Thursday, April 16 : Jaffa —> Tel Aviv —> Belgium

Saturday 9 January 2010
popularity : 10%

Morning in Jaffa for « the more than 25 », flea-market and ice-cream : we bump into our Jesus and his Magdalen ! Incredible but true.

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While sauntering about the streets and booths, Anne-Claire and Laetitia can’t help sticking here and there some of the stickers Daoud has given us. How long will it take before someone tears them off ? Whom will they force to wonder or even start thinking ?… A small act of sedition that requires no real courage and will most probably have no effect either. But all the same, it gives the feeling we make our friends exist here...

A pic-nic is bought for everybody and, to be ready for the control at the airport, a politically correct program of our « 15 days in Israel » is devised, which doesn’t mention our stay in Aida, nor our trip to Nablus. Only acceptable things : Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, Bethlehem and the Nativity Church, Hebron and the Tombs of the Patriarchs, Jaffa and its flea Market, Tel Aviv and the Haganah Museum we intend to visit in the afternoon ...

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In the meantime, the « less than 25 » have had a great lie-in at the youth hostel before making the most of Tel Aviv’s beach... Let’s pretend again we are real tourists and unwind...

We all get together again for lunch. Tanguy takes the whole group to a place recommended in his guidebook (Lonely Planet). As always, we follow him convinced we can trust his good (and citizen-of-the-world-like) taste and, as always, we were right to.

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Another district of the town, another atmosphere : we sit on the terrace of the “Tamar café” in Sheinken Street. There, for over 50 years now, Sarah Stern, a Jewish lady in her late 70s who seems to have just come out of a film and is walking in socks, has been serving delicious half-bagels with cheese and tomato sauce. When we ask her if we can take a picture of her, she poses for posterity as if it was the most obvious thing to do.

Now we are ready for a walk in the centre of Tel-Aviv : we go on the Magen David Place, among the Bauhaus-style buildings, on the Carmel marketplace, past the Shalom Tower, along the Rotschild Boulevard and finally enter the Haganah Museum, which as the name indicates, is devoted to the history of the Haganah, Israeli military organization, from its start with the Hashomer (1909) to its participation in the 1948 War of Independence. "The Haganah, we are told there, was set up mainly to protect the Jewish farmers against the frequent attacks by the Arabs". As to who these “Arabs” were, and where these Israeli farmers came from, nothing is said…

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This 4-floor-high building is situated next to Eliyahu Golomb’s house, a former general of the organisation. Visiting the exhibition of objects and documents, we get an idea of the Israeli soldiers’tactic to hide theirs weapons from the English, of the workshop in which they manufactured hand and rifle grenades, and the kind... Nothing but glorious facts and acts by the Israeli army. We are informed that in addition to the exhibition, the museum publishes books and newspapers and organizes lectures (“development programs") for the schoolchildren… And indeed…

As we go from one room to another, we are most surprised to see so many soldiers, all so young !… They could be part of a secondary school trip, are loud, impatient... Except that they are wearing the army uniform and their weapons (M16 machine-guns and bludgeons). It really is a shock to us : just try to go and focus on the objects exhibited or the comments on the boards of pictures and documents while tens of uniformed young people go past you, machine-gun in hand !… It looks so unreal that they should be walking among families with children and foreign tourists fully armed, so implausible that nobody asked them to leave their weapons in a closet at the entrance !… As for them, they clearly can’t be bothered about it : it is unquestionably the most natural thing ever to do ! And they look so self-assured, so awfully proud of themselves ! They are of course perfectly aware of our glances at their guns and boots, and of the impression they make on the “civilians” we are. Once the visit is over, they all go and lie on the grassy centre divider strip in front of the museum where they have a nice little canteen pic-nic, laughing, shouting, telling jokes to each other, totally relaxed and happy with themselves, but still armed…

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Before we leave the place, we are invited to attend the showing of a documentary on the History of Israel, from the judeocide to the present day. Again, we are flabbergasted. This incredible documentary is nothing but an advertisement for the army, a call for the young people to enroll in the army which is, of course, idealized and, of course, “dedicated to fighting for the security of Israel-!", in other words to eradicating the Palestinians fromIsrael. This couldn’t but confirm the painful impression we have had all along the visit : the Haganah museum is indeed emblematic of the Jewish society’s warlike spirit and paranoia... We all leave the place feeling nauseous…

We quickly stop at the youth hostel to fetch our luggage, jump on the bus that takes us to the station of the trains to the airport, which we recognize as the place we were dropped in on our arrival in Tel Aviv 2 days ago… We have hardly gone through the glass doors and are about to put our bags on the conveyor belt at the control desk when a soldier/security guard calls us out brutally "Stop! Who are you? Where are you going?"… We are quite bewildered by his aggressiveness and stay motionless. He then makes everybody go out of the station again and barks at us for our passport which he starts dissecting : each of us gets their dose of questions, most of them quite unexpected and for us quite pointless, Bénédicte for ex has to explain the reason why she went on a school trip to Maroc the preceding year... All this takes a good 15 minutes. Eventually one by one, we are allowed in, then allowed to put our bag on the belt for it to be scanned, then allowed to go through the electronic gate… On the other side of it, we stay motionless quite a moment after the whole group is together again, so stunned are we by the brutality of what has just happened. Of course we agree to be controlled, but not as if we were underdogs !… What did we do to deserve such treatment ?!!…

We slowly go down to the platform, and sit down on our bag, still in shock…. A man is going round us, watching and listening. His attitude is really weird, and really uncomfortable. Who is he? What does he want from us ?… Has he been hired to spy on us?… In the end, he merely settles down in the middle of our group, listens to every word we say (which of course are absolutely insignificant !), interferes to give his own opinion on the subject (which we don’t ask for), then starts asking questions with a casual air…. Whispering, we remind each other the instruction : absolute discretion as what our trip and stay was all about, the Israeli security is everywhere. Discreetly too, we hand each other the politically correct program the «more than 25 » have prepared : to be learned by heart in anticipation of the thorough questioning and cross-questioning we most probably will have to undergo at the airport : Sandra’s experience and Marianne Blume, and Martine’s advice still fresh in our memories. All this while eating the pizzas bought this morning in Jaffa… The weird guy finally gets on a train, the tension decreases a bit, we even make fun of ourselves : let’s not become paranoiac

On the train, briefing again as to the behaviour to adopt and answers to give at the airport : we want to be ready and guard against all eventualities : in Jerusalem for Easter, all from the same Catholic school, except Louise who lives in the same street as one of the teachers, Laetitia who went to school with Anne-Claire’s elder son and Théodore who is Bénédicte’s future cousin-in-law all this being nothing but the truth… Above all, nobody in the group knows English well enough, (true again), so Anne-Claire and Tanguy will be the intermediaries/translators for the group. In any case, everybody should speak and say as little as possible and keep as close to reality as possible... And let’s avoid being paranoid, OK ?…

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Airport : we go to the control desk, Anne-Claire and Tanguy in the lead, ready to answer for the group. A lady in uniform and walkie-talkie stops us and asks the usual questions : who, what, from where, where, how long for… Our answers make her decide to question us more thoroughly. She calls one of her soldier/security guard-colleagues who orders us to form a file, which they slowly both run their eyes over before pointing at Anne-Claire at the front and Louise at the back. They are both taken away from the group to two separate places where they will be questioned for about ten minutes "Who are you? Where do you come from? Where did you stay? How did you travel? Did you have your own driver? Who did you meet? Did the members of the group always stay together? Did you get presents from people? Why did you go to Hebron? Dangerous city! Do you all come from the same school? Who speaks English in the group? How long have you known each other? Did you like what you saw in Israel? Will you come back?..." The whole group observe the twin scenes from a distance : Anne-Claire looks alright, she smiles while speaking, Louise seems to be a bit more tense, but both do well : "We come from Brussels and are a group of teachers, students and friends. We stayed at the « Citadel » youth hostel in the Armenian district of the old town of Jerusalem. We went to Bethlehem, and to Hebron, to visit the Tombs of the Patriarchs. We used the public transports, the sherouts. No, the group didn’t stay together all the time, this morning, for example, some chose to stay on the beach while the others were going to the flea market in Jaffa. Yes we bought little things, souvenirs for our families and friends. No, we didn’t get anything from anybody... No, we don’t all come from the same school, Laetitia… and Louise.. etc…" Nothing but the truth !… (Oh thank you again Marianne and Martine and Saïf and Jean-François for your precious advice !). "These are students, you see? So their English, you know, hm ?… Yes, we liked it so much… If we’ll come back ? We hope so !"

Louise and Anne-Claire are « released », everybody watches the two security-guards compare the answers they got… Won! But before we can go through the barrier, the male soldier asks Anne-Claire to translate questions to the whole group : "Did you get presents ? Did you keep your luggage near you all the time ?" and the group answers, no, yes, angel-like. It is OK now, we can go ahead, one by one, keeping our distance from each other, up to the scanning machine that swallows our bags then spit them out 6 meters away.

But that’s not it yet : the security guard/soldier at the scanning-machine has seen « things » in Julien’s, Laetitia’s and Theodore’s bags. They are asked to move to the side and wait until other uniforms come and fetch them. Anne-Claire goes together with them ("They don’t speak English, you know"). They all join another queue, that of the owners of suspicious bags... Fortunately it is a very young and nice woman-soldier who is going to deal with them : Anne-Claire explains in English that the problematic pile of documents in Julien’s bag "is nothing but his school notes to study for his exams", the unidentified object in Laetitia’s "in fact a water-flask" and the suspicious box in Théodore’s the present for his parents, i.e. a set of plates and mugs in ceramics. The young lady apologizes but she has to check the bags : no problem. Théodore has to open the cardboard box as well but doesn’t have to unwrap all the mugs. Laetitia’s bag, however, is old and the zipper is stuck : let’s then go for another trip to the scanner ! Which, bad luck, is momentarily out of order.

The travellers who are queuing at the second scanner look daggers at us… We get the message clearly : Anne-Claire offers to the young soldier to go and try to open the bag again… It eventually yields under the effort : indeed, it is an innocent water-flask that made the scanner ring... The young woman apologizes again, but Anne-Claire reassures her "OK, no problem, you’re doing your job, we understand"… We could have a round of applause for her : it is indeed the very first time we meet a soldier who is sorry for what he does (or has to do), and who does it courteously, as a service to the customers ! It feels good...

Louise who has been waiting by the luggage belt asks the 3 suspects : Mishmushkila? (No problem, in Arabic). Anne-Claire, as quick as the eagle, asks her if she has caught a cold. Louise realizes then that she has just spoken Arabic in front of the Israeli soldier/inspector and immediately pretends a salvo of sneezes, turning the mishmushkila into itsch-titsch-tcha!... (It’s a tough job to stop all our sabah al khayr and shukran after 13 days among Arab-speaking people !) The soldier heard nothing (or pretends to) and let us go through : the trial is over, at last !…

We all sit in a circle on the floor of the waiting room, Louise starts playing her accordion : a few songs to relax, it is indeed necessary… Other voices join ours : they belong to a group of Belgian teenage girls, a Catholic choir who came to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. There is a little "competition" for a while, each group singing in turn, but it is quickly obvious that we are not the best... We end up keeping silent, although the people around have started cheering. Anyway, the plane is there ... The luckiest in the group manage to fall asleep, the others endure the flight in silence : Bierset airport, shuttle to Brussels, then mummies and daddies, then home for everybody, wild with tiredness...

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