With milk and honey blest,
Beneath your contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, oh, I know not
What joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.

The road from Amman followed a dry winding valley down from cold rain-swept heights, sweeping round the southern edges in a slow-motion ear-popping plunge. There were caves in the hillsides, sited between fluffy mimosa trees and ledges of orange sandstone. I thought of hermits and the sojourns of the men upon whose teachings three world religions had been based. Then, reminded of The Life of Brian, I imagined how much more fun it would be if I were only heading for a comically corrupt Holy Land staffed by shifty-looking types with stick-on beards. The driver didn’t help. He kept taking his hands off the wheel to light a cigarette, while the car drifted across the road. I felt I would end up sprawled among the rocks, a leg twisted back the wrong way, hands outstretched, sugar-cubes of glass in my hair, begging the Almighty for forgiveness, as the vehicle and reverently smoking navigator went spinning and flashing into the kingdom of heaven.

At the bottom, we followed a rutted track through unfinished breezeblock dwellings—steel rebars hung with washing marking the tops. Cute picture-book goats ambled and then darted between boulders, shock-haired youths in pyjamas scampering after them. A Jordanian georgic, I fancied, and thought not of Daphnis and Chloe and piping shepherds but of a tired foreigners’ joke about unnatural Middle Eastern pleasures. It’s important to unprepare yourself in advance, to guy yourself painstakingly, when visiting the world’s worst places.

We passed through mile after mile of shabby banana groves. My scarf began to tighten like a ligature. My body beneath the double-layered jacket grew hot and sticky. The air took on the suffocating heaviness I remembered from an earlier visit, but it seemed to have little to do with the humidity. This air was burdened by gravity, not history, and by a gravity that had nothing to do with weight. ‘The Dead Sea?’ I said, nodding to my left. ‘Aiwa, dead.’ The driver followed this up with a practised chuckle, but the effort at conversational warmth soon cooled. His face was so lined it resembled an ordinance survey map. It looked as if it had been folded and put away far too many times. The back of his head was scorched and granular like a Scotch egg. His thoughts were elsewhere. I remembered how he’d turned up at the hotel an hour before I’d asked him to, all business, proprietary, arm showing me the way, propelling me through the door.

In the Immigration block in Jordan, my bag was screened for guns and incendiary devices. Then my passport was relayed through adjoining cubicles, via a dumb-waiter. The next stage was presided over by the Exit Fee man. The Exit Fee man inhabited a third cubicle round the corner. The Exit Fee man wasn’t there. A half-eaten shwerma rested on a plate. There was also a can of Pepsi with a blackberry-cluster of flies on the rim. Otherwise, there was no sign of the Exit Fee man. The Exit Fee man was not there for an hour or so. I joined a statuesque woman with flame-coloured hair, two men in imitation leather jackets smoking foul-smelling cigarettes, and a backpacker. ‘Just the beginning,’ flame-hair said softly. Through a window, under the high blue skies of these depths (the Dead Sea is 418 metres below sea-level, and getting lower by the minute), we could see a coach waiting. We looked at it from time to time. The Exit Fee man sloped in. He had a scornful expression. He scoffed at our bills, claiming he had no change. We stared at one another. We were wondering how we came to be in such a place. Much of life, we seemed to confide in one another, is passed in this way. Wondering how we come to be in such a place.

Outside, the carpark had the alienating execution-square look peculiar to desert states. Such places are so alienating you tend to spectate your own life, rather than that of the man having his hand cut off in the middle. We trudged across, spot-lit by the sun, lugging polystyrene bags stuffed with fruit and clothes, toy zebras and twine-bound cardboard boxes advertising Panasonic TVs and DVD players. We are always doing this in this part of the world—taking supersized toys home for the kids and electronic goods for the grown-ups because that’s what proves it was all worthwhile, the years away, the privations, the treatment, the confinement. We can’t get the goods as cheaply at home, and we have to prove that the stay outside (or inside, as it so often feels) had some benefit. The TV will replace the old cathode-tube box set and the zebra will bring tears to little Ali’s eyes. Overlooking the arch that marked the beginning of the bridge, the boyish blue-eyed features of King Abdulla looked down upon us, shedding benison and love. But it was a less radiant look than we were accustomed to.

There are images of kings and princes and presidents all over the Middle East. Every Gulf Arab state suspends from its flyovers, and decorates its tallest buildings with, vast portraits of the heads of state, each seemingly in the grip of an ecstasy few clubbers can hope to emulate. You cannot go into a ministry, office, corporate or otherwise, and not be greeted by a smiling head of state. Yet far from imparting a sense of warmth and welcome, or even the merits of good dentistry and teeth bleaching, these images succeed only in creating an impression of grotesquely dissimulated ill-will.

The coach remained where it was for another hour. The driver kept getting off to stretch his legs and suck on spongy yellow oranges. A family of bluebottles played squash on the rear window. Time-lapse clouds passed overhead. Finally a military policeman came on board and took our passports away. We braced ourselves, leaping automatically to numbed and witless attention. This condition is so well known in these parts that it would be superfluous and unkind to dwell on it. Suffice it to say that there are checkpoints all over the region, and individuals, seemingly randomly chosen, can be whisked off never to be seen again. When the MP returned, an hour later, he handed over our passports, one by one, with jokey gestures of affability, the muzzle of his M16 tickling our napes. The coach set off, momentarily blotting out a row of hubble-bubble smokers with the contents of its exhaust in relief.

The Allenby Bridge, or King Hussein Bridge, as they called it in Jordan, was not really a bridge. It was more of a road running along a levee. There was no water on either side, just mazy ravines filled with brush. We crossed it, covering a distance of 50 metres, before coming to a shuddering halt behind another coach and a large ramshackle truck laden with mattresses. I pulled Martin Amis’ Experience out of my bag and waited for darkness to fall. A chicken pecked at stones on the road.

According to Amis, all travellers put nation-states on the psychiatrist’s couch and then take a reading of their mental health. But whose mental state? Their own or the state’s? Amis’ syntax is a bit dodgy. The verdict, he says, is registered on the body after a couple of days. The traveller’s body doesn’t just suffer blisters and mosquito bites; it sometimes acquires bruises, welts, wounds. When Amis visited Israel, he felt ‘invigorated—rejuvenated.’ Lucky Mart. He should try travelling by himself, without minders and fixers. He might have come to a different verdict, had he entered the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge border crossing. He wouldn’t have felt invigorated and rejuvenated by all that checking and waiting, queuing and obstruction, I’d say. But this was not his world. This was no one’s world. It wasn’t a world at all. It was an in-between state, neither alive nor dead, in which the body was often past all feeling. I saw one old man—though he might have been younger than he looked—squatting in the dust, arms hanging over his knees, head down. It is an image I see everywhere in the Arab world outside government offices. This waiting, this waiting, waiting, waiting, can seem to be all there is, becoming that interval poets mention between the cradle and the grave, between that brief glimpse of light and that all devouring pitch.

After the other two vehicles had gone through the checkpoint, we filed down to stand in the sun, blear-eyed, uncomfortable in our overcoats. There still wasn’t anything to do, just smoke or look out over that nude intricately folded landscape, a no man’s land of parched lizard-strewn rock and scrub, while an Israeli soldier—young, with scraped-back hair and a tortoiseshell grip, ear-phones and a pink iPhone poking out of her breast pocket—pored over our passports at a hatch.

‘Family name, Smith?’ ‘Yes’. ‘British?’ ‘Yes’. Twitched smile.

Back in my seat, I discovered that we hadn’t actually arrived. Another checkpoint, more elaborate and testing than the others, lay round the next bend.

The Immigration block on the West Bank side was packed with coaches like the entrance to a tourist site or a sporting event. The flame-haired woman, whose name was Feda, told me they came from all over the West Bank, from Hebron, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. We followed the crowd, wondering where to go, searching for helpful signs, watching bags being slung and piled up behind a barricade. This slinging and piling up business was, Feda said, the procedural sign we were looking for. It meant that once all our bags had been checked and passed through some machinery at the back we ourselves could pass through Immigration proper, and from thence into the West Bank. The handlers, who had shallow thumbed-in features and crudely jointed bodies, like voodoo dolls or golems, ignored the crowd’s high-pitched requests. There were no queues here, just a mass of degraded humanity, flanked here and there by Aryan ubermen like me. An old woman, robed and veiled, found a trolley to sit on. Her ankles were thick and shapeless, as if her calves had just melted. There were quite a few old people in the crowd. Some sat stiffly in wheelchairs, like victims of coma or gassing. One old man writhed in another man’s arms. ‘You should see this place in the summer,’ Feda told me. ‘The crowd is so big and the baggage handlers so slow they have to camp out, sometimes for days. This? This is a blast.’ We were hemmed in. The odour of invigorated and rejuvenated bodies was overpowering.

I pushed my way out and joined forces with the backpacker. She looked Japanese, but she said she’d travelled from Vancouver on a free ticket—her father worked for Air Canada. What was a Japanese girl doing here? What was she doing in Vancouver? Why was her father working for Air Canada? Was she in fact Canadian? What was her age? What was her religion? Did she have any distinguishing marks? Borders have that effect. They reduce all human inquiry to half a dozen hysterical interrogatives. She’d just come from Petra, and intended to go on to Lebanon, after this. ‘How was Petra?’ I was remembering the heat, flies, touts, souvenir shops, camels and camel-boys (‘air-conditioned taxi, mister?’) of my own visit, some years ago. ‘Awesome,’ she said in the breathless fridge-magnet patois of the Free World (and much of the Unfree one these days). I asked her where she was staying. She said she was visiting with a friend. A friend? Here? She was a cosmopolitan, I thought, a creature of space, not time. This is how it should be: being without borders, a sort of becoming without the angst. Awesome. But such idealisms have no place in this world. You are your passport, and your nationality is your identity. There is no pussy-footing around with ontology here.

‘They want to make it hard for us to re-enter,’ said Feda. She was dressed much too well to be a Palestinian, I thought. In my ignorance, I’d assumed she was an Israeli. Later, I would realise the sheer implausibility, not to say effrontery, of such an assumption. ‘The baggage-handlers are, what do you call them? “Collaborators”?’ She gave a short peeling laugh. Nearby, a tall oldster in an undersized suit fainted, toppling like a steeple, false teeth rotating on the asphalt like a dropped coin. This is the only crossing Palestinians can use when visiting refugee families in Jordan or, I now learnt, seeking treatment in Amman’s hospitals. Wikipedia notes: ‘The Jordanian authorities recognize the bridge as an international border entry point, but in contrast to other border crossings with Israel, do not grant entry visas to foreign passport holders at this crossing. Palestinians travelling abroad must use this bridge to exit the Palestinian territories into Jordan and then use the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman to fly abroad. Travel permits from both Israeli and Jordanian authorities are required, with varied stringency depending on the political situation.’ The political situation was probably relatively elastic when I was there.

Amis speaks of a ‘garrison state’ where beleagurement leads to attrition. He’s right. There are garrison states all around, and beleagurement does indeed lead to attrition. We had already formed such a state ourselves, me, Feda and the backpacker, which was already eroding under the unrelenting winds of officialdom and rubber stamps. We were heading through the gate now, Feda, five or so minutes behind. I’d got to bypass the concrete overcoat of the x-ray box and its sinister blue sensors. It was my passport that swung it. (The backpacker also got lucky.) I slipped past rows of Palestinians opening their Panasonic boxes or unfolding and refolding their underwear for the inspectors on the zinc-topped tables and didn’t think how like Mart I was. I told the woman at the gate that I wanted the stamp on the Immigration form, and not in my passport. She said no, that provision was no longer available. I said it must be, I might not be able to return to my place of work else. She said nothing but went off to confer with her superiors.

Arab League countries are not well disposed to what they call the ‘Israeli entity.’ To visit both Israel and the Occupied Territories, I thought I would have to avoid getting an Israeli stamp in my passport. An Israeli stamp in my passport might be compromising. This, too, was a consequence of borders and border-controls. But there was no real need for this manoeuver, as nowadays USA-funded Arab states have tacitly accepted the Israeli entity. The risks were minimal. But I could not let it go, for this was part of the myth, this was why I had come. Present contingency is small beer beside the enormous intoxication of History with a capital H. When she came back, the woman at the gate said nothing but did as I’d hoped, stamping the permit with a black lozenge: ‘Visit permit B/2/3: 3 months.’ That 3 months would later convert into 3 days, in my repulsed wary mind, when I legged it back over the border.

Still convinced I was having the sort of adventure I could buttonhole friends and relatives about on my return, I posed spectacularly by a waiting minibus. I’d found out that this bus would take me to Jerusalem for a mere 25 shekels, when it had a full complement of passengers. (The taxis charged 200.) Meantime, like a Facebook addict looking for a hit of Likes, I furtively snapped the ravaged scowling features of Bedouin types selling Pepsis and sweets, though I had the good grace not to try to take a selfie with them. Later, I would glimpse their encampments on the Biblical hills—wind-ripped polystyrene fencing, herds of goats, broken-down ’60s Chevvies, shacks from which brutal-looking naiads didn’t wave. Only female Israelis seemed to be in charge at this point. They wore identical impassive expressions and pretended not to see my efforts at fine art photography. I was joined by Feda. She was knowing and witty, asking me whether I was a cultural tourist or a nostalgic Anglican. She said I should stay in Jericho at the big new Intercontinental; I might get to see a war break out. I said no thanks. It still hadn’t sunk in that she was not, could not be, Israeli. As it was, I took her for an urban sophisticate, in the style of Madame de Stael or a Woody Allen character. I fancied myself a pretty sharp dude. I put on my shades and cocked an eyebrow at the Japanese girl till we set off.

In the back of the bus, I found myself crushed into a rear-seat corner by three Scandinavian backpackers in hot pants and Bart Simpson t-shirts brandishing mobile phones and lip salve. The Japanese girl had sought out a seat as far away from me as possible. Just in front of me, Feda’s ironic detachment was also suffering attrition. ‘See that?’ she said, pointing out a passing sign. It was composed of the upside down Ls and inverted Ns of Hebrew. ‘This land is not our land. No one can build on it. The Israeli army uses it for shelling practice. Sometimes they miss.’ Then, at the Jericho turn-off, with much arm waving and emphases: ‘See that tall white building, that’s the Intercontinental. It’s got a casino!’ Perhaps she’d just taken me for a cross-border chancer rather than the seedier sort of venture capitalist I’d begun to feel like, and wanted me to lose my shekels on Palestinian turf. And, indeed, I would, but not at the Intercontinental, and not because I chose to. I got down where the bus left us—on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, and headed for the nearest hotel, a tall, white-walled edifice with desert-blasters sticking out of one side.

I don’t know what I thought I was checking into—a Biblical inn? a stable? a brothel?—but I did hope it would be glamorously sordid. I’d made no plans, travelling on a whim because I hadn’t been able to go to North Korea. (The point of this statement will only become evident in the afterlife.) Whatever it was, the hotel seemed expensive at 100 US a night. The woman behind the counter told me that I was in luck, as a party of my fellow countrymen would be joining me. These turned out to be fifty or more Anglican vicars, of varying accents, ages and genders, whose bibulous laughter and raucous remembrances of congregational irregularities would spice up my chicken shwerma the next day. They were—that next day—testing out bottles of local wine and working on postcards home. ‘How long does the mail take, Justin?’ ‘Goodness knows, Nathan.’ They gave the impression that they were out on the lam in De Walletjes or Pattaya. As the wine took hold, the jokes got bawdier. Nathan did a solemn jig involving suggestive manoeuvres with a bottle. Someone else told a mediaeval joke about cats and mice. Only one vicar became maudlin. The hotel turned out to be the gateway to the Garden Tomb of Joseph of Arithmathea, the likely site of the Resurrection.

Outside, where the Old City walls began, the street was packed with fierce beleaguered-looking youths and burly women in headscarves. Under some trees two boys were being manhandled by Israeli soldiers with Uzis. That scene was familiar to me from Sky TV. Only this was an Occupied Territory, and the boys were not going down gracefully, nor was there anyone in chic body-armour commentating reassuringly through a wobbly satellite feed. I was struck by the hoarse carrying-power of the voices around me. Kids of twelve spoke as if their larynxes had been fitted with megaphones. Most of the young men were wearing dirt-look jeans and trim wet-look jackets—with their gelled hair and sullen good looks, they bore an uncanny resemblance to the Lebanese models on the billboard ads. Everyone smoked, even the babies in the pushchairs. The pavements were carpeted with butts. Soon the crowds whirlpooled away down some steps, past platforms spread with oranges and Toshiba batteries and trays of syrupy pastries. We entered the Old City’s Damascus Gate. It was set low down at the bottom of the steps, and looked to my costive delusional eye like the entry into the underworld. Eurydice must be down there somewhere, pale and lamenting.

I went down. The alleys were close and dank, lined with shops selling fluorescent green drinks, Aladdin slippers, rubbery gaping fish, filmy underwear, toys, school-books, jelly beans, shoulders of marble-white lamb, piles of mashed and de-stoned dates like sweet-smelling dung, caged linnets. The cobbled surfaces angled and descended past men hauling Heath-Robinson contraptions (knife-grinders? boot eyelet-makers?) and trestles spread with mottled bananas and purple onions, then divided, one route heading uphill, the other farther down into the damp mosquito-fuzzy dark. I took the road not taken. The odd urgently conferring couple in black suits and black felt hats, elf-locks playing about their rosy cheeks, came up out of the haloed gloom (there was a filigree of golden light showing through where the roofs parted), from the direction, I would discover, of the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount. My fellow travellers were thickset unlovely beings in chunky pullovers. Their number seemed to swell and press against me the farther down I went. I kept a firm grip of my wallet. People called out belligerently from the shops, ‘Welcome! You come, look around!’ I had to be nimble to avoid the muscular detaining hands. ‘Looking is free!’ I stopped just beyond an alley identifying itself as the ‘Via Dolorosa.’ My fellow travellers stopped with me, not even bothering to pretend to examine the goods in the next stall. Cigarettes burned between their fingers, singeing the flesh.

I bent myopically, deliberately, over a pile of knitted yarmulkes. An elderly man sprang out of the shop’s innards, patter rolling off his lips, ‘Welcome! Come, look around. Looking is free! Where are you from? Norway? Germany? Wait!’—grabbing my arm, peering intently into my face—‘Haven’t I seen you before? Aha! How are you, my dear? Have a look at these prayer beads. Genuine black coral.’ ‘No thanks, but’—pointing at a yarmulke—‘how much is this?’ ‘This? This is a unique hand-woven item, my dear! Made according to a secret 1000 year-old method by a family of craftsmen from Nazareth!’ ‘Really?’—I gave a throaty chuckle (he might have been good at this game, but I was up to it)—‘Take a hike, you old rascal, I’ve seen hundreds of them, all anciently made by secretive methods.’ Something slid down the man’s eyes like a second eye-lid: ‘30 shekels,’ he said. ‘30? That’s crazy! I’ll give you 10.’ The second eye-lid flicked open. ‘30, and I’ll slip in these prayer beads at half-price. Crystals from the Dead Sea. Make it 45 shekels in total. A bargain just for you.’ A pause, his eyes on mine, ‘One friend to another. I know who you are.’ ‘Here, I’ll give you 10, you naughty man. I don’t want the prayer beads.’ ‘Where are you from? Canada? Holland?’ He was looking for a chink in my armour, a way through my defences. If he could get me to talk about myself, he could flog me the yarmulke for a handsome profit on the strength of our deepening friendship. ‘I’m British,’ I said.

Why did I say that? Perhaps the Allenby Bridge checkpoint had inured me to identity politics and its name-calling. You are what we say you are. ‘British?’ The old man seemed to wince, plucking the word from his mouth as if it were a fish-bone. He took my shekels and almost flung the yarmulke in my face. The pullovered men now gathered around us like minders—not Amis’s kind. No one touched me, but I could see what a vile and odious creature I was. I know who you are. A young man pushed through. There was no sweetness in his greeting. He stood very close, nose-to-nose in point of fact. He had pitted grey skin, like a dead shark’s, and the same pebbly eyes. He seemed to have been gargling with uric acid. ‘You must be this gentleman’s son?’ I inquired companionably. ‘We have no money, no business,’ the youth said. ‘I spit on your 10 shekels.’ ‘He’s British,’ the old man told him. ‘British? You destroyed Palestine!’ ‘Me?’ ‘You and Arthur Balfour. Is that all you’re buying?’ ‘Arthur Balfour?’ ‘Leave him alone, poor man. He’s been impoverished by capital gains taxes and room service bills.’ I looked around for this fantastical Regency wag, but couldn’t find him. ‘1962, mister,’ said a dwarfish man with a cartoon-blue jaw, obscurely. ‘I have nothing to do with Arthur Balfour.’ Another man said, ‘Look at us! Look at this place! Is this Paradise? Is this the King David hotel?’ ‘You have no shame.’ Another sneered, ‘You want absinthe? A Jew’s harp?’

‘No thank you, I must be going.’ ‘But you’ve bought so little, dear boy! You can’t go empty-handed’ ‘We are landless peasants.’ ‘I will return tomorrow. I need to check out a few other places first. Normal touristic procedure.’ ‘Oh yeah? That’s what you people always say.’ ‘Kelb!’ the dwarf said to my chin. ‘I’ll be back,’ I promised.

I didn’t feel like the Terminator. My heart was hammering as I headed up the alley. Mark Twain hadn’t had this sort of grief, when he was here. When he was here, Alexander Kinglake had found Jerusalem an absolute hoot. Arthur Balfour? The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was nearly a hundred years old, but for Palestinians and Arabs now living under Israeli rule it appeared to have happened yesterday; the news was probably blared out of the loudspeakers at prayer time. I might object that I had nothing to do with Balfour’s commitment to a Jewish state and the subsequent marginalisation and impoverishment—or beleaguerment, as Amis might say—but by nationality I had everything to do with it. The nation-state makes a mockery of any claim to impartiality.

The Via Dolorosa was lined with Armenian-run souvenir shops. The men at the entrances were more polite than the pullovered wags that hadn’t quite thrashed me, but they were just as insistent. ‘Welcome. Please step inside. Feel free to look around. Looking costs nothing. You are going up there? This is the route that Christ took on his way to the cross. You will need a guide. Allow me, that is the Church of the Flagellation—.’ As I hastened on, I felt several men’s want of custom land wetly on the back of my neck. At the Lion Gate, which led out of the Old City towards the Mount of Olives, and which I had assumed was also the Mount of Calvary, as depicted in the Mel Gibson film, I came across some boys—Street Arabs in Kinglake’s or Twain’s giggly parlance—exploring the contents of a rubbish skip. Their insults were anatomically correct. I tried to cross the road, but a taxi prevented me, the driver leaping out with importunities and outlandish promises. I shook him off at the bottom of the hill, crossed at the lights, and was immediately and substantially pursued by a smooth-talking postcard vendor.

I fled down some steps into more stygian gloom. What I came to might originally have been a grotto of some kind, had it not been converted into a Byzantine Church, according to a plaque. Candles burned, feebly lifting the pall. There were crystal chandeliers, icons and dusty lamps overhead. A black-garbed figure with preternaturally white skin leaned out of a doorway. ‘Greetings’, it said, revealing fangs like a vampire’s, adding sepulchrally, like Boris Karloff in The Pit, ‘Perhaps you would you like a guided tour?’ I ran back up the steps and out into the light of human mortality. But there was no way out of this. I’d only stumbled upon some kind of New Testament hot spot. There was the Mount of Olives directly above, the Garden of Gethsemane in front, the Basilica of the Agony farther beyond, and the tomb where the Virgin Mary was buried underneath. A nattily suited gent, bearing the broad confident smile of the vendor of extremely rare antiquities and deftly procured scrolls, approached at speed. I dodged him, racing up the side street that led to the Garden of Gethsemane.

It wasn’t much of a sanctuary. The Garden didn’t resemble the one in Gibson’s film. It was small and fenced in. Most of it was given over to bare recently turned lumpy grey earth. There were some olive trees arranged like chess pieces. Six or so of these were the very trees that had overlooked the betrayal of Jesus. They engaged my sense of wonder, but for reasons other than the merely miraculous. With their spindly nether branches, vast crumbling trunks and lugubrious human expressions they looked like Ents or a piece of performance art. A notice urged me to imagine what they had witnessed nearly two thousand ago. This seemed a severe sort of sarcasm. Stuck about were testimonials from religious and political celebrities. The atmosphere of hushed sacrosanctity and the frequent admonitions to avoid skimpy clothing seemed preposterous and out of place, like a mirador in a minefield, or an effort at gallantry among vomiting clubbers. I felt I had strayed into an exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. This was no place for Jesus, or Judas.

I waited till the coast seemed clear and then sprinted up the track that joined the Jericho road to the summit of the Mount of Olives. I wasn’t on my own for long. A beggar with fat thromboidal legs, swinging along on a single crutch, caught me first, then at the top a villainous-looking map-seller rescued me, pinning me to a wall with a savage oath. ‘Trust no one’, he said. ‘Not him’—jerking his bristly jaw at the beggar—‘nor him’—flicking his eyes at a coach party’s tour guide, presently ushering his charges towards a viewing-spot. ‘They are liars. Liars, every one of them.’ ‘Thanks,’ I managed, removing his hand from my throat. ‘Don’t even trust me,’ the man hissed. ‘Who should I trust, then?’ ‘No one!’ ‘Should I even trust myself?’ ‘Oho! That is a good a question!’ The map-seller’s eyes acquired a Socratic disinterest. He stood back, squinting at me curiously. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t.’ He seemed too large, overgrown, misshapen by old age, like God. He had a green beanie pulled down over his ears, the lobes of which protruded red and fleshy as turkey wattles.

I stepped across to the rail and found myself overlooking a Jewish cemetery. Jerusalem glittered in the sunlight—Jerusalem, from this vantage point, was largely a matter of a wall, a golden dome, and a few praying mantis-like cranes. ‘Buy this,’ said the map-seller, thrusting a static depiction of the same scene into my face. ‘No, thanks. I have my phone.’ ‘Hah! It is a smart phone. Hah! I am 64 years old. I have a family of seven. I used to work in Dubai as a taxi driver. I have nothing to show for it but the hovel I live in. You will not buy this picture, of course.’ He looked at me coldly, philosophically. ‘I persist, though, in the delusion that you will.’ I can’t go on, I thought, I must go on. Behind us, the coach party was being instructed in Polish. I wanted to have the view to myself so that I could think about things, life, death, that sort of thing. I had the unworthy hope that the map-seller would go away and die.

‘You are admiring the scenery? Our local colour has taken your fancy?’ The map-seller leant on the rail companionably. ‘Yonder is where rich New York Jews are buried. They have the choice spots, the balcony seats, so to speak, just in front of the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah will emerge in triumph at the end of Time.’ The coach party marched by declaiming loudly, calling out to no one in particular, taking over the viewing platform and photographing one another in stentorian Polish, brushing the vendors to one side. The map-seller aimed his jaw at their tour guide. ‘He smiles, he jokes, he says nice things, he takes their money, but when they turn their backs he will spit on their shadows.’

Later that day, while the vicars chirruped and hiccupped over mishaps in Kidderminster and Roehampton, I swallowed a shot of local vodka. It tasted like gasoline. I fled like a thief. My room was small and cramped. The TV’s programming consisted of Arabic channels, mostly from Jordan, and two in Hebrew. I picked up The English poems of John Milton. I threw it aside. I needed some more Experience.

Amis says he didn’t meet many Palestinians during his two visits, though he did have a run-in with a gatekeeper at the ‘Holy Mosque’—‘I saw in his eyes the assertion that he could do anything to me, to my wife, to my children, and to my mother, and that this would only validate his rectitude’—and got to share a glass of tea with a ‘postcard Bedouin in his tent.’ He doesn’t say which mosque—al Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock?—or where the convenient Bedouin had pitched his tent. Experience is imprecise. (The vodka tasted OK after three shots.) Amis saw the loathing of his gatekeeper as theological, rather than nationalistic. This observation seemed to have come with the benefit of hindsight and its newly acquired loyalties. Although Amis says he’s writing of an episode in 1986, he re-casts everything in the light of recent events. I have taken the hint. I am also moving beyond the past and its distractions. He is right about the affect: there is something deeply worrying about Palestinians, but, I would argue, it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with an entrenched sense of dispossession and hurt. This hurt seems ineradicable and almost necessary. If they got what they wanted, they’d still feel the same, I couldn’t help feeling. The Palestinians whip it up amongst themselves, like a top; the Arab media finds in it that rallying cry Gamal Abdul Nasser did not, could not, trumpet across the Red Sea. Only hurt does it, hurt and victimage. Think of all those news shots of men waving dead babies over their heads like trophies, while women beat their breasts and howl. Raw emotion has become hieratic, ritualised, a kind of religion.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives, I’d met ‘Charlie’, a Christian Arab with a persuasive manner, dual Israeli/Palestinian nationality, a starving grandmother and signed testimonials from Mel Gibson’s cameraman. The next day, he turned up at the hotel at 9 a.m., as arranged, to take me to Bethlehem. He said it was his birthday, and pointedly ignored his ringing mobile. ‘Girls, you know how it is.’ He asked me if I was interested in seeing the Wall. I said I was. But first he thought I ought to experience what happened if we wanted to travel directly to Bethlehem, rather than via the circuitous route that followed the Wall and its sinuous curves. I ought to point out here that Bethlehem is really a suburb of Jerusalem, just minutes away by car, but it is now impossible to reach it directly without going through a checkpoint. The Israelis want to prevent persons of doubtful loyalty from entering or departing their state freely. Security is something of a buzzword these days. So, to the Checkpoint.

The woman at the window—‘Ethiopian Jew’, Charlie confided keenly, digging up some local prejudice, ‘they like the feeling of power’—said we must turn back. We could not go through. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because your vehicle has the wrong number-plate.’ ‘What difference does that make?’ ‘It’s not allowed.’ ‘But we just want to visit. This gentleman’s a tourist who wishes to visit Bethlehem. I am an obedient taxi-driver. He wishes to gape at the manger of the Christ. I seek to help him on his pious way.’ ‘Sorry. It’s not permitted.’ Huge pantomime shrugs. I was afraid this might go on all day, but Charlie must have felt he’d made his point. ‘You see?!’ he bellowed, veins standing out in his throat, as we drove back.

We stopped to view the Wall itself. Charlie wanted me to see the graffiti. He particularly wanted me to take in a small stencilled notice that stated that the wall was paid for with American money. Walls, I thought, the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin wall, the wall between the two Koreas, the wall being mooted as a solution to illegal immigration into the USA from Mexico, the one going up in Baghdad, the ones we erect between asylums and the sane, the criminal and the innocent, the quick and the dead. What would we do without walls? They are a kind of incentive. When one goes up, people try to get over it, literally, rather than figuratively, as if their lives depended on it. This one, the one between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (soon to be between the whole of the Occupied Territories and Israel proper), had new rolls of barbed wire at the top. ‘They didn’t build it high enough,’ Charlie said. ‘Palestinians could still climb over. They still do, farther down, even with razor wire at the top. The Jews can’t stop them.’ ‘Why do they do it?’ ‘To get to Jerusalem. In Bethlehem, there is no work. Nothing. The Jews want to starve them.’

Charlie used the word ‘Jews,’ rather than Israelis, not so much because he had Israeli nationality, or was a Christian, as because he saw himself as an Arab—race, or, better, tribe, not nation or religion, appeared to be the glue that held him together. He was in favour of Hamas, he said piously, because that party were legally and popularly elected but you could guess it was because they were not Jewish. Racism or tribalism is not only the most visible, most commercially successful brand of glue, it is the easiest to apply. Because it is emotional and self-regarding, it is much stronger than nation, which is rational and law-abiding. Racism can even enlist religion in its loathing. When we went to Bethlehem, it was always to Christian shops that Charlie took me (for his kickbacks), not Muslim ones.

In Bethlehem, young men sped by on horseback. They had rifles and shook them at the sky. The Palestinian Authority police, who were not allowed to carry guns, looked on ineffectually. Charlie made me duck down, in case someone took exception to my pinko-grey goggling. There were a lot of cops at Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity and I was able to dodge inside and examine a dark underground crypt posing, rather unconvincingly, as the site of Christ’s birth. Armenian pilgrims swayed on their knees in the dim recesses and a guide droned in my ear. The place was burned black from candle heat and smoke. Outside, Manger square was teeming with curious locals and whispering pilgrims (bundled up in rags like filmic versions of Russian peasants), but I saw no other pinko-grey arrivants. A few small boys tried to interest me in souvenir key rings and packs of dirty postcards, but the guide, a sad-looking consumptive in carpet slippers, shooed them away. Charlie took me to a shop specialising in craftwork. It appeared to have been opened just for me. I was immediately and comprehensively surrounded by attentive assistants, silent tea-bearers and pretty smiling girls. I hummed and hawed, wondering what I could buy. ‘Just make a donation,’ Charlie said in the end, giving up all pretence of conventional trade-offs.

The next day he took me to Jericho. By now, having subsisted entirely on snacks (sandwiches, olives, flatbread, humus) and oily vodka, I was feeling like a visit to the Intercontinental—Feda had said it offered great buffet lunches—and looked longingly at it as we passed. But Charlie had other ideas. He felt I hadn’t experienced enough checkpoints. There were two on the road to Jericho that he felt were unmissable. The first was Israeli, and we were waved through—disappointingly for Charlie. The second was Palestinian, put there, Charlie said, in retaliation for the first. The two soldiers copied the Israelis in every detail, even down to the tie clips and glistening wavy hair. This tit-for-tat way of life struck me as oppressive and self-defeating. Who was it that said that direct opposition only reinforces the state of affairs that occasioned the state of affairs that led to direct opposition? This is a circular planet. After a mile or so, Charlie pulled over so that I might view and photograph the remains of the Jericho police station. It had been bombed by Israeli fighter planes a few years ago, following the refusal of the Palestinian police to hand over three men who had been involved in the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister. The Palestinians claimed that as the men were in their jurisdiction they would be dealt with by Palestinian justice. The Israelis claimed the Palestinians would let the men off, since what they had done was not a criminal act in Palestinian eyes. This is a sample of the sort of give-and-take that characterises dialogue in these parts.

As we passed, I noticed police cars drawn up outside the police station. ‘It’s still in use,’ Charlie explained. ‘They can’t afford to rebuild it.’ Charlie always made such claims sound like accusations. They came across as domestic huffs magnified into Miltonic tragedy, Samson perpetually railing at Dalila till God intervenes. You either ran with it, throwing up your own hands, or—however insensitive this may seem—your mind wandered.

On the way back, I said I wanted to visit the Israeli half of Jerusalem. In the interest of the fuller picture, I explained, the broader view. Charlie was not impressed. He dropped me off at the head of Ben Yehuda Street. ‘You will find plenty of broader views here,’ he said, in his harsh nicotine-enriched voice. ‘This is where they flock together.’ The road was little more than a shopping precinct. I hadn’t gone more than twenty yards when I realised I was in the Middle West. There were designer shops (Ralph Lauren, Dolce and Gabbana, Donna Karen) boys in low-slung pants—I even saw soldiers wearing baggy low-waisted khaki—deep buttock cleavages to go with the dangling elf-locks, people handing out flyers, tattoo and piercing bars, girls with big hair, silicon breasts and crackling laughter, and lots of eateries selling burgers and doughnuts. There were boutiques and ethnic restaurants and cafes down one alley. I came across a ‘Gay Pride’ demonstration, led by cartoonishly self-conscious lesbians (buzzcuts, overalls, exaggerated masculine strides). One gave me a pamphlet written in Hebrew. I heard myself asking if being so in-yer-face in such a conservative environment was not counter-productive. ‘We have a lot of competition,’ the woman laughed. At the cafés, Hassidim gorged on steaks, eyes darting from right to left over each mouthful, and pale gingery men sipped Cokes between bursts of thumb work on their mobile phones.

This was a city centre modelled on Western ones. It had the same pace, obesity and absence of eye contact. The inhabitants were a different people than the ones I’d just left. They didn’t rummage through garbage skips or demand exorbitant payment for naff jewellery. Where the Old City was divided into quarters (the Arab Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter), modern Jerusalem was split into two irreconcilable halves. In the Israeli half, I finally saw what Amis meant by beleagurement. The Wall started just behind the eyes. Fear was in the city, fear and rejection. On Ben Yehuda Street, the people looked as if they’d just been airlifted out of Europe and dumped down in the middle of a desert. Their hearts were still in Europe. Or America. They were doing their level best to make the Middle East not exist. On the other hand, in the Old City the people were pretty keen on asserting priority. Their hearts were in the land that was no longer theirs. They were doing their level best to make Israel not exist. So it goes.

Wandering across the road at the bottom of Ben Yehuda, not having seen the lights change, I was asked for my ‘papers’ by an unsmiling cop. ‘Have a nice day,’ he said, when he’d finished flipping through my passport, turning it round to look at the different Arabic stamps. When I got back to the hotel, I found a group of vicars praying together in a corner of the lobby. They seemed to have had a nice day. One vicar was reciting from The Book of Common Prayer. He had the ponderous self-satisfied tone I remembered from Sunday services back in the day. The sort of monotonous speech that has never run up against any opposition. The antiphons came back to him like sea surging on a pebble beach. Hymnals seemed to rustle. Knees seemed to creak. Yawns seemed to be stifled. I lurched off in search of vodka.

The Wailing Wall marks the site of the Temple of Solomon—the Jewish holy of holies. To get to it from the Old City, you have to pass through another checkpoint. Just above it is al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites—it was from here that Mohammed ascended to heaven. A ramshackle walkway stretches from ground level to the Temple mount. You pass over a square filled with men standing in front of the Wall—what kind of irony is that?—nodding like disturbed children in the grip of a motor disorder till you reach a pair of empty mosques becalmed on a sea of flagstones, where tourists follow their guides in silent camera-clicking droves, and beggars murmur under the trees, one hand disposed like an offertory plate, and unofficial guides with torn sun-scorched faces bob alongside, waiting to be finally, conclusively, ignored—and no one and nothing else moves. Above all this, the blue of the sky is plain and unmarked as if aerosoled, and a single dove, wings frozen in mid-blur, perpetually, vainly, ascends.

 

Piers Smith

Piers Smith

Piers Michael Smith divides his time between Kuwait, where he is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology, and Thailand where he grows trees. He has published chiefly in the fields of travel literature and travel writing, with excursions into the more rarefied world of Shakespearean drama, the cultural commentary of Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes, Joseph Conrad’s East Asian novels and the Alien films. Current preoccupations include the grotesque in literature and representational art, baby-boomers and terror-travels.

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