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 - by Jim Minton, United Kingdom -

We stumbled into the bar to shelter from the early evening rain which had begun as we walked up from the Damascus Gate. I’d forgotten that with the time difference the English Sunday afternoon TV game was about to kick off. Today’s fixture was Liverpool v Everton. At the bar, drinking a coca cola, stood a man dressed in dark clothing, his hair in ringlets. Next to him, a taller man was greeting the barman in Arabic. Behind us were another couple; the man in a sober suit, made remarkable only by the symbolic priest’s collar round his neck. A Jewish man, an Arab and a christian. It was like the beginning of an old joke; or, maybe a glimpse of hope.

The Jewish man bent forward to see the screen. On his head was a traditional yarmulke, embossed with the words ‘You’ll never walk alone’ in homage to his Liverpool FC heroes. The Arabic guy was a Liverpool fan too, as were most people in the bar.

When the rain stopped and the match ended - a drab encounter, finishing a nil nil draw - we went back toward our hotel in East Jerusalem. Everyone in the bar had been welcoming and friendly, to each other as well as ourselves; and just as comfortable drinking Israeli lagers or Taybeh, beer brewed in the Palestinian hills above Ramallah. We visited the brewery during our trip, enjoying a quick fire tour and sampling session; before walking the Wadi Qelt to Jericho, and then spending a few days in the towns and villages of Palestine. Everywhere we went, the sense of welcome and pride was strong. As was the love of football, with each patch of dusty ground a home to a kickabout between young boys, and sometimes girls, eager to be the next Mo Salah.

When we’d finished our travels through Nablus and Ramallah, we returned to the Qalandiya checkpoint. So slowly had the bus moved over the short distance that people were able to get on and off to run errands without needing to break their journey. One man even ordered a pizza on his phone, and by the time the bus had moved the 300 metres to the take away shop, the food was ready for him to collect. We were under no real time pressure, so could smile at the creative ways people found to pass the hours on the bus. But while our fellow passengers also smiled, and shrugged at the ridiculousness of it all, we could see in their eyes the anger and frustration that the simple task of travelling a dozen or so miles was such a painful and debilitating experience.

The reality of the power dynamic that led to the slow journey was literally shoved in my face as we reached the checkpoint itself. A young man, not more than twenty years old, boarded the bus and thrust a semi-automatic weapon at me, staring cold eyed from beneath the rim of his Israeli Defence Force cap.

Nervously, I handed him my passport. The soldier inspected it. ‘Where you from?’ he said. I pointed at the United Kingdom crest. ‘From Great Britain’.

He shook his head. ‘No, where? Where?’

I was puzzled. ‘England, London’. I hoped this would be enough.

The gun was still pointing at me. The other passengers had begun to disembark. This kind of scene was evidently a daily occurrence, and there was little they could do about it.

The soldier tried again. ‘Where in London?’

I was very anxious now. ‘In East London’, I replied, hoping that would be the answer he wanted.

‘Is it near Chelsea?’ he asked. And then I got it. He wanted to talk football.

I smiled, relieved. ‘No’ I said. ‘But it is near Tottenham.’

He grinned, and lowered his gun. ‘I hate Tottenham.’ He returned my passport. We were free to get off the bus.

This encounter, and our evening in the bar, summed up so many of the contradictions and challenges but perhaps also the hope in this part of the world. Since our visit I feel even more strongly that people are generally good, kind and welcoming; and just want to live their lives, wherever they are and whatever their beliefs. Sadly, the systems and institutions that govern those lives can work against those natural tendencies to get along. I live in hope that good sense, shared values, and perhaps a love for football, might bring us all together in the end. 


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