moment, between two houses, when I got a glimpse of the Old City. Then, rounding a bend, it was there again, flecked in some trees this time. Suddenly, as we swing onto the open road, it is all there laid out before me, in a ravine, dazzling in its whiteness, an ancient archaeological treasure, Jerusalem! What a great moment in my life. I can see it is set amongst hills, the city appearing to have tumbled into the ravine. Not much larger than a small suburb, a massive wall snakes all around it in a protective embrace. Churches, mosques, more than a thousand synagogues, the vaulted humps of the bazaars and the parapets of flat-roofed houses all densely packed and staggered made a fantastic sight. It was near midday and the city, without its shadows, only bright light reflecting off white stone, was literally dazzling. And there, just to the left, with its infinitely bright white point of reflection, is the City’s most prominent feature, the golden dome of the 2,600-year old Mosque of Omar. My eyes devour everything. All down the banks sloping towards the city is the litter of what looks like stone rubble. My finger on the map finds this to be one of the vast burial grounds, the Necropolis. Around the City Wall the only breaches are the eight huge double wooden gates. It is the same wall the Romans scaled in the year 70 to cast the Jews out; the same one the Crusaders scaled in 1099 to massacre the Jews and Moslems and the same one from which the Palestinian youths of today, with slings like David used against Goliath, pelt with stones the Israeli armoured police cars. During 4,000 years there have been at least eleven transitions from one warring religion to another – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, again the Egyptians and again the Turks. They have all come with swords and territorial ambitions. Why? I kept asking myself. Why, for this barren, remote piece of desert, has so much blood been shed for so long? In 1917, the British had their turn and withdrew in 1948, leaving the Jordanians to come in with the Palestinians to do battle against the Jews. In 1967 it was Egypt, once again, with Syria and Jordan against Israel, resulting in a most amazingly swift victory for the Jews (and their American supporters). Today it is the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians (with Syrian backing) against one another for land they all claim to be theirs.

          Just listen to this as a description of the Old City as it is today – it is hardly believable:

          It is sharply divided by invisible boundaries into four quarters: the Moslem quarter, having the largest area and the Christian, Jewish and, of all things, Armenian quarters, all about equal. Each quarter has its own religion, its own distinctive tongue, or tongues; each comes with its own particular alphabet. Within each quarter there are divisions and subdivisions. The principal languages are Hebrew, Arabic and Armenian. Greek, French, Yiddish, English, Latin, Assyrian-Syriac (the language spoken by Jesus), Russian and Ethiopian are also spoken. Thirty religious denominations worshipping in at least fifteen national languages and seven different alphabets congregate within these few hectares. The two main national and religious groups – the Israelis and Palestinians – live completely apart within the city and are one another’s bitterest enemies. Each can walk routes in the city where they know they will never see one another. There are three holy days each week, one for each main religion: firstly on Sundays there is the tolling of different bells that roll over all the rooftops all day while processions of Christians wind through the narrow lanes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the second holiday, every Saturday, is the Jewish Sabbath – sirens herald its beginning shortly before sunset each Friday afternoon and all Jewish commercial life closes, more than a thousand synagogues in the Jewish parts of the city fill up. Friday is the Moslem holy day when the call of the muezzin, amplified from the minarets of the mosques, floats over the city like a thin veil of silk, drawing the faithful to pray under the golden dome of The Mosque of Omar. This mosque is the third-most sacred Moslem site in the world. It is known to the Jews as the Dome of the Rock and is built on the same site of what was the first Jewish temple built by King Solomon three thousand years ago, making it, for the Jews, the most sacred Jewish site in the world, a complication that seems to be insurmountable. It was the site also, so it is claimed, of the Garden of Eden, where the creation of the world began and where, it is sometimes conjectured, with the ongoing struggle over Jerusalem, particularly over this Jewish/Moslem site, the world’s next war will begin and consequently the world’s end.

          My bus pulled up beside the Dung Gate, the entry into the Jewish quarter. To enter I had to have my bag searched by Israeli soldiers. On entering I found I could look down to the massive stone wall, the Wailing Wall, believed to be the only remains of the original Jewish Temple, its large Plaza spacious enough for a congregation of maybe 10,000 visitors and worshippers. Each Saturday thousands of local and overseas Jews visit the Wall to pray, standing next to it, facing it, nodding and whispering to it, alone, sometimes tucking folded bits of paper scribbled with prayers or pleas for help into hollow joints between its enormous stones – a kind of letter-box to God – for me a strange sight. A family had gathered there to celebrate a young man’s bar mitzvah. There were thousands of tourists behind a barrier looking on and taking photographs. High up on the parapets there were a few armed Israeli soldiers that nobody seemed to notice, keeping constant vigilance.

          To get out of the Jewish quarter into the Moslem quarter I had to go through another bag search by Israeli soldiers. The lanes of the bazaar were as narrow as footpaths, crowded and, being covered mostly with muslin for sun shading, subdued. Things for sale were mostly hand-made – bags, sandals, carpets, clothing, incense and the like or farm-produced spices and herbs. Beyond the end of corridors like this, framed by a stone archway, turbaned men in jalabi moved about in bright sunlight then further on, along another subdued stretch of lane, sloping upwards perhaps, the people were dark forms again. This kind of modulation of light and shade, which I also remember in the suks of Marakesh and Istanbul is a quality hardly exploited by today’s architects.

          Away from the bazaar, in the living areas of the Moslem quarter, the walls of the houses, which create the lanes, were typically crumbling and falling down. Some were gone. Over an arched doorway into somebody’s home there was carved into its headstone an intricate design of Arabic geometry and painted above that some beautiful Arabic script. I was surprised to see, further on, behind a window, a Jewish flag was gamely displayed as a curtain. The glass of the window was smashed. Kids living in the neighbourhood were kicking a plastic ball about, others breaking up some thrown-out furniture to carry home for firewood. As I approached the main entry gate into the garden of the gold-domed Mosque of Omar, in a deep open drainage culvert along the way, in still acid-green water, there was accumulation of neighbourhood garbage.

          I learned at the gates I had to wait for half an hour till prayers are finished before I can enter the holy grounds. A Palestinian stallholder nearby was selling postcards and coloured film. As an excuse to meet him I asked if he had any black and white film. I told him I was Australian and was waiting for the Mosque to open, would he mind talking with me? He smiled, pulled up a stool and asked me if I would like some tea. I accepted. The name he gave me was Mike. He was a big man with a moderately successful look. His family has lived within the City for 70 years, he told me. The Jews have offered to buy his home but he refuses to sell. He knows others are selling and he wants to cut their throats. Seven years ago he was offered US$90,000 - today he is being offered US$3 million. But he will never sell, he tells me. The Palestinians, one day, will get back the land that has always been theirs – it is written in the Koran, he assured me. (Many Jews interpret their holy book, the Talmud, in a similar way for themselves).

           “The Jews of Israel will all be destroyed and the land will come back. We will fight till it does, without Arafat, if necessary. He is not only a bad politician but a bad soldier – he doesn’t know how to fight.”

     Mike becomes red with anguish as he shifts from one position to another.

          “Hussain, too, was a traitor for coming over to lick the arse of the Jew Prime Minister” (Jordan’s prime minister came to give his condolences and regrets for the shooting the previous week of seven Israeli girls by a crazed Jordanian soldier).

     I asked him what he thinks the Palestinians would accept as a reasonable settlement offer to end the conflict.

          “All of it!” he shouts.

          “All of what?”

          “All that is ours - all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

     He knows, of course, that is not possible. The street-wise Palestinians have only sticks and stones, the Jews, master strategists, have guns and tanks, the most sophisticated army in the world and the support of the world’s most powerful nation. Of course, in an all-out battle, the Arab world would possibly close ranks, in which case, in the end, there would probably be nothing left for anybody. In Mike’s view that would be preferable to the present situation. I suggest a peace settlement involving a compromise on land could be a solution but he isn’t even listening to me anymore. He is brimming with hatred and is really only thinking revenge. After a tense pause Mike leans my way so nobody else can hear and says, in his gruff voice,

          “There will be an explosion in Tel Aviv this weekend, for sure, you’ll see.”

          I decided that what I hoped would be a sensible discussion was over so I headed towards the Mosque where the gates were just opening. I turned to him with one more question:

          .“Why, Mike, since you feel so strongly about your land and your people, do you choose to wear western style clothing instead of the kaffiyeh that Yasser Arafat is never seen without?”

          “I buy my clothes in Canada,” he replied, “and I prefer this style.”

          To enter the gates I had to have my bags searched again by Israeli soldiers.

          It is quieter in here - the other tourists have not yet arrived but also because the Mosque, elevated on a huge rock podium, is in the middle of an enclosed level garden the size of a playing field. Olive trees grow in groves - symbolically, it seems, each one is stooped, gnarled, scarred and twisted into grotesque forms of old age. The ground is scattered with the same chips of white stone I saw from the bus. I picked up a few to study their subtle tinges of grey and pink and, for a souvenir, put the nicest one in my pocket.

          Over at the southern corner of the garden, a literal stone’s throw away from this most sacred Mosque, I can see, incredibly, the back of the Wailing Wall. And from my elevated position in the garden I can look eastwards, over the City wall, to the distant hills of the Mount of Olives and beyond that into the Judean Desert towards Jericho, the oldest known habitation in the world. There, also, is the northern tip of the Dead Sea, in the Syrian rift valley, 820 feet below sea level, the lowest spot on Earth. Just beyond this, about twenty miles from where I am standing, is Jordan.

          There is another very important Mosque, al-Aqsa, on that southern side of the garden. An Israeli I befriended, who left Sydney to live in Tel Aviv, told me the story of how, one morning, in 1969, a mentally disturbed twenty nine year old Australian named Denis Rohan stuffed wads of kerosene-soaked cotton under the wooden pulpit of al-Aqsa and set fire to it. In addition to this exquisitely carved pulpit the dome and ceilings were all destroyed. Rohan was a member of a Protestant Christian sect who was “called” by the Radio Church of God in Australia to remove this abomination so as not to delay any longer the Second Coming of Christ. The Moslem world, of course, believed it was a Jewish conspiracy of premeditated arson. Incensed crowds from Morocco to Pakistan clamoured for jihad. A preacher on Radio Bagdad announced that rivers of blood would not atone for this unspeakable outrage. Things almost got dangerously out of control, very.

          Here, now, in the garden, there are only the sounds of a few small birds. There are only a few people. Over there two Moslem women are seated talking together. I wonder what they could tell me about their lives. I go and smile a hullo to them and begin to speak but, predictably, politely, smilingly they retreat behind their protective veils and wave me away. I was infringing on their customs, apparently, but they probably could not speak English anyway. The Jewish women I had met were as about opposite as you could find – very open and very willing to talk about any subject, but then, most of them I had met in coffee shops, not in a synagogue.

          I take some photographs of the surrounding hills and urban expansion. Just when I am ready to go and see inside the Mosque I am being shouted at by the Israeli soldiers at the gate, they are angrily waving me towards them because the visiting hour is over.


          I stopped an orthodox Jew hurrying on a main street in the Moslem Quarter. I wanted to ask why he thought, since there were so many Israeli flags draped on walls and flying from rooftops all around the Moslem Quarter, there were no Palestinian flags.

          “Because it is Israeli territory,” he said, “and, therefore, it is forbidden. What some people refer to as the “MoslemQuarter” does not exist. It is an area that the Moslems may inhabit but they must also never forget that it is only because we give them permission to do so.”

          From one of the back streets, through a vaulted corridor, across a small courtyard, I could see, chiselled over somebody’s entrance door, some beautiful Arabic ornamentation. I stepped into the corridor to be able to get a closer look. Two young Palestinian boys, aged maybe 13 or 14, followed me in and began jostling me. In the scuffle the smaller one behind me tugged at my camera strap and shoulder bag then my back pocket. They forced me up against the wall. I started pushing back, telling them they were being very stupid. The meaner looking one pulled a knife and snarled, “I kill you”. I was able to quickly force my way out just as another older boy came shouting at them. As they ran off he clipped them and then turned to me to brush the dust off my back. I thought, later, how ironic it would have been for me to be carrying a clean slash across my face as a permanent souvenir of Jerusalem.

          Leaving this Quarter I began to make my way towards the Christian precinct to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, choosing to walk back through the Jewish Quarter. Within this narrow triangle formed by the Mosque of Omar, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre these three extremes of creed represent practically all the religion of the eastern and western worlds. I was beginning to feel, going from one site to another, that I had come into the Great Museum of Religions.

           In 1948, when the Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and took this southeast quarter of the Old City, the Jewish Quarter, the occupying Jews were forced out. The quarter was looted and burned by the mob, major synagogues were razed, street names were obliterated and homes dynamited by the Jordanian army. But then, in 1967, with the reversal of fortune resulting from the Six Day War against all the surrounding Arab countries, the Jews of Israel became more powerful than ever before. The Israelis not only gained back their quarter of the Old City but also annexed the Sinai Desert and the Gaza strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and all that part of Jordan from the west side of the Jordan River, known, though not internationally recognised, as the West Bank. They are determined that their quarter and as much of East Jerusalem and the West Bank they can keep for themselves shall be locked into Israel forever. Since then huge housing estates, great synagogues, the House of Parliament, high office buildings, hotels, university halls and museums have all been built by a public housing company on ground mostly expropriated from Arab owners.

          The whole of the Jewish Quarter is immaculately clean. I saw one part of the quarter gentrified in white stone – modern banks, shops selling fashionable clothing, designer jewellery, espresso and fast food. The people living there in post-modern apartments are mostly middle-class professionals, many immigrants from the U.S.A. and born-again Jews, like the young man from Los Angeles with the incipient ultra beard studying in one of the many religious seminaries, who kindly accompanied me to find a cash distributor outlet. I walked across some grass to a quiet place to see engraved on a sunlit wall the following inscription from Zechariah:

                      “This saith the Lord of Hosts; there shall yet old men

                        and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem,

                        and every man with his staff in his hand for every age.

                        And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and

                        girls playing.”

          I remembered the Palestinian kids playing in their dirty alleyways, kicking their plastic ball around; the tiny stalls selling cellophane packets of local spices and locally crafted leather bags and sandals, tee shirts and fake antiques; even Mike, with his postcards on just the other side of the Wall and wondered what chance they might have for an improved future.


          The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, actually a domed basilica, has nothing of the architectural scale of St. Peter’s in Rome or St. Paul’s in London but in terms of its Christian significance it is enormous. It is the site of the burial and resurrection of Christ. Christians have worshipped here since its construction by the Byzantines in the year 335. A continuous stream of tourists pass through its main door then eddy around the Stone of Unction, a flat pinkish stone slab on the floor where Christ’s body is said to have been laid from the Cross, then cross over to the stone tomb from which He was said to have resurrected (had it not been for the steel frame bolted around it it surely would have collapsed by now), then fumble their way through disconnected chapels in semi-darkness, stirring the thick incense, then file down a maze of corridors into the darkness of Adam’s tomb, finally to stream out again into the forecourt, to be surrounded by kids eagerly selling, for one U.S. dollar, books of folded cards of what they had just seen, before hopping on the buses waiting to take them up to the Mount of Olives. I myself arrived in the inside darkness at five minutes to four, just in time to see a procession of a dozen or so catholic monks mount some narrow steps to a mezzanine, singing, in lovely harmony, in Latin, a Gregorian Chant. During the singing, which continued for half an hour, a monk from the balustrade hissed down at the crowds of tourists below for more quiet. Then they descended and they, too, were swallowed by the darkness except the one who stayed behind. He had a thin handsome face, long hair gathered behind and the kindest, most professionally engaging smile I have ever seen. I asked him when one might have another opportunity to hear such beautiful singing. He told me that because so many Christian religious orders come for service, each must be allocated its time and place within the church. There are the Benedictines from France, Franciscans from Italy, Armenians, Greeks, Russians, Syrians and the kindest, gentlest looking Ethiopians (I took some very nice portrait photos of some), who have been banished to a confined space up in the roof by their adversaries, the Copts. Each order wears different habits and toll different bells, the noisy clanking coming from the rooftops while we were talking, sounding more like saucepans, was the Ethiopians’. Finally, in answer to my question, he told me one could come every day at 5 minutes to 4 to hear Gregorian Chants.


          At this stage I was beginning to feel the fatigue of trying to take in so much of a history stacked with so many layers of wars, religions and nationalities. I decided I had had enough for one day and would look for somewhere I could stay for the night.

          Being the week of Easter I found that hotel after hotel was booked out. Finally, near the Damascus Gate, I was received by Raphael, a very humble Palestinian Christian, who was the concierge at St. Thomas’s Hospice. This particular religious group makes up only 2% of the Jerusalem Christian population. Later, after taking a shower, on my way out for dinner, I found him alone at the reception looking rather bored so I was able to engage him in some friendly conversation. Although he was born in Jerusalem he has never been granted citizenship. His two sons and daughter, like him, have only I.D. cards. He told me, without any show of bitterness, of the Israeli practice of stripping non-Jews, particularly the east Jerusalem Arabs, of their legal papers. This began in the last months of the previous government and had increased since Benyamin Netanyahu came to power, transforming those affected into illegal immigrants in the city of their birth. Raphael said he was now convinced that Israel intends to impose its will instead of negotiating, as promised, on the Holy city’s future. His daughter will soon go to Ramallah, about 20 kilometres north of Jerusalem, to marry. Under the new restrictions being imposed she would not be able to return to Jerusalem with her husband. She, by herself, would never be permitted to return if she is away longer than the two-year limit. If Raphael were to want to visit them in Ramallah he would also be subjected to the same restrictions.

          I also had my territorial rules to abide by at the Hospice: the gate each evening closed promptly at 10 p.m. and anybody arriving back after that hour would remain locked out. Raphael, bless him, did me the special favour that evening, after having dined with Hillel and Deganit and their two friends, Ulrich and Tamar, of letting me sneak in around midnight.


30 March 1997

          This was the morning I was expected at the home of Deganit and her family to meet them and listen to a musical recital.

          Well, I just made it by the appointed hour of 11 a.m. and was immediately and warmly welcomed. Their rather spacious beautiful home was mostly concealed in an informal bush garden. There was not much time so introductions were brief before the concert began. While the two young musicians, twin sisters, very well rehearsed, played beautifully duets for piano and cello, bright sun pierced its way through a mesh of vines covering full-height windows and warmed the carpet. Peeping at us from behind leaves, curious about the new sounds, a variety of small birds came and went, the sun intensifying their yellows and flashing their purple gloss. The room gave place also for modern paintings, suspended architectural sculptures and figurative ceramics, probably acquired at some friends’ galleries. Seated all around me were the other guests, about forty – New England-looking academics, tufts of bearded Bohemia, independent-looking women comfortably off, all fresh, relaxed, showing pleasure as the girls joined hands and joyfully skipped their way through fields of Beethoven, deeper concentration on the less coherent architecture of Benjamin Britten.

          After the recital drinks were served. Everybody seemed to be one another’s friend so it was easy for me, with Deganit’s help, to butterfly around and meet them all. Hillel, Deganit’s architect husband, wearing heavy myopic spectacles and braces stretched over a colourful floral shirt, seemed very much at ease in his role as host. Seated alone outside, under a tree, I could see Deganit’s mother, probably not used to this kind of social life. I was told she had lived in Israel most of her life so I wanted very much to meet her. I went to her. The first most important thing she wanted to tell me about was how, only recently, she had taken up painting. In halting but passionate English, she told me how, everyday, painting had become a force in her life, discovering colour as if it had become some new fashionable luxury. When I told her I would love to see her work sometime she became bashful. I noticed in her hair there was snared a small yellow flower. She described her younger years, the pioneering years of the new settlers, when she and her husband helped to administer a kibbutz in northern Israel, perhaps what became the model for the hippy communes of America. Deganit was born in the kibbutz and raised there till the age of seven. Now the old lady and her husband were living north of Haifa in virtual seclusion.

          Just then we were both called to lunch. I was privileged to be the only guest invited to stay. As well as Deganit’s parents and son and daughter being present so too were her lovely sister and niece down from Geneva. Lunch began with a preparation of succulent artichokes. Over lunch I was to learn more about life on a kibbutz.

          Hillel looked at his watch and said if we could leave soon he had a surprise for me. I gulped down what I had and within twenty minutes I found myself climbing into the cockpit, clutching my camera, of a tiny two-seater Cessna (a condition on Hillel’s pilot’s license is that he keeps up regular practice). At about 4,000 feet, clouds like big fish drifted around beneath us. Flying below that zone would have given us excellent visibility but, for the sake of keeping the peace, it was forbidden. I could see enough of the city, though, to be able to shoot two rolls of film. In the sprawling conglomerate below, the demarcation of the Old City was the first landmark I looked for and there it was, quite visible, the clearly scribed polygonal outline of theWall. It rides atop deep ravines along the eastern and southern sides then slides away to the west down into the pastoral-looking Valley of Hinnon. The land all across the northern side of the City was a plateau making the Wall strategically more vulnerable. Hillel pointed this out to me because it was from this direction that most conquerors during the last two and a half thousand years, from Nebuchadnezzar to Dayan, chose to attack. Contrasting with the rubble texture of most of the City was an expanse of open space in the south-east corner, the garden setting of the two mosques, al- Aqsa and again the dominant golden domed Mosque of Omar – a stunning view. The Jewish Quarter was easily discernable by its white newness – nearly all of it was rebuilt since its destruction during the Jordanian and Palestinian occupation between 1948 and 1967 - a building covenant requires every new building to be finished externally with the local white stone. Next there was the thick, heavy line of the Wailing Wall separating the Jews from the Moslems. Amazing from this height to be able to see tombs and graves covering the whole western slope of Mount of Olives like a spread of marble chipped gravel. The City is ringed with cemeteries to the south, east and west, some of them, stretching back as far as the eighth century, are the oldest in the Near East. Others are new and still spreading. Three buildings that represent Israel’s main preoccupations – politics, education and history – are built near one another, commanding city views from their eastern heights: The Knesset, Qiryat University and the Israel Museum. Here and there there seem to be desperate attempts at creating parkland forestation but not enough to realise the oasis city it perhaps envisions. Outside the Old City, reaching further into the desert and surrounding hills, I could see the enormous scope of new development that has taken place during the last thirty years. New roads snake their way all through and around the upper contours, apartment blocks linked together coming around bends like train carriages. The hillsides formed with steppes reminded me of Balinese rice paddies.


4 April 1997

          On the bus, on my way back to Tel Aviv, a young woman soldier was seated next to me this time. When I told her I was from Australia she lit up and wanted me to tell her all about what it was like there. For the whole hour-long trip I told her about our history - our colonial beginning to our multi-cultural present. Pulling into the bus station she told me how much she was looking forward to finishing her duty in the army so she could begin her search for a worthwhile vocation in what she hoped for most of all – a peaceful world.

          “Like Australia,” she said.

                                                                                                                                                        David Turner.


                                                                                                                                                        April, 1997.