In February 2005, Ishtiyaq Shukri’s novel The Silent Minaret, won the first European Union Literacy Award for first novel by a South African writer. The novel ends at Israel’s Apartheid Wall in Qalqilya. Here, in his first essay following the award, Shukri travels to The Wall in Palestine to see the fact that informed his fiction.
London, Sunday 11th September 2005
In his foreword to Arundhati Roy’s collection of essays, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, John Berger writes, “On 11 September 2001, the pilots who attacked New York and Washington put an end for ever to a ‘normalcy’, and thus to a sense of security, which had prevailed in the First World since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (Let us note in passing how the rich are called the First.) This ‘normalcy’ lived hand in glove with extremities of humiliation, poverty and suffering which were and still remain each day comparable in their extremity to what happened that morning when the Trade Centre, the hub of the new world economic order, crumbled.”
I am reminded of Berger’s comments writing as I am, at my desk in London on the fourth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington. I am aware that the site of the World Trade Centre has been cleared and is ready for redevelopment. But Kabul? The London Underground is now fully operational following the blasts of 7th July 2005. Baghdad? ‘Normalcy’ restored? Here. In the Rich World. Perhaps. But I have just returned to London from Palestine where “extremities of humiliation, poverty and suffering” continue to govern the daily grind. For Palestinians, ‘normalcy’ continues to mean the brutal Israeli Occupation, now entering its 39th year. And for Palestinians in what remains of the West Bank, ‘normalcy’ now also includes the towering Apartheid Wall, as illegal, as decimating, as it is monstrous. This is how I came to be in Palestine. This is what I saw.
Amman, Sunday 7th August 2005
In 1996, I found myself in a new city, visiting its ancient sites by day, savouring the pages of the longest contemporary novel in English by night, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. The more I read, the more I loved. The more I loved, the slower I read – a futile attempt to forestall the dreaded two words on the last page of a story that has swept you over: The End. When it came, it was like a kind a death. And I entered a kind of mourning. I wandered the streets of my adopted ancient city with Mrs Rupa Mehra, Lata, Maan no longer in my hands but always in my head. I could not read anything new. For weeks all visits to bookshops ended with me scanning A Suitable Boy for my favourite scenes. Eventually one visit did end in a purchase, though not of a novel, of a writing pad. Faced with an intimidating blank page, I started with what intrigued me most – air travel and aeroplanes – on my balcony overlooking the Nile with the echoes of a thousand minarets marking the course of the day. I have just retrieved the writing pad. The entries are dated. The first is for 28th March 1996, the day I started scratching the story that would become The Silent Minaret.
On 9th September 2001 I boarded a flight from Cape Town to London, welcoming the opportunity again to study carefully the layout of the craft, its route, everything about the journey and the machine. I did not know that in the United States 19 young men had been doing the same. Two days later, on the morning after my trans-African flight had set me down in London, I stood mute in front of pictures of New York, Washington and the realisation of what 19 young men and four planes could do.
No time for stories. The world had buckled. I bailed out of fiction, abandoned my manuscript and watched an eternal war of infinite retribution unfold. Until the night the war found me. I reached for the manuscript. Everything had changed. Nothing worked. “When cities crack, do stories too, their scaffolding collapsing?” I had to start from scratch, now no longer writing on a balcony by the Nile but secretly in London where mosques were being raided as Britain’s rulers took up their seats as co-pilots in the “war on terror.”
Readers will be aware that The Silent Minaret culminates at the Apartheid Wall, which Israel is rushing to complete around the West Bank despite an Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice on 9th July 2004 finding it and Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal. One of the novel’s characters, Karim, challenges sceptics of the Palestinian struggle to visit Palestine, if only for “Just one day.” Tonight, I am writing from Amman, mountainous capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I will leave at dawn to cross the Jordan River into Palestine to take up Karim’s challenge.
Amman to Jerusalem, Monday 8th August 2005
The early-morning ride from Amman to the lowest border crossing on earth is as beautiful as any, through the glowing golden Moab Mountains of the Jordan Valley with views of the Dead Sea shimmering like a mirage on the approach. Jordanian departure procedures at King Hussein Bridge are swift and efficient, even polite. But when our coach draws near to the fortified Israeli-controlled border on the west bank of the River Jordan, a silent air of trepidation descends on the passengers. Those who know the drill warn of an arduous procedure ahead, then reach for their bags with a collective sigh. I have not arrived anywhere with more foreboding than here. To read more, subscribe below.
[ppw id=”99358025″ description=”to read the rest” price=”$$7″]
They were right. Four stages lay ahead. First you join a queue to deposit your luggage (to be collected on the other side, if you are allowed through). Then another queue for security screening. At the far end of the room, a machine pumping bursts of air through valves that look like showerheads, looms. What, I wonder, would the grandparents of those young Israelis on duty here be reminded of if they were shuffled into this ominous chamber? My face must have betrayed the workings of my mind. I am quickly singled out and called aside for the first set of questions from “security,” the same questions that will be asked repeatedly by different agents during the course of the day. I answer the questions. Then I am led to the ominous machine. I am told, without irony by the guard armed with a huge automatic rifle, that it will detect even the finest traces of ammunition. Fine. Put me through a test that you yourself will fail. Around the corner, a third queue – passport control – and yet more questions. This is where I will spend most of the day, waiting. My passport disappears behind a closed door on which is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English: No Entry. I am told to take a seat. The slow tick and grinding tock of the clock begins. At the fourth stage, if you reach it, is luggage collection. Even though you have officially passed through immigration, yet more questions await here. By the time I finally collect my bag and step outside, it is twilight in the Judean Desert, 8 hours since I left the bag at the front of the building. I wonder, when was the last time you spent 8 hours getting through one building?
Today I left Amman at 7 in the morning to travel 70km to Jerusalem. It took me 12 hours. When was the last time it took you 12 hours to travel 70km?
Waiting. Answering questions. What was your great-grandfather’s name? Sending text messages: “Stil w8ing.” And writing, on slips of immigration paper. Waiting, until one begins to doubt oneself. Waiting, until I thought I must have done something wrong. Waiting. And remembering. In April 2003, just weeks after the invasion of Iraq, I travelled from Damascus to the border with Iraq, if possible, to enter Iraq. It was an unfulfilled journey and Iraq remains an illusive destination. “At moments like this, when destinations, glimpsed, just there, at the bottom of the road, slip away, all you have is the journey, the not-much-deliberated, unfulfilled attempt to get there.” Waiting until one feels powerless. Receiving text messages: “Cant settle 2 do anything here. Everybody is waiting with you.” Waiting until you realize that all there is to do, is wait.
And write. During the course of the afternoon, I saw one Palestinian, now living in Cyprus and visiting the West Bank for the first time made to read out all the numbers stored on his mobile phone. Another, now living in the States, was told he would not be allowed in because he did not have the necessary paperwork. He argued in frustration that the documentation had been confiscated at the same border when he passed through at the end of his last visit. The Israeli officials were demanding documentation they had themselves confiscated. Yet another Palestinian was asked how long he intended to stay in “Israel?”
“Two days,” he said. “I have work. I must return to Amman tomorrow.” He only wanted to see his sick mother.
Despite having all his paperwork and a letter from his mother’s physician, he was made to wait.
So we wait.
It is after four before he is eventually allowed to pass though. The day is gone. He will spend one night with his mother and tomorrow he will face departure procedures – known to be as arduous if not worse – in this same building.
Palestinians around me whisper that they face these procedures daily: “When we enter Palestine, inside Palestine, when we leave Palestine. What do we do? When we leave, we’re wrong. When we arrive, we’re wrong. When we stay, we’re wrong. No matter what we do, we’re wrong.”
We wait till we’re exhausted, for the saddest scene of the day to unfold. Young woman. Palestinian. Travelling alone with her three young sons: 8, 5 and 3. The young family has, like everybody else, been called several times to answer questions then made to sit down again. Each time they are summoned, the mother has to gather the boys. They take it as a game – she manages to find one, another slips away to hide – anything for a bit of distraction. But it is late now. We’re tired. No time for games. She watches the boys dart around the room. Which one to grab first? She makes several false starts. Then stops. Buries her face in her hands, the only privacy she can find, and weeps. But only for a moment. She wipes her face hurriedly then dashes after the 5 year-old, grabs hold of him, spanks him, pulls him to the counter. But what’s happening now? The immigration official is vacating her desk. She’s approaching the woman. She starts shouting at her. For spanking her child. Everybody looks. The young mother falls to her knees. Her boys freeze. Game’s up. But the immigration officer is still shouting. “How dare you spank a child?” I can still see the mother, the faces of each of her boys, the immigration official shouting, shouting at a Palestinian mother, for spanking her Palestinian child, when she works for a government that shoots them.
That was when he came to get me, the captain, to ask the same questions I had already answered to his subordinates. But this time, I must answer to him. He takes me aside. The questions go like this. I wonder, how would you answer them?
“Are you a Muslim?”
“Are you religious?”
“Do you go to the mosque?”
“Are you married?”
“Is your wife a Muslim, too?”
“What do you do?”
“Do you have evidence to prove your job?”
“Why did you go to Syria?”
“Do you have friends there?”
“Did you meet any Muslims there?”
“Why do you travel in the Middle East?”
“Why are you coming to Israel?”
“Will you be going to the West Bank and Gaza?”
“Do you know people there?”
“Are they Muslim?”
Waiting with me are French, Italian, Australian, Japanese, Indian and South African travellers. We compare stories to find a common denominator that makes us suspect. We have all travelled around the Middle East. We have all been asked whether we “know Muslims?” I start to hear the message. If you want unhindered access through borders controlled by Israel, do not be Palestinian. Do not know Arabs. Do not know Muslims. As my shared taxi departed the border for Jerusalem, it was hard not to feel that I was entering a country decidedly ill at ease and scornful of its closest neighbours. I find my mobile phone: “Im through. In taxi to Jerusalem. Passing Jericho. No walls here.”
I am in Palestine to observe the impact of the Apartheid Wall on rural Palestinian communities in the remote northern areas of the West Bank. A leading Palestinian NGO, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), is facilitating my journey. PARC is a non-profit organization, which works towards ensuring long-term food security, empowering rural women and increasing their profile in society, training and research development, enhancing the role of civil society and institutions and promoting the ethos of voluntary work. As part of my journey I will participate in the annual summer camp based at Zebabdeh in the Jenin District. The camp unites international and Palestinian volunteers to work together at both manual and research projects in rural Palestinian villages. This year’s camp is organized around the theme of the Apartheid Wall and provides volunteers with direct access to the remote rural communities whose lives have been sliced through by The Wall.
Barriers. My history is littered with them. All South Africans with any lived experience of apartheid know them, the divisions within, between and amongst. And even if the barriers were more often intangible, we know that they were never ineffective. I don’t know the points on the map at which the avenues of my youth – Transvaal Road in Kimberley, Klipfontein Road in Athlone, Modderdam Road in Bellville – changed from being black, a part of town in which I could live, to being white, a part of town in which I could not. But I knew those invisible markers existed. We all did. And that knowing, as we grasped at ordinary lives from separated existences forged around imperceptible cordons, was enough. In apartheid South Africa, ‘normalcy’ was a carnival of the macabre. In Palestine, the carnival marches on.
To those young new South Africans who beg the question: How come? Let me point you to one very literal root: Brabejum stellatifolium, still growing in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Gardens. Dutch settlers planted that wild almond hedge in 1660, making it the first official boundary between the Cape Colony and the indigenous Khoi population. From the moment it took root, so too did the notion of division, which flourished to become the most defining feature of our society for the next 350 years. Over time the idea of separation took such root, it transcended all need for tangible manifestation. One testimony to its surreptitious power lay in its invisibility – in South Africa, barriers governed our lives in absentia. In Palestine, they don’t.
There is nothing invisible about Israel’s Apartheid Wall. My first glimpse of it is as we approach Jerusalem on a road which, our driver informs us, is for Israelis only. “Palestinians cannot use this road.”
“How would they know?” I ask, jotting down our exact location from a road sign as it flashes by: Maale Adummim.
“Easy,” he says. “Israeli cars have yellow plates, Palestinians have green plates.”
“And what would happen if a Palestinian car were found on this road.”
“It would be stopped here. This road accesses that huge settlement on the hill there, Maale Adummim. Actually, it’s not a
settlement anymore,” he sighs. “It’s a city of 75, 000 now.”
I look ahead at deja vu. Do you remember the entrance to the University of the Western Cape during ‘states of emergency’ – fortified encampments patrolled by young men, young men with big guns? Drive into Jerusalem today and that is what
“Look!” our driver exclaims when we have left behind the checkpoint. “Look, there to our left!” We follow his pointing finger
and there it is, the Wall, cutting through the hillsides around Jerusalem. I have seen many pictures and read countless articles on The Wall, but none prepared me for my first glimpse of the grey, snaking monster and the sinking feeling that comes with the realization that yes, it actually exists. The sight, seconds later, of the magnificent golden Dome of the Rock glowing in the setting sun, is too confounding a leap to process. I don’t remember the rest of the journey, only being dropped off at Damascus Gate, the heart of Arab East Jerusalem, aware, as I reached for my bag that something had changed. Can an upbringing of religious association with the “Eternal City” be undone in the blink of an eye? Somewhere between concrete wall, golden dome and ancient city gate, Jerusalemnow lost its holiness for me. In the two days I spent in the city, I strained to find any will to visit the sacred places that surrounded me. All I could see was guns. You have to be a very blinkered pilgrim not to notice them.
So I seek out a bookshop. I buy a writing pad. In the Middle East, I am usually drawn to the streets at night, often wandering the ancient alleyways till dawn. Not in Jerusalem. One night three young Israeli soldiers outside Damascus Gate take me for a Palestinian. I answer their questions, barked in Arabic. They search me, digging their hands intrusively into my pockets. By the time they realize I am foreign and try to temper their approach – “Welcome to Israel. Enjoy your stay” – it is too late; they’ve already revealed their procedures. In fiction, to juxtapose this event with what happened next, would be overbearing. But this is not fiction. Walking back to my hostel, I hear bleating sounds coming from a car parked across the road. I glance at the car, full of young Israelis. They are bleating at me. In Jerusalemnow, Israelis treated me like a Palestinian because of my looks. On 10th August, I pass through the Qalandia checkpoint to enter the Occupied West Bank knowing a little what that treatment feels like.
Before we leave Jerusalem water bottles are filled for the journey to Ramallah via Qalandia checkpoint. Many things surprise me about the journey: that I am here, making it, that the soldiers I saw from a distance are, up close, young women, that a painting (on the Palestinian side of The Wall) by London’s most famous graffiti artist, Banksy is right there, next to the Qalandia checkpoint, that when it comes to our turn, our car (full of “internationals”) is waved through the checkpoint while there, just over there, long queues of Palestinians are made to walk through a series of turnstiles not unlike cattle shoots at abattoirs, in the land of their birth. Whatever the logic, this is not how people treat people, without respect, forget compassion.
“You have passports,” our driver says, handing them back. “They have permits. You should know what that means,” he says to me, holding out my passport, open on the first page: In the Name of the President. The President of the Republic of South Africa requests all whom it may concern to allow the bearer of this passport to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer all necessary assistance and protection. “You all have passports and countries. They have nothing.” When we stop, it’s not for fuel, or to wait for the other cars in our convoy. We stop because, well, we’ve arrived.
“Yes. This is Ramallah. Ahlan wa sahlan.”
Water bottles are still mostly untouched, the water in them still cold. Geographically, we’ve travelled no distance at all – not even Johannesburg to Pretoria – but mentally, ideologically, politically, the journey through The Wall into the Occupied Territory of the West Bank spans a galaxy. When I return to Ramallah from Jenin District two weeks later, a young Palestinian friend will tell me a story over beer and nargile (shisha). The story is set in a Ramallah wine bar down the road from the one we’re in. It is compelling, punctuated with intriguing plot-points and surprising twists. The ending is hilarious. When my laughter subsides, my host explains. Last December he told the same story in Milan to a group in which a young Israeli was present. When the story ended, all the Israeli asked was: “You can buy beer in Ramallah?”
My friend turned to me. “You’ve seen it for yourself now. This land is small. Palestinians and Israelis are not held separate by large open spaces. Tel Aviv is down the road. We live next to one another, like antagonistic neighbours. But we don’t know one another. I can travel to Milan, Paris, Johannesburg tomorrow, just like that. But I can’t go to Jerusalem, just over there.” He shook his head. “We don’t know one another at all.”
From Ramallah, our convoy heads north into deepest Palestine for our camp in Zebabdeh, a small village outside Jenin. Here the economy is almost entirely agricultural with few of the economic cushions that bolster the more prosperous south. As we wind our air-conditioned way through a mountainous landscape entirely covered by olive trees cultivated on terraced slopes, I am aware of our Palestinian counterparts waiting to receive us at the camp. Many of them will have made this same journey, not like this, but through the back routes, avoiding areas from which their permits restrict them, avoiding Jerusalem where most Palestinians cannot go, avoiding checkpoints, vulnerable to gangs of settlers vexed by the ‘Gaza withdrawal,’ creeping, on tip toe, through their own country.
The welcome is embracing. The camp a sanctuary, completely surrounded by olive groves. My mobile phone loses its signal.
Strangers become friends. The camp speaks like central London, in French, Arabic, Spanish, Italian and English. It branches out into multi-lingual working groups to conduct field trips to decimated villages by day. By night, it shares stories over nargile pipes, beats derbouka drums, strums guitars and dances Debke, Palestine’s mesmerising traditional dance form and demonstration of resistance. Inside the camp, the cruel Occupation is kept at bay. Goodbyes ten days later will be the saddest I’ve seen. Somewhere in the heat, perhaps while we waited together for no apparent reason at yet another choking checkpoint, somewhere on a farm cut through by The Wall, maybe while we studied the contemptuous military order, hand written, left under stones or pinned to olive trees, dispossessing farmers of their land, somewhere along the path back to the camp when your footsteps fell in time with mine and you told me about your village, Beit Foureeq, where three villagers – 23, 65 and 80 –were killed by settlers during the olive harvest of October 2002, the 80 year-old bludgeoned with a rock. How dare he harvest his own olives from his own tree on his own land? Somewhere in the back of a bus when you pointed to the serial number in your ID and said, “This means I can’t go to Jerusalem. What’s it like? I long to see it. Did you go to Al Aqsa?” Somewhere in the night, while we looked up at the stars and you asked, “Can you spot the satellites?” Somewhere during the course of ten decisive days, friends had become family. And Palestine, personal.
In rural areas, “the barrier,” as Israel prefers to call it, consists of an electrified fence, two in fact, running along either side of a military buffer zone and bordered by razor wire. The fence, like The Wall, is an excessive structure; it measures 250m from side to side. Pavements of fine sand, regularly swept, run along the inside of the electrified fences to show trespassing footprints. Palestinian footprints trespassing on Palestinian sand. The consequences are as horrifying as the structure.
In Zboubah, 20km north of Jenin, more than 250 dunums of land was cleared in 2002 for wall construction and a military base on village land. Residents of Zboubah are exposed to continuous shooting from the military training camp and raw sewage flows from the camp through the village. Seerees, 22km south of Jenin, has a population of 5,500 people. Villagers used to depend on work inside Israel but are no longer able to access their jobs because of The Wall. As in other villages in the region, unemployment has soared to between 75 and 80% as a direct consequence of The Wall. Nazlet Issa, 13km from Tulkarem, is a village of 3,000 people. The Wall effectively divides this village in half, separating Palestinians from Palestinians. Nazlet Issa used to be an important trade centre but 400 shops were destroyed to build The Wall. Villagers were not allowed to salvage their produce and the shops were levelled with the goods inside. The village has lost $15million in trade since construction of the Wall began. The local economy here lies in ruins. What security purpose does that serve? In Deir Al Ghsoun, a village of 10,000 people entirely reliant on agriculture, we are escorted along the path of The Wall (whether fence or concrete, that is what Palestinians call it) by the chairperson of the local farmers, Mahmoud Abu Saa. “At least we can still see our land,” he says, pointing to the other side. “In Qalqilya, they can’t even do that.”
Being able to see one’s land on the other side of an electrified fence may bring some comfort, but it brings no income. Deir Al Ghsoun has traditionally relied on olive production but The Wall has taken 2,000 dunums, which has decimated the olive industry. One of the few remaining soap factories in Nablus, once a thriving industry in the city, imports the primary ingredient in the manufacture of soap – olive oil – from Italy. Palestine is covered in olive trees, but the dynamics of the Occupation have rendered local supply unreliable.
In Deir Al Ghsoun 70% of villagers no longer have access to their land. Of the 194 members in the Deir Al Ghsoun Farmers Union, only 25 qualified for permits to access their land on the other side of The Wall, the criteria for qualification set by Israel:
– The land should be in the name of the applicant. Sons who work the land for aged parents or grandparents do not qualify.
– Permits need to be renewed every two years but the majority are only issued for six months.
– If there is a ‘security situation’ inside Israel, all permits are cancelled and applications start from scratch.
In March of this year, 1050 farmers applied for permits in the village if Kafeen. Only 60 were granted. There is method to the bureaucratic madness: Land not cultivated for 3 years is viewed by Israel as surrendered and permanently seized. Watch the snaking, winding path of The Wall. See the ‘fingers’ that grab into the West Bank. Ask, what lies between the path of The Wall and the internationally recognised Green Line from which it deviates, cutting deep into Palestinian territory? Land. Wells. Fertile.
As in other villages affected by The Wall, unemployment in Deir Al Ghsoun has soared to an estimated 75% and debts owed to the already cash-strapped local municipality have reached 1,800,000 New Israeli Shekels (NIS). And even as Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, there are plans for new settlements in Deir Al Ghsoun. An additional 1,600 dunums will be confiscated to build an Israeli-only road to serve the proposed new settlements. Withdrawal from Gaza is matched by new settlements in the West Bank.
Across the West Bank, the military Occupation does not only touch every aspect of civilian life. It also exploits natural resources, especially water, penalising Palestinians and privileging settlers. It restricts Palestinians to digging wells between 150 and 180 metres. Settlers can dig as deep as they like. In Deir Al Ghsoun one well now lies outside The Wall, leaving farmers with only one viable well. The military visits this well every 2-3 months to measure usage. The thoroughfare of military vehicles frequently damages underground pipes causing leaks. Israel puts a unilateral limit on amounts to be used – 350,000m sq for the year 2004-2005. Settlers have no limit. When usage exceeds the stipulated amount, a more severe ration is imposed for the following year. In Deir Al Ghsoun the well for drinking water is no longer viable. Farmers are certain that usage will exceed the imposed limit, which means that in 2006 they will only be allowed 300,000 m sq. This is not an endless religious conflict. It is an escalating humanitarian disaster.
A South African travelling in Palestine will immediately be struck by the genuine affection and high regard which the country enjoys in the eyes of Palestinians. Everywhere I went I encountered admiration and interest in South Africa’s political procedures and a willingness to emulate its achievements. Palestinians draw comparisons between the permits they are forced to carry and the passbooks for which South Africa was notorious. They see similarities between the map of their shrinking terrain and the maps of South Africa’s former Bantustans. These comparisons are not contrived: Identity Cards with serial numbers severely restrict the movement of people around the West Bank; drivers negotiate back routes to avoid checkpoints so that Palestinians are forced to creep around their own country; in the State of Israel itself, 33 separate pieces of legislation discriminate against Palestinians-Arab citizens of Israel. In a meeting with South Africa’s Diplomatic Representative to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Sisa Ncwana, he asked me to say this to South Africans wherever I have an audience: “Palestinians look to no country more than South Africa as an example of an amicable democratic settlement. They are keen to foster relations with South Africa and to build bridges between our two countries. The longer we ignore them, the sooner we will lose all credibility.”
Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2005 07:32:18 +0100 (BST)
To: South Africa
Time to leave. I woke this morning dreading the border. I have had to scratch through my bag, looking for… for what, exactly? For things that will be confiscated at the border. My notebook, my words, photographs, Israeli military orders confiscating Palestinian land, Palestinian permits, all need to be sent by courier to London. I have also been told to delete the details of all Palestinians I have met from my mobile phone. The indignity felt like a betrayal. Why? Because in a few hours I will be passing through, not an Afghan border, not an Iraqi border, but an Israeli one.
I am tired. So is language. The Occupation – an inadequate word, a static word – the Strangulation is suffocating. Its relentless grinding dynamics are no less than protracted, indiscriminate psychological warfare on an entire civilian population. Yet I have only had to negotiate it for three weeks. Palestinians my age know nothing else. When you come, you will find phenomenal hospitality, laughter and cheer in private homes. But see those same Palestinians when you approach a checkpoint. Watch them as they tap pockets searching for permits. Look especially to their eyes. And tell me what you see.
Tonight I will be back in mountainous Amman. It’s only down the road. But it seems very, very far away. I will dump my bag at the hostel and walk to the Roman Amphitheatre. The stars seemed nice there. Real stars. Not Israeli satellites. Then I will board a plane for Heathrow. While Miriam (not her real name) boards a coach to Qalqilya. I imagined Qalqilya in India when I was writing the Minaret. But the reality of Qalqilya? I could never have imagined that. And now this is how it ends, me to London then Johannesburg, Miriam to ‘normalcy’ in Qalqilya, where 41,600 people are cut off behind 38 kilometres of wall, concrete in the west, fence in the east and with only one entrance and exit. Try to imagine just this one thing – the congestion. And now that it is complete The Wall reveals its consequences with every passing day, every passing season. In February of this year, as The Silent Minaret was receiving praise, Qalqilya was flooded – in Palestine’s macabre carnival, The Wall also masquerades as a dam. After just a few hours of heavy winter rain, the water level reached 3m beside The Wall, almost half its 8m height. Schools were disrupted, poultry farms destroyed and greenhouse crops ruined. Israeli soldiers in the towers, which punctuate The Wall saw the rising water, but despite pleas from municipal officials, refused to open the eastern gate for the water to drain. By the time the gate was opened 24 hours later the damage – five million NIS and 45 flooded farms – had been done.
“Travel safely, Ishtiyaq,” Miriam says to me.
“You too,” I say, knowing that safety needs to fold its arms more tightly around her than me.
“Have a nice time,” she says, “In London. And South Africa.”
“You too,” I echo, wondering how one would manage to do that in Qalqilya. [/ppw]
Ishtiyaq Shukri is a writer who lives and works in London. Graffiti art on The Wall by Banksy.
This story previously appeared in print in Chimurenga Vol.8: “We’re All Nigerian!”.
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