Travelling in the Conflict Zone – Part 1

West Bank, Sunday 6/10/013



I’m in a crowded mini bus on my way from Bethlehem to Hebron: leaving a Christian enclave surrounded by Moslems – and on my way to see a Jewish enclave surrounded by Moslems – one enclave forming the heart of a flourishing tourist industry and the other, lying fairly and squarely in the conflict zone.

The driver, a quiet man with some clipped beard and neat casual clothes, has the radio on. He’s not interested in music. He’s interested in religion. From the radio comes a continual wailing, like the call to prayer only it goes on and on. It drives me nuts. An advertising jingle would be an improvement.

I look outside.

We pass hill tops where there are Israeli settlements, lines of apartments, big flags with the Star of David. On the opposite side of the highway are Israelis waiting for a bus. Two soldiers from the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) standing nearby, chatting, looking bored. Out of their backpacks long aerials can be seen.


Bethlehem: the busloads of Christian tourists from all over the world paying homage to the birth place of Jesus. Visiting the historical sites such as the Church of Nativity (the supposed birth place of Jesus), buying souvenirs, going to restaurants etc. Sure, good for the local economy, providing jobs for thousands of Palestinians. But I got bored in Bethlehem. I’d been travelling around Israel and the West Bank for the previous month and it had been an intense journey. Not the kind of trip that I could describe as enjoyable – no, not at all. Every day had brought with it unforgettable sights. And unanswerable questions.

Questions: some of which were contested with words – and others with bullets.

During the following days, it dawned on me: travelling in Israel and the West Bank was travelling in a conflict zone. At first, I didn’t know how to deal with it, didn’t even know whether I wanted to continue the journey. Many times, I thought about leaving early. It could get too much. But there was something addictive about it too: the sheer intensity. Every day experiencing something different and being confronted by the strange, the inexplicable, the outrageous.

After a month of this, arriving in Bethlehem and finding myself in a tourist town, I felt as if I’d suddenly found myself in a Sargasso Sea, becalmed – and bored.

I missed being in the conflict zone.

Hence the day trip to Hebron.

On Sunday, the holiest day of the week for Christians.


Israel and Judaism is where it began: the conflict zone.

Judaism was the first monotheistic religion in the world – there is only one God, not multiple Gods – and it was the major inspiration behind Christianity and Islam. Those religions, appearing historically much later, borrowed heavily from the theological landscape of Judaism – indeed, it can be said that if there had never been a Jewish people, there would never have been Christianity or Islam. More than once, it occurred to me that the existing problems, endless, complex, vexing, would never have come into being if those first Israelites had been polytheists, e.g. Hindus.

Christianity and Islam differed from Judaism in one crucial respect: whilst the Jew’s God directed his attention inwards, towards his ‘chosen people’, the God of the late comers commanded his followers to convert others – Heathens, Infidel – by word if possible, by sword if necessary. Intolerance – and worse – come naturally to the monotheistic religions: there is only one God and anyone else who worships a different God, or Gods, is guilty of worshipping Satan and is doomed to burn in Hell. Monotheism and especially evangelical monotheism lends itself to the conquest of others. The Crusade and Jihad are concepts which belong to Judaism’s off spring.

Its irony which occurred to me often during my journey in Israel and the West Bank: driven by their universalist pretensions, neither Christianity nor Islam, which owed so much to Judaism, ever showed the slightest sympathy towards the Jews. On the contrary: they persecuted the Jews relentlessly. Their behaviour, historically seen, was like a big corporation stealing the ideas of a small firm and then running that firm out of business – as well as murdering its employees.


The territories comprising ancient Israel vanished in 70 AD when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people to the four corners of the world. From that time on, where ever they were, China or Egypt, Russia or Portugal, the Jews remembered Jerusalem and their once flourishing civilisation.

Then in the early 20th century the Great Return began. European Jews, from Theodore Herzl to Franz Kafka, convinced that after almost 2000 years of relentless discrimination there was no place for the Jews in Christian Europe, began moving back to Palestine. They bought land from the Arabs and started farms.

Then came the Holocaust and the trickle back to the ancient homeland became a flood.

Ricochet: in the conflict zone, everything is a matter of historical cause and effect. Endless chains of it.

Example: the temple of Hebron, otherwise known as the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’.


2000 years ago, the Jewish King Herod had a temple built on the site where it was believed that three couples lay buried who were the ancient progenitors of the tribes of Israel and, by extension, the entire Jewish race: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Were they really buried there?

Were these three couples really the progenitors of the Jewish people?

For centuries, after the dispersion of the Jews, Christian pilgrims came to ‘The Holy Land’ to worship at Jerusalem – and, Herod’s temple in Hebron.

In the 7th century, the second great mutation of Judaism appeared on the scene: Islam. The former lands which comprised ancient Israel – the Christians ‘Holy Land’ – were occupied by Islam’s triumphalist armies and Herod’s temple was converted into a mosque. Abraham was revered by Moslems as a prophet in the same way he was revered by Christians as a sacred figure from the Old Testament.

What did the Moslems and Christians then make of the other Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs who also, according to ancient Jewish lore, lay buried beneath the temple/church/mosque?

Were they also sacred or was pride of place reserved for Abraham?

In the 12th century, the Crusaders arrived in ‘The Holy Land’.

The English and French armies, on their way through Southern Germany before swinging to the south-east, unleashed pitiless pogroms against the Jews.

On arriving at their destination, they unleashed another blood bath on the Moslems.

In Hebron, they turned the mosque into a church.



When the Moslems returned – and drove off the crusaders, the church was converted back into a mosque.

The Jews were forbidden to worship there.

For them, the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’ – was the second most sacred site in the world after the western or so-called ‘wailing’ wall in Jerusalem (and they were forbidden from worshipping there, too).

‘So how shall we worship the Lord in a strange land?’ as the old Jewish song went.


In 1967, during the ‘Six Day War’, Israel gained control of Hebron.

For the first time in 700 years, Jews could once again worship at ‘The Cave of the Patriarchs’ (although it was just as much a ‘Cave of the Matriarchs’).

Jewish settlers moved to Hebron. The first settlers – immigrants from Europe – had appeared during the 1920’s and were later driven off by the Moslems. Now a new Jewish settlement was established near the hallowed ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’.

For Moslems everywhere in the world, the Jews have no right to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs. It is a Mosque and the presence of Jews is, in effect, sacrilege.

Today it is possible for tourists to visit this ancient structure. It has been divided into a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other. Access to each of these can only go ahead after passing through an Israeli check point.


When I went to Hebron, my plan was to visit the mosque-synagogue and then afterwards, the Jewish settlement enclave.

In terms of the visiting the conflict zone, you couldn’t do better than this.



Following blog: Travelling in the Conflict Zone, Part 2:

See also ‘Serious Travel Images:

and related blog:

Travelling in the Conflict Zone – Part 2

Great start!

Walking down a crowded street in Hebron, I get lost trying to find my way to the mosque-synagogue.

Ask for directions and people point this way and that.

Finally, an old man wearing a brown suit and a long Arab head dress stops and leads me along a series of narrow streets in the old town. It reminds me of the splendid old town in Nablus.

He speaks good English.

We chat as we pass vendors selling fruit and vegetables.

He says he is interested in religion and has studied them all. Christianity has a problem he says because there are three Gods, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He’s got a point. Rivers of blood have flowed over that issue. Was Jesus an incarnation of God or was he the son of God? Who was to be worshipped? They were both manifestations of the Holy Spirit; what was that then? The identity of God has always been a problem for Christianity. We discuss this for a while.

Judaism has one god, The Messiah; he issues laws which everyone must obey otherwise they will go to Hell and never find eternal life. He approves of that. But this one god he says is only for Jews. That’s bad. The Jew God is not a God but actually, a fallen angel serving Satan.

Logic says there can be only one god for all people. His objective analysis has led him to the conclusion that the best religion is Islam. Islam has the one true god and it is for everyone.

His logic.

My logic leads me to a very different conclusion: that there is no God, no after life, no heaven or hell. In other words, I share the conclusions of the 17 century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza: that the religious books such as the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, are the products of men, not God.

The only religion, or rather philosophy, which can accommodate a Spinozan is Buddhism.

I ask him: ‘Have you studied Buddhism?’

But he doesn’t want to talk about Buddhism.

He continues talking as if he hasn’t heard me.

The Jew God is Satan, he says. It is not God.

We are treading on ground where I have no desire to go. Been there before. Many times. Don’t’ want to go there again.

He continues talking:

‘We are prisoners in our own country. We can’t do anything, can’t go anywhere. The Jews control everything…’

Heard this many time before too. I signal my agreement in a few words but am reticent to expand on it.

Yes, prisoners. No problem there. I can see that alright.

60% of the West Bank lies within the so-called ‘sector C’ which means that it is under the direct control of the IDF. Within sector C, the Israelis can detain anyone at any time for any reason. From my reading of English language Israeli newspapers, it is my impression that this wide military jurisdiction is used mainly to locate and detain Palestinians who have attacked settlers. This at the very least is spurious definition of ‘national security’, the supposed rationale behind sector C. An essential part of administering sector C is endless security check points. For many Palestinians, it is very difficult to move from one part of the country to the other or in some cases from one part of a city to another, because of checkpoints (and having been through many checkpoints, I know what is involved). To do business or even to get to one’s farm can be a long process. ‘


Yes certainly, no doubt about it.

Beyond that however I can’t shake off the impression that the Palestinians are imprisoned by more than the IDF and the settlers. In every official statement of the Palestinian cause which I have read – ranging from ‘fact books’ issued by academics to broadsheets issued by city councils (including that in Bethlehem) – I have noted firstly, the belief that the Holocaust never happened or at the most was an ‘incident’ in no way comparable to the sufferings of the Palestinians; secondly, that Israel is a racist apartheid state which is like the former white regime in South Africa and following on from this, point three: that Israel has no right to exist.

Despite all the talk of a two-state solution, deep in their hearts, most Palestinians, most Arabs see it as a temporary solution. What they really dream of is the disappearance of Israel. The Jewish settlements are understandably experienced by all Arabs as a humiliation, but beyond the issue of the settlers, they experience Israel itself as a humiliation – more, they see as the work of Satan. You don’t need to look too far to find expressions of undiluted hatred for Jews (the imam El Quadawi e.g., whose rabid anti-Semitic rantings are aired by Al Jazeera). Flagrant anti-Semitism is all too commonplace in the Moslem world. Commonplace is the belief that the Jews are evil conspirators who control the world’s financial system and the American government; who were responsible for the September 11 attack – and just about every other calamity which has befallen Islam in recent times. I’ve experienced this often during journeys in Turkey and Northern Africa, and amongst my Moslem students in The Netherlands when I was working as an English teacher.

‘We are prisoners in our country’ – he is inviting me to join him in a mutual hate session against the Jews. With my long hair and moustache and casual clothes, it’s a fair bet that I am a western sympathiser for the Palestinian cause.

But I’m not.

I’m an independent traveller come to have a look around. And in the course of looking around I’ve lost any real sense of having anything solid to hang on to. I feel involved, engaged; I change my opinions often, by the day, by the hour. I’m not afraid of being wrong because only be being wrong can one learn. Sometimes I’m afraid of being right. I’m constantly debating with myself. I’m wary of taking sides with anyone. I’m finding my way through a war zone, one with ancient antecedents.

I believe in a two- state solution. But what does that mean?

I have little sympathy for the settlers or the Israeli occupation. Yet that does not make me an uncritical supporter of the Palestinians. My opposition to the military occupation and the settlers does not mean that I am anti-Israel. It does not preclude my support for the right of the Israelis to have a homeland and to defend themselves against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. It does not mean that I hate the Jews or believe that they control the world.

Two state solution?

If the Israelis pull out of the West Bank and it falls into the hands of Hamas, then Israel will have Hamas on two fronts – south and east. The aim of Hamas is crystal clear: to wipe out the Jews. It means rocket attacks, terror tunnels and billions of dollars’ worth of arms arriving from Qatar.

There is a reason for the occupation. There’s a reason for everything out here. All these reasons leading to the Unreasonable writ large.

I cannot believe that there are people who espouse a simple point of view regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet so many of them do: journalists, politicians, academics, activists. Whatever point of view one wants to adopt, it needs to start with the recognition that history and politics and religion have together conspired to create a maelstrom of rights and wrongs, of anger, resentment, mistrust and hate.

The only other area of the world I have visited which faintly resembles this is The Balkan.


I enter a long souk, a typical Arab market place. Once again, memories of Nablus.

It’s a poorly lit tunnel, narrow, lined with stalls. At the end of the souk I enter a long wire mesh tunnel and pass through a turnstile. But it’s not a checkpoint and I fail to realise than on leaving it, it might be hard to find it again.

Departing the turnstile, I see it: ‘the oldest continuously used religious structure in the world.’

Temple, mosque, church; ‘The Cave of the Patriarchs’: 2000 years of intolerance and violence.

Yet, like so many religious structures, especially the ancient ones, it is beautiful. The high, yellow brown, crenelated walls. Two mosque towers soaring above them, History staring down at me in all its bitter-sweet glory.

I go to the mosque half of the building first.

At the check point I’m met by bored Israeli conscripts, quite friendly, speaking with strong American accents. They could be US Marines – except for the fact that half of them are women. A small woman, whose Uzi machine gun seems as big as her, asks me whether I’m a Christian and after a short discussion about atheism, she says ‘well have a nice day!’

After visiting the mosque and then the synagogue, I feel underwhelmed. They have more in common besides being located within the same ancient building: both are utterly unremarkable. The best part of the structure is the view from outside.

How is it possible that two such mundane places of worship can be so hotly, so passionately contested?

Only the True Believers can answer that question.


I go in search of the Jewish enclave.

Easier said than done.

I find myself walking down empty streets, passed shuttered up shops and buildings. It seems interesting and I keep walking. It doesn’t take me too long to work out where I am, that is, in the larger scheme of things.

The area of the city around the settlement has been closed off.

It’s a no man’s land.

Originally there was a street here which, in accordance with the Oslo accords, was inhabited by Jews. In 2000 Arafat ordered the street to be attacked with the aim of clearing the Jews out and making Hebron a completely Moslem city. The IDF retaliated and established an enclave which then became a frontier post for settlers: another episode replete with futility and mistrust, of grievance and hate.

On the walls of some of the abandoned shops are posters commemorating the heroic sacrifices of suicide bombers. I have seen many of these in Nablus and Jenin. In another place I see a sign installed by settlers recalling a massacre of Jews in 1927 by the Arabs and demanding justice. There is also a memorial for a couple killed by a suicide bomber who was on his way to blowing up children in a playground.

Wandering through the no man’s land, I feel the unreality of it all: here, in one of the most densely populated areas of the world, whole streets empty and abandoned.

I had no idea beforehand what to expect. I read about the Jewish enclave in the heart of a Moslem city and thought: ‘that’s sounds interesting’. Somehow, I had expected to see other tourists. I had expected in other words, that other people would have also been interested in seeing the Jewish enclave if not for any other reason than just plain curiosity.

But it seems as if I was wrong about that.

There’s no one. I am perfectly alone. Wandering around in a ghost town.


A feeling of paranoia is stirring inside me, stealthily, like a snake in deep dry grass.

Memories of incidents I have recently read about on the net appear before me: a sniper shot dead an Israeli soldier guarding the Hebron settlement. In another incident, a sniper shot a 9-year-old Jewish girl and then posted a proud boast on Facebook.

Look around me.

Beyond the abandoned streets are high apartment buildings. These are inhabited by Palestinians. Easy to see how a sniper with a high-powered rifle could pick off someone down here. This is hard territory. This is where the conflict zone turns deadly. Where words translate into bullets.

If someone got the idea into their heads to shoot me from a distant window, I’d be an easy target. I’m not travelling to put my life on the line.


Departing a silent street lined with shuttered up shops, I see a Moslem cemetery: grave stones planning up to the top of a hill. Burka clad women move between the graves and at the top of the hill there is a small contingent of IDF. Full battle dress. Uzis and rifles at the ready.

I walk up through the gravestones and approach them.

They’re surprised to see me.

Where are you going?

Good question. I’m no longer interested in seeing the enclave. I just want to get out this place. Not keen about being lined up in the telescopic sights of a sniper.

How do I get back to the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’?

They point me in the right direction – and off I go.


Approach a cluster of modern apartments. This must be where the settlers live.

Inadvertently I’ve come to the very place I was looking for.

See a settler and wave him down. He’s tall and thin and is wearing jeans and T shirt and looks like Rasputin with his aquiline nose and his long beard. Explain that I’m lost and ask for directions back to the mosque/synagogue. He’s quite friendly and directs me to follow a series of narrow corridors between the apartments in the settlement. That seems like a safe option. Hard to shoot someone walking in between buildings.

I make a promising start but then get lost again. There are so many lanes and corridors; I keep walking into dead ends, small courtyards filled with kids’ toys and prams; these people have large families. Somewhere amidst my futile attempts to find my way through the apartment cluster, the words of the old Arab man come back to me: ‘we are prisoners.’

But so are these settlers. In their case, they have chosen to be prisoners.


The settlers believe that they are fulfilling God’s will by settling in the land which thousands of years ago had been a part of Israel (Samaria and Judea). They see the Arabs as interlopers. Their attitude towards them is aggressive. Brutal attacks on Palestinians by the settlers are not uncommon. They have the support of the orthodox Jews who form a powerful political force in Israel. They do not recognise the Israeli state or its laws and institutions but they expect to be defended by the IDF every time they encroach on an area of the West Bank. The only authority they recognise is God. The IDF, meant to defend the nation against external enemies, is used to provide bodyguards for the settlers. Most IDF men and women aren’t at all happy about it. There have been frequent clashes between the IDA and settlers. The great majority of Israeli people regard the settlers as a liability, yet successive Israeli governments, despite international condemnation, have allowed the settlements to continue expanding.

The bottom line is: who in their right mind would want to live in a place like this?

Raise a family here?

In a small colony which must be guarded day and night and even then, is not safe from snipers or other murderous assailants?

Yes, and the deeper issue:

Is it not contradictory to be a member of a race of people who have suffered thousands of years of persecution – and worse – and who themselves harbour discriminatory and bigoted attitudes?


Continue my trip and get lost again.

Emerge on to an empty road, follow it a while and then run into two Israeli soldiers. Ask them how to get to the Arab part of Hebron but they don’t know because they’re not allowed in there.

Eventually find my way back to the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’ where I am greeted by the sight of a large group of Swedish tourists in an organised group, laughing innocently, not a care in the world. They get in their bus and drive off.

Carefully retracing my steps, I find the mesh tunnel from which I originally came and understand immediately how easy it was to lose it. Normally that tunnel is only used by Arabs from Hebron making their way to the mosque.

For someone unfamiliar with the place it’s the easiest thing in the world to walk straight passed it.


Back in Hebron, the streets are thronging with people. Sunday afternoon seems to be shopping time. Most of the shoppers are women and many of the shops they visit are fashionable boutiques selling shoes, clothes, perfumes, handbags and cosmetics. The sidewalks are so crowded that I have to walk on the street and dodge on-coming cars and motor bikes.

Find my way back to the bus station. Mini bus back to Bethlehem.

Back in Bethlehem, I see Polish tourists emerging from the Church of Nativity crying from the emotions of visitant the birth place of The Lord.

By the time I reach my hotel, the Al Salam, I’m exhausted.

Walk through the door and the manager is nowhere to be seen.

Peer over the counter and see him prostrating himself on the floor.

Call to Prayer.


An Angel Named Gabriel


Inside the Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth, it was quiet, especially considering that there were at least a hundred tourists present. The tourists came from many countries including the U.S., Germany, Poland, China and Japan. They all had one thing in common: they were Christians travelling in an organised biblical group. There is a lot of this kind of tourism in Israel. The route that the biblical tourists follow takes them to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

 The Basilica of Annunciation was built between 1960 and ’69, with funds provided by the Catholic Church; it’s a modern construction. The basilica isn’t actually a true basilica – like the traditional half spherical domes one sees in old churches. Rather it’s an immense cone, at the top of which is a lantern shaped skylight. 

I sat on the bench seats amongst the pilgrims and took in my surroundings. For me the church was a fine example of modern architecture. For the believers, it was a sacred place.

I was impressed with how quiet the believers were. Hardly a whisper could be heard.

 The basilica was built on the place where according to the believers Mary was told by the angel Gabriel she would conceive the son of God. This was referred to as the ‘annunciation’. As an atheist, it was difficult for me to give a story like this much credence.

 But it did set me thinking about the angel named Gabriel.


I had a framed poster of a painting featuring Gabriel.

 I had purchased it years ago during a visit to the Prado in Madrid.

The poster was printed in order to advertise the latest exhibition in the Prado; copies of it could be seen all over Madrid. I loved the poster as soon as I saw it. Beneath a high quality reproduction of a medieval era painting of the angel Gabriel appearing before the virgin Mary were the words: ‘Fra Angelico – La Anunciacion – Museo del Prado – Madrid.’ 

It was a perfect souvenir for a tourist.

 At the end of my visit to the Prado I asked the people at the information counter if I could have a copy of that poster – they gave me two copies and one of them was sent to Australia where it was framed and hung on the dining room wall of a small suburban house on the south coast of Adelaide.

 ‘La Anunciacion’: a taste of classical Europe in the antipodes.

I thought about it whilst sitting in that fine basilica in Nazareth.

 Gabriel was kneeling before Mary. He had short golden hair and was wearing a long pleated robe. His wings, too short to ever lift such a richly clad figure, were brown grey. Mary, very much a medieval mother, had her head bowed. A beam of golden light, shining from behind Gabriel was shining on her face.

 The copy of the original painting was very high quality and it was a beautiful painting, a work of art which could even stir the heart of a sceptic like me.  When I looked at it, I felt an almost mystical appreciation for the idea of God and for the way in which this idea had inspired great artists to attain sublime heights.


 With the medieval image of Gabriel before me, I remembered that I had read about him recently in a book by the British historian Tom Holland called ‘In the Shadow of the Sword.’  Holland was one of my favourite historians (along with Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson). There  was something I had read about Gabriel which was important, but I couldn’t remember what it was exactly. 

 Gabriel…what was it again about Gabriel?


 About a hundred meters away from the Basilica of Annunciation was a mosque.

 The mosque was on an open square in the centre of old Nazareth. It was the first thing I saw on arriving in Nazareth and getting down from the bus.  The mosque was a small one and there were no minarets. The imam in charge was a hardliner.  My LP guide reported that a year earlier, he had allowed some of his parishioners to cover the square in anti-Christian slogans written in Arabic.

Outside the mosque there was a cloth banner in English which read: 

 ‘I am indeed a slave of Allah. Allah is my Lord and your Lord so worship him and him alone.’

 Earlier in the day – a Friday – I had noticed that there was something going on at the mosque. Men had appeared from inside the mosque carrying rolled up carpets.  These they unrolled over the square, one after the other, like something out of the Arabian Nights, until most of the square was covered in deep red carpet. A small table was placed in front of the carpets and a large flat screen TV on the table. Loudspeakers were connected to the TV. There were cables everywhere. The whole operation took about an hour. On the TV screen came an image, a still photo, of the great mosque in Mecca. It stayed there. Nothing much happened. Something was going to be broadcast and I wanted to see what, but I got impatient. That’s when I head to the Basilica just up the road.


Up until comparatively recently, Nazareth was a Christian town. For centuries it was a popular destination for Christian pilgrims from all over Europe – an ancient version of the biblical tourists who appear today. It was not only where Mary conceived Jesus but also where Jesus grew up and learned his trade as a carpenter. Even today amongst the maze of narrow alleyways of old Nazareth, there are old stone work buildings which were originally hostels built to accommodate the constant stream of pilgrims. Some of the Christian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land were highly unsavoury types: the Crusaders for example. On their way across Europe, the Knights of Christ indulged in the time-honoured sport of Jew-killing. Whole communities of Jews were wiped out in Southern Germany and Eastern Europe. Leaving a trail of blood behind them, the Knights arrived at their destination and then proceeded to massacre Moslems – and also, more Jews.

Today Nazareth is a Moslem city. Roughly 70% of its inhabitants are Moslem Arabs, 25% Christians and 5% Jews. In the last decades, the demographic effect of high Moslem birth rates has put an end to the Christian heritage.


 I left the Basilica and went out a side door where there was a long ‘L’ shaped wall shaded by a canopy. Here there were also throngs of biblical tourists. Along the wall were 30 large panels – mosaics and painted relief works – representing the theme of Mary and her baby Jesus. Each panel was made by Catholics hailing from various countries from all over the world. The images were very different from one another and each one, very beautiful in its own way. From all the images of Mary and Jesus, I really liked the one from Korea.


Sept - Oct 2013 067


There can be no doubt about it: Mary and her baby Jesus is an image which has been a real winner for the Catholic Church. It summons up the ideas of compassion, love and caring in a way which moves millions of people. Memories came back to me of the huge ashram complex I had visited a few years previous in Southern India devoted to Mary. It was a city unto itself, a city replete with hotels and hostels and restaurants and shops; a city dedicated to Mary and baby Jesus. Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – most of them Hindus – flocked to the Mary ashram where they bowed down before kitschy statues of Mary and bought kitschy prints of Mary and trinkets and bottles of holy water. They crawled on all fours over the ground in obeisance and watched officially blessed movies about the wonderful woman Goddess. (


 At some point whilst I was admiring the images of Mary and Jesus, a loud high-pitched screaming began. 

 Putting two and two together, I realised it must have been an imam on the TV in the square who was delivering a sermon.

 A sermon?

He screamed and ranted and yelled. It was an unpleasant sound and it was so loud. The TV imam was apparently pretty wound up about something.

 Even deep inside the Basilica I could hear the TV imam. That was the point of course. To make sure the TV imam was amplified so loud that even in the deepest precincts of the church Silence had no chance.  

 The old and familiar theme: intolerance.

 Robbed of my silence, I thought I’d better go and take a look at what was happening in the square. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’

I arrived there to see about 50 men seated on the carpets. On the TV was an old man with a turban and a long white wispy beard. He could have been an ascetic. I was really surprised. It was incredible that such an old man could find the energy to keep up such a burning rage. How could his vocal chords withstand such sustained screaming?

 He just went on and on.

I wondered where the broadcast was coming from: Saudi Arabia?

 A mosque somewhere beyond the borders of Israel?


I was hungry and went into a nearby café.

The café was large by crammed side street standards. It went back some way from the narrow front. There were tables and chairs. On the walls there were old photos of Nazareth when it was a village and some pieces of embroidered cloth. The café reminded me of a place somewhere in Cairo and I’m not sure why; there was a feeling of oldness covered over in a veneer of freshly painted walls and a newly installed counter.

 I don’t think that the screaming imam would have approved of the Moslem family who ran the café. The mother and daughter had short hair and were not wearing headscarves. The café sold wine – Israeli wine – which I believe the father and his mates, who were sitting at one of the tables, were enjoying to a perhaps somewhat excessive extent. They were doing a lot of laughing. The teenage son who served me found it difficult to drag himself away from The Call of Duty. 

 I ordered hummus, salad and pita bread – and a glass of wine.

The hummus in Israel is the best in the world. It’s another thing entirely to the muck which is sold in the supermarkets in the West. Everyone in this country, in spite of their differences in religion or race, is addicted to the hummus and it’s easy to see why.

 And I have to say, the Israeli wine I drank seemed pretty reasonable. If it hadn’t been made in Israel, it could have been sold anywhere in the world.

My meal finished I walked outside.

 The sermon was drawing to an end and the men were prostrating themselves on the carpet. I read the sign again: ‘I am indeed a slave of Allah….’


On the way back through the maze of ancient alleyways to my hotel I passed lots of little stalls. There were posters everywhere for candidates competing in the local elections. Of course I didn’t know what the issues were but that didn’t stop me from forming an opinion about who I wanted to win: the only woman candidate. She had short hair, no headscarf and big plastic glasses. She was a better bet for getting the Moslems somewhere positive than the likes of the wispy bearded TV imam. 

 I got lost in the Byzantine maze of back alleys. The problem was: I wasn’t concentrating on where I was going.

My thoughts were elsewhere.

 I was thinking about the angel Gabriel.

 After I finally found my hotel, I got out the book by Holland and checked the index in the back for ‘Gabriel’…..


 Gabriel was a popular angel.

 Not only did he convey the news to Mary that she was going to conceive the son of God, but the very same angel turned up 600 years later in a cave outside Mecca in Arabia. There he materialised before a middle-aged merchant who had fallen asleep in a cave. His name was Mohammed. Gabriel had a message for Mohammed which came straight from God (the Arabic word for God being ‘Allah’).

 It was a long message.

 Two centuries later it was written up as a book called the Koran.

 Gabriel….but the very same angel had appeared before the ancient priests of Judaism at least 200 years before the birth of Christ and 800 years before Mohammed.

 The angel Gabriel was a Jewish angel.

Which underlined something else: both Islam and Christianity evolved out of Judaism – the first monotheistic religion in the history of the human race.  Now considering this, one would  have thought that the followers of these three religions might have been able to live in peace, appreciate the things they had in common. On the contrary – for centuries they had waged war on one another. A Jewish angel had sown the seeds for two religions which each in its own way had done its best to destroy the Jews.

 You can write many stories about the human race, an infinite number of books both fiction and non-fiction, but never will you reach anything like an end to the mystery of what it is to be us.


An angel named Gabriel.

A town called Nazareth.

 Three ancient adversaries, a long and bitter history behind them, forced into an uneasy coexistence in the same small country called Israel.

Whether the world’s best hummus was going to be enough to keep the peace was a debatable issue.


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