He didn’t answer me when I asked him if he thought it would rain. It was morning, about a week ago, and under gray clouds journalist Max Blumenthal and I were heading to Jerusalem. The night before seated at a humid Ramallah patio after a flash rainstorm, the kind that spears diagonally and inverts umbrellas, we had heard a rumor about how Israel engineers early fall precipitation. Here’s how it goes: at the close of each summer Israel shoots silver iodide into the sky. Then it rains. It’s called cloud seeding, and most airports do it, but to keep skies clear. But according to West Bank popular gossip the purpose of Israel’s fall cloud seeding is spiritual rejuvenation to mark the High Holiday season for the Jewish population—a man-made blessing.
I’ve actually heard this cloud-seeding rumor before, last October. In fact, for me hearing it again over coffee and arak marked the end of a warm evenings and a return to wind, sweaters and a very cold house.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” laughed a twenty-something Palestinian who in our show of hands voted that the downpour was chemically induced. But the table was split. All the Palestinians except one agreed Israel was responsible for the rain while the foreigners were doubtful. Our debate had a voracity usually reserved for matters like reality television, or how the conflict will end; everyone has an opinion, but nothing seemed viable. Max and I chalked the rumor up to an extension of the all-powerful feeling Israel holds for those it occupies. Israel constructs absurd conditions in the West Bank—the wall, checkpoints, and an endless sea “temporary closures”—not to mention much more mundane annoyances like traffic jams because of settler road repairs. In the urban reprieve of Ramallah, ATMs regularly run out of cash, electricity and water get shut off, and burning trash—the official waste removal system of the de facto capital—can spread into inner city fires within minutes. So why can’t Israel engineer the weather too?
Because it was Max’s last day in the country before departing to New York by way of Jordan, we wanted to report on one more Sukkot-inspired provocation before he left. We had read about an evangelical Christian parade, the largest street event of the year, and a settler march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. But first, Max needed cash, and that unfolded a series of hiccups that ultimately kept us from finding the 60,000-strong celebration.
So what was intended to be a day of reporting on Sukkot ended as a day of running around Jerusalem, blocked from reaching each of our destinations because of holiday-related closures.
Our first detour was to a hotel to use an ATM and then exchange money at the front desk. But the hotel, though hailed as the only four-star accommodations in the West Bank, was out of the Jordanian currency. So we hoofed uphill to a money exchange store where Max could get both Shekels and Dinars to pay his exit/entrance fees at the border. Then we hopped into a taxi to Qalandia checkpoint, the main artery from the West Bank to Jerusalem. It was a ten-minute ride followed by a 20-meter walk to a bus stop. Then we got on the bus and rode another 20 meters, then off the bus to walk through the actual turn-stile crossing, then back on the bus for a 40-minute shuttle; one taxi, two buses, and one checkpoint.
Within an hour and a half we were in Jerusalem.
During the ride I thought of Tel Aviv. A few days before, I was also in transit to Jerusalem, but from the coastal city. Just over 60 kilometers, that trip was around three times the distance, but during off-peak traffic it is only 45 minutes. Oh the ease of Tel Aviv when flatted to a pros and cons list next to Ramallah, its proximate bubble comparison. Both cities are canals of reality-denial, but no matter how many conferences and artists residencies from the avant garde of Berlin, Ramallah is still occupied, while Tel Aviv has an airport, and the kind of blight and poverty that has come to typify modern, industrialized centers.
It is only by Tel Aviv’s central bus station where each street block has at least one homeless refugee sleeping in alcove that I feel like I’m back in the West. Otherwise the city is a series of contradictions. As +972 Magazine’s Noam Sheizaf pointed out to me a few weeks before, Tel Aviv was built on top of three Palestinian villages while most West Bank settlements were constructed on agricultural– therefore uninhabited– Palestinian land. And so Tel Aviv, which is viewed as the capital of the anti-occupation movement (though completely marginal, if not heretical inside the Israeli discourse), has an arguably more colonial history than Jewish expansion into the West Bank.
Once in Jerusalem, Max and I went to see my friend Jihad who owns a tee-shirt printing shop in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. His store was featured on Al Jazeera because he screens both pro and anti-Obama tees. We stopped in to find out where the Christian parade was taking off from, what time the settlers would march, and to check the schedule for the buses Max needs to reach the Jordanian border.
Sometimes on Sukkot settlers march through the Muslim Quarter to reach the Western Wall. Sometimes this causes clashes. But Jihad said things were calm, and quiet on the business end. Tensions in Syria are keeping tourists away, he lamented. But we hit another setback. He also told us that the buses to the border only run until 1 pm so we had to phone a taxi for Max. To reach the border, it ended up costing him about 100 Shekels more leaving from Jerusalem than if he had left directly from Ramallah. We ordered the car, stashed Max’s suitcase in the back of Jihad’s shop and then took off for Ben Yehuda Street where we expected to find American and European conservative Christians having a holiday.
Exiting the Old City, we saw around thirty border police in semi-riot gear. But the on-edge, ready-to-go atmosphere is now typical for Jerusalem. Last week around 300 settlers stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque compound under IDF protection. During Jewish holidays it has become commonplace over the past few years for droves of hardliners to pray at the Muslim holy site—something that is illegal under Israeli law, but still occurs. Sometimes the religious-nationalists are even joined by members of Knesset, thereby giving an official sanction to a violation of Israel’s own policies.
Within 20 minutes we were on Ben Yehuda Street between tourists, Israeli security, and religious Jewish families with five or six kids in tow. But no Christian parade in sight. We asked a few police officers when the march was going to start. They told us it was in another part of town that was too far away for Max to get to before he needed to catch his taxi. Instead of reaching our destination we had set out for hours before, we said goodbye. Then I headed off to the American Consulate of Jerusalem and Max back to Jihad’s clothing store to get his luggage, then taxi, then bus, then another bus, then the border crossing and finally another taxi to Amman.
All the way the skies were golden. Not a seeable cloud in sight. But by the time I got to the concrete government compound, it was closed. I was delivering visa documents for an attorney who is working on an asylum case and needed some forms delivered that day. His office is in Tel Aviv and the only FedEx around is in the airport. It had seemed convenient for me to deliver the envelopes. But when I reached the building, the guards in front told me the consulate had closed early because of a security threat. They said there was a protest in the morning so the entire staff left early. The building was locked. I was told to come back the next day, but in the morning because the office would close early again. The staff was going to have a Sukkot party.
Twice defeated, I too headed back to Jihad’s store.
From the consulate I took a bus to the Mamilla mall, which is built on top of a former Palestinian cemetery. I needed to cross the outdoor shopping center to get back to the Old City. I decided to spear through the crowds, rather than around the mall, so I could avoid walking uphill. Inside the mall I saw a young woman playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on saxophone. “…Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You hoo hoo hoo…” I sang along to myself, all the while thinking “she has no idea she’s standing on a cemetery.”
Yet as quick as the lyrics arrived, guilt set in. I don’t know this woman. Why do I feel the need to judge her? Can’t she just play her song? Or maybe I’m trying to make myself feel guilty, for narcissism is certainly an easier pill to swallow than thinking seriously about upturned graves and shopping malls. And it requires a certain amount of sensitivity that is becoming harder and harder to reach. So I recruited the Beatles’s chorus back into my head for another bar.
The mall’s exit dumped me at the Christian Quarter. I strolled to the corridor that leads to the Muslim Quarter, but was told that the road was closed. Like the American consulate, the street was shut down for security reasons. So I turned into an alley near the Latin Patriarch, a roundabout way to reach Jihad’s store. I felt like an Old City pro. I’m a pilot, I’m a navigator; I know where all the secret passage ways are!
“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…” danced around in my thoughts until I was back at Jihad’s store. Max was still there. He was discovering why Jihad’s shop is famous. We looked through the custom designs and got a kick out of the Carlos Latuff prints, most of which could not be worn on the streets of New York without eliciting a brutal big apple, big-attitude scolding. One shirt had an image of a soldier calling his mom from a pay phone, telling her about his great army work— next to a bloody Palestinian who’d been shot in the head. Not to exclude any potential customers, Jihad also has shirts like an army fatigued “Uzi does it,” and one with President Obama dressed as a Hasid, another with Obama dressed as Bin Laden.
At this point in the day the afternoon had passed without Max and me finding the Christian Zionist parade—or doing anything remotely useful with our time. Jihad said his taxi was waiting for him, but on a different street than where we expected to meet him because there were Sukkot road closures. As we exited the stone Mamluk-era walls of Jerusalem, more settlers piled into the Old City, but we only saw families so we decided it was unlikely that clashes would occur.
However, about an hour after we said goodbye for a second time that day, clashes started.
Out here sometimes you can stumble onto some great historical event, but more often than not I feel like I’m chasing something between long waits and re-routed commutes.
I went back to Ramallah, alone. The number 18 bus that runs from the promised Palestinian capital to the de-facto Palestinian capital took about an hour—about the same time as the commute from the internationally recognized capital of Israel, Tel Aviv, to Israel’s official capital of Israel, Jerusalem.
As soon as I passed Qalandia the heavens opened up. Rain ricocheted off of the abandoned cars and heaps of trash that blockade the entrance to the West Bank that seem to be replaced as soon as they are cleared. Note to Israelis: apparently it is dangerous to your lives to enter here, or so the red signs at the crossing say. “Welcome to the undivided capital of Israel,” I hummed to myself. Then I thought back to the cloud seeding conversation the day before. Two rains in one week seemed strange for this time of year, but then again what do I know? I’ve been here a year. It’s enough time to get intimate with the political dimension, but the weather still eludes me.
As the bus motored north of the checkpoint, the rain seemed to stop. I turned around and looked out the back window. It was still raining over Qalandia checkpoint, and the drops had a rhythm that seemed to sing, “I hope someday you’ll join us, and the wor-r-ld will live as one.” But it’s an old song and buskers at graveyards aside, old songs are mere clichés. I want a new song. I want courage.
On Sukkot, this city was shut down for Palestinians. And if it wasn’t shut down by the holiday, then it was shut down by Qalandia. Jerusalem was supposed to be the economic, social and religious center to Palestinian life. It’s not. Arab-Palestinian east Jerusalem today is a cluster of ghettoized neighborhoods. Places like Shuafat refugee camp are completely enclosed behind a massive checkpoint, a concrete wall, and a chain-linked fence. Palestinians have to present an ID to get in and out. It’s a disgusting form of segregation and the fact that this illogical imprisonment of a Jerusalem—not even West Bank—neighborhood is carried out under the pseudonym of “security” is even more preposterous than thinking Israel makes rain.