The place from which the Palestinian Kung Fu team set out on its odyssey looks like an abandoned residential building. On the ground floor there is a sooty garage with a man in it repairing an old Mercedes taxi. Only in the stairwell is there a small sign with the club’s name on it, as if it was cautious about attracting attention. Next to the stairs someone has set up a few curtained dressing cubicles. Inside the clean club room a ceiling fan stirs the air and there is no trace of that smell characteristic of a place where many males take off their shoes. Along the walls are arranged thick wooden poles for practice and above them hangs a poster of the late Bruce Lee, the king, the greatest of all, wielding his deadly weapon, his shirt stained with the blood of his foes. There are about 20 people in the hall. All of them are male, from seven-year-old boys to men in their 40s with small pot bellies. In the hush, as in a silent movie, they engage in combat with one another, without touching.
From here, the city of Bethlehem very near to the Church of the Nativity, they were to leave to traverse half the world and return as victors with gold medals from the inaugural International Martial Arts Games in Pyongyang, North Korea, to which they had been invited by fax.
”We are all out of heroes,” the man who leads me to the club tells me, an Israeli. “Everyone who fought you is now either in prison or in the grave,” he says. “The ones who are lucky go to prison, and the ones who aren’t get killed.” This is his brief summary of the intifada thus far. The war has moved on, mowing down houses and creating fatalities like a hurricane going on its way. In the past, nearby Beit Jallah and Bethlehem itself were bombarded. Three years ago I walked there among damaged buildings. The city was a battlefield. Then the battle moved to Nablus and to Jenin. Bethlehem went silent, as if it had resigned from the battle, and only now and then, sparsely, it sends out would-be suicide bombers who are captured on the way to their targets.
When the fax inviting club members to North Korea arrived last autumn, before Yassir Arafat’s death and the campaign that led to Mahmoud Abbas’s election as president on Sunday, they believed that this was their big chance. They thought about a delegation of 18 people who would extricate themselves from Bethlehem and travel to the secret kingdom of the ruler of North Korea, but the Palestinian Ministry of Sport did not have the budget for this journey. At the club, some of the youths do not even have the $10 for their monthly membership dues. In the end, only six members set out on the long trip. Those who went had to find the money themselves and locate donors for the flights and hotels along the way, scratching together money from families and friends. They had a dream of returning as victors to a place that has lost its heroes.
A pale neon light illuminates the Palestinian Kung Fu Club in the afternoon. Youths, boys and men split up into pairs, writhe and move slowly, barely touching one another. Very restrained. One is fighting with the sawhorse next to the wall. Others are kicking in the air, making the slow movements of a grasshopper, of an ostrich, of a goose. “They come here to calm down,” says Ibrahim Jawi, the club’s trainer, who sits beneath seven certificates of qualification and recognition and the photo of Sifu Eddie Chong and the club’s patron, Walid Cna’an.
”Here they learn self-control, restraint. To get their anger out,” says Jawi. He demonstrates for me the slow body movements with the sticks in the club room. He feels that in the ancient martial arts he has found the way to allow even someone who is living under constant siege to feel a kind of control over his life. To gain a kind of serenity within constant disquiet in this ancient neighbourhood, where Muslims live alongside Christians, with all the tensions of inter-faith life under a prolonged siege. Outside they sometimes throw stones at each other. They are stuck; they cannot get to a nearby town. Many of them do not have permits to enter Jerusalem. They are completely cut off from the world.
”Here kung fu is not for defeating an enemy. It’s not for fights or beating people up,” coach Jawi tells me. “Rather, instead of being street boys, they come to the club and learn ethics and commitment.” He is very cautious in talking with me, lest he harm his club, which is a kind of refuge in a besieged land. He is afraid that the journalist will write things that will cause the outside to burst in and put an end to the bubble. On the wall above his head I see the empty space where once the club’s traditional, ceremonial swords hung. Now they are hidden in Jawi’s home so they won’t look like weapons to the soldiers. On the road, they did not even take the sticks.
Jawi trained the delegation that set out for North Korea and departed with it. “This was the first trip in my life outside the West Bank,” says young bachelor Mahmoud Sharif. He too was among the six lucky ones. They knew the way to the Jordanian border very well. Not the rest of the way. They knew that the first leg of their journey was full of checkpoints and soldiers, so they did not take suitcases. Soldiers hate suitcases. Suitcases stir in them chilling thoughts of suicide terrorists. The team members set out carrying only plastic carrier bags with a few changes of clothing, clothes for competing, and wash things. None of them had ever seen the world before, but during the summer they had watched the Olympic Games in Athens on television and they knew what victory looked like.
They crossed the West Bank with their plastic bags on their way to the border. They drove along the narrow and bumpy Wadi Nar road. They went through and were checked at a number of military roadblocks, changing taxis again and again, because for the most part Palestinian taxis are not allowed through roadblocks. When they got close to Jericho, entry to which is blocked, they arranged with the driver that he would take them to an agreed point and another driver would come from the small city and smuggle them in. The driver told them to run fast before the army came. They ran along a dirt road, raising clouds of floury dust. In Jericho itself they waited in a hostel called al-Oudeh (the Return) for the border to open.
They had a room with six beds. At five o’clock in the evening they went down into the town and walked around until it got dark, then waited, awake, in the room until three o’clock in the morning because they were afraid that they would fall asleep and not wake up in time to cross the border. They practised a while in the courtyard of the small hostel, leaving their footprints in the hot soil of Jericho, like the Chinese monks who fought their enemies with these same movements hundreds of years ago.
At four o’clock in the morning they left the hostel and came to the border station and at six o’clock to the Allenby Bridge border crossing itself. There were two checkpoints before they got to the bridge, and at the bridge they handed their passports into a narrow slit without seeing the face of the hidden inspector behind the one-way barrier. Some minutes later the loudspeaker called their friend Mahmoud to report immediately to the Shin Bet Israeli security service interrogation room. Mahmoud went and his five friends waited for him, very tense amid the buzzing of the bothersome flies, until he rejoined them. Now they crossed the bridge quickly and boarded the bus, whose driver was waiting for them impatiently on the Jordanian side of the border.
At half past four in the afternoon they arrived in Amman, took one room in a cheap hotel and went for a walk around the centre of the city. This was their first experience of going abroad, and came after four years of intifada, closure, encirclement and siege. For the first time they felt a kind of liberty. They were in an Arabic-speaking city, without roadblocks, open. Mahmoud filmed everything he saw with his video camera, to show afterwards at home. At the city’s large shopping mall a Jordanian man came up to him and said: Give me five dinars, answer three questions and win a prize.
First question: “How many inhabitants are there in Cairo?”
”Ten million,” said Mahmoud.
”No, 12 million,” said the fellow.
Second question: “What is the lowest place in the world?”
”I was there yesterday. Jericho,” said Mahmoud.
”Good,” said the man.
”What is the number of the inhabitants of the West Bank?”
”Two and a half million,” answered Mahmoud.
The Jordanian argued with him, but gave him a card for five dinars and an invitation to a big party at a hotel in the city. All six of them went to the hotel together but didn’t find anything. There was just an advertisement for a holiday site in Lebanon. Disappointed, they returned to their hotel and at dawn left for the airport for a flight to Istanbul, from where they were due to fly on to Beijing, then Shanghai, and then finally catch a flight to Pyongyang. The Jordanian security people clapped them on the shoulder. “Come back with prizes,” said the guards. “Bring back a victory for your people.”
For the first time in their lives they boarded an aeroplane and for the whole journey they looked down at the sea, the islands and the villages. Above the clouds they felt that they were on their way to victory. They were stunned by the prices in the duty-free shop in Istanbul and they bought five hamburgers that cost them a fortune, but they met Tunisians and Iraqis. Everything was new and exciting and an adventure. They waited for half a day and then took off for Beijing on a Chinese flight. This was an old, crowded aircraft that shook the whole way as if it was about to fall apart. It reminded them of the beat-up Fords, shaky from so many bad roads and potholes between villages, roadblocks and towns in the West Bank. You sit and you are wrung out there as if in the noisy drum of an old clothes-dryer. “It was cramped and uncomfortable and with strong bumps in the sky from air pockets. I had a real headache,” says Mahmoud.
After 11 hours they landed in Beijing and the Chinese security people surrounded them, took away their passports and did not let them get to the flight to Shanghai.
The Chinese policemen interrogated them: “Where have you come from?”
”Palestine,” answered the kung fu team.
”Pakistan?” asked the Chinese.
They had never heard of the place.
”Isra-eel,” tried the team members. This, too, meant nothing to the policemen. The only place the Chinese knew was Jordan and they shut the team into a tiny room.
For seven hours they did not leave that room even to go to the toilet, as if they were in a Shin Bet interrogation. A policeman brought them four apples and four glasses of cola. They did not let them contact the Palestinian or North Korean ambassadors. They said to them: “We phoned your ambassador and no one answered.”
”I don’t want to spoil relations with China,” coach Jawi says to me, and refuses to go into detail about what they experienced, as though he were the Palestinian foreign minister.
In the end, one of the youngsters received permission to call home. He told his family in the Deheisheh Refugee Camp: “We are in China and we don’t know what is happening to us.” And the Chinese hung the phone up on him. Seven hours later, they were told: “You are not legal. You do not have a visa for China.” They were taken out of the room and led to a Chinese aeroplane like unwanted refugees. “Go home,” the police said to them and put them on the plane. Reprimanded like suspects, they sat together in silence during the whole flight.
In Istanbul the security people said to them: “Go to the airport hotel and wait there.” They paid a fortune for a room and they didn’t eat or drink anything because they felt bad about using their donors’ money. When they landed in Jordan, the policemen, who a few days earlier had encouraged them to win, asked: “Why have you come back?” They told the story in a few words.
”Yallah, home you go.” The police prodded them, as though the stain of suspicion in Beijing had stuck to them. They returned to the bridge and from there they slowly crossed the West Bank through all the roadblocks in order to get to Bethlehem, very, very quietly. As though they were sneaking back. “And I feel like a person who is not accepted anywhere in the world,” Mahmoud says to me. “A person’s power comes from his state and we don’t have a state, because there is no father and there is no one who is going to protect us. Here the situation is bad, but it is better than out there in the world.”
After seven days of wandering they were back, empty-handed. “We were very tired,” says coach Jawi. “We had a big dream, and we slept a lot in aeroplanes and airports for this dream, only to awaken without anything.”
It is beginning to get dark as I take my leave of the kung fu coach, his club and his youths who continue to wrestle in the silence of the hall.
Igal Sarna is a journalist based in Tel Aviv and the author of “Broken Promises” (Atlantic Books), a collection of his journalism. This article was translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.
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