During Easter Giles Longley-Cook, a first year Politics student and Comment and Features writer, travelled to the middle east. For the next six weeks at every Friday lunchtime, Redbrick Comment and Features will be re-publishing his diary entries from the trip to provide a first hand insight into what life is really like in Israel, Gaza and on the West Bank.
As the plane honed in on a green Tel Aviv runway I was beginning to feel an unpleasant attack of nerves coming on. As much as I could bear in mind the safety tips and warm reviews from fellow travellers, something drilled into me from years of news reports, stories and general paranoia kept me alert all the way through the airport. None of this was helped by my journey through customs. Every group in front of my friends and I seemed to disappear off to an undisclosed place for questioning. Our unsuspicious appearance gave us a free pass, others we met had spent up to five hours in the interrogation room.
Things were no better outside the airport. Every sudden swerve of the taxi, every dark figure wandering through the scrubland, every sideways glance from civilians and officials alike. I could not relax until reaching the safety of the hostel. Tel Aviv has the luxury of being as far from the occupation as it is possible to be in Israel (which is not that far in any direction). Thus the streets bear a relaxed, slow feel, also worn by its citizens, reminiscent of Athens or any other Mediterranean city in the evening. The only signs of the conflict are small but bear deeper significance due to their location; soldiers filming on the beach, south park style graffiti of an Arab woman with a rifle, a paper homage to a pilot lost over Lebanon and Stars of David scrawled on the sides of skips. Less connected, and even more confusing, were the families climbing through the skips, fishing out shoes and other pieces of clothing.
Our late arrival and sense of worry had left us too tired to investigate Tel Aviv’s famous night life; instead we drank wine on the hostel balcony taking in the warm coastal night.
The next day we moved on to Jerusalem. At the bus station our bags were thoroughly searched while others passed through untouched. The station was filled with soldiers, more than I’d seen in the whole of Tel Aviv. Many carried rifles at their sides, and looked younger than myself.
After a brief journey we entered a cold Jerusalem and what felt like a whole new country. Soldiers were everywhere, as were people in orthodox religious dress. Everywhere in the city it would be the same, in the holy sites, the backstreets, until one feels like you’re visiting an army with a country rather than the other way around. Here one truly knows they are in the Middle East.
Having found our hostel in the Old City we set out to look for dinner in the Arab Quarter. The vast complex of thin, crowded streets smelled of spices, bread and varnish. People hurry past or poke into your face trying to sell you something or just say hello. Walking back later on in the evening the bustling maze has transformed into a sinister labyrinth. All shops are closed and the streets are unrecognisable. It is eerily quiet, the hubbub of tourists and local merchants vanished and now only occasionally does someone appear; a Hasidic Jew hurrying home, a couple of orthodox priests, some Arab street children cycling by. At one point a small group of these cornered us in a steep road, only to let us through via a makeshift checkpoint of a long stick. It took us nearly an hour to find our way back to the hostel.
Walls once covered with racks of T-shirts bearing Palestinian and Israeli flags side by side and pictures of Obama as either Osama Bin Laden or an orthodox Jew are now covered with the less commercial but equally contradictory art of graffiti. I deeply regret my inability to read Arab or Hebrew but some of it is in English, picking out words such as ‘Obama’, ‘Khader Adnan’ and (what was hopefully a joke) ‘Free Palestine…but kill the Arabs’.
A free tour of the City affirms Jerusalem as a place of contradictions. The fact that its name means ‘City of Peace’, visiting the Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock towering over us, hearing church bells, rams horns and the call to prayer compete for listeners. After a few hours of queuing in intermittent sunshine and rain we reached the entrance to the Dome of the Rock, only to witness an Israeli policeman eject a French Muslim convert who had tried to go through the metal detector, having demanding his passport and threatening to mace him. No explanation was given.
Feeling worn out already we caught a taxi to take us to the West Bank. Not five minutes out of the city we were passing through walled checkpoints and fences strung with Israeli flags, clashing occasionally with Palestinian ones as we edged cautiously into this bizarre and intimidating interzone.
Written by Giles Longley-Cook