D. is leaving for a few days. He is going to see R., at the jail that Israel has next to the border with Egypt, in the most southern point of the country, on the other side of the desert. R. is going to be deported for staying in the country while he was waiting for his appointment to renew his visa and helping out the girls in this neighbourhood, like we are doing now. I will leave before D. returns from visiting R. so we exchange addresses and say our goodbyes.

I take a few hours off and I decide to do some tourism, like I did in Jerusalem.

I again go through the same checkpoint I used when I first came here, only in the other direction. The soldier outside, before entering the coffin-checkpoint, asks me:
“Why are you here?”
I remain without answering for a few seconds, trying to figure out whether he actually means to ask this question or he is trying to be funny, and to give myself a bit of time, I answer:
“Because I want to get to the other side.”.
He insists, with his quite basic English:
“No, why you are here, in Palestine, in Hebron.”
Still not knowing what he really is after, I answer:
“Because I defend life.”
“Really!” he asks, sounding completely uninterested. He looks at me and I answer:
“Look that way (I indicate to the Israeli settlement), everything is death, silence. Listen to that other side (I indicate to the free part of Hebron, at the other side of the coffin-checkpoint), you can hear life. You bring death to Palestine. Where there are no settlers nor soldiers, there is life and joy, where there are Israelis, there is only silence and death.”
“I agree”, he says. So I really do not know what this guy is about. I leave him there with his machine gun, and I go off.
I get through the checkpoint that feels rather like a coffin with mirrors and as soon as I get to the end of the empty street I truly feel like I have just got out of a tomb where I was buried alive, and I am suddenly back in the noisy, blinding and colourful world of the living. It is actually strange to get out to the rest of Hebron and see that there is normal life there, that constant humiliations and hatred do not need to be the normal way of life. The street is full of contrasts and colours – and noise. Above all, the noise.
It is as if the city that is still allowed to have some life in it wanted to remind the strangled city, by means of that noise, that there is still life on this side, that there is still hope, that the dying city is neither alone nor forgotten.
I turn right towards the mosque, and again I see, on my right, a high, boring, daunting wall – “the” wall – and a few watch towers with soldiers inside. I then remember that behind this wall and the towers is the illegal Israeli settlement whose inhabitants so terrorise our neighbours.
The Palestinians I see on my way seem to ignore this wall. It looks like they are used to it, maybe resigned themselves to it. What can not be ignored is that the streets become more and more silent and sepulchral as one approaches the old city, even on this “side”, where the Palestinian authority is supposed to be in charge, even though there are no checkpoints or soldiers in the streets. There is a point when it actually “is” like on the other side of the wall, with all the shops closed and with stars of David painted on the doors. I am approaching Ibrahim’s mosque and Abraham’s synagogue.
At the end of the street there is a kind of grille exactly like the one in Qalandia and other checkpoints, only even smaller and in the middle of the city. There are soldiers guarding it, on this side and the other. Some are inside cabins from which they activate the revolving gate made of railings. Just looking at it from the outside, I can guess that it must be really claustrophobic when passing through that revolving gate.
The gate has three “wings” that leave just enough space between them for one not-too-fat person, not even for one person plus baggage. On each side there are round walls made of iron bars, so that the “wings” of the gate go between those bars. If the gate gets blocked, there is really no gap through which to get out, either through the sides or over the top. Fig 18
I get into the gate and indeed, there is only enough space for my body. I can not stretch my arms, or even put my hands on my hips. My body as I stand, with my arms down and no bags, occupies all the available space. I have railings all around my body except under my feet. There are railings even over my head. During the long seconds that the gate takes to go round and let me free from this cubicle, I get through this tiny space making very short steps, about three inches each, to avoid the iron bars scratching my ankles.
Behind me there are about twenty little girls in school uniforms accompanied by some teachers. Once at the other side, I stay discreetly a few metres away from the gate to see if they will make the little girls go through the same process. They do.
I stay where I am for a few more minutes and I see what I was secretly fearing but wished were not true. After the little girls go, a man comes. When he is in the claustrophobic cubicle, suddenly the gate gets blocked and the man stays trapped there for a few seconds. The man looks stunned. He stares at the iron bars around him, so close to his body, and tries to make the gate revolve again. In the end the gate gives in and the man can get out. I stay a bit more until several men get through and I observe that the same thing is done to various other men, at random.
No one says a thing, all happens in silence. But it is obvious that the blocking of the gate is not coincidence and it is controlled by some soldier in some sentry box. Thinking of the whole exercise, it seems to be useless if it is “used” to spot potential terrorists, but very effective if the objective is one more humiliation.
I take some pictures and go on walking towards the temple of various faiths. There are quite a few Palestinian people queueing to enter the mosque. I join the queue but the soldiers “in charge” tell me with signs that I can jump the queue.
I enter a small room where there are again various soldiers with their huge machine guns on their chests and they ask me whether I am a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. They also ask lots of other questions and I ask:
“Why are you asking me so many questions?”, because this is the first time I am asked so many questions at once. The soldier gets cocky at once and, with a commanding gesture of his hand, snaps:
“Right. Passport.”
I try to disengage myself from a confrontation that would be all too familiar and remind myself that I am a foreign tourist visiting the fourth most important holy site for Islam and the second one for Judaism. So although I am naturally surprised at the intense questioning, I am also naturally used to being asked for my passport. I hand it to the soldier, he looks at it, he hands it back without a word and I mumble:
“What now?” expecting an answer like “You are detained”, or “arrested”, or something of the like. Instead, he tells me:
“You have to wait.” He looks at another soldier in a small office separated from us by some glass doors. That soldier is on the phone. I look away, at the different walls, as if already enjoying the building I came here to visit, and at some point the first soldier says:
“You can pass.”
He points to a door and I go through it. I am then in a narrow and claustrophobic corridor. At the beginning of this corridor there is a door on one side, with Hebrew characters painted on it, and a small window that lets you see a bit of what is on the other side of it. I see a man in a black hat, glasses and ringlets on both sides of his face. He looks at me in a not-too-friendly way. I continue walking down the corridor and I realise that I am not going to be allowed to visit the Jewish part of the building.
The corridor ends at an enormous room where there are two Palestinians looking at me, smiling. A third one, also smiling, approaches me, telling me with gestures to come in. However he is not pointing at the next door as I would have expected, but at a closet next to that door. He opens the door of the closet and I see a lot of capes hung from hooks, all with a hood, of very similar sizes, and all of the very same very dark brown colour.
He grabs one of the capes and helps me to put it on. It feels as if I were suddenly in a cave, only really small, with the walls of the cave made of smooth material and sticking to my body, but a cave all the same. I am also invited to leave my shoes in a corner set aside for it. Barefoot, I enter through the door that the seated men now indicate to me.
The room in which I enter is a room dedicated to prayers. It is divided into two “sections”. One looks like a wide corridor that goes from the door I have just used to get in here right to another door at the other side of the room, in front of me. To the right of the corridor is the wall, and on the left there is a much wider section covered with what looks like a thick carpet, or maybe various layers of carpets. The carpeted floor is about five centimetres higher than the floor of the corridor, which has no carpet. The carpeted part is the main part of the room and has many columns; the stone part is rather just a corridor between both doors, and it does not have a single column. There is no furniture, neither benches nor chairs, to sit on.
There is an intense atmosphere of meditation, and having my head covered with this brown hood, seeing everything through the opening that the hood allows, contributes to this feeling of meditation and smallness. I can only see men, all in an attitude of meditation, knelt or seated on the floor, although they are all wearing street clothes.
A question crosses my mind: Why would it be unsuitable to help the men have this feeling too, with a cape and a hood? Although, the truth is, I do not feel uncomfortable with it. I feel privileged to be able to visit a temple dedicated to a faith to which in principle I do not belong. In fact it makes me wonder why there is not this custom in other religions too, to put something special on at the door, to become fully conscious of just how special the site you are going to enter is.
I kneel on the step that is formed by the height difference between the two sections and all that has happened in the past weeks, mainly the last one, comes right into my head at once. I end up recalling that, throughout History, so many of the greatest crimes of Humanity continue to be committed “in the Name of God”.
My hood insists on falling off my head and I end up not caring. It falls on my back again but this time I do not put it back on. No one seems to notice; nobody says anything.
Finally I leave the carpeted zone, I give back the cape, I put my shoes back on and go out back to the street.
Once outside, the waiting queue that I have seen before is now shorter, but a few boys I saw when I jumped the queue are still here, waiting. I ask them if they are detained and one says no, but adds that they have been trying to enter the mosque for two hours now and they are not allowed in. I ask the Israeli soldier and he answers reluctantly that he is waiting for some type of confirmation from somewhere. I wish them luck and I continue towards the street, but it seems that they have given up and they come with me. I realise they communicate by signs. The one that speaks to me says they are deaf-mute and he is the activities supervisor. Today they had wanted to go to the mosque together but they have not been allowed in. Another humiliation.
K. phones to ask me to come home as soon as I can because a “mini-kristallnachtt” has happened. When I arrive home we all go to the house of a neighbour to take pictures of the damage some settlers have done to it during my absence. After hearing the noise of breaking glass, they just found all the windows broken and glass pieces all over the floor. The vandals left behind the iron bar they have smashed all the house windows with.