Yesterday, on my brief foray out of my hotel room and into the fresh air, I visited a bookstore in Arab East Jerusalem called Educational Bookshop. The place is little more than a stall, and its main function, as its name implies, is to sell textbooks and school supplies, but the store also stocks an excellent selection of books in English. They have translations of Arabic poetry, volumes about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and other titles about the culture and religion of the Middle East. It is one of those dangerous places where I always end up buying something, regardless of how many books I am currently hauling around.
As I was browsing, I listened in on a conversation with the shopkeeper and a white-haired British foreigner. I heard the Brit tell the Arab shopkeeper that he had recently visited Akko, a town on Israel’s Mediterranean Coast. I visited Akko, also called Acre, back in 2000. It is a very pretty walled medieval town that, due in part to its distance from both the West Bank and Gaza, has suffered relatively little from the decades long conflict, though I am sure there are Palestinians that would disagree. The more interesting Old City is populated mostly by Muslims – and my nose remembers the whole place smelling divinely of sheesha smoke – while the new town is mostly Jewish.
“Akko was very nice,” the Brit said to the shopkeeper. Then he added, in a sort of conspiratorial whisper, “but it felt occupied.”
No doubt this was just a cheap line meant to endear himself to the shopkeeper. Before 1948, Akko was a Palestinian town, but I don’t think there are many who would describe the present city as ‘occupied’, especially relative to towns in the West Bank. Simply put, I think the Brit was full of shit.
Still, his comment made me wonder if occupation does have a particular feeling that a visitor can sense. Certainly having soldiers on the streets and checkpoints imparts a specific brand of unease, but out of sight of barriers and military, what does occupation feel like? Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinsky wrote that a writer must must experience events on his “own skin,” and it is “this feeling along the surface of your skin, that gives your story its endurance.”
Can a writer feel occupation on his skin?