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Diary: Francis Martin

25 August 2023

Francis Martin

Through a glass. . .

I MUST look quite odd, wearing sunglasses on the plane, but the sun is reflecting off the sand as we descend, and I don’t want to a miss a thing. My nose is pressed against the glass as the plane tilts, and the Holy Land unfurls beneath us, roads winding up and around each hill like contour lines on a map.

It’s remarkable how low one has to be in an aeroplane before it’s possible to see human beings. This isn’t just because they’re that much smaller than cars and buildings: outside city centres, humans are widely dispersed, and tend either to be indoors, or inside a vehicle. As the plane judders to a halt on the baking asphalt of Ben Gurion Airport, it seems apposite to remember just how small and temporary our presence is, compared with the lands we inhabit.

. . . darkly

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS later, I’m underground — in a cave near the city walls in Jerusalem which is believed by some (though not many) to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. It’s a rough-hewn space about ten feet in diameter, with an altar built into one wall.

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I watch as a mother and son, in the white flowing garb of Ethiopian Orthodox believers, kneel before the altar and place various objects — crosses, bottles of holy water, candles — against the stone to have them blessed. Before they make their way through the low passageway that twists up to the surface, the mother gouges some of the soft chalky stone from the walls. I wonder about taking some myself, before realising how hard it might be to explain possession of an unlabelled white powdery substance when I pass through airport security.

I’m alone in the cave, enjoying the cool and tranquillity, when without warning the lights go off. It’s rather pleasant in the complete darkness until, somewhere above me, I hear the clank of metal on metal. I fumble in my bag for my phone and use the torch to pick my way up to the surface, meeting a rather surprised-looking nun at the entrance.

Street aware

AL-KHALIDIYYA Ascent is a narrow, rising street in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Early in my trip, suffering from insomnia, I’d stood on the street at four o’clock in the morning, the Dome of the Rock glimmering between the rooftops, as the call to fajr — the first prayer of the day — floated across the city from Al-Aqsa mosque. Later, I seek out al-Khalidiyya Ascent again, having read about the eviction, a few weeks earlier, of a Palestinian family who had lived on the street for 70 years.

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I’d seen photos of defiant graffiti sprayed on the door, and the family’s belongings piled on the street by the Israeli family who, after a long legal battle, had been granted occupancy. But, by the start of August, all evidence of the struggle had gone. Regardless of the legal position, and the politics and theologies that motivate Israelis to claim homes in the Muslim Quarter, this remains a tale of a family who have lost their home.

I sit for a while on a stone bench at the top of the street, sheltering from the heat and gathering my thoughts, before walking on. After a few hundred yards, I realise with a jolt that I don’t have my sunglasses. Panicked, I start running back to the bench. A few kids gaze curiously at me as I career past, and I notice that one of them is holding some glasses — but no, not mine, which I’d been given by a loved one, and were expensive as well as cherished.

I come to a halt in front of the bench. There are no sunnies to be seen. I let out a cry of frustration, but am almost immediately ashamed of myself at the absurdity of the situation: mourning the loss of some RayBans on the street where a family so recently lost their home. And then, to deepen my embarrassment, I reach down and find the glasses in my pocket.

Barriers to progress

THROUGHOUT my time in Jerusalem, I stay in St George’s College, an Anglican pilgrimage centre, which sits in a tranquil cathedral close in occupied East Jerusalem. One morning, the housekeeping staff cannot make it in to work because of the closure of a checkpoint between the city and where they live in the West Bank. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “occupational hazard”.

Change in vision

IN HEBRON, several days later, I am woken by the call to fajr. I hadn’t intended to stay the night in the West Bank, but the direct bus to Jerusalem goes from the Israeli-controlled part of the town, and I was told the checkpoints had closed. Since 1997, the city has been split into H1, ruled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, under Israeli control. The city today is scarred by a complicated set of borders, with blocked-up roads and militarised checkpoints maintaining the divide.

Community Peacemaker Teams (CPT) are among those who document the harassment Palestinians suffer at the checkpoints. I’d travelled to Hebron to meet some of the staff of CPT, and, when it became clear that the journey home was going to be difficult, they offered me a bed in the accommodation that they maintain for international volunteers. I lay awake, reading through the accounts that CPT have published on the harassment children face on the journey to schools in H2, and drift off only a few hours before the call to prayer awakes me.

At the checkpoint the next morning, I’m apprehensive, but discover — with a mixture of relief and dismay — that I needn’t have worried: my skin colour seems to serve as a passport, and I’m nodded through without being asked to show documentation. I step uninhibited on to a street prohibited to Palestinian natives of the city, and find myself blinking in the gaze of a remorseless sun. I reach for my sunglasses, and find them gone. This time they really are lost, but it’s hard to feel any measure of self-pity.

Francis Martin is a staff reporter on the
Church Times.

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