The Promised Land

Palestine 27–31/12/2015

Meet the Symbols.

It took me some time to find the courage to sit down and write about the journey. Intellectual courage, as I was afraid, and, truth be told, I still am, not be able to convey well enough the impact that Palestine had on me. Since it is of course impossible to register each and every moment of the trip, and due to the spiritual aura surrounding my travels, symbols are all that’s left at the end of the journey.

Meet the Destination.

I had learnt my lesson before I set off for Jerusalem, which is DO NOT SAY TO A PALESTINIAN “I AM VISITING ISRAEL”. Mind you, it’s not that they don’t want you to visit Israel, and you should not mention it to them. Not at all. But they consider Israel as the embodiment of all that is evil in the world: the torturer, the murderer, and the occupier. Israel is all of these things and many more, but most importantly Israel is the usurper, that which took their homes away from them. So when I began my journey I knew I was not going to Israel: I was travelling to Palestine. Nonetheless I kept quiet about it for most of my time there because Israel is alive and well in the Promised Land, and, most important of all, very much armed.

Meet the Border.

The young lady at the security check was screening me with a suspicious eye. I knew I was at risk considering I had been living in Jordan for almost three months and had been studying Arabic, the language of the enemy. I had left home any trace of my affiliation to the Arabic language, and I was wearing a shining pink rosary, courtesy of my housemate’s grandma (whom, if only she knew how it was being misused, would have probably raged and cursed my already damned soul).

“What is your father’s name?”
“Francesco.”
“And your grandfather’s?”
“Vincenzo.”
“And what religion is that?”
“Ch-christian.”

I think I did hesitate for half a second. I did consider to tell her how utterly ludicrous of a question that was in the XXI century. Since I am writing this in my room rather than a cell right now, I didn’t. One of my fellow travellers keenly noted how insignificant these controls become once you simply play their own game. I am Christian! Of course I am! And you see how nicely I am dressed? Still, she was not convinced and called a supervisor. He took a careful look at my passport, then smiled gently at me and signaled the woman to let me go. Reluctantly, she returned my stuff and showed me out.

As I stepped outside the border control area, I removed the rosary from my neck and buried it deep in my bag.

I am in, bitches.

Meet the armed youth.

I don’t like the military. It’s not like I had any particular experience which made me dislike it, I just don’t feel sympathy towards it. It may be because I don’t like weapons.

In Israel, conscription is mandatory. Which means that basically anybody in the state is either a soldier now or he or she was a soldier in the past. It’s a superb brain-washing apparatus which instills the regime’s ideology into its citizens. And do you know why it works so well? Because they catch them while they are young. Right after they turn eighteen. One of the most striking images I have of Jerusalem is of young men and women with machine guns hanging from their shoulders like if they were students carrying their school bags. They are everywhere: jumping off and on trams, stationing at one of the uncountable checkpoints around Jerusalem or simply strolling about. An army of armed youngsters, a constant reminder that peace is nowhere to be found in the Promised Land.

Meet the labyrinth

Jerusalem’s old city is surrounded by an aura of mystery and eternal beauty. Its streets are one of the best places in the world to get lost in. You can walk endlessly among the desert-colored buildings, and the Old Market, expecting to find yourself in front of the numerous beauties along the way. Ordinary beauties, like the narrow streets in the yellowish light of a street lamp after sunset, or extraordinary beauties, like the view of Western Wall and Temple Mount that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. For the brave ones, the labyrinth extends on the rooftops as well, where bags filled with rocks hint at the possible acts of guerrilla that take place above the city. A labyrinth with a beginning but with no end fits incredibly well Jerusalem, cradle of civilizations and one of the most important starting points of man’s confrontation with the divine.

Meet the Western Wall.

I am not even going to try and lie. The Western Wall was an utter disappointment. The holy of the holies of Judaism, it is considered to be the last standing proof of what was once the site of Solomon’s temple. The physical point from which the divine emanates its spirit to everything that is, or so the Jews believe. It’s crowded, of course, but that’s not what disturbed me. I was disturbed by the parties taking place right in front of the Wall, celebrating a young man’s bar mitzvah. Actually it was not even the parties themselves that disturbed me (although they did seem at odd with the holy of the holies story), as I am definitely for the mingling of sacred and profane, but rather the eerie signs of a patriarchal institution. In fact, as the men celebrated on their sides, the women of the family, who due to their evil nature they are divided from the men, were standing on top of chairs and what not in order to at least get a glimpse of the festivities happening on the “right” side of the barriers. As I said, I am not going to hide my disappointment. It was kitsch, and the holy of the holies kind as well.

Meet the Daue.

Part of a Muslim religious life, the Daue, basically the Islam equivalent of Christianity’s testimony, can be done in different ways. It is certainly quite appealing when it’s done in front of Qubbat al-Sakhra al-musharrafa, the Dome of the Rocks.

The guy approaches me with a big smile and starts asking me about religion. Funnily enough he was happy to confront with someone other than a Christian, as most Christians he dealt with had no idea of what it meant to be a Christian.

“Have you ever read the Qu’ran?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You see, in the Qu’ran you find everything. How is it possible that a book so old had so many things about science and the world that were only discovered centuries later? And it’s beautiful, I mean I love reading the Qu’ran.”

And then he read it. Technically, in English we would say that what he was doing was singing. But you don’t sing the Qu’ran, you read it. Not from a piece of paper, but from your mind, remembering years of studying it. After all, it is God’s word, written all across the universe. He had an amazing voice, and he really struck me as content, fulfilled. He did believe what he was saying. He has all the answers that he ever looked for. I thanked him and took the ‘What is Islam?’ brochure he handed me.

Alas, I stopped looking for answers a while ago. Right now, I am just looking for the right questions.

Meet the Photographer.

I had heard stories. My housemate had advised me to enter Elyah’s shop and talk to him. But if it weren’t for my fellow travellers, I would have completely missed it.

“This looks like an interesting shop,”

one of them pointed out. EVERYBODY IN!

The place is quite small, but cozy. A couple of tourists were about to make their way out with their guide. Business was good for Elyah, who had become quite a celebrity in Jerusalem.

“My father was a photographer. So I started printing his pictures of Jerusalem seventy or eighty years ago and selling them. But now I have pictures from many photographers. I went around in every flea market and bought all of the film I could find. It was really cheap, because really who wants that crap? I want it!”

Some of the pictures date back to the 1870s. A hundred and fifty years of Palestine seen through the eyes of different generations.

“It is right to spend some money to buy what is beautiful,”

said one of my travel companions. And so we dug into the thousands of pictures and each of us captured one or more which we could somehow relate too.

Elyah is an artist, because the artist sees the beauty where nobody else does.

Thank you for art.

Meet the Holy Sepulchre.

It’s very early in the morning and the square in front of one of the most iconic place in the Christian world is empty. Silently, we make our way through the entrance. They call it a church but it is as far away from a church as the Sistine Chapel is from a mosque. As most of Jerusalem its structure is elusive, but thanks to a map on our Lonely Planets we make out that different churches and chapels are contained within the site. A steep spiral staircase takes us in front of some of the most beautiful mosaics I have ever seen, and a solid stone staircase leads us deep down where the Christ’s cross was allegedly found. I thought there and then that the building was a perfect representation of religion. Doors and trapdoors at every corner, locked and sealed: signs of the blind faith of those who do not dare to ask, but also of the doubtful ones, who cannot give up their doubts and yet they still manage to believe. Finally, through a hallway decorated by columns belonging to different time periods, we reach the Sepulchre. The grey and blackish walls stretch up to the sky, converging into a golden dome. In the middle of it, an adorned sealed room hides the Speculchre from view. In front of all this, lay the entrance to yet another chapel, belonging to the Crusaders. Ostentatiously lavish, it does not nothing but increase the bareness of the dome of the Sepulchre. There stood and stand and will stand those who believe and those who do not believe, and also those who mock. There I stood and felt small, as if I was contemplating the abyss of the universe. I was nagged by a question that I had brought with me to Jerusalem:

Jesus of Nazareth, son of man and woman, king of the Jews, how the hell did you manage to influence two thousand years of Western civilization?

That, indeed, was a good question.

Meet the Settlements.

Israel’s Isles in the occupied territory, the settlements represent the constant strive of the Israeli to claim back what they consider to be rightfully theirs. Our guide stops the taxi and points to the hill in front of us. A single road takes to the top, where a small independent world has been brought to life. Whatever the political and ideological story constructed by the Israeli regime, what I cannot possibly understand is what drives these people to leave their lives and move into a camp. Because really, that in front of me is a camp, enclosed by a highly electrified fence. Security has overcome freedom to the extent that settlers are really prisoners of the Israeli state, manipulated to be the excuse to perpetrate an illegal enterprise. I tell myself that I would like to talk to these people, because really all of this does not make sense. Five hundred of them live in Hebron, al-Khalil, protected by two thousand soldiers. They disrupted the lives of almost a million people. Al-Khalil, in fact, is not the bustling city it used to be. The old market, once eight hundred shops strong, is reduced to a fourth of what it once was. The shopkeepers left are desperate for tourist to buy their products. But tourists are avoiding the city, which looks more and more like a deserted warzone.

Meet the Mosque of Abraham.

Once an important destination for many pilgrims, whether they were Muslims, Christians or Jews, the Mosque is yet another victim of the occupation. After an American Jew massacred some 27 Muslims in 1994, the Israeli government shut it down for four months and decided to split the place of worship in two: one part for the Muslims, and one for themselves. We are accompanied by our guide into the Muslim side, who explains us the importance of the Mosque. Here lay the Patriarchs: Abraham and his wife Sarah, Isaac and his wife Rebecca and Jacob and his wife Leah. The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are visible from both the Jewish and the Muslim side, but a bulletproof glass, along with security checks and metal detectors at the entrance, definitely spoil the holiness of the place.

“You don’t feel like it’s a holy place. You feel like in a military base. Three checkpoints to enter the mosque.”

As we approach the Jewish side, our guide leaves us on our own, as he is not allowed to go further. A guard stops us:

“What religion are you?”
“ Christians, we are Italian.”
“Ah! Welcome to Israel.”

As we near the second checkpoint, my revolutionary companion turns to me and whispers:

“Welcome to Israel? I though that imaginary lands did not exist!”

I laughed. I had a growing feeling that the more I saw, the more extremist I became. They were proudly displaying social injustice. And I could not stand it.

Meet the Promised Land.

The Herodium is the mountain on top of which Herodes the Great erected a majestic palace-fortress during the first century BC. We drove to the top of it, or rather the base of the top: the site is occupied by Israel, and it is subject to an entrance fee.

“They are here because of the settlements over there. The only place in Palestine you have to pay to visit.”

We, supporters of the resistance, decided to boycott the Herodium and appreciate the free landscape in front of us. I stood on a rock wall on the side of the street. To the East stretched the desert as far as the eye could see. To the west were the mountains of Palestine, with the cities, settlements, military bases, holy sites and everything that this land hosted, willingly or unwillingly. I took a deep breath while I looked at the most stunning landscape I had ever seen in my life. History had galloped through those mountains. The history of God and of humankind, of the Romans and the Ottomans, of Jesus and Mohammad. The history of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who drenched this land with their blood and that of their enemies. As I stood there, in a sort of spiritual trance, I had a simple thought:

This is the Promised Land.

“Oh legendary land,

I silently stood in front of you,

I saw your desert, your mountains and your cities,

And I fell in love with you.

I will not forget you Palestine.

The woman from Hebron gave me a kefiah,

She told me: This is the symbol of our resistance

Symbol of a people that does not give up

I will not forget you Palestine.

I took a part of you with me, legendary land,

Land which does not belong to humans

But belongs instead to fear and hatred.

I will not forget you Palestine.”