On reading Greg Sheridan in Ramallah

The writers’ bus was about to enter the Qalandria checkpoint on the road from East Jerusalem to Ramallah in Occupied Palestine when it stopped beside a part of the Wall where a graffiti artist was at work. He had lined up his plastic cups of paint and brushes among the rubbish and was putting the finishing touches to a huge portrait of a smiling handcuffed Marwan Barghouti.1 The graffiti artist was working in full view of the watchtowers and waved to us. We wave back and take photos which we’ve been told not to do. But this was the real thing.

A busload of international writers and publishers and volunteers some of whom are Palestinian are here for the Palestine Festival of Literature. Which is a bit of a paradox since most of the literature is in English, mainly written by people who haven’t been here before and who want to see for themselves and show solidarity.

The opening evening in East Jerusalem at the Palestinian National Theatre had been shut down by police who threatened the manager with permanent closure. But the show went on thanks to the French Cultural Centre immediately offering its garden where visiting writers such Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Adhaj Soueif, Carmen Callil, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Jeremy Harding, M.G Vassanji and others were welcomed and everyone deplored the outrageous start – and the fact that the British Council under whose sponsor ship PalFest largely was had vanished on the night. The Palestinians present were more relaxed. This happens all the time, they said, telling us later that the streets around the Theatre were closed for hours to stop people coming but many found their way on foot packing the garden of the French Cultural Centre. And the frisson of fear the visitors felt at the sight of heavily armed police forcing the closure of a literary event didn’t hurt either. Next day Le Monde and the Belgian papers ran the story, You Tube and Al Jazeera had film and it would have made the Guardian and the Independent since many were contacting their contacts.

So it was inevitable that by the time we got to Qalandria checkpoint the next day that we and the bus would be thoroughly checked and delayed. Our luggage was opened, our handbags searched and passports slowly scrutinised by young girl soldiers with guns and cigarettes who took their time, Some writers tried making eye contact, others glared and muttered. After a long delay we were waved on.

But we were not given the same treatment as the people we could see through the wire, and the great Egyptian novelist and activist, Adhaf Soueif made sure we realised this. Palestinians were being herded through narrow passages with metal roofs like cages through iron turnstiles operated by guards in bullet proof rooms. All luggage, belts and bags were screened, everyone stripped of their identity, their passports, ID cards, permits applied placed on a shelf where the guard can see them and select some for interrogation. No one is guaranteed access. Decisions are made seemingly at random with the intention to harass. Checkpoints can be closed at a moment’s notice and people sent miles round to the next. This is the daily experience of students wanting to get to class or to work, visit family, get a pregnant woman to hospital, to an appointment of any kind. Since the checkpoints sprang up over fifty babies have been born in them and half have died.

Checkpoints and crossings are fiendishly designed to maximize their role as impediments to normal life. There are long uphill stretches, just wide enough for one person dragging a suitcase. The rotating iron gates are heavy and spiked and allow through three people at a time being locked or reversed by someone in watching a screen. You look up at the sky and there are cameras and watchtowers with someone in dark glasses looking down. The soldiers are very young and armed and the women, touting their guns like fashion accessories and flicking back their hair seem to be the harshest – on this day anyway. You want to ask them what they will say about this time of their lives to their children.

Qalandria is the newest ugly state-of-the-art means of crowd control and harassment in the name of security, like the entrance to a huge prison which East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories have become. Who designs such places? Palestinians with unemployment in many places at over 50 percent often have to build them and mix the concrete for the slabs that make up the wall now snaking throughout the West Bank. But the mind that confronts the computer screen and designs the wall that snakes around 400 kms of the west bank(check stats) and decides where the next squat watchtower will be, and goes home to his or her family for the Sabbatt. What kind of mind is that?

The settlements are the next shock – not settlements at all which can be easily dismantled, people resettled in Israel once it withdraws to it pre 1967 borders. They have even had a name change – to neighbourhoods or districts – often gated communities, row upon row of houses backing on to malls, encircling Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron, employing few Arabs and preferring to import labour from the Philippines and Pakistan.

Mohammed has volunteered to accompany us. He is a student of English Language and Literature at Birzeit University in Ramallah. He is a snappy dresser and today wears a Blues Brothers hat and a stripy button down shirt. He has a semantics exam the day we leave but he shows me he has downloaded his 365 pp text book onto his mobile phone which he glances at occasionally. He tells me his exam can wait as he is learning a lot just by travelling with us. He can practise his already excellent English and soon is joining in discussions and telling lots of jokes. But really it is us who is learning from him. He lives in East Jerusalem and must catch two buses and cross Qalandria every day. Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes four. Sometimes he is turned back. It costs more than 20 Shekels (about $3 ) a week and his fees are more than he can afford. So he does odd jobs and saves and …. can only come to study part time over five years. Then he says he will try to get permission to study overseas – in England he hopes but he will have no passport only a travel document and his family are here. He is Muslim but cannot go to the Al Asqa Mosque because young men have been banned for some time. Now only men over the age of 65 can go to pray at this third most sacred Muslim site. Small boys can go with their mothers and teachers.

Mohammed has ‘ a few friends who are Jews but I can’t trust their eyes if they are Zionists’. There were none at his school and none at Birzeit. He meets young Jewish men in the street and sometimes they talk, sometimes they play chess. As he gets to know us better his jokes get bluer – there are many about Syrian women who know how to seduce their husbands. Palestinian women are the opposite and rule the family, according to Mohammed. He intends to marry a Syrian of course.

On our first day in Ramallah we go to the house of Raja Shehada, the author of Palestinian Walks, a meditation on seven walks around the hills of Ramallah that he had taken all his life persisting as the settlements have spread and tracks have been closed or requiring permits. Raja, a lawyer who has fought cases through the courts for thirty years in an attempt to prevent the appropriations and closures has finally abandoned the struggle but will not leave.

He takes us for a long and arduous walk and a climb up the terraces through well tended olive trees. Mohammed takes the arm of those who need it and helps them climb the rock. He helps Carmen Callil up a steep incline as she declares herself the oldest present – ‘but you have the youngest soul’, says Mohammed, making her day.

Returning from Hebron and Bethlehem we have to go through Qalandria to East Jerusalem we were treated the same as everyone else. This was a relief and a nightmare as we trudged up the slope dragging our cases through the tunnel like a cage to the soundproof bullet proof rooms housing the Guards.

I was back on the bus privileged and despairing, when a friend from London handed me a copy of the May Australian Literary Review featuring Greg Sheridan’s article bedecked with an Israeli flag Israel Still Looks Good, Warts and All. Warts, he calls them. I fantasise about taking him on. But debating the likes of Greg Sheridan is pointless. He says he has been to Israel very often, blames the western Left for propagandising on behalf of Islam, and buys the whole militarist mindset. But I think he cannot have been to Palestine recently, if ever, when he suggests all we need to do is Google the Hamas Charter.

There are no two sides to this story. No left and no right. No middle. When human beings give way to paranoia and fear and hatred, there is only one side where all the children suffer.

February 2010

1 Given four life sentences for terrorism by the Israelis, but who a sizeable majority of Israelis believe should be swapped for their captured soldier Gilad Shalit, Marwan Barghouti represents the next generation of leadership, immensely popular and touted as a replacement for Marmoud Abbas as the next President of the Palestinian Authority.