Portals feature fairly heavily in fiction: the looking glass of Alice in Wonderland fame, Philip Pullman’s windows, spatio-temporal hyperlinks in Doctor Who (“I didn’t want to say ‘magic door'”), the wardrobe to Narnia, the modern-day Incas whose underground lair was found by Tintin, even Mr Benn’s fancy dress shop.
In portal fiction, a person walks through an apparently innocuous door and finds themselves, completely unexpectedly, in a mad other world.
This is exactly what happened to me on the Yachad student trip to Hebron this week. Led by a guide from Breaking the Silence – a group which collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers uncomfortable with things they witnessed in the occupied territories – we spent a couple of hours touring the ‘sterilised section’ of Hebron (sterilised in the sense of Palestinians being banned from its streets).
It is an absolute ghost town. I’ve been to actual ghost towns in the Western USA but they have nothing on outer Hebron, with its boarded up buildings, broken windows, dusty pro-settlement propaganda, the only traffic being occasional military patrol Jeeps stirring up clouds of dust to vary the monotony.
Then our guide suggested that we go through a checkpoint (ie. a narrow concrete box in a side street) to take a peep at the other side. He wasn’t allowed to join us – Israeli citizens are banned from Area A by law – but the rest of us squeezed through.
We were shocked to find ourselves in the middle of a bustling Arab city, with taxi horns beeping, market traders shouting, even donkeys braying. Nothing could have been more unexpected than to find this hubbub in the middle of the depressing post-apocalyptic scenery just metres away, on the other side of the high concrete wall.
We all clustered together as a group, our leader nervously making sure that we walked quickly and someone kept an eye on how to find our way back – no lost Narnian lampposts for us.
The question is though, why would Israel keep this busy city a walled-up secret and ban its own citizens from visiting? If they could have the same eerie experience I did, finding a whole other civilisation hidden away in the middle of a ghost town, perhaps they would be more inclined to understand the plight of the Palestinian people – and to stop rejecting the testimonies of Breaking the Silence’s associates as enemy works of fiction.