Further from peace than ever....

I am feeling miserable and full of gloom for the world and the Middle East today.

In the autumn of 1994 and stretching into the summer of 1995 I spent the lion’s share of my time in the Levant, specifically Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In those days, once you’d paid your airfare, volunteering on a Kibbutz or Moshav in Israel was self funding and was a ticket to a mild winter, at times boredom and more than a passing acquaintance with Carmel wine, of which it was rumoured, had a complete absence of grapes in it! The fact that I saw Jerusalem primarily as a weekend clubbing destination should give you an indication of the fun that was to be had pootling around the region in those days. I arrived on the 26th October 1994; the day the Israel Jordan Peace treaty was signed.

It was a trip that literally changed the course of my life because on travelling to the Sinai, I fell in love, came back to the UK in order to settle down, got a proper, reasonably well paid job with Barclays Bank and the rest, although not an entirely straight path, is history. Somewhere in another a dimension, is Jo Christie-Smith the slightly poorer University Lecturer, who continued on with her studies and didn’t go to work in the City.

So far, so what? Last night it became absolutely clear just how much the lack of peace in the region has spread to every corner. It is a sign of the utter misery of the situation in the Middle East that the very sites of some of the most precious memories of my twenties have now become imbued with the war and terrorism. At times I feel like my anger at what is happening, makes me sound kind of spoilt because frankly my memories are the least of it; but for me, the fact that now so many things that are precious to me are being subsumed into the violence is evidence of the all pervading nature of such violence. If it does this to me, a woman, who just happened to spend a few months of her twenties in the region, what must it do to the people whose home it is?

I haven’t been back to Israel but I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Egypt since.

Just under a year ago, I was holed up in a hotel in Halifax, eating my room service dinner when I recognised on the 10 o’clock news, a bombed out shell of a bazaar in Dahab, Sinai, where I spent the summer of 1995 hanging out with my Egyptian boyfriend, Azima.

Last summer I stood where the blast of the bomb had made it’s indentations into the concrete of the pavement on the exact spot that I had first clapped eyes on Azima back in 1994. In the end, the pavement had got off lightly and by the time of my visit, about 6 weeks after the bomb, the shop had been rebuilt. But now it is the spot where ‘Little’ Mohammed, a young man, in 2006 a great hit with the girls who came to dive in Dahab but who as a 12 year old had trailed around behind me in a persistent, and at times quite annoying manner, was killed by the bomb. His father, who owned the shop opposite for getting on for 20 years, has sold up and gone back to Cairo. How would you be able to face work every day looking out onto the site of your son’s death?

And then last night another 10 o’clock news, I got another jolt. I have been getting used over the last couple of years to hearing the small town of Sderot described by BBC correspondents as a city and each getting quite annoyed because the Sderot that I knew 13 years ago was much more of a large village than a city, as anyone who had been there would know!

I worked on a kibbutz which was in between Gaza and the village of Sderot, so that rockets that fly over from Gaza must have to fly over where I once lived. But Sunday night, and this shows that seeing something really is believing, it came home to me with a thud, as the correspondent delivered her broadcast from the fields in between the village and Gaza; the very fields that I had driven a tractor up and down when I was 23. Another precious memory! I had been so excited that I was being allowed to drive a tractor, even if it was only pulling a trailer of irrigation pipes. As I go about my daily business in London, I don’t have the look of a woman who knows how to drive a tractor (not very difficult, in fact, as long as you’re not ploughing) but it is certainly on my list of my life’s achievements.

No one has died in Sderot, yet, but people are scared and angry and I know that I am glad that I’m not living in Kibbutz Gevim at the moment. What’s more, the price being paid by the residents of Gaza for those rockets is terrifying.

Of course the two incidents should not be conflated; the supposed reasons for the bombing in Dahab (according to the Egyptian Government a result of internal terrorists from northern Sinai, where there is a Mubarak resistance movement) and the rockets going into Sderot are different. But if I feel dismay having the scenes of my memories overprinted with death and fear then think how it must be for the people who live there.

I don’t have some perverse way of picking out future war zones for my travels; the increasing violence in my old stamping ground must mean that it is all pervasive, that in the 12 years since my life changing trip, nowhere is safe, nowhere untouched by sadness and loss. It’s true, it is worse in Iraq and no one knows what would be happening in the Middle East now, if Iraq had not been invaded in 2003. But the worsening situation in the Levant and the Sinai does reflect the action in Iraq. It is too easy to view the region as having a perennial problem, but make no mistake, it is getting worse.

But really, I have no great political point to make in this posting; just to wonder at the situation and to give voice to the sadness I feel for all the people who live there and have their happiness and joy rubbed out by violence.


Jonny Wright said...
21 May 2007, 23:17:00

A very poignant post Jo, and well worth reading. I appreciate the way you focus on the human tragedy of the deteriorating situation, rather than getting into the unhelpful political blame-throwing that we get from both sides whenever the middle east is discussed. At the end of the day, whatever the rights and wrongs done by political leaders, both Israeli and Arab, it's ordinary people of all backgrounds who suffer the most.

I share your pessimism about the political situation there: I really can't see a way to kick start the peace process and start moving out of the cycle of violence towards something more constructive.

Jimmy said...
22 May 2007, 15:26:00

I'm afraid your statement that 'No one has died in Sderot, yet...' is no longer valid according to the BBC. We should not forgot that 30 people have died in Israeli air strikes in Gaza in the last few weeks - not all of them terrorists.

What I was surprised about this week were the reports from Lebanon that inside a Palestinian refugee camp, in the very north of the country, Palestinians are not allowed to work in the local towns and in other areas they are not allowed to work in professional jobs, own property, build within the refugee camps, have limited access to education and other amenities. A few more details can be found on the Amnesty website. When Palestinians are treated like this in Israel or the Occupied Territories it is described by some as racism and boycotts of Israel and Israelis are called by British unions. Why are people not equally condemning the Lebanese government for their similar treatment of the Palestinian people?

For almost 60 years these people have been treated as second class citizens in all Arab countries where they have been living (even in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Jordanian and Egyptian control before 1967). The world rarely condemns their treatment by their host countries, except in the case of Israel, which has had more UN resolutions against it than any other country.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
22 May 2007, 16:24:00


Thank you for your update, how very sad...like I said, it is getting worse.

You are quite right; we describe things differently depending on who is doing it.

But we should remember that if a refugee has not been granted asylum in this country we don't allow them to work either; we just have more money and don't have the overwhelming numbers that the Lebanese have, so it doesn't look as miserable.

The difference is that the Lebanese are looking after the refugees badly but it was the actions of the Israeli's made them flee in the first place. Finding an acceptable solution about what to do with, not just the divsion of land but, the refugees, some of whom are now in their 3rd generation in the region, will be key to finding peace.

I went to a very lively fringe meeting on the topic at the Brighton Conference and I don't remmber who mentioned it, but reconciling the two communities, getting them to stop throwing stones at each other (did you see the Rod Liddle documentary on C4 last night?), needs to start now.

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