True Stories: Just like the Bible, with grenades thrown in

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Friday: we're on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City - the actual street through which Christ supposedly carried his cross on his way to Golgotha. Our guidebook warns that it may disappoint - the flow of human traffic dispels any sanctity - but to me, a non-believer, it's amazing. The Fourteen Stations of the Cross. Human destiny was shaped here. I've walked straight into a fairytale.

In spite of the fierce autumn heat, Muslim children are dressed in thick, bright velvets and satins, contrasting starkly with the drab, khaki presence of the Israeli soldiers. We drink 'Turkish' coffee, sweet and silty with cardamom. Opposite, a stall has 'real' crowns of thorns for sale, hanging in bunches like seaside buckets.

At our hotel, the Sabbath is about to begin so tiny candles are lit and the lift is already programmed to avoid (forbidden) manual operation. To reach our room on the 11th floor, we have to stop at every level. On CNN we see Esther Waxman, mother of Nachshon, the 19-year-old soldier kidnapped by Hamas, pleading for his safety. 'We love you,' she tells her son in front of the world. She sits still, wringing her hands. Nine o'clock is the deadline his captors have set for his execution. It is seven. We're on holiday, so we go out to supper.

We turn down a drink on the chic Yoel Salomon Street, where Hamas attacked with guns and grenades a few days ago, and instead eat salad and hummus on a secluded side street. We return at midnight to learn that Nachshon Waxman has been killed by Hamas in a bungled rescue attempt. Also that he wasn't in Gaza after all (as had been supposed), but in the village of Bir Nabala, only five miles from here.

His death seems very close and very real. I am shocked by the idea that when we went out he was alive and when we returned he was dead. He died five miles away as we ate our supper. It's a hot night and the air-conditioning is relentless and noisy. My three small children suddenly seem unbearably far away in London - the distance a physical ache. I lie awake all night reading.

Saturday: On the Mount of Olives, a man with spectacularly bloodshot eyes approaches us; 'British? You very lucky to find me, I show you a wonderful grave - the grave of Robert Maxwell. . . .'

'No thanks.' We look down the hill where it seems that a colour plate from my childhood illustrated Bible is spread before us: cool blue sky, pine trees, the golden blob of the Dome of the Rock, stunning in the Holy Land sunshine.

In the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Hassidic boys skateboard over the the clean, cobbled, car-free streets. Their exuberance set against the odd formality of their black and white costume cheers me up. Savoy waiters gone crazy.

Nachshon Waxman is to be buried at midnight at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem and thousands will crowd the streets. The taxi driver says: 'You're not scared? That's good. Many people are scared by what is going on.'

'Should we be scared?' I ask my partner later. 'Don't be silly,' he says.

Later, something is dropped next door; it cracks like gunshot and I am out of the shower in three seconds flat, and he laughs.

Sunday: We shop at the exotic bazaars in the Muslim quarter, where the air is heavy with spices and some shops are dark tents of carpet and silk. On each street corner, Israeli soldiers - barely older than the skateboarders - stand ready with their guns.

By 5.30 the air has cooled and the light is fading and we slowly realise that many shops are boarded up and the narrow, cobbled streets are emptying.

Every time we turn a corner, it's more deserted.

We ask a merchant what's going on and he explains that Hamas has ordered a strike to protest and mourn the deaths of the three terrorists/martyrs who were killed. 'But just tell me what you want,' he adds, unable to resist a sale, 'I show you many fine things.' Even Hamas can't suppress the impulse to sell.

'Look, I think it might be time to get out,' my partner whispers, 'but don't panic.'

Panic? Never has anyone moved so fast through those deserted streets and up to the Jaffa Gate, where the taxis wait amid small, comforting knots of tourists. I feel I've walked simultaneously into the Bible and into the news and now I want to go home.

Later, as we speed off to the airport at Tel Aviv, red, tufted clouds from my childhood still float high in a familiar and perfect biblical sky.

Wednesday: We've been home two days and I learn that 27 people were killed in a terrorist bomb attack in Tel Aviv. On the television I see human limbs shovelled into carrier bags so that they can be properly buried.

I won't have to jump out of the shower tonight, but it feels like the world's jumped that much closer to me.

Outside, the trees are enjoying their brightest autumn, in reassuring shades of red and brown, but I don't feel reassured. I turn off the television.

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