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56. Retreat (II)

Updated: Nov 26, 2020


He walked straight into the razor wire dangling from a garden wall. He only brushed against it, but a streak a blood blossomed on his forehead. A gentle cut from the metal bush. The guide, a bearded Orthodox hippy, runs up to him to make sure it is all okay. A white handkerchief changes to a red rag. We gather round and the women nurse him. We are in Hebron; we are disaster tourists. We are here to peek at misery. Our guide ushers us into a space between new colonial tower blocks and older houses made of concrete breeze blocks. It was here, he says, that Jacob or Esau or some character out of a colourful picture book taken down from the attic at Christmas died. The Bible seems less real when its locations are seen. I sat on the Mount of Olives and looked down on Jerusalem and imagined burly legionaries coming to arrest me and take my master—somehow, it never flies as well as in a cold classroom on an English winter’s day.

The guide points down to a tower block. It was built in a night by Orthodox fanatics, stealing under the watchmen of the Israeli bureaucracy. I imagine youths, gangly, with great beards and moonish glasses, running up and down gangplanks. There are bricks under their robes, and they work by the light handheld torches; clandestine builders and occult colonists of the New Jerusalem. Up there, right now, they sit with a great Torah scroll—semi-automatics propped at the door. Holy builders! Perpetual teenagers—eyes on the Torah—and youthful patriarchs, shepherding five or six children by the time they are twenty-four.

A man walks past and spits at our feet. He spits Arabic at us, too. The guide, wet as a California Jew, tries to placate him with soft words. “We just need to understand each other…” Silently, I add “man” to the sentence: “We just need to understand each other, man.” Later, we meet his Brooklyn cousins: realists these, with rifles slung underarm. They complain of Arab dogs gunning down children in the playground. The merry-go-round goes round and round, and here’s a pail of blood. “They throw stones! They shoot toddlers!”Firecrackers explode behind them, and I, innocent that I am, think of gunfire. “A wedding! An Arab wedding!” The old cry, from here to Ulster: “They have forgotten us! Our own people, worse than the Arabs! The big shots in Tel Aviv! They don’t know.” Muttering at the Western Wall, complaining that Obama has taken our tanks…our tanks…he wants the Arabs to win.

We proceed through a long cabin, the internal city border, an artificial archway fit for a building site, into the Arab quarter of the town. Above us, metal mesh; we are rare birds in the Israeli aviary—or, perhaps, we are monkeys. I look at my companions and my own reflection in the shop window and know that we are the latter. The cage is decorated with wrapping paper dropped from the Orthodox apartments above; this is the place where the Moon kisses a lollipop wrapper. A Palestinian complains that the settlers treat them like animals, but his tongue has no fire. He has filled out too many forms at a UN office and watched too many YouTube videos. The struggle, the struggle…ah, yes…the struggle. As usual in the Holy Land, the colonisation goes room by room. He sold his flat to the Jews! We will fight you in the lounge, in the kitchen, in the guest bedroom…we will never surrender!

Patriarchal mausoleum, centre of the troubles: our common ancestor Abraham is uncommon trouble. I have consulted the Bible and Shakespeare: no love lost between brothers. If all men were brothers, all wars would be civil wars—and no war is so terrible as a civil war. In distant Macedonian bedrooms, concrete blocks built by Tito, men call in English: “No more brother wars! European unity!” They should sit with Arab and Jew.

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