I followed the events of the war in Gaza last July closely. I remember the images of burning buildings, carcasses lining the streets, mortar shells fired from naval vessels off shore targeting children playing on the beaches, images forever etched in my memory. It was all adorning our TV screens hourly for more than a month. A hideous reminder of Israel’s continued occupation. The lies spewing out the TV screen from national statesmen, the Americans, the ugly face of (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu telling people to calm the fuck down. Telling people in international addresses that bombing children is a required step towards stamping out extremism and terrorism. Tell me, who the fuck is the terrorist? Yeah, I was aware of the Israeli occupation previously, but the flames of passion were lit for me last July. I decided I needed to visit the Palestinian Territories for myself, if only to witness, to learn, to speak with the people living under a brutal occupation. I made contact with a grassroots (and secular!) organization based in Bethlehem in the West Bank (travel to Gaza is currently only granted to individuals and groups with journalistic or diplomatic credentials). The week before my departure was socially well-stocked up on nights of drink, dance, song and cocaine. My friends kept warning me not to antagonize anyone with a gun, and not to come home in a body bag! After that, I was set to go, to actually travel to the very place that has occupied the catacombs of my mind for at least six months now. But first I would have to travel over-night down to London!
Arriving at an airport feeling like shit at 4am is not fun! Sleep had not come easy on the train as it whizzed past the midland cities of Wolver Hampton, Birmingham etc. with nothing to see outside the steamed window apart from a dreary landscape flooding in rain-water and the specks of distant lights from closed windows seemingly just floating in the darkness. To make matters worse, when I eventually arrived at Euston Station in London, I was told that the next connection to Gatwick was not until 5 am. This guy also went ahead to tell me that the terminal will be closing in fifteen minutes and will not be re-opening until 4:30am. This must have been around 1:15am.
Having not slept for eighteen hours or so, the thought of hanging around in the cold, wet of central London was not a prospect I was willing to entertain, and certainly not accept. As I was ushered out the station I made a point of asking someone else about connections to Gatwick Airport at this time of the morning. This other guy told me to follow signs for King’s Cross and assured me that they have connections to Gatwick twenty-four hours a day. Great!
I plodded along through the rain-swept London streets until I arrived at King’s Cross Station-a huge, impeding building towering high above the imminently visible London skyline. A huge, red-bricked menace protruding out of the ground, at first barely visible through the smog and the smoke and the fog that grasped insistently onto the London streets on this wet, windy and dark Tuesday morning. I walked in through the main entrance and asked someone, anyone, about a connection to Gatwick. I was directed to follow a flight of stairs deep into the bowels of King’s Cross Station and follow signs for Brighton…I was told that this train (the next in thirty minutes) would take me to Gatwick Airport. And so it did!
It must have been around 4am when I finally arrived at Gatwick Airport. The main terminal was quiet, almost deserted. I caught the shuttle train from the main terminal to North Terminal-where my plane would be departing from. In my exhausted, disheveled and unorderly state, an airport was quite possibly the last place on Earth that I would choose to spend the next five hours or so; my plane was not departing until 10am. I think I would’ve preferred to spend the next few hours in a nice, cozy cell. At least they have beds.
When I arrived at the North Terminal, it was full of tired people, just like myself, napping on unnaturally uncomfortable chairs. Those cold, metal airport chairs! Whenever you would attempt to lie-down, you’d feel these metal stakes like cold knives pricking up against your back. I decided to give up on trying to get some sleep, went over to the coffee shop, ordered a black coffee and sat, perched on a stool, drinking coffee and reading some Hunter S. Thompson. Reading did not come easy, my eye lids were drooping as low as they could possibly go without actually being shut. Even when they were fully open, my vision was blurred to the extent that each word had to be read and re-read at least three times before the meaning was understood, and a sentence had to be re-read maybe four times before they became coherently structured in my mind. It felt almost like riding a wave of an acid trip as the head of the wave began crashing down onto these jagged rocks jutting out of the ‘otherwise’ seamless ocean. In the end I gave up, tossed the book back into my travel bag and resorted to nursing my coffee, sipping slowly on the hot, black liquid until the gate opened two hours later.
My exhaustion was drastically increasing with each passing minute, but by the time I had passed the security checks and sent my rucksack rolling out of sight (hopefully!) into the bowels of some plane, I had at least two dozen choices for breakfast and drink awaiting to greet me on the other side. I chose a Mexican joint and ordered some tortilla wraps and two large tequila cocktails. Good choice! It turned my exhaustion temporarily into tipsy energy. However, when I eventually boarded the plane, I drifted off unknowingly into a semi-conscious sleep all the same, which would last from take-off to landing. Every so often I would leap out of the vortex of my vacant and dreaming mind and back into the realms of reality before drifting off again. Like a piece of wood rolling down a steady stream getting stuck on a rock before being carried away by the currents again. I was on my way to Tel Aviv, Israel. My dreams were full of gargoyle-faced Israeli border guards waiting to greet and haul me away into some damp, dark, detention cell. These alien creatures, half-feline, half-lizard snapping my passport up with their tongues and hauling me away with their claws. Red, blood-shot eyes, vying for blood. I was aware of the Israeli custom of interrogating travelers, and quite frankly, I was nervous! The fuckers are notorious for denying entry to suspected international volunteers, journalists, musicians and even people with just a slight interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict….but fuck it, at that point, there was no turning back!
“Oh, fuck!” I exclaimed. I had woken up from my sketchy sleep on the plane, but had smacked my head against the seat in front of me in the process of tumbling out of the vortex of dream-land. I was subjected to a few odd stares due to my efforts. Did I say “fuck” too loud? I think I did. Shit! The stewardess was busy up front informing us on her microphone that we are now heading for the descent and that we should all put our seat-belts on. I looked out the window. We were still hovering lightly above the clouds, who were slowly eating up the last of the crimson sun’s rays for the day. And suddenly the plane made a nosedive, the engine roared with a determined ferocity, nose-diving towards imminent collision with the clouds. My seat jerked a touch as the plane maneuvered on through the sky, heading down, heading towards the barrier of white clouds barring our way. And suddenly, just like that, the clouds parted like dust in the wind to let us through, like golden sentries raising their spears to let someone pass. The other side reveled a fading blue sky, slowly giving way to darkness. A shimmering ocean, reflecting the last of the sun’s light. A burning crimson eye sinking below the ocean. And ships! Large, naval vessels moored just off shore. And the Middle-Eastern shoreline, stretching on for countless miles below us. A part of the Mediterranean horse-shoe, stretching on along the ocean trail from Istanbul to Beirut, Tel Aviv to Alexandria, Benghazi to Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Tangier, Gibraltar. Yeah, if you followed that shoreline for long enough, you’d eventually end up in Morocco on one side, Turkey on another.
“Passport,” said the man sitting inside the booth. He didn’t have any lizard or feline features, but his eyes were stone cold, I could see no warmth in those eyes. I slapped my passport down into his cold, outstretched hand. The fucker didn’t even look up to acknowledge my presence. You think maybe they train these fuckers in the art of being overtly rude and cold? In almost every airport you go to, these passport control guys always make you shit yourself, always make you feel uncomfortable and nervous. Maybe it’s just me?! He studied the passport for a good five minutes, typing slowly into his keyboard every so often. At long last, he looked up, studied me with cold, sharp eyes before saying, “How long will you be staying in Israel for?”
“My plane is due to leave on the 5th of February,” I replied.
“What will you be seeing in Israel?”
“I don’t know. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, anything I find really. I hear it’s nice,” I grinned sheepishly at the man. He didn’t seem to find any of this amusing.
“Have you any friends in Israel?”
“No,” I replied.
“Tell me again, until when are you staying in Israel?”
“Until the 5th of February.”
“Ok, I want you to go and sit in that room over there. You see, I will bring your passport over. Wait there,” he exclaimed.
Oh shit, ‘here we go,’ I thought, but did as he instructed. The room was small, square-shaped, with a total of maybe twelve seats with their backs to the walls. On the far side of the room, there were two closed doors with names inscribed in gold lettering on them. Something in Hebrew. They were clearly offices of some kind. There was a girl maybe in her late twenties in the room when I opened the door and stepped inside. She was pacing nervously around the room, looking extremely agitated. I sat down. I tried to make eye contact with the girl in the room, but she was too preoccupied on pacing around, and too nervous to engage in conversation it would appear. Her pacing made me more nervous then I would’ve otherwise been I think.
After around fifteen minutes, the door of one of the offices sprung open, and the girl was beckoned inside. After a further fifteen minutes, the door of the second office sprung to life. A women looking like some hippopotamus who just woke up on the wrong side of the bed came to the door. Again, she had the cold, dead eyes that the man had had. She ushered me inside her office. I was invited to sit down on a chair looking across her desk. I sat down. I noticed that she had my passport open on the desk in front of her, and was clearly studying something on her computer screen. Was she Googling my name? Or is that just sheer paranoia? If it is paranoia, I don’t believe it is wholly unfounded paranoia.
“Cai O’Hara,” she eventually said.
“O’Marah,” I corrected her.
“Where is this name from?” Oh fuck, I thought. She wants to know if it has any Arabic roots. But they don’t look too favorably on the Irish here either. Palestinians could learn a lot from the IRA. The Israelis know this. “It’s Irish,” I said finally. She nodded in approval anyway. I guess I passed the first test. “Tell me, for how long will you be staying in Israel for,” she said inquisically.
“My plane is due to depart on the 5th of February,” I replied.
“Why so long? What will you see here?”
“Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. Whatever I find really,” again, I grinned whilst saying this.
“Are you a student? What is you’re occupation?”
“No, I’ve graduated. I don’t work currently, but worked throughout last year,” I replied.
“How much money have you got here? How do you have money if you don’t work? How can you come here?”
“I just saved up over last year whilst working,” I said, ignoring the first question.
She nodded, but seemed to spend the next five minutes studying my answers in silence.
After five minutes she looked up, handed me a card and my passport and said “you can go.” I left the office as quick as I could. After exiting the room, I looked down on the card. It was a visa-entry card, valid for three months. The episode at the airport lasted maybe one hour, I discovered later that I had been lucky. I have since met someone who admitted she was to visit the Palestinian Territories. She was held back at the airport for six hours of questioning before being allowed through into Israel.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I tasted the sweet, Middle Eastern air for the first time. It was humid outside, and dark by the time I left the airport. I followed the signs which indicated the way to the train station, booked a ticket to central Tel Aviv, and squeezed myself in with the throngs of people already packed onto the train like cattle. I didn’t have a clue which stop I was meant to take, but an approachable-looking young couple stood next to me, looking like a couple of hippies, so I decided to ask them. “I’m trying to get to central Tel Aviv. Can you tell me which stop I’m meant to take?”
“Yeah, sure. But where exactly do you need to go?” came the reply. I had a sheet of paper with the address and name of the hostel scribbled on it, so I handed this over to the couple for inspection. They looked at it, shaking their heads emphatically. “I don’t know, but if you take the next stop with us, it will get you close,” “Ok,” I replied.
After no more than fifteen minutes, the train skidded to a halt in front of the station platform. We had arrived at the stop. “Follow us,” the couple exclaimed as we battled against the masses heading towards the exit. From the exit/entrance of the railway station, we caught the smallest bus I’ve ever seen. Almost like a mini-bus, but almost all of its features were that of a proper city bus. Plastic seats elevating slowly from the door to the seats at the top-end etc. The bus was rammed and no seats were available, so we had to cling on to these rubber rings hanging from a metallic pole which slide sideways across the length of the bus. They were like jelly, or soap, and whenever the bus driver would decide to hit the brakes quickly before making a split-second decision not to run through a red-light, these rings would slide way across to the other end, throwing me off balance and sending me hurling across, staggering all the while, to the other end of this pole. I had to keep apologizing to people whenever the weight of my rucksack would send me hurtling into other people standing on the bus, causing a domino effect of people tumbling onto the floor.
“This is our stop,” said the couple, finally. We disembarked the bus and began walking in some unknown direction. The streets were full of people, cars, blinding lights, life! The place resembled something straight out of a sci-fi film. Very elegant, modern buildings piling high up into the sky, shops with intricate light shows and designs, Bob Marley’s voice bouncing out of every corner from high-tech surround sound speakers, bars waiting to greet the night’s revelers, drinkers and vagrants. And it was weird, because nestled in between all this, there were some quaint looking Middle-Eastern style Arab cafes, as you would expect to find in the middle of Baghdad. It was all quite impressive! I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Israel. Not the place I wanted to be, given the circumstances.
“Ok, this is us. You’re hostel is not far I think. If you follow this road down, you’re hostel is on the next street on the left. This road leads directly to the seafront, and according to your map, it should be the street running exactly parallel to the seafront,” the couple said. I thanked them for the help and headed towards the proposed direction. Sure enough, just as the couple had stated, the hostel was no more than five minutes’ walk away.
After receiving my room key, I slung my rucksack into the room and headed out into the Tel Avivian night. I was hungry, and settled for a Middle-Eastern falafel place a bit up the road from the hostel. I ordered a falafel sandwich with hummus and a beer. After eating, I strolled on down to the seafront, to where the sea kisses the sand. It was dark, and the beach was almost deserted. There was only one guy on the beach, practicing Thai Chi, apparently immune to the force of the waves breaking under his feet. The power of Thai Chi I guess. I stood in the serene silence of the beach for a while, looking out to sea, staring out at the everlasting darkness, deaf to all sounds apart from the sounds of the waves breaking along the shore.
“Hey, you there. Come here,” my silence was broken by a voice calling out behind me, and suddenly I was aware of the sounds of the city again. I looked around, trying to find the source of this voice. It came from just across the road. A women maybe in her fifties was beckoning me to come over and join her in a café across the road. I went over to introduce myself. “Wait here, I’ll be back in two minutes,” she said, before disappearing into the café. She re-appeared two minutes later, cradling two bottles of beer. She handed one to me. “Ah, naiswan,” I said, accepting the beer. “Cigarette?” I accepted the cigarette as well.
“What brings you over here to Israel then?” she inquired.
“Well, just looking around I guess,” I replied.
“But why here? You’re young, you could go anywhere, anywhere in the world. No? You look like you’ve got your head on your shoulders pretty good. You follow the news?! It’s not so safe here at the moment, we have Hamas terrorists firing rockets at us all the time, you know.”
“Yeah, I followed the news.”
“Do you study?” she asked.
“I was, have been.”
“What did you study?”
“Ah, I see. That is why you are here,” the women said.
I pulled deeply on my cigarette, drank a swig full of beer, and plucked up the confidence to try and engage an Israeli in a political conversation. “Say, how far is Gaza from here? I saw what looked like naval ships moored off shore while the plane was about to land in Tel Aviv. You think this was maybe Gaza? I know that Israel has a naval blockade in force on the Strip.”
“No, no. Maybe. But forget about Gaza. Why you want to go there? You have an Israeli stamp in your passport, they won’t let you in anyway,” she said.
“I have a visa card, not a stamp.”
“Ok, ok, they may let you in. But even so, Hamas may think you’re a spy and kill you. It is dangerous in Gaza.”
“What are your opinions on the conflict then?”
“Me? Well, you know. There’s a lot of trouble here. The government has to do what the government has to do to keep every one safe. Palestinians and Israelis.”
“Is denying access of food, water, electricity and other essential aid to the people of Gaza keeping Palestinians safe? Or deporting international doctors and NGO’s from Gaza keeping the people there safe?”
“No, they don’t always make the right choices, but they feel they are necessary choices. I don’t know. I don’t spend too much time brooding over politics myself. There’s a lot of trouble here. The Palestinians, you know! They don’t want Israelis to exist in the first place. Maybe Israelis don’t always react in the best ways. But essentially, it’s all a reaction.”
The conversation took a turn away from politics at this point. She came across a bit like a spokesperson for the Israeli government anyway, spouting Israeli propaganda and bullshit. Anyway, after a couple more beers, we parted company. I headed back to the hostel to catch up on some much needed sleep, ready for the next day’s journeying to the West Bank via. Jerusalem.