Back in Israel, 1998
Tel Aviv, 13 April 1998
Shimon flops his tall lanky frame into a bean bag. The distant rumbling and honking of Tel Aviv drifts in through the open window. The night is hot and windless. He rolls a joint and adjusts his bandana. M, his girlfriend, is off in the kitchen washing dishes.
Sucking on the joint, Shimon looks out into the darkness, and leisurely blows smoke into the heavy air. "We had tanks, but we didn't have those things that shoot from the top. We had the smaller ones; we used them to transport the soldiers to their position."
It's the first time I've met Shimon, and the first time I've been to M's apartment. M is 30 years old, a small, lively graphic designer who shares a mother with my 18 year-old half-sister. My father adopted M as a child when he married her mother; in the days before my sister was born, the newly formed family toured around America for a year in a big old Cadillac.
Shimon stretches out his legs and yawns. I look at his face - he's my age or a little younger, an ex-sniper in the Golani Brigade, the elite unit in the Lebanon war front lines. A veteran dressed in hippy pants and a surfing t-shirt.
"For a while you hate all the Arabs, not just the killers. Now I know we were crazy." He has another toke and hands me the joint. Shimon's a handiman who drives a paint-spattered panel van, like many Australians I've known. And like so many Australians I know, he's a traveller; two years in Japan and Thailand with Michal, doing what all Israelis there do - selling paintings, importing jewellery, anything to make money. Like me, but different. Different.
"We had 200 in one operation. Half of us came back injured. This made us hate all the Arabs." M walks by without speaking; Shimon and I look up at the same time, like we'd been sharing a shameful secret. Why, I wonder? Maybe, I think, the girls might be taking a dim view of the dope - especially my young, seemingly straight sister whom I barely know. Am I making a bad impression? I don't know that M is silent because she's breaking up with Shimon up after six years together.
"In one attack, I saw two soldiers get killed" he drawls, looking up and blowing smoke towards the ceiling of the flat. I don't know how to react; this is totally outside my experience.. Outside a dog barks and a siren wails. M passes again, a bunch of newly-washed towels in her hand. "They shoot at you when you're on patrol. You see from where they shoot, you go there, but there's nothing there, it's like the wind."
We'd met in a restaurant around the corner from the flat, just off the Dizengoff Street shopping strip. I'd arranged to meet up in the restaurant with M and my sister, who'd arrived straight from her Army base in her Doc Martins, lipstick and ironed olive-green uniform. After we'd settled in over hot chocolates, we compared notes about travelling, music and David; it was comforting to hear the girls taking the mickey out of the same foibles I'd noticed in our father. As M and my sister spoke, they switched from accented English (when talking to me) to animated Hebrew (each-other) and back again. My sister was still a little shy around me, turning to her older, confident half-sister when the English and the presence of the new half-brother flustered her.
Half an hour later, Shimon had driven past in his van, noticed us, and dropped in for a coffee. Ordering a flat white, he'd interrogated me in the abrupt, cocky manner typical of Israelis, asking me about my opinions while he looked on with narrow eyes and a half-grin on his mouth. "Down that street, about a block down." he'd said to me while M and my sister nattered in animated Hebrew, nodding his head in the direction of the road outside. "That's the house where Ben Gurion used to live. It's a museum now." After finishing our meals we'd walked back to the flat, where the two girls adjourned to the bedroom for sisterly chats. Shimon, who'd warmed to me by then, recalled his travels and told me of his plans to visit Australia. By the time my sister took a taxi home an hour or so later, we'd moved onto the topic of Israel and the army.
"One night we took this house in a village" says Shimon matter-of-factly, emptying the butt into a coffee cup. "We found 200 guns and 40 rockets. Our commander thought this was where they were shooting, so we took all the people in the house. My friends were kicking them, hitting them, like in their face, it was terrible." He stretches out his arms and scratches his head. "You become like an animal, not like the human."
M passes silently by again. I'm stoned and unfocused. Shimon looks up at her intently as he rolls another joint. He sticks the joint in his mouth and flicks the top of his Bic lighter. "Sometimes, you don't know what to do. You see a seven-year-old kid throwing a hand grenade." He studies the flame. "So what do you do? Let them blow up your friends?" He puts the flame to the end of the paper and puffs. "Or shoot them?" He looks out the window into the night.
Place: Tel Aviv
Jerusalem at night - a composite of two photos
Model of the third temple in an ultra-Orthodox centre in the Old City
The gate leading from the Old City to Mount Zion
Messiah-ist humour in the Jewish Quarter
Exhibition in gallery at the University of Tel Aviv
Place: Tel Aviv
History always dances with propaganda in Jerusalem. This is at the end of the Western Wall tunnel tour - the tunnel that resulted in riots and death when it was opened during Bibi's time.
The view from Arthur's flat in the Christian Arab Quarter of the Old City
You can still see where the Romans set up camp and built their massive ramp to overwhelm the Zealots. Took them 3 years...
Waiting for a visa, 26 May 1998
I enter the white, flouro-lit room filled with people, walk up to the machine and take a ticket. Above the counter staff, new red numbers flash up periodically. I look at the ticket: N619. To my left, the display reads N426. I'll be here for a while.
I find a free spot and sit down on the moulded plastic chair. All around are the twitching limbs of frustrated people who have been waiting for a long time. Palestinian mothers in head scarves hold confused-looking babies, Russian women with elaborate hairdos and shoulder pads stare into space, Ethiopians with kipas sit next to their dreadlocked wives. In the corner, three large Druze men with King George moustaches and conical hats carry on a restrained conversation. A large Israeli flag hangs on the wall; right in front of me, looking down accusingly, hangs a framed poster of Bibi, and to the left another framed picture, the State of Israels blue menorah flanked by vines.
Two seats to the left of me, a bleach-blond, tanned Israeli soldier talks into a Pelephone, his arm around a pale, tired-looking girl. In the corner, a middle-aged Palesinian man in a Keffiyeh sits quietly by himself. I check the counter: it's up to N442. Sigh. A girl in a frilly pink dress and red sunhat starts to cry and her Russian mother breaks open a plastic bag full of biscuits.
Fidgeting with the ticket, I look over to the counters where the Controllers of Status sit: hard, dyed-red young women and tough-faced paunchy men, distractedly stamping forms and signing papers. To the right, the door to the manager's office has been briefly left open. On a wall, framed behind glass and mounted on a wooden base, hangs an old handgun. A
brass plaque is attached to the wood, another story in a land of stories.
N462. The clock moves slowly here. I watch a beefy Arab tap his feet, huge arms folded, a pissed-off expression on his face. In the visa section ahead, the Israeli distain for queues and patience gets the better of a crowd of form-waving people, who converge on the two counters. N467.
I start to take notes for the book. As I scribble and look up occasionally, slowly the numbers tick over: N482, N526, N596. I go back to my writing. The next time I look up, I see a new arrival walk in, take a ticket and march straight up to the counter I want. Then I notice that the counter is
surrounded by people I know arrived after me. I see a staff member with an elaborate hairstyle rushing by, so I ask her if she speaks any English.
I ask her what number the counter is up to and show her my ticket. The display reads N609. She realises what's happening, smiles, leads me over to the counter, and shouts in Hebrew to the short-sleeved, stocky official. A few heated words later, she says in a heavy accent "you wait here, you're next." She looks at me, shoulders shrugging, and says apologetically "you know, here everybody pushes, pushes. This is Israel, it's different to the Western countries. Maybe one day we will be like that too." She smiles again and walks off.
I wait in line until the man beckons me over. I sit down and tell him my story - how the border policeman at the crossing from Egypt gave me only a one-week visa, because, according to him, I had sort out if I was an Israeli or not, due to my father's nationality. He eyes me suspiciously and punches his keyboard.
"Yes, if your father is Israeli, then you are Israeli also. But...." He scans his monitor. "...there is nothing here on the computer to say that you are Israeli. So you can get re-entry visa. We do this now - give me 200 shekels." I'm appalled. $50 Australian for a mistake made by an interrogating bastard of a border guard?
"I'm sorry? I have to pay?"
He sighs impatiently. "Visa extension, it costs 200 shekels."
"I don't see why I have to pay when it's not my fault."
He looks into the air. "You want it, you pay. You want it or not?"
"Err...I'll think about it."
"OK" he replies nonchanantly, and waves the next person to the chair.
I head out into the bright sunlight and dusty streets, pissed off and dazed, wondering if I'd done the right thing, and what to do next.
Place: Akko (Acre)