Monday 17 February 2014

Roads to nowhere

Apologies for the time between entries. I have three or four almost-finished articles reflecting on more abstract concepts about life here. Normalisation, law, society, politics and the like. At the moment, they are rambling collections of thoughts and anecdotes that are gradually taking shape. With luck they will turn into something readable and interesting, but for now they are a bit too self-indulgent to inflict upon the internet.

However, I would like to tell you about travelling here. Specifically, the difficulties we face, living in Abu Dis. As ever, I want to remind you that this is an occupation, not a war zone, and for the most part life is uncomplicated. This, of course, makes it all the more stark when the Occupation is encountered, particularly in its most physical form: the barrier that Israel euphemistically terms the ‘Security Fence’ and the Palestinian Authority calls the ‘Apartheid Wall’.

Before coming here I knew that Abu Dis was cut off from Jerusalem by the Wall but I only had a vague sense of the geography involved and such is the route that the bus takes, I still did not truly appreciate the imposition even after three trips into the city. To get to Jerusalem I take the number 36 from outside Al Quds University. It travels east, circuitously through Bethany, winding down through some stunning desert countryside, then past the Israeli Settlement of Ma’al Adumim, shortly after-which there is a checkpoint (where we disembark and show our passports to a taciturn soldier), before heading to the Damascus Gate. The journey takes around forty-five minutes.  I think it is the portion of countryside that is confusing. To someone like me who does not have a good sense of direction, it feels like Abu Dis is a small town, perched on a hillside five or ten miles clear from Jerusalem. This is not so.

Abu Dis and its neighbour Bethany are right next to Jerusalem. That is, they are almost no distance away. This became abundantly clear the other day when leaving the University.  We climbed a small hill, and from the top, we could see the great Jerusalem landmark and holy site of three religions, the Dome of the Rock. It was not, as I might have imagined, a tiny glimmer on the horizon, but instead immediately in front of us, closer than the Tower of London is to my house in Elephant & Castle. Were it not for the Wall, I would be able to walk to the Old City from the CADFA Guesthouse. This honestly surprised me, perhaps far more than it should have. I knew – or rather I had been told – that Abu Dis had been cut off, but what that meant did not sink in until that moment. It is ridiculous. As if Camden had been cut off from London by wall running along the Euston Road, forcing anyone wanting to visit the city to go via Dagenham. If they are allowed to go at all.

You might have noticed that I have decided to refer to the barrier as a Wall. Generally I try to use relatively neutral language; my job here is to report what I see, not to campaign. However, whilst I do not know enough yet to say whether the appellation ‘apartheid’, or indeed ‘security’ is appropriate, I do know a wall when I see one. Whilst it may very possibly be a fence elsewhere, in areas I have not been to, the edifice keeping the people of Abu Dis and other nearby communities away from Jerusalem is undoubtedly a wall.

Last night Lawson and I were taken on a walk by one of our friends to visit the Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany. It had a rained all day but the night was clear and lit by a full moon. The old medieval town looked particularly beautiful; the ancient church and sepulchre glimmering pale and ghostlike amidst the ruins of some ancient castle. I was, I admit, awestruck. This was a place I felt deeply privileged to be. People come from across the world to stand where I was, to walk where Christ himself walked two millennia ago. They come for a moment, in daylight and in crowds, and then leave. I was alone but for my friends, and in the moonlight. We walked a short distance away, only a couple of hundred yards, up a steep hill lined with great, silent buildings of pale yellow stone. I had just remarked to my friend that he lived in a very beautiful place when we rounded a corner and saw ahead of us the great eight metre-high, thick, stone concrete slabs, cutting directly across our path.

This is not a fence, in fact, even according to Israel, it is not even supposed to do the job of a fence, which is to delineate a boundary. It is a wall, it is there to confine, to inhibit movement, and it does not do it subtly. It towers menacingly more than twenty feet above my head, grim, grey and pitilessly immovable. Its great gates, dark metal and barred closed like those of a medieval fortress. This is how the road to Jerusalem terminates. 

- Dan