I haven’t been through this type of illusory world since the Lebanese civil war
I'm a great believer in Correspondent Tours, a company which perhaps The Independent should create. It involves travelling to the cities of our scribes and being taken by them on a guided tour of their city/country.
A few weeks ago, I took a David McKittrick tour – he's Our Man in Belfast – and, feeding what I saw and heard through the prism of the Middle East, I think I realise just how the war I covered in Northern Ireland 35 years ago has ended, and how bad the body politic of the place still is.
Donald Macintyre is Our Man in Jerusalem (think of a younger Jack Hawkins, say, General Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia) who managed to drive Fisk (think, alas, of a younger Woody Allen) through more checkpoints and acquire more accreditation passes in one week in the occupied West Bank, Israel and Gaza than I've ever achieved in six months. Macintyre is a slightly laid-back, rugged sort of guy whose favourite expressions include "How very, very interesting". Or – this in the manner of a family doctor – "Well I'm really sorry to hear that"; the problem is that Macintyre's patients – "Palestine" and Israel – seem to me to be in a pretty poor state of health. The first pretends to exist when it doesn't; the second says it fears it won't exist when everyone knows that it will.
Macintyre is at ease in any part of his (very tiny) Holy Land, sitting with me in the King David Hotel, briefing me on Israeli political leaders before the Herzliya conference, driving down to Gaza. At the Israeli-Gaza border crossing at Erez – for which the Israelis have built a massive terminal of iron doors, cameras and mile-long steel mesh fences (not to mention the Wall), I point out that I can't have my passport stamped because I have to return to Beirut. No one gets back into Lebanon with an Israeli stamp.
Macintyre calls up a friendly Israeli security man, explains the problem and the Israeli in the booth stamps a piece of paper instead of my passport. Macintyre's Gaza driver Ashraf meets us before the first checkpoint – which is run by the Palestinian Authority – and the second, which is run by Hamas (in this case, both entities pretending that the other doesn't exist).
I've said it before. Ye gods! I haven't been through this kind of illusionary world since the Lebanese civil war. All Macintyre's contacts come up trumps in Gaza, homeless families, former Irish UN soldier John Ging.
I meet our Gaza correspondent, Fares Akram, whose father – a 48-year-old judge in the Palestinian Authority with no connections to Hamas – was killed in the Israeli onslaught in January of last year. What reader can forget his front-page story "The Death and Life of my Father"? Banning foreign correspondents from covering the Gaza war was the worst thing the Israelis could have done. For the first time we heard the voices of Palestinians reporting their own tragedy.
Akram is a quiet, deeply informed man with a fund of stories, from Hamas to tunnels to schools. There's a kind of sparkle in his eyes which you notice when journalists know their story.
The journey from Gaza to Beirut is very much part of that story. By sailing boat it would take about six hours. By road and air it's going to take me 12. At the Erez checkpoint, we go through the same old routine again. The Hamas lady signs us out and the Palestinian Authority down the road tells the Israelis we are here and then, after all that fencing and wall and those iron doors and flashing green lights – go when the light goes green, stand when it shows red, place your feet on the places marked on the scanner – there is my bag on the security belt and I can't find my bloody press card until Macintyre smilingly says: "Steady – these places make you lose things," and of course it's there.
"Why are you coming to Israel?" I'm asked at the booth. Because I'm going to Jerusalem. Halfway to Jerusalem a relieved Macintyre hands me over to an Israeli photographer who is taking pictures of me by the Wall in Jerusalem. It's a weird experience. Palestinian kids play in the street and I can hear them playing on the other side of the concrete. Cars race up the road but when I turn round, they aren't there. That's because they are on the other side too.
Issa Farhan drives me off though the Israeli-occupied West Bank. I can't drive across the Allenby Bridge without a Jordanian visa in my passport. So I go through the occupied Palestinian Area "C" up the side of the Jordan river (where my Lebanese mobile "pings" to tell me that I'm already in Jordan). But to reach the King Hussein Bridge, I have to re-enter Israel.
"Why are you coming to Israel?" the Israeli girl asks me. Because I'm going to Beirut. Ye gods. No problems at the Israeli side of the Jordan river (or muddy stream) but the Jordanians want to stamp my passport. "No!" I holler. Then the Lebanese will see where I entered Jordan. So he gives me another piece of paper with a stamp on it and I approach Jordanian immigration.
Captain Mohamed prowls through my bag. "What is this?" he asks. He suspiciously pulls a book from my bag. It is Helen Gardner's 1972 Penguin edition of The Metaphysical Poets. "What is it about?" I tell him I read poetry when I travel. What else can I say? "Wait here." I am dreaming now. Wait here. Go into the security room. Wait for the green light or the red light or an iron door or a concrete wall. Stand with your feet apart. Keep them together. Stand on your head. It's the story of the Middle East. Am I supposed to deliver a lecture on Marvell and Donne? For whom the bell tolls? It tolls for me.
Captain Mohamed is studying the book's cover with distaste. It shows a woman in bed! It is a detail of John Souch's Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife in the Manchester Art Gallery. Yes. YE GODS!
In two hours I am at Amman airport. Passport stamped. No problem now. One hour to Beirut and, on arrival, there are smiling immigration men and my nice "clean" UK passport and friendly customs guys and Abed, my Lebanese driver. And after almost 34 years in the Middle East, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's all, as Macintyre might say, another day's work...