Streams of Arabic flowed from the speaker’s mouth. He raised his hand from the podium from time to time, ejaculating strong words while provoking loud clapping or yelling from the crowd. I cringed. . .
This Kafkaesque moment seemed so unreal as just nine hours ago, I had been on a hill in Jerusalem rolling up my sleeping bag, surrounded by Jewish peaceniks as a cool breeze gently stirred the leaves littering the ground.
Then everything suddenly shifted into slow motion as I watched the girls talking to each other sitting next to two men. The older man contemplated the date between his forefinger and second finger before sliding it into his mouth, a cavern of yellow teeth. The line of men off to the left seemed to stream onto the stage from oblivion, walking through the bold lights of a black tower, which were illuminating us. The speaker, who stood nearby, turned his arms around as if they were the blades of a windmill, moved by the waves of energy emanating from the audience.
Then somehow breaking through my crusty barrier, one of the girls came over and introduced me to the older man who had been sitting next to me all this time,
“This is Abdallah; he is the oldest Palestinian prisoner of the Israelis, who was liberated a couple of years ago. He was in prison for 28 years.”
Overcome by fear, my body began to involuntarily tremble.
“What had he done to be condemned for 28 years?” I muttered under my breath and nervously looked around, hoping no one had heard me.
Abdallah’s smile faded into his wizened body. He was clothed in a drab grey prison uniform. Twenty-eight years in prison. . .twenty-eight years in prison. . .echoed repeatedly in my ear. The apparition standing in front of me asked why he had been in prison all those years. He didn’t know. . . but he kept smiling, smiling as his grey body receded from view . . .
My spirit soared in some strange dimension as it followed his strange, crooked smile, the tawny teeth reflecting something. On the left, next to the man still speaking at the podium, a group of about 15 men of all shapes and sizes sat in a row facing a crowd of about 300 people. Some were wearing green bands over their heads with white Arabic words inscribed on them, others red and white or black and white keffiyehs. A few men proudly wore long, flowing beards hanging from their drawn, ashen faces. Their eyes moved rapidly from side to side like those of pent up goats in a corral, waiting to be released to pasture.
I could have remained in this ethereal state awhile longer but Abdallah, probably seeing that I was floating in some foreign space, brought me back partially by whispering in my ear,
“Those men are long-term prisoners of the Israeli government and have been recently liberated. We are celebrating it.”
His smile revealed silver in the back of his mouth, as obscure as the unsettling purpose of this conference, which would soon be revealed in a dramatic way:
“Furthermore, the speaker is the head of the West Bank Hamas party who is welcoming them back and speaking to the people in this hotel conference room.”
The words, “this hotel, this hotel. . .” kept repeating over and over again as my old enemy, pure, unabashed fear, jolted down my sides and froze me to the chair.
Could this be a radical group having a conference ‘in this hotel’ my friends had selected for me? The same group that had allegedly been involved in several suicide bomb attacks in Israel? I can’t be here. . .I. . .
The ethereal cloud completely burst, along with the balloon I was hanging from as I plummeted to earth. I muttered and then muffled a cough . . .
Later, alone in my hotel room, I phased into a semi-dreamlike state as I reflected on the beginning of this trip in Jerusalem. I had spoken with a Jewish man wearing his kippah so that it covered his bald spot, which was surrounded by a few grey hairs. I told him I wanted to go to Ramallah and then he took a deep breath:
He looked straight ahead appearing as if a stiff, ashen specter. Without looking at me, he said, “I take you to checkpoint, it’s ok, you can maybe take…”
Then the same head turned toward me, but the face had a darker hue, that of an Arab wearing a larger Muslim skull cap. He smiled a broad, inscrutable smile under a trimmed moustache. “Cheap, cheap…” he repeated over and over again.
My thoughts drifted to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, except the sequence was in reverse as I came from the other side into the wardrobe, then into the mysterious room, and into this enigmatic. . . Palestine.
And then a voice echoed from somewhere, “Beware, beware, fool. . .” so loud it woke me. I sat up rigidly with my back flat against the wall and tried to focus, but everything seemed to fade into fuzziness, maybe subconsciously to soften the reality of this destitute place. I flicked on the remote control of the television perched on a metal tray overhead and watched with glazed eyes as several people wearing red and white keffiyehs spoke, madly gesticulating. I looked at my watch—it was 2 am. I had heard enough angry speeches for one day so I abruptly clicked the TV off and got up and went to the window.
I looked over this desolate city, startled that most of it was in total darkness, yet it was not that late. Sepulchral buildings all around me pierced through the veiled, black night. I couldn’t call anyone as my cell phone had gone dead long ago and I’d forgotten to recharge it. There was no land line in the room. I was cut off. . .
In spite of the warm welcome today by the sisters and the old man, I was so alone, vulnerable and surrounded by Hamas militant extremists. . .
There was a morbid silence in the streets, in the corridor. I was sure no clerk was at the front desk as there was no one there when I had returned late last night; so strange for a hotel! A cold wave rolled down my back; my hands shivered as I heard a creaking noise outside my door and turned my head, immediately imagining a group of black-masked gunmen dragging me out the door. No one would know. . .
A piercing cry in the night curdled my soul, turning my head back to the window as I looked out and could only see the reflection of the lamp on some dark windows of an abandoned building appearing like a dingy phantom.
I wondered if I’d live to see the sun again. . .