Every writer is looking for the Big Subject. It seems pretty clear to me that the story of our times is that of the growing division between the haves and the have-nots. For many years, my thoughts have spiralled around an idea dealing with the invisible wall between these groups, and as I followed the story of the construction of Israel’s so-called ‘security wall’ in the West Bank, I began to wonder if this structure could serve as a metaphor for the changes in society that are happening everywhere. When the opportunity arose to visit the West Bank as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, I jumped at the chance. I was already working on my novel, set in a semi-real city divided by a wall, and I wasn’t sure how visiting this place would affect my work in progress.
My first encounter with the wall was at Qalandia checkpoint, the main transit point for Palestinians into East Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been the hub of Arab life in this area for thousands of years, but due to the wall it’s now increasingly cut off from the towns surrounding it and those that traditionally depend on it.
The checkpoint is always busy. Traffic slows to a trickle, and bus passengers are made to dismount and cross on foot. You’re funnelled in single file into a narrow cage-like structure with thick iron bars inches from either shoulder and just above your head. There, you wait. Eventually, you reach a remotely operated turnstile that lets you through one by one — at unpredictable intervals — into an enclosed area where all bags go through an X-ray machine and travel papers are checked, while soldiers clutching rifles survey the crowds from raised gantries above your head. It can take 20 minutes or two hours.
The atmosphere is one of weary resignation. The woman next to me in line was a doctor who’d trained in Germany. She now worked in East Jerusalem, but the Israelis wouldn’t give her a Jerusalem ID card, so she had to live beyond the city limits in the West Bank. Her journey to work since the construction of the wall had more than doubled to two hours in each direction. “I’m a qualified doctor. I could get a good job in a comfortable country and live a normal life,” she told me, “but that is what they want. They want to make people like me leave.”
Statements of bravery and quiet, steely resistance such as this came up again and again in my encounters with educated Palestinians. My conversation with this doctor, held in a claustrophobic caged line of people under the gaze of armed Israeli soldiers, had a visceral effect on me. Qalandia checkpoint in particular, and the wall in general, I realised, could not just be used as a metaphor. Something very specific was happening in this place, on a scale so vast that any comparison with privileged Westerners would seem ludicrous.
Back home, I knew I could either give up, or delete my first draft and start again. The decision hung in the balance, not least because as a British Jew I felt a degree of shame about even mentioning what I’d seen in the West Bank. But I eventually decided to press on and complete my novel, which is now called, simply, The Wall. It’s still set in a fictional place with a fictional name, but the setting draws heavily on the settlements and occupied towns in the West Bank, and the story centres on a child narrator whose world view is shattered when he first discovers what’s happening beyond the checkpoints that he’s been told are for his own protection.
Among the diaspora, I’ve often been told the wall is necessary to protect Israelis from suicide bombs, and that its construction has been vindicated by a decline in terrorism. In Israel, among peace activists, and in the West Bank, I heard the counter-narrative. The wall is not a complete barrier. Thousands of Palestinians cross on foot to work illegally in Israel every week. Any one of those could be a suicide bomber. Almost all Palestinians, and many on the Israeli left, see the wall not as defence, but offence. It takes land; it cuts Palestinians towns off from one another; it destroys the economy of the West Bank. It empowers Israel simply because it disempowers Palestine.
Standing in front of the 26ft-high wall, a Palestinian man said to me, “Don’t believe what you read. Believe what you see.” These words struck me — a professional writer — as a challenge. Completing The Wall has been a long struggle, but I hope it’s produced something people can both read and believe.
William Sutcliffe’s The Wall was published in April by Bloomsbury. RRP: £12.99.
Published in May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)