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The Diary

June 6, 2014 1:11 pm

The Diary: Teju Cole

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The US novelist travels from Amman to Ramallah to attend the Palestine Festival of Literature
An illustration by James Ferguson of a boy looking over a fence while perched on a stack of books©James Ferguson


What I realise, during our five-hour wait at the King Hussein border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, is that there is a fine art to wasting people’s time. Everyone in our group of writers and artists invited to the Palestine Festival of Literature has the correct visas, correct passports, and letters of support from the British Council. But the point is to make it difficult, mostly for Palestinians attempting to return home. There are forms to fill, and hours of sitting around. A young official emerges, walks towards one of the waiting groups and hands out one or two stamped passports, or asks for more information, then vanishes for another 20 minutes. What should have been a two-hour journey from Amman to Ramallah takes seven. But we get there in the late afternoon, a beautiful town in spite of its history of conflict. A resident tells us that, compared to other West Bank towns, it is a bit of a bubble.


Nigerians are fond of titles and to conventional ones like “Mr”, “Dr” or “Alhaji” (a Muslim who has been to Mecca), we have added many others: “Engineer”, “Architect”, “Evangelist”. A more recent one is “JP” – Jerusalem Pilgrim – which denotes someone who has gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As I follow a group around the Old City – there’s the Via Dolorosa, there’s the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – it occurs that, without quite intending to, I’ve become a JP. But there is, of course, also the matter of faith, which I do not have.

Our group of writers is here to give readings and workshops. More importantly, I hope to better understand things I’ve only known by rumour. Earlier in the day, we came through the Qalandia checkpoint on foot. There was a crowd of people from the West Bank, let in at a trickle. There was the great wall, still under construction, but already extensive at the Jerusalem sector. And there was the guard ordering some members of our group to delete from their cameras the photos they had taken of the checkpoint.


How does one write about this place? Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but for what it leaves out: have we acknowledged the horror of the Holocaust? The perfidy of the Palestinian Authority? The callousness of Hamas? Under these conditions, the dispossessed – I will leave aside all caveats and plainly state that the Palestinians are the dispossessed – have to spend their entire lives negotiating what should not be matters for negotiation at all: freedom of movement, the right to self-determination, equal protection under the law.

The Augusta Victoria Hospital, on Mount Scopus, is one of the better hospitals available to Palestinians. It is easy for those in East Jerusalem to get to. For those living in the West Bank, a permit is needed, and usually one isn’t issued unless there’s urgent need: for radiation therapy, for instance, or dialysis. Dr Tawfiq Nasser, who runs the hospital, tells us about a man from Gaza who had the wrong ID and thus for eight years couldn’t see his son, whose ID was similarly restrictive. The man was diagnosed with cancer and finally got a permit to enter Jerusalem. He went to see his son in the West Bank, spent three weeks with him, came back to the hospital for one week of chemotherapy, and returned to Gaza and died.


This is a pilgrimage after all, but in reverse. We find erasures and disheartening truths at every stop, evidence everywhere of who or what God abandoned. Our guide points out villages and towns that are either currently being encroached on by new settlements, or that were simply razed or depopulated in 1948 or in 1967 and renamed, rebuilt, and absorbed into Israel. We arrive in Hebron, the burial place of Abraham and the other Patriarchs, a once beautiful city now strangled by aggressive new settlements (built in contravention of international law). The presence of the army, protecting these settlements, reminds me of what Lagos was like on mornings after a coup: scowling men with heavy weapons and a wary manner. Parts of the city centre are empty, ghostly, save for the soldiers. There are streets in which all doors and windows have been welded shut. How does this thing end? I see some Palestinian children playing in a side street. Their innocent game of blindfold, a block away from patrolling soldiers, suddenly seems sinister.


The next morning we drive through beautiful country: Galilee and, briefly, the occupied Golan Heights. We stop at what is now the Bar’am National Park, which was established on what used to be the Maronite Christian village of Kfar Bir’im. The inhabitants of Kfar Bir’im were ordered to leave in 1949, and the Israeli Air Force destroyed the village in 1953, leaving only the church standing. The stony ruins of the village are still there. Now, more than 60 years later, some of the villagers come to the park for a daily sit-in. This has been going on for 11 months. They hope we will tell the world they want to return home.


I climb up a stone structure next to the church. Galilee: my inner JP remembers this is the landscape in which many of the events in the gospels unfolded. I see two white doves nesting. A beautiful boy of about eight, whose wavy brown hair falls to his shoulders, looks, I think, like the young boy Jesus must have. Every mile of the journey dips into the vocabulary of parable: sheep, lakes, cliffs, vineyards, donkeys. I am lost in thought. Then I hear a cock’s crow.

Teju Cole is the author of ‘Every Day is for the Thief’

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