Refugees, God, soldiers, blood and journalism in the Middle East.
A Palestinian man stood in the middle of the dusty road of the Rafah refugee camp. Next to him stood his donkey. The man was old and so was the donkey.
The Israelis kept firing air-to-ground missiles from helicopters. The earth was shaking but the old man just stood in the middle of the road, blissfully indifferent to what was happening around him.
I liked his face. It was a good face, covered by wrinkles, not very expressive but good nevertheless. I took photographs of him and then we stood there, looking at each other, and I greeted him in English and in Arabic and he answered, but we both knew there could be no serious conversation between the two of us. We both belonged to different worlds. I had come to learn and to see and to write, while he was here to stay.
He was a gentle man – it was obvious from the way he treated his donkey…stroking its mane, resting the palm of his hand on the animal’s neck. Donkeys in Gaza pulled old overloaded two-wheel carts and they looked exhausted, overworked and hungry. I thought that the old man did not use his donkey for anything in particular, it was simply his companion. It was easy to sell donkeys in Gaza – even old animals were put to work. But these two were used to each other: an old man and his beast.
We walked together for a few minutes. They were my silent guides of the Rafah refugee camp. We did not try to speak, but then the surroundings were explicit enough – there was no need for words. We walked; and I took several rolls of film while they watched me working. We spotted small stalls on the sidewalk and I stopped and ordered two cups of tea. The weather was hot and humid.
When two Israeli helicopters approached from the North and flew above the camp, the old man just pointed toward the sky and smiled sadly. Even when new explosions thundered from the edge of town, he did not seem to be scared. Neither was his donkey.
I wanted to give him something as a token of my friendship, but there were only films, light meters, notebooks and pencils in the pockets of my jacket. I found a small photograph in my wallet and after some hesitation handed it to him. He looked at the image very attentively and then he smiled.
It was a picture of the ancient city of Nara in the autumn, full of powerful colors, serenity and peace. An eight-year-old Japanese girl was standing next to the entrance of a small shrine, holding the hand of her mother, a woman with a sad smile, long black hair and a beautiful but pale face. The girl was laughing at the camera, her long white scarf falling to one side, almost touching the ground.
“No war?” asked the old man.
“No,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Good that it is still there…the world outside.”
He held the picture between his fingers. His hands were rough.
“May Allah be with them.” He was going to hand the picture back to me.
“Keep it,” I said.
We shook hands, and I boarded the car, asking my driver to wait. I watched the man and his donkey. They were slowly disappearing into the crowd. Surrounded by hopelessness and despair, the old man and his animal seemed to be surprisingly calm. Both were too old to expect a better future. Both were stripped of the ability to desire and to dream. In the middle of the intifada, in a time of hate and constant death, both the man and the animal seemed happy.
Professor Kohn cleaned his glasses with the stained table cloth. He downed his beer and ordered another bottle. We were in a Yemeni dive, underground, somewhere in Jerusalem, after La Belle closed down at midnight. Tonight there were no women accompanying Kohn. As far as I could remember, this was the first time he had come alone.
“What color is God?” he asked.
I had no clue. I had never met God and I had no idea whether he planned to meet me. I had never given a thought to what color he might be. Or to whether he had any color. I had no idea even whether he existed or not.
“Does he have a color?” I wondered. “He could be as colorless as he is shapeless.”
“Blue,” said Kohn. “He may be blue, or he may be green. What if he is blue?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That would be quite agreeable. Blue is not bad.”
The Yemeni dive consisted of several tables and wet walls. It was an illegal gambling den; one of those places where Kohn liked to conclude his excessive drinking escapades. It was hot and humid, smoky and loud.
“They are killing each other again, because of God,” continued Kohn. “As they have been killing each other for centuries and millennia. Christians killing pagans, Muslims killing North Africans, then Christians killing Muslims and Muslims killing Christians. Later Hindus killing Muslims and Muslims killing Hindus, while Christians killed everybody they could find on their path. Then Muslims killing Muslims: Shiites killing Sunnis and vice versa. Catholics killing Protestants and vice versa. Catholics and Protestants killing Jews. Jews killing Muslims and Muslims killing infidels.”
“It doesn’t seem that Jews are killing now because of God,” I suggested.
“They are. You bet they are. Maybe not because of their own God, but because they don’t like the way others see him.”
“Or her,” I added.
“Exactly. Or her. There is hardly any war that isn’t fought on behalf of God. Anyway, I would like to ask them if they know what color he may be. They are all convinced that they know him, can identify the one through whom he spoke. But they don’t even know his color. That’s strange.”
“Very strange,” I agreed, drinking my watered-down uzo.
“I am wondering how can he stand it – all that killing in his name. Takes a stomach, doesn’t it? The Nazis used to say ‘Gott mit uns‘ before butchering half of Europe. Before dropping their idiotic smart bombs, American leaders never forget their ‘God Bless America.’ You know what Pakistanis do when they are firing shells at Indian positions? Instead of ‘Fire!’ they scream ‘God is great!’ And then ‘pah!'”
I looked around. A young woman with heavy gold bracelets was serving colorful food. Tourist posters depicting the Sinai desert hung on the walls. Fading paint on the ceiling.
“Kohn,” I said. “I’ve had enough. I have to go back to my hotel. I have to cover that mess outside, tomorrow.”
“So what will you write about this time?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Whatever comes my way. Whatever happens.”
“Whatever you write about, don’t ever forget that none of them knows anything significant. They all pretend that they know…”
“Kohn,” I said, exhausted. “They just want their land back.”
“That part is probably true,” he admitted. “And they should get it back. But they should want it in the name of simple justice, not in the name of something about which they don’t even know the color.”
I had no desire to be here. Five years ago I would have gone to any place on earth, as long as there was something worth writing about. Now I had become picky. Wars were repetitive, after all, and so was the suffering of people who had to live through them. I was getting profoundly bored with wars. I had written and reported from every corner of the globe for more than ten years. I had written books. Put together documentaries. Nothing changed. The same outbursts of insane violence, the same burned houses, bombed cities, women in tears kneeling in the middle of devastated streets, hospitals out of medicine and blood and bandages.
As I was crossing the Rafah border to the Egyptian Sinai, I tried not to look at the depressing Israeli and Egyptian watchtowers and high voltage electric wires. The new Gaza airport had been closed because of the uprising, and my airplane ticket to Cairo was now worth nothing more than the paper on which it was printed.
I bribed the driver of a tourist bus loaded with frightened Japanese tourists to secure a smoking seat in the first row, and as the bus moved, I watched with profound indifference the straight road ahead, cutting through monotonous dunes of the Sinai Desert.
I tried to recall recent events.
Two days earlier, right after I had left Kohn, I watched Israeli soldiers regrouping on the square next to the Wailing Wall. It was late at night. Thirty of them formed a circle, receiving last orders from their commander who happened to be a young and pretty girl in her early twenties.
Sounds of gunfire were coming clearly from the other side of the wall, from the Muslim part, from which the illuminated dome of the Temple of the Rock penetrated a dark and cloudless sky over the city of Jerusalem.
The Israeli soldiers were young and some of them were scared. I saw one of them cover his nose with his hand and there was blood running between his fingers. His friends noticed and offered water from their bottles and patted his back, saying something encouraging in Hebrew that I could not understand.
I took several photographs of the soldiers, of police vans that blocked all entrances to the square, of the mosque behind the wall, and finally of the girl commander. I took her picture when the wind picked up her dark hair, fully uncovering her face and she smiled and I lowered my camera and we looked at each other for a few seconds. We were standing in the middle of the deserted square, in the middle of the Holy City of Jerusalem, right in front of the Wailing Wall. There were green lights illuminating the Temple of the Rock and the moon and the stars above looked almost unreal and then I heard shots again, coming from the other side. I liked the girl and she smiled at me, but then she lowered her eyes and raised them again, but this time she looked straight ahead, at her men who stood around her as she said something in Hebrew, that harsh and beautiful language I had always wanted to comprehend, and the men formed ranks and walked away toward the bridge, toward the passage leading to the Temple of the Rock, toward the gunshots, the sporadic explosions and screams. I followed them with my eyes until they were gone.
I looked around and the Muslim temple was still there and so was the Jewish wall. The Israeli girl soldier with black hair falling on her uniform was gone. I lit up a cigarette and thought about her for a while, about her firm breasts that I could sense under her blouse. I tried to imagine how she would look when she wore light summer sandals instead of heavy boots.
I felt sad, imagining that she might be getting screwed while I was lying on my bed reading Celine, but I had no intentions of going there, of going to the other side. I’d had them all up to here and I had seen all of it so many times that I really had no curiosity left, tonight. They would be hiding behind several corners next to the Temple of the Rock, shooting rubber-coated bullets into a crowd of rock-throwing Palestinians. Once in a while they would lose their temper and shoot real bullets and there would be blood on the cobblestones.
I walked through the deserted old city toward Dan Gate and Jaffa Street, passing dark and narrow alleys and closed doors of shops. She’d had beautiful eyes but then many girls in the world had beautiful eyes – I wondered whether women’s feet also stink when they are squeezed for ten hours in heavy military boots. I wondered whether she was scared, whether she had doubts, whether she felt sorrow. I hoped that night that she would not get killed. I hoped she would not kill that night.
The next day at four o’clock in the afternoon Israeli helicopters flew over Erez Checkpoint, spraying the main highway of Gaza with bullets and rockets, hitting cars and destroying the dilapidated dwellings of refugees. The Strip exploded in massive spontaneous protests and there was fighting right next to the road and Palestinian ambulances rushed through the abandoned streets of Gaza City, their sirens howling, wheels raising dust.
I spent the entire morning in the burning center of Hebron on the West Bank, then crossed at Erez Checkpoint to the Strip early in the afternoon. Suddenly it was here again: one of the most hopeless places on earth, that filthy and dusty concentration of human misery – Gaza City.
I took photographs of the barricades, of fires and helicopters and then of wounded men being carried to ambulances. In just one hour my shoes and jeans were covered by dust and my face was sweaty and burned, and I had to clean my camera lenses and glasses every ten minutes.
The headquarters of the UNRWA was empty, almost everybody was frantically working in the field. I went straight to Shifa Hospital.
A silent crowd of Palestinians stood in front of the main gate – mostly young women and old men – and I pushed my way to the emergency room, passing by countless volunteers, nurses and doctors, changing films as I went, changing lenses and attaching the flash gun, still sweating and swearing in the devilish heat.
I bumped into stretchers covered with blood; blood on the floor tiles, on walls, everywhere. I heard someone screaming and I went straight to the surgery room and there was a Palestinian man on the bed, his face twisted by pain, naked and hairy and wounded in the stomach. Next to him, separated by the plastic curtain howled another man, his penis erect and blue, dark blue and red, and his balls looking crushed and two doctors covering it all with medicine because this was where the man had been hit by rubber bullets, and then they injected something into his arm but he kept screaming and four male nurses had to pin him down while somebody pushed me inside and yelled: “Take pictures of this – take pictures of what they are doing to our people,” and I took some twenty photos, but only of the man’s face and then I took the entire roll of film of another man behind the curtain covered by blood and of exhausted faces of doctors and nurses and of all the mess on the floor and on the walls, everywhere.
Every few minutes ambulances brought new patients to the emergency room, some with gunshot wounds, some burned, some already dead.
I had to get out of the hospital because the stench and heat were unbearable and I thought it would almost be better to work on the road between Erez and Rafah, where the real fighting had erupted, but even there I felt no breeze and the air was heavy and Israeli pilots seemed not to give a shit about anything, shooting at just about anything that moved on the ground while the soldiers began to use live ammunition.
I wrote my report at midnight in a bizarre, posh beach hotel.
I sat alone at the table overlooking the sea, ready to have a late dinner, but when the food arrived I had no desire to eat. My head was heavy, I felt dehydrated and exhausted. I had to get my films to New York.
A bus rolled onto the ferry and we crossed the Suez Canal, leaving Asia. Crossing took just five minutes, and the African side did not look any different: just a desert…a dusty provincial town and small green oases next to the highway. I had no idea why I was going to Cairo, except that now it was the only way out of Gaza and because the bus was going there and the bus was air-conditioned and the driver did not mind my smoking.
excerpted from Point of No Return