16 March, 1997.
security check I had by El Al (Israeli
airline) at Cairo Airport before boarding my 10.30 p.m. flight to Tel
very impressive – my first encounter with Israeli efficiency. Everybody
be checked, of course, but especially me. Why me? I don’t know. I
paper, I had looked a bit suspect – non-Jewish, a man travelling on his
week spent in Egypt with no stated purpose, intending a brief stay in
with no stated address, not knowing anybody in Israel, my passport
like a mug shot from the MOST WANTED list. First of all I was asked
questions about my recent travelling then if all the contents of my
mine. I was then asked to lay all those contents on the table in front
supervisor and his assistant. The seams of every item of clothing and
buckles and clips of my shoulder bag were fingered with the skill of a
professional safebreaker; my toothpaste tube and toothbrush were
my shoes taken away to be x-rayed. My body was searched behind closed
My camera and shaver, confiscated for “technical reasons,” were to
me unaccompanied in some other compartment of the plane. I knew one
the extra tight security was that this week there was to be the
the construction of a new Jewish housing settlement at Har Homa in
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
retrieved my camera and shaver, changed some money then stepped outside
temperature much colder than I was prepared for. A taxi-driver took me
hotel he knew in
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
Everyday, around the corner, there is a fruit and vegetable
like you find in the centre of most cities. Today, on my first day of
health and with a slight break in the weather, I amble out to do my
shopping. Direct from the cultivated farms of western
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,
furtive, impersonal embrace one sees on the streets of
Today, Friday, is the first of three days of annual celebration
Biblical occasion called Purim. The wind and rain of previous days have
departed allowing us this most beautiful one. It is a perfect day.
coming into the park and all along Sheinken Street and, again, it seems
everybody knows everybody, all laughing at one another’s fancy costumes
girls dressed as cats, vampires, Santa Clauses, school boys and nuns;
make great-looking Roman warriors or Egyptian pharaohs. A businessman,
car, noses his way through the crowd, flourishing a long stuck-on
moustache. I make my way to
Strolling around the market I meet Riki, yet another beautiful
is a regular stallholder and sells her own hand-dyed silk scarves. She
the neighbourhood and knows of some of the eccentrics that come into
marketplace. There is one passing by now - a whiskered old man shrugged
heavy overcoat, dangling from his nose a long rubber penis. He walks up
people and laughs in their faces. I offer Riki a fruit juice from the
nearby. A small crowd is gathering there. Everyone’s attention is drawn
T.V. screen mounted above. Something is wrong. On the screen is a scene
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
the person next to me to tell me what is happening. He tells me it is a
At a book reading about a year ago, in
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
desert that were passing by. He was doing the three years army service
eighteen-year old youth is conscripted to do (the young women do one
nine months). He was in uniform, armed with an Uzi rifle with a range
50 metres, about the same as a Palestinian rock thrower. Patrolling all
Tel Aviv each day the soldiers carry mostly the
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.
Entering the streets of Mea Shearim, the first settlement to be
The bus was making its stops along the way and these ultra
were boarding to go to the
As the bus was descending there was an exciting moment, between
when I got a glimpse of the
Just listen to this as a description of the
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
through another bag search by Israeli soldiers. The lanes of the bazaar
narrow as footpaths, crowded and, being covered mostly with muslin for
shading, subdued. Things for sale were mostly hand-made – bags,
carpets, clothing, incense and the like or farm-produced spices and
Beyond the end of corridors like this, framed by a stone archway,
in jalabi moved about in bright sunlight then further on, along another
stretch of lane, sloping upwards perhaps, the people were dark forms
This kind of modulation of light and shade, which I also remember in
of Marakesh and
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
Prime Minister” (
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
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?”
buy my clothes in
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
from this most sacred Mosque, I can see, incredibly, the back of the
Wall. And from my elevated position in the garden I can look eastwards,
the City wall, to the distant hills of the Mount of Olives and beyond
the Judean Desert towards Jericho, the oldest known habitation in the
There, also, is the northern tip of the
is another very important Mosque,
al-Aqsa, on that southern side of the garden. An Israeli I befriended,
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
courtyard, I could see, chiselled over somebody’s entrance door, some
Arabic ornamentation. I stepped into the corridor to be able to get a
look. Two young Palestinian boys, aged maybe 13 or 14, followed me in
jostling me. In the scuffle the smaller one behind me tugged at my
and shoulder bag then my back pocket. They forced me up against the
started pushing back, telling them they were being very stupid. The
looking one pulled a knife and snarled, “I kill you”. I was able to
force my way out just as another older boy came shouting at them. As
off he clipped them and then turned to me to brush the dust off my
thought, later, how ironic it would have been for me to be carrying a
slash across my face as a permanent souvenir of
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
southeast quarter of the
The whole of the Jewish Quarter is immaculately clean. I saw one
the quarter gentrified in white stone – modern banks, shops selling
clothing, designer jewellery, espresso and fast food. The people living
in post-modern apartments are mostly middle-class professionals, many
immigrants from the
“This saith the Lord of Hosts; there shall yet old men
and old women dwell in
the streets of
and every man with his staff in his hand for every age.
And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and
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
Finally, near the Damascus Gate, I was received by Raphael, a very
Palestinian Christian, who was the concierge at
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
around and meet them all. Hillel, Deganit’s architect husband, wearing
myopic spectacles and braces stretched over a colourful floral shirt,
very much at ease in his role as host. Seated alone outside, under a
could see Deganit’s mother, probably not used to this kind of social
was told she had lived in
Just then we were both called to lunch. I was privileged to be
guest invited to stay. As well as Deganit’s parents and son and
present so too were her lovely sister and niece down from
Hillel looked at his watch and said if we could leave soon he
surprise for me. I gulped down what I had and within twenty minutes I
myself climbing into the cockpit, clutching my camera, of a tiny
Cessna (a condition on Hillel’s pilot’s license is that he keeps up
At about 4,000 feet, clouds like big fish drifted around beneath us.
that zone would have given us excellent visibility but, for the sake of
the peace, it was forbidden. I could see enough of the city, though, to
to shoot two rolls of film. In the sprawling conglomerate below, the
demarcation of the
4 April 1997
On the bus, on my way back to Tel Aviv, a young woman soldier
next to me this time. When I told her I was from