Allix Denham is a journalist and author, whose novel Hotel Jerusalem was inspired by a month-long visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Our taxi struggled up the steep and twisty roads, swerving over tarmac so jagged you feared for its tyres. We’d entered H2, the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron, home to some 45,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers. Round tight corners we careered, tyres spinning against rock and gravel, the clutch straining on the steep inclines.
We paid and tipped, before spontaneously handing over another note as a token of appreciation. In what has to be a global first, our taxi driver refused it. ‘Khalaas, khalaas,’ he repeated in Arabic, pushing the note away. Enough.
Our hostel was situated above the famed Ibrahimi mosque. Once, this would have been a sought-after location, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills, the mosque and the Old City centre. Today, however, the area’s run down and decaying, overlooked by shiny new settlement houses built on perfectly tarmacked streets, Israeli flags fluttering from the rooftops.
Later, led by our Palestinian guide, we descended a rocky, uneven trail towards what was formerly the livestock market, now an empty square. Beyond the fence that separated us, young Jewish settlers, dressed up for their regular Sabbath party, were gathering. While some of the men looked like they couldn’t take on a Mancunian grandmother, the women reminded me of schoolgirl bullies, all trendy clothing, free-flowing hair and attitude.
‘Welcome to Israel’ one called out, her face a picture of undisguised contempt.
A group of giggling girls of Asian descent joined the throng. They were Burmese, I subsequently found out. Around them, bored soldiers lit cigarettes and checked their smartphones. One pointed his gun at us.
Our tour was as limited as our guide’s own movements. He was three years old in 1997 when, following the killing of 29 Palestinians by settler extremists, this city was divided into H1, the Palestinian-run 80%, and H2, the Israeli-controlled centre. It's all he's ever known.
On parting company, he warned us against venturing any further. ‘I would say eighty percent there will be trouble.’
The next day, fortified by breakfast of fresh Arabic bread dunked into za’ater, a thyme and sumac mix, and dibbis, a date syrup good with tahina, we ventured into the Old City streets our guide has never seen.
The main thoroughfare, Shuhada Street, once full of shops and businesses, was boarded up and deserted. Or was it? Israeli flags adorned the upper floors, and we sensed we were being watched by hostile eyes. It was a surreal and harrowing experience, walking along a dead street, with no obvious signs of life.
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At the entrance to the souk, wire netting has been stretched across the rooftops to catch the rubbish, stones, excrement and even acid settlers routinely throw onto the Arab traders. One showed me egg stains on his cashmere shawls. ‘They want us to leave, but I won’t give them the satisfaction,’ he said.
Welcome to my City
While over five hundred shops have been lost, market traders are offered small stipends to stay on, in a bid to maintain life in the souk. In the women's collective, I bought shawls and a keffiyeh, and was thanked with a hug and kiss. I wish I could have bought more.
In a butcher's shop, skinned camels’ heads dangled by their tongues, their eyes bulging grotesquely. One traveller we met was treated by her host family to boiled goat’s head, not an experience she wanted to repeat.
As we left H2, we spotted a settler out for a jog, a rifle slung across his shoulder. It was just another surreal moment in this surreal town.
We entered the Palestinian-controlled H1, and were transported into another world, where the streets teemed with life, people were out shopping, drinking thick cardamom-scented coffee and eating falafel-stuffed pitta, and cries of ‘Welcome to my city’ filled the air.
How would you feel?
Imagine a bunch of immigrants settle in the middle of your city. They drive out residents, shopkeepers and market stall holders and shut down a busy livestock market, essentially neutralising your city and its character. They throw Molotov cocktails through your bedroom window, play loud music late at night and jeer and sneer at you and your children as you go about your business. Those who live directly above the market place throw not only their rubbish, but bags of human excrement and urine down at the traders; sometimes it’s just eggs, other times acid.
These immigrants are protected by the military and police, and they attack you with impunity. How would you feel? How?
What is Mosque?
On our last day, we tried to visit the main attraction, the Ibrahimi mosque, divided into both a mosque and a synagogue. Entrance was through an armed checkpoint, but there was no information, and nothing was clear. Was this the checkpoint for the mosque or the synagogue, I asked the armed woman soldier. She wrinkled her nose as if I’d just farted. 'What is mosque?' she asked.
We turned and left.
That evening, we heard Jewish settlers heading out, singing traditional songs, like away football fans, making their presence known. Their flags flutter defiantly on settlement rooftops, a constant reminder of their presence here. National pride or intimidation? When you’re there, in that moment, it most definitely feels like the latter.
© 2019 Allix Denham