By Romana Rubeo
Sometimes, you decide to visit a particular place because that land is calling your name. Because you’ve heard so much about it; because it suddenly enters your daily life, in a powerful way; because in that land there are people you appreciate, friends who hold a piece of your own heart, or because you know this is the land in which some of the people you love were born.
That’s why, last August, I flew to Tel Aviv, destination Palestine, with an extemporary travel itinerary, many ideas flashing through my mind and no exact purpose.
Yet, this is the first factor you should think about when you decide to visit those places, especially if you intend on travelling alone. The question can slightly vary, depending on the different points of view: “Why the hell did you choose Palestine?”, my friends asked, since they would have preferred to see me relaxing under a Caribbean palm tree; the most religious people smiled hopefully: “Do you want to find God?”, fearing the Holy Land could be the last resort for me; on the contrary, “What is the true aim of your journey?” was the favored formula among the airport security officers.
The airport: the only place which really frightens you while you are packing and your head is full of the accounts of people who have been there and now feel obliged to give you disparate advise: “Do not allow them to stamp your passport!” “I traveled with the Israeli airlines and I was questioned for eight long hours before boarding” “Really? No Alitalia? Then, you have no guarantees!” “You must deny everything, EVERYTHING!” But what should I deny? That I am a simple activist; that I translate articles written by Palestinian authors and that I know exactly which side I am on? Anyway, I know what to say: I am lucky enough to stay at a dear friend’s place, in West Jerusalem, the Israeli part of the city. The road is well-paved, for me. So well-paved that I actually feel a bit guilty, for all the children of that land, living in diaspora, in Europe, or all across the world. I know their faces, their stories, and I know they cannot enter Jerusalem, because they are considered a threat to the national security.
At Fiumicino Airport, thanks to the delay of my flight (God bless low cost companies) and to my natural inclination to establish social relations with every breathing human being who happens to be next to me, I meet a lot of people. The first is Giacomo; he is in his seventies, he has a loud laugh and looks very kind. He is with his wife and he cannot accept the idea that I am travelling alone. I try to reassure him: “I’m staying with a dear friend of mine!” “I know some people there!”. He wouldn’t have it, he would not allow his daughter to travel alone, that’s that! Giacomo is one of the many Italian Jews who chose to make Aliyah: at some point, he decided to settle down in the Land-of-Israel, that’s how he calls it, in a redundant but admirable literary effort. He proudly tells me: “My children went to Israel with their kids, in Italy there were no jobs for them; we followed them. I think about Professor Della Pergola’s statistics on Italian Jews who choose to emigrate, which I read some time ago, and I ask him the reason for such a choice. He explains that the economic crisis is more worrisome than the military service, for them. “And there is a lot of land, there, we feel at home!” A lot of land? The land; the hungered land. How can he say that? The struggled land, the occupied, stolen, plundered land. The cultivated land, the burned land; the land of a people crying and longing to return; the land of Pappé’s books, of Susan Abulhawa’s novels, that land, as if by magic, becomes for Giacomo a huge one, an inviting one; “If we don’t go, it would be a waste!”
Soon after, I meet a young guy from Tel Aviv; he had been travelling across Italy. He seems friendly, then he starts questioning me: “Do you know any Arabs? Why do you want to go to Israel? What do you think about the Israeli Palestinian conflict?” And then, he goes on with a series of racist comments about Arabs: they will try to make a fool of you, don’t trust them, we give them many opportunities and they throw rockets.” I do not reply, I only hope the random choice of seats will be merciful, so he won’t be sitting next to me on the plane.
At the airport, there is an Israeli driver waiting for me; it is already dark and while he drives to Jerusalem he points out the wall, speaks about the weather and shows his enthusiasm for Waze (it is kind of an obsession, actually, I don’t know how the hell they could drive before, here). His face is friendly and when he speaks about the wall, he looks very worried, even ashamed.
The morning after, the town literally bursts with lights, colors, sounds, and fragrances. Sometimes, you have to bow to certain clichés: it is absolutely true, Jerusalem is a unique town, which gets inside you, reaching the most hidden fiber of your body and mind, shaking your sight and senses. Once you visit it, you are perfectly aware that you won’t be the same person anymore. You can enter the old walls feeling many different things: but soon, the beauty and the “maraviglia” disclose the fragile balance of divisions. There are invisible boundaries separating worlds, stories, cultures, people; and the traveler can hardly comprehend those unbridgeable gaps.
On my first day, I could not even distinguish the different neighborhoods; then, gradually, as getting lost in that haze became more and more pleasant, the neat lines were more and clearer for me. I entered many shops, I talked to many people, I had the most amazing coffees in the world and ate tons of knafeh, because the old confectioner grew fond of that “Italian girl” who always walked that street, alone, and never refused food. I met taxi drivers, shop-owners, extemporary tour guides, restaurant owners. And in their words, I say it with an aching heart, I often heard the sound of surrender. They live in a State, which makes systematic use of Apartheid methods, suppressing all the rights of a part of the citizens living there, but also denying their history and identity, and many of them are forced to abandon their will to resist.
Sure, I had read numbers, and percentages, and surveys, but now, those statistics become true, realistic. They are hidden behind the voice of a shop owner, in the suk. His merchandise is full of contrasting symbols and I ask him: “Wow, don’t you think there is a little bit of ideological confusion here?” He looks at me and harshly says: “I don’t care about politics, I have five kids”.
“Sure I am strong, I was part of the Resistance movement”, my grandfather used to say. Resistance is stuff for strong people. And while I am sitting on the sofa of my comfortable Western house I wonder: what would I do, if I lived in a town in which my fellow citizens could be my enemies? In which the simple fact that I was born on the “wrong” side deprives me of so many rights? In which an occupying State wants to get rid of people like me, so it tries to buy my dignity, to erase my history, even building upon the monuments and the symbolic places bearing witness of it? And in this moment, when this question comes to my mind, I think about my friends in Palestine, struggling everyday, or the Palestinians living in diaspora, who never stop thinking of their beloved country and they become even more heroic to me; I identify in them, in the men and women who have, in this period, been protecting al Aqsa.
Al Haram Al Qudsi al Sharif is a must-see for whoever visits Jerusalem, with the wonderful Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. I arrived early in the morning in front of the covered walkway from the Western Wall plaza and I lined up to pass the security check. There were 15 or 20 settlers, they gather there everyday and they try to enter, saying that they want to pray, but it is clear they only want to provoke. On that particular day, soldiers did not allow them to enter, but when it happens, as we’ve seen during the past days, things can deteriorate very quickly. Now, for me, it seems impossible to think that that place which looks suspended in time, a place characterized by silence, in the pale morning light, with prayer mats on the ground, worshippers praying under the sun, old men wearing kuffiahs chatting on the stairs, children playing and laughing with a cat lying next to them, can sometimes turn into a hell. Along with the Mount of Olives, that I had climbed at sunset, the day before, this is the place in which I felt the greatest sense of spirituality. In both cases, I did not find displayed faith, but I felt I was closer to God than ever before.
While I am writing, I see terrible pictures and videos. It is not the first time, obviously, but nowadays they are part of the Israeli crusade to demonise the “dangerous” stone throwers and draw attention on the security issue. It is not by chance; on the contrary, it is part of a precise plan. The plan to rebuild the temple, which once was just a crazy idea supported by radical groups, is now becoming a “moral duty for Jews”, part of their political agenda. It is useless to say that the consequences could be devastating.
And devastating, too, was the impact Hebron had on me.
Hebron is the second largest city in the Palestinian territories and I got there with a special guide, on a taxi with a yellow plate (issued to Palestinians, while Israeli cars have green plates). I did not imagine it was so large, my idea was completely wrong, maybe because of some misleading pictures I had seen. In Hebron, there is a University, several trade points, factories and laboratories on the side of the hills. The taxi driver leaves us in front of a very congested roundabout. A few meters from the street we must walk through to reach the Ibrahim Mosque/the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is considered a holy place from both Muslims and Jews (on the left side, there is a mosque, on the right side, there is a synagogue).
But that road is not a normal one. It is the sadly famous Shuhada Street, which once was the heart of the city and now is completely deserted: I heard my steps resounding while I was trying to realize what was around me, to gather my thoughts and all the confused emotions I was feeling. The only people we met were Israeli armed soldiers, standing at the check points. Since 1994, after the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre carried out by the far-right Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein, Palestinians cannot drive on this road; since 2000, they cannot even walk here. Sure, everything is justified by the “Goddess Security”, which is invoked over and over again, to justify the worst actions one can imagine. Are there settlements and do Israelis think they could be in danger? Well, it is clear that Palestinian citizens must be kicked out. There are just a few Arabs left: they are literally walled up, their doors are welded shut and there are fences on their balconies. If they want to go out, they must climb onto their roofs, in the back.
The truth is Hebron is the plastic representation of apartheid, racism and discrimination. I it is so clear it almost seems stylized. The territory is split into two: H1, the Palestinian side, and H2, the Israeli one. This does not seem to disturb the international community, contrary to what happened in the past for other more famous “divisions”, but the point is the same: the Palestinians who are “stuck” in Hebron 2 are true prisoners. Going out is like crossing the doors of hell. And those who live in Hebron 1 are not allowed to reach people on the other side. Palestinians living in H2 lost their right to free movement, they cannot act, they cannot live. The others left this road, their road, in order to survive. After visiting the Mosque and the Synagogue, we enter the suk, so different from the others I had seen. There is no noise at all, no voices, just a few clients around. Only the fragrances are the same: spices and coffee and fruit. I look up at the sky only to find that there is no sky at all: I just see a metallic net. I thought I was in a nightmare, or watching one of those terrible black and white films, as I struggled to follow the images but I failed to understand. The net is needed because the settlers always throw stones, objects and garbage. I think back to the writing at the town entrance. It says: “Hebron, a community of Torah, charity and kindness”. A bitter smile appears on the corners of my mouth. It is too much: touching injustice with your own hands leaves you with an annoying feeling of impotence, anger and pain. There is a bitter taste in my mouth: the amazing coffee Ahmed offered me in a shop and the exceptional shawarma I ate for lunch are not enough to make it disappear.
I came back from Palestine, a while ago. And it is only now that I realize how deeply this journey touched me. Now, as I try to put on paper all my feelings; now, that the things I saw, the words I heard, the stories I breathed are no longer shrouded in the inebriating smell of oriental spices; now, that they are just a memory, mixed with a strong desire to go there again, just to understand things better, to grasp the meanings that escaped me.
One thing is for sure: today, reading the news from my couch is completely different. The Old City now under siege, a frightened 18 years old girl cruelly killed at a checkpoint in Shuada Street aren’t just a rational experience anymore.
I am overcome by rage, a violent rage, over the laceration of that wonderful, welcoming land, by a ferocious occupation. And many thoughts come to my mind: first of all, Palestinian people look three-dimensional now. Not only are they a people struggling for freedom, but also the sum of tired, exhausted individuals who want to emigrate, who simply want to survive.
Surrendering can take on many faces and beyond the granitic and romantic vision you may have from outside, many Palestinians have surrendered: some in the ways I described before; others have stopped believing in politics (then, in mundane salvation) and now only trust in heavenly salvation.
Today, I am even more shocked in front of the indifference towards the Palestinian fate: inside the Arab world, in Europe, and among the international actors who always talk grandly about civil and human rights and then, at most, declare their impartiality when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this situation, in the Western world, coincides with the twilight of the European political left-wing movement, seen as the organized field of subaltern classes. When left-wing parties are not able to impose real critical thinking about the world and history, they are inevitably blind. That’s why the opposition to the Israeli occupation becomes a humanitarian petitio principii, which only arises during emergency situations with a considerable media impact (that’s to say, during the Israeli military operations). I think Zionism should be seen as an instrument of capitalist imperialism in the Middle East, as an “outpost” for the Western powers, anxious to control the whole region, which finds in the State of Israel the fulfillment of its own historic reason.
And I am completely astonished when I read the mainstream media, which share the Israeli official version without even confirming the authenticity, as in the case of Hadil Hashlamoun’s killing; they also contribute to the spread a terrible Islamophobic feelings. The terrorized girl, with her school bag, wore a niqab and turning her into a terrorist was such a simple operation I could hardly hold back my tears.
The feeling of impotence, anger and pain is amplified now, like that day in Hebron. I feel so tiny and insignificant, I miss the “senso del vero” of a famous Francesco Guccini’s song, “truthfulness”, the true essence of human life, that perhaps I found there, on the Mount of Olives, or walking around Al Haram al Qudsi in the pale morning light.
– Romana Rubeo is a freelance translator based in Italy. She holds a Master’s degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and she is specialized in Audiovisual and Journalism Translation. An avid reader, her interests include music, politics, and geopolitics. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.