The older woman sitting in my row on the plane to Tel Aviv snatched a few glances at me which ranged between the furtive to the curious. She was obviously trying to figure me out. But as the flight progressed and we exchanged a couple of brief pleasantries, she seemed to relax. She settled into her ‘light’ reading for the flight, some book on the global ballistic missile threat, her liver-spotted hands turning the pages like they were part of some gripping yarn.
She should meet Katleen, I thought to myself, who has spent a few very long and tiring weeks collating cluster munitions casualties from around the world, and is now on her way to Geneva to navigate the political minefield of landmines. Katleen, that delicate, gentle, sensitive soul, having to tally up the dead and maimed.
For my in-flight reading pleasure, I decided to steer away from one of my favourite pet subjects, since I would soon be getting an intense dose of it. Instead, I started reading Will Self’s Book of Dave. This bizarre novel is about how a book written by a London cabbie which spawns a new and rather brutal religion when it is discovered a few hundred years later in a semi submerged England, called the Ing Archipelago. But considering where I was heading, I suppose this made oddly appropriate reading.
The airport of Dave
Flying over Tel Aviv, one could see how wealthy the city looked – at least from the sky – with its glitzy beach front and twinkling high-rises. So, here I finally was, an Egyptian in the Land of Milk and Honey; the Holy Land… also the land of intractable conflict, shattered hopes, dreams and nightmares, and broken promises.
As we neared David Ben-Gurion (a man who symbolises radically different things depending on where you’re from) airport, I braced myself for the inevitable, given Israel’s famously edgy and nervous security services.
My arrival in Zion was to be treated as if I were Pharaoh’s envoy (by the way, I think my ancestors get too bad a wrap in the Biblical version of the world – but that’s for another time). No sooner had I stepped off the plane than a young woman intercepted me to ask me the purpose of my stay, whether I knew anyone in Israel and who I would be staying with. When she said: “Have a nice stay!”, I was pleasantly surprised and skipped off (figuratively) to passport control.
But it just seemed that my official welcoming party was running a little behind schedule. As the man behind the desk repeated the chorus of questions, two men – one slim, the other burly – interrupted the fairly friendly passport control officer in mid-sentence to launch into their own tough heavy-metal rendition of the same chorus of questions. Improvising with their own duet, they requested my boarding stub – which I couldn’t find – and asked where I’d been sitting on the plane.
In what approximated VIP treatment (or would that be Very Dangerous Person), they relieved me of my shoulder bag, laptop and camera and asked me to follow them. Over the next two hours, I was promoted through the ranks as one confounded officer handed me to the next, each of whom would ask me the same basic chorus of questions before breaking into their own solo to ask me such things as whether I had family in Israel or the Palestinian territories and which other countries in the Middle East I had visited. The last one actually smiled a few times and seemed suitably impressed by my long list of media contacts and the fact that I had once worked for Reuters!
Exhausted, bored and a little annoyed that I was the only passenger left, I wondered how they could possibly perceive me to be such a threat that they needed to question me so many times. I could understand the frustration at the recurring-dream nature of the questioning that prompted Souad Amiry, Palestinian architect and writer, once to insist that she had been dancing when asked why she had visited the UK – which do not go down at all well with her inquisitor. “I have always had the impression that the occupation has caused both the Israelis and Palestinians to lose their sense of humour,” she wrote in her book Sharon and my mother-in-law. By the way, I will be meeting her later in my trip.
I sat patiently biding my time until they assigned an escort to help me find my abandoned rucksack, which first had to be X-rayed before I was set free. Outside, I was made to feel more at home. My taxi driver, a good-humoured Sephardic Jew originally from Morocco, spoke good, if highly accented Arabic, and his every other word was a heart-warming cuss. En route, he scanned through the channels to find Arabic radio stations playing all the mouldy Arabic oldies like Umm Kalthoum - he even, in his gritty, tuneless voice, attempted to sing along for my entertainment. I arrived at Pardes Hana and Anat, my host, was still up awaiting my arrival.
Tomorrow read all about life in an authentic, real McCohen Jewish household.