End of Days
MY END OF DAYS IN THE HOLY LAND
by Hanson R. Hosein
Life during my three years in the Middle East had never been easy. But without a doubt, every day brought with it new and interesting people, sometimes accompanied by excitement and adventure, and more often than not, more tension. And now, it was over. It had been enough. I had bottled it all up for too long, and it was either time to vent all the frustrations and fears I had internalized as a journalist striving for fairness, the middle ground and for professionalism. Or it was just time to leave. And that is exactly what I decided to do. But not without having something to say and even more to feel. This, was my very own personal apocalypse.
Sunday, February 18 Tel Aviv.
It was not the same Jerusalem that I had first explored wide-eyed over three years ago. Then, it was sunny, hot and crowded. The Old City teemed with tourists and souvenir salesmen trying to distract them from their holy mission. Today, dark gray clouds lingered low over the city. The golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock was a dull, ugly yellow. And the streets were wet, many of the stores shut tight, the Via Dolorosa quiet. I was grateful for the lack of people, but the whole scene felt so sad. Everyone was paying for the violence and death that were occurring all around us.
Even I, with my daredevil foreign journalist's bravado didn't dare take the West Bank road via Modiin. Drivers were now being fired upon during the day by Palestinian gunmen, who didn't seem to be too discriminating in their choice of targets. On Thursday, they hit the driver's side door of a Canadian Embassy car. The vehicle clearly had diplomatic plates, and was being driven by a Palestinian, from the Embassy's Ramallah office. How would I fare zooming through the valleys of the West Bank road at 120 km/h in my silver Fiat Punto, emblazoned with Hertz decals? So instead, we took the main highway from Jerusalem, which I have always detested because of its drastic ascents, and the traffic jams at the entrance to the city. But this time I had no choice.
As it turned out it was a choice well made. Not because anyone was shot at today. But when I parked my car in front of the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives, one of the postcard hawkers, apparently miffed that I wasn't interested in purchasing any of his products, yelled out that I was driving a “Jewish car.” For some reason, I exited the hotel lobby, and asked him what his problem was. He repeated his condemnation.
“Of course it's a Jewish car,” I said in a firm voice. It was such a pointless distinction. There were nothing but yellow-colored Israeli plated cars parked in front of the hotel, but just because it was clear that Hertz was only available in Israel, I had to be driving a “Jewish car.” “It is a Jewish car,” I repeated, angry with him. “Because I got it in Tel Aviv. But I'm not Israeli. And that doesn't matter anyway, and you had better not touch my car.”
He backed off, I made sure all the doors were locked for a third time, and my new Palestinian photographer friend Khaled had the staff at the front desk promise that they would keep an eye on the car. He needn't of bothered. Our table in the hotel restaurant gave us the best view I have ever had of the Old City and Al-Aqsa Mosque, along with a more functional ability to keep an eye on my car.
The restaurant was empty. The lights were off, and we kept our coats on because they had stopped heating the hotel. There were no guests. I commented that I felt as if I were back in Kosovo. It was as if I were entering a place for the first time after the occupiers had run off -- and it was still not clear whether the coast was clear. The silence was eerie, but the hospitality was warm enough to allow me to enjoy the steak meal for a while. Still, I could not help but reflect upon how sad the entire situation had become. The tourists that had run rampant throughout the city mere months ago had disappeared.
The Dome of the Rock looked so fragile from where we were sitting. I felt as if it could blow up right there and then, and after that, the rest of the world would follow. The walls surrounding the Old City looked paper thin from up high. I had looked upon old Jerusalem hundreds of times before, but this was a perspective that I had never seen. The modern complex in front of the Western Wall stuck out obtrusively although it tried hard to blend in with its white façade and multi-domed roofs. For the first time, I noticed that there were a multiplicity of faded colors in the houses, shops and religious places of the Old City. Every time I had looked at it from atop the Mount of Olives, the harsh Jerusalem sunlight had bleached everything clean, allowing my eye to focus only on the shine off the Dome. Now with the cloudy gloom, I could see the pastel shades more clearly. The Muslim complex was deserted, lending more to the eerie feeling that the End of Days was just around the corner. It also looked like one of those oil paintings you would see for sale on Thursdays on Nachalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv at the arts and crafts fair. It was beautiful and yet the awesome view did nothing to lift me from my despair.
I could hardly enjoy shopping for last minute mementoes of my life in the Middle East. The shopkeepers were too desperate and clingy. Their pleas and vows of loyalty and love towards their customers rang out even more hollow than usual. I ended up buying the copper table we were looking for, from an old man who didn't even try to haggle with us. He didn't plead. He told the truth from the outset: $150, it was 60 or 70 years old and it was Iranian. Contrast this with the expert sales pitch of a man who swore that we were getting a good deal at $650 for something that was apparently 200 years old, and handcrafted by the local Bedouin. Somehow he thought he could convince us that these nomads had seen fit to carry around a really heavy coffee table wherever they picked up and went.
I didn't have the heart to bargain with the kid who sold me six key chains with the Al-Aqsa mosque engraved upon them. I thought they might get me somewhere in Morocco - our next port of call -- should we run into trouble or want to thank someone for helping us out. While waiting to pay for the trinkets, the kind Palestinian guide who had come to my rescue on several occasions during my visits to the Dome of the Rock (including showing my parents around during off-hours) recognized me yet again, and shook my hand. I hadn't seen him in nearly a year, but somehow he had remembered me. I walked up to the entrance with him and immediately the two heavily armed Israeli soldiers got up and looked at us intently. I ignored them and took one last long look at the Dome of the Rock, the potential ground zero for the Apocalypse. It almost felt as I were saying goodbye to a friend. I know that life is about to change from top to bottom for me. Unfortunately, I was afraid that the same might happen to those who had inhabited this area for hundreds of years, and in a much more severe way. I feared for their future.
I was grateful that I would be getting out very soon. I had spent enough time in Israel to know that whatever was happening was just another stage in the long, drawn-out story that was the interaction between Arabs and Jews. However this situation was now, it would probably be different a year from now. I didn't really want to stick around if it were going to continue like this with no clear end in sight. Peace between nations wasn't about to happen on my watch. I had grown weary of the conflict and decided that it was best left to those who still had the energy and enthusiasm to deal with the whole frustrating situation.
We returned home once again on the main highway through Israel, and chased a miraculous sunset that had managed to break through the clouds. And then I went to work, to do my last story for Weekend Nightly News. For the next week and a half, I will be having a disproportionate share of “lasts.”
Monday, February 19 Tel Aviv
The kid just wouldn't get out of the way. He saw me coming with my shopping cart. His mother was standing to the side, inspecting some vegetables, and she knew I was coming too. But she didn't make any gesture to her child, and he just ignored me. I had to ask him to move twice. Their cart was parked diagonally in the aisle. And two thoughts came to mind: they learn young in this country, and thank god I was leaving soon. It was just getting to be too much.
At the checkout counter at the Club Market, a Russian woman with a couple of thrift packs of chocolate bars negotiated with the checkout clerk over the price -- for at least five minutes. Nothing comes easy here, especially at supermarket check-out counters. Just when you think it's clear sailing, something holds you up. I didn't have any cash on me to pay the $25 total, so I took out my credit card. The cash register forced the clerk to get approval from her manager - foreign credit cards over 100 shekels I guess. Other registers in other stores in the country aren't so sensitive, but at this increasingly dowdy supermarket, I forced others to wait ten minutes for them to figure out that I wasn't a credit risk. My revenge was not sweet at all. Even worse was that I had to endure yet another hazing because of my last name. When the clerk called for approval, she tried to read my name of the card, and being Russian herself, Roman letters were not her forte. Hence, I was “Yousef” and then I gave her my last name putting an emphasis on the “O” for Hosein. It didn't help. She laughed at some inane, unheard comment made by the brain surgeon on the other end of the line. And meanwhile, my inability to say something useful in Hebrew merely left me fuming silently.
Recalling this brings to mind yesterday's balagan at the entrance to Jerusalem. In my little stick shift subcompact, I was trying to get over into the left lane so I could make the turn towards East Jerusalem. Five times out of ten, when you indicate to the other drivers that you want to get into their lane, they immediately are struck by the injustice of it all and gun their engines so they can cut you and your insolence off at the pass. Such was the case with the driver of a van who decided not only was I not going to cut in, but he was going to keep me wedged between his lane and the one that I just had left, my place now occupied by the car behind me. We inched ahead a number of meters before I was finally able to pull in behind the van. I gently rear-ended him but he didn't seem to notice. A few minutes later, I was able to make an end run around him - now I was ahead. I deliberately braked suddenly a few times just to annoy him. I think he got the point. We ended up shadowing each other for a couple of kilometers and by the time we had broken off, I judged from his facial expressions that we had developed a grudgingly mutual respect for each other. Touché on the killing field highways of Israel, where more citizens had died than in all the wars and terror attacks combined.
Tonight, I finally met journalist Yossi Melman. I had read his book “The Israelis” before moving here, and it didn't paint a particularly rosy picture of his countrymen. We had tried on a number of occasions to interview Melman for various stories - he's an expert on the Mossad - to no avail, and to the occasional requests for money. So I expected the worst from a man who really didn't want to be on American television.
When we arrived at his house, he was cantankerously hospitable - a charming national trait. But as we got to chatting about his fight with Israeli censors, another Presidential scandal in the U.S. with an Israeli twist, and my assignment in Israel, he warmed up, and ended up not letting go of me conversation-wise as I tried to leave. He even offered to help me out with my book upon my return to North America, which was very nice of him. It ended up being a good interview, and a better-than-expected encounter.
I was unable to even lift a finger to start cleaning things up for the move today. I think there's some sort of psychological barrier holding me back from starting the process. I had better get going soon. What's my problem? Will I return home a conquering hero or a resounding failure? Most likely neither.
Tuesday, February 20 Tel Aviv
Today felt like the end of the world, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the wind whipped around several disparate weather systems within a few hours. Rain, sun, dark clouds whizzing overhead, the single-pane windows of our apartment shaking in agony. I couldn't decide whether to keep the metal blinds open or closed - should I create a vacuum that merely made the shaking worse, or did I need to protect the windows against any flying debris from the construction site nearby?
Secondly, it was if all of my colleagues from around the world had gotten wind that today was my second last day with the company. I got messages from people I hadn't spoken to in months. They were gentle and kind. Most of them said that I was getting out of this faltering industry at the right time, and with my head held high. And I guess that's as good as anything; leave while the room is still applauding. But leaving still hurt.
Tomorrow is my last day. Six years of affiliation and a sense of belonging, of influence and access, gone -- just like that. I have yet to receive any acknowledgement from Management that this is officially happening, and yet it is somehow understood. So it was that this Management that could barely Manage left its lasting impression. I was fed up with it, its serpentine ways, its fundamental emphasis on self-preservation to the detriment of its people's ambitions and talent. It made it quite easy for me to follow my gut and quit one cold afternoon - on the second day of my sick leave -- when professing fealty and eternal friendship, It so tactfully forced the issue via a long distance phone call inquiring whether I was going accept their offer to renew my contract or not. Apparently Mother Company GE's super-management ways only penetrated so far into its broadcast subsidiary, pretty much beginning and ending at tightening the purse-strings. Welch had created a gang of welchers on the tee vee end of things. That's not to say there weren't a few gems and visionaries at the top, but the handful that ruled over my fate had the tendency to be a bunch of stinkers.
Heather is out tonight with the “girls” from the office. That's such a nice thing for them to do. I know they wouldn't do it for just anyone, so that makes me feel special and it also is a credit to them and their personalities. These women took care of me from the first day to the last - my very own Jewish mothers. Meanwhile, watching television tonight alone at home, VH-1 played Elton John's “Goodbye England's Rose,” from September 1997. That was the key month before I set off on this adventure - my time in London for Diana's funeral, mass mourning and deification, as was off to begin a new life in Israel. Three and a half years later I'm leaving my job and about to get married to Heather. That's the magic and predictability of life I guess. We all grow up sometime, and then it's time to start shutting some of those doors and windows. As long as it keeps the wind from blowing down the house…
Wednesday, February 21 Tel Aviv
At midnight as February 21st became February 22nd, I turned into an NBC pumpkin and I played Paul Weller's “Brand New Start,” on the stereo. The decision being made, I'm at peace with myself for now. But maybe the idea that I am now unemployed without a business card to my name has yet to sink in.
It was a fairly non-descript day given its significance. A late start, a couple of hours in the office, a wonderful lunch with Aliza Savir from the Peres Center for Peace, an hour at the old Country Dekel gym, a few more hours at the lunch, a few messages from my colleagues, and then dinner with our friends, Guy and Nira. And then, what more is there to say?
Other than “I'm free!” Or just free to find a new set of chains to bind myself, but hopefully not too quickly. Now my focus is the move and finding a hotel for Marrakech as Heather and I plan our reverse honeymoon in Morocco. Ah the small and mundane details of everyday life quickly overshadow the big issues that we agonize over.
More rain, wind and sun today as the world was turned upside down. Our lunchtime discussion with Aliza made us both realize how traumatic the last few months had been. I am cursed and blessed with the tendency to feel much more than a level-headed journalist should. I recalled when a Palestinian mob lynched two Israeli soldiers, and then how I witnessed the subsequent Israeli reprisals against the town of Ramallah. How sad I was that day! I truly felt the disappointment and horror of how quickly relations between Israeli and Palestinian had deteriorated. Was this part of the stress that had hospitalized me? My backyard was on fire, and the peace that I had hoped for and believed in, had been utterly destroyed.
February 23 1:30 p.m. Tel Aviv
I almost felt like a stranger during my first visit to the office as a non-employee yesterday. It was as if my former co-workers were either embarrassed or shy to see me, now that I was stripped of my status. Not that they weren't friendly. An aura of desperation and loss probably hovered around me. In retrospect, I think I was just being hypersensitive.
My one consolation prize was that the rental car company rewarded me with a new car for my last six days in the Middle East. More powerful, better transmission, easier to handle, and a stereo that didn't crackle and creak - it was well worth the exchange. Of course, nothing is ever perfect here, and they duped me into thinking I was getting a car with a full tank of gas, which was not the case. I hope I can somehow return the favor.
February 25 7:58 a.m. Tel Aviv
The construction outside rages louder than ever, the kids upstairs pound the floor (and my ceiling) like some Native American rain dance in progress. The dryer is going in the kitchen -- I'm doing some last minute laundry before I pack it all away. The apartment is a disaster and I wonder what the movers will do with all my little knick knacks tomorrow. All I know is that I will be overwhelmed with relief once all this is put away in boxes and is taken out of my custody come Monday afternoon.
It's a beautiful day in Tel Aviv. The sun has returned and so has the unblemished blue skies. I think I'll ride my bike to the office today - for the exercise and to take care of some unfinished business. Tonight is my going-away dinner, one last company jaunt before it all comes to an end. The gang from the office have been immensely kind and understanding towards my plight, and I shall miss them all. For what it was worth, their incredible professionalism made me look good on the job. Above all, they were great friends.
CNN led with State Department Secretary Colin Powell visiting Israel today. No matter what, it seems that this part of the world will remain the focus of attention for a very long time. Unbelievable as it may seem how a tiny piece of territory, with 9 million souls can captivate and frustrate the world with its timeless, endless and sometime monotone narrative. Many of my colleagues seem convinced that I am merely taking a break from the Middle East, and even from the network. They say that it's good to leave to prove one's worth, and then return in at a more favorable time. I believe that another go-round is highly unlikely. I don't like to look back, and there are so many other things to do and places to go.
Shedding my skin: that's exactly what I'm doing with this move. The desiccated exterior is about to come off, and it's not entirely painless. But when it does, I will feel freer, trimmer and bolder. Three days and counting for final separation - from this apartment, from Israel, from the daily tension that inspired me, from the people on both sides who I learned to cherish -- and from my first real job out of school. Then the reality of what I have done will hit me…hard.