One of the first words I ever heard at school was ‘Bethlehem’. For the pupils at St Winnin’s Primary in North Ayrshire it was infinitely more familiar than the word ‘Edinburgh’ or – starry heavens forfend – ‘London’. We knew all about the little town of Bethlehem and its shepherds who watched their flocks by night: it was the place where Baby Jesus was born, and by Christmas in that first year at school we were trudging through the assembly hall in black sandshoes and towelling headgear, keen to find the infant saviour in a shed draped with fairy lights. On Christmas cards it was often snowing and that seemed something to imagine.
The joke in Scotland was that nativity plays were confined to primary schools because after that it was difficult to find three wise men and a virgin. (I still hadn’t heard of London the first time I heard that joke.) But the question of nativity itself – of coming from somewhere, of being native – was never complex in our Catholic stories and our great myths of authorship. Sure, the men who came from the East had darker faces and the Romans were bastards, but I always wondered why our town couldn’t be more like Bethlehem, a place of bright stars and tinsel, where even the cattle could find a child impressive.
Last week, from my window at the Pilgrim Deluxe, Bethlehem initially looked just as it should. The hills in the distance were grey and blue and unmarked by passing arguments. ‘This was once the more prosperous end of town,’ our guide said. ‘But the wall has ended all that. The town cannot grow and the Palestinians are not allowed to look at their own horizon. We are caged here, that is the story.’
We had come in via Jordan. Posters of terrorist suspects adorned the walls of the checkpoint, offering millions of dollars for information leading to arrests. My face got me waved through in minutes by a couple of girl custodians who seemed more interested in their nail polish than in incipient threats to the state of Israel: until, that is, our colleague the actor Khalid Abdalla came through, in company with the novelists Ahdaf Soueif and Hanan al-Shaykh. ‘What’s your grandfather’s name?’ the girls said. ‘Stand there.’ For two hours the rest of us waited outside until the harassment was over and the cultural visit could proceed.
By the time we reached Bethlehem we had been in the Occupied Territories for two days. Television images of Bethlehem and Ramallah had left an obscure impression of washed-out war zones with few buildings and lots of smoke. Yet Bethlehem thrives at the business of daily living, and it does so while existing in a state of geographical squeeze, as if a vice had been installed at every point where the bustle of the town threatens to make way for the countryside. Many of the students arrived late for the workshops or left early. ‘That’s because of the roadblocks,’ one of the lecturers explained. ‘No one can rely on getting anywhere on time.’
The refugee camp we visited in Bethlehem was squeezed between oily garages and a busy road. The people living there had lost most of their things, and everything of their way of life: many had lived in rural areas before being forced out of their homes, and their status entitled them to free schooling and medical care. I had seen refugee camps before – in the Sudan, in Malawi – but the difference here was that the residents were living in concrete blocks and no longer had any sense of what their status was in relation to their land. Many of the children played down by the wall, looking at graffiti by Banksy of children being hoisted skywards by balloons. Another mural showed people being transported over the wall by a giant escalator, figures disappearing into the blue sky that airily denoted freedom.
In the week that Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary I had come as one of the writers attending the first ever Palestine Festival of Literature. Thousands of people turned out: they wanted to believe that Palestine is not just a cause but also a culture and a country, a place not simply for stone-throwing but for ideas and for modernity. But everywhere we went the wall seemed a shadow, a heavy ornament of Israeli aggression and a horrible reminder to those of us who grew up to see the wall come down in Berlin and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Even in those infamous places, merely mentioning the problem did not invite hatred the way trying to say anything at all about Israel does. Discussion lacks traction in a land scarred from end to end with barriers to progress.
When we reached Hebron, we found a ghost town where no one would have blinked to see tumbleweed roll past the checkpoints that tell Palestinians whether they can walk on the left or the right of the street. On several occasions, settlers came jogging past; they were out for a run with the person at the front carrying an AK-47, and each jogger bearing the menacing grimace of Liberty Valance. Most of the shops in Hebron have been closed down and the general atmosphere is of a people being harassed, obscured, denied and cancelled. Broken masonry and piles of litter seem to line every street, as if a siege mentality expresses itself in a resistance to public orderliness. A net had been strung up over a dark alleyway leading from one checkpoint to another, and it was now filled with the international debris of big-brand fizzy drinks and sweets and chain stores. A Palestinian who lived nearby explained that they’d had to put the net up ‘because the Israelis who live up there were dropping things down on the heads of people passing.’
At Birzeit University – sign on the gate, ‘No Guns’ – the young women studying English wanted to talk about Foucault and George Eliot. Near the place where Yasir Arafat is buried, graffiti on the wall says, ‘ctrl+alt+delete’, the command you key in when your computer freezes. And that is the feeling one gets in Ramallah, the feeling of a system that is paralysed and awaiting radical action. There are many newly built houses and much evidence of life going on – water machines piled up by the road, old Amstrad computers awaiting salvage, trash cans overflowing – but at the centre of it all the people, especially the young people, are busy outpacing the terms of their detention. The students later stood around under olive trees, their conversations moving between gossip and ideas about the development of a moral imagination. They seemed to agree that too much talk about one’s suffering is a kind of provincialism and more than anything wanted to see themselves as a generation that could inhabit the world.