Ramadan Diary

We were parked on the side of the road, outside a restaurant called the Dejavu. Youths watched us from a ramshackle balcony strung with washing lines. The old van made a slow, ticking sound. Rubbish and stones lay heaped along the road; white dust rose in the hot wind.
We were in Beit Jala, on the West Bank. From Jerusalem we'd queued at the Israeli Army checkpoint, then driven beyond the giant security wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, up into the hot dusty hills, the roads lined with shabby white apartment blocks overlooking the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo.
'The economic situation here is very bad,' our Palestinian companion said. At intersections, children dodged cars, offering small wooden flutes for sale. A thin youth with a waxy, stoned face leaned against a wall, closed his eyes and slid onto the pavement. A man with a scarred, burned face sold bracelets.
We had been all afternoon in the West Bank, now on our way back we were stuck. The Palestinian driver, Mohammed, was on his phone: he'd left his permit by mistake at the last stop, and without it, he couldn't get back through the military checkpoint. He was trying to get someone to bring him his papers. In the meantime we waited, dreaming, in the shadow of the Dejavu.

It was Ramadan, and we were travelling with it. We'd started in Dubai, where the heat rose to 50 degrees. 'It is the Holy Month,' we were told. 'Do not drink water or eat in the street in daylight hours. You will cause offence, and you will incur a fine.' Dubai considered itself quite liberal though: in the hotel the receptionist blithely told me, 'Of course you can use the pool during Ramadan. We're not Saudi Arabia, you know!'

It was Ramadan, and no one was on the streets. Dubai was conducting business indoors, the cafés closed, the wide avenues silent. You really couldn't be out in it for long, amid the glass towers and chemical blue ponds, the soaring fountains. I hid from the sun in full headscarf, looking out through the mesh of fabric, my own breathing sighing in my ears. Dubai shines and glitters and gleams, and then it changes, out beyond the fancy space-age skyscrapers the city flattens, collapses into shabbiness and squalid sprawl; finally it faces what is out there: the wild, harsh beauty of the Arabian Desert. We drove into it: after the shabby buildings, the pylons, the rubbish-strewn roads, eventually there is nothing but red dunes, iron blue sky. The spine of a dune cuts a precise, wavering line against the air. Below it, spread pools of black shadow. The wind is a force like the blast from an open oven door. Standing on the dune, you are looking across a landscape but also into it; its otherness is an enclosed system. It's beautiful, savage, unforgiving.

We drove to a shabby town, waited for the sun to go down, ate a risky, pungent Bedouin meal. As we drove back in darkness, camels had strayed onto the highway. All along the road, paper rubbish whirling in the air and camels running in the headlights.
The Holy Month altered its demands as we travelled. In Istanbul, we met Adnan, who said, 'Here, during Ramadan, you can meet your friend for a beer!'
This was not, he was quick to add, a matter of being secular. 'It's about your level of education,' he explained. Strict adherence, he felt, to sharia law in Saudi Arabia for example, was a form of primitivism. And then he talked about the conversion of the Hagia Sophia. This huge building in the old city of Istanbul was a Byzantine cathedral. In the 15th Century, Muslims took it over and converted it to a mosque, covering the Christian iconography with calligraphy, and hiking the altar around so it faced the right way. It was a stunning piece of pragmatism that reinforced religion's magical thinking and also flew in the face of it: what would the Gods – both sorts – have thought of such matter-of-factness?
Istanbul during Ramadan was teeming, boiling and full of riot police. Its fifteen million inhabitants had recently been joined by an influx of refugees – in the last few years, 1.8 million Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey. Once Constantinople, the ancient bridge between east and west, latterly a stopping-off point for European teens heading to join ISIS, it's a city historically at the centre of things. It was a summer of riots, of anti-government protests; it was a city fizzing with tensions.
Outside the Blue Mosque after Friday prayers, row upon row of police vans lined up in the square. Our friend Adnan was a liberal, but many in the city were not. Some of the protests were against creeping religiosity, the gradual abandonment of Turkey's long tradition of secular rule. Security decisions were in the news, too. Turkey is a bridge, and a bridge must be defended. The Turkish military was about to join airstrikes against ISIS. There were plans to step up border protection, to keep jihadis out. And a series of raids against ISIS terrorist cells was taking place around Istanbul.
During the day, the city was a maze, the streets intricate and difficult to navigate, full of sights you would search for again and not find: a wall covered in intricate blue tiles, a view into a silent, green geometrical garden, a world of perfect forms. Streets in which no one wore European dress. A square filled with rows of riot police, their guns, their handsome, wary faces. In an alleyway, a small boy spat anti-American curses, and hit me with his shoe. A bus driver announced, 'Now we will do a U-turn at the drop of a hat!'
After sunset in the parks, the atmosphere turned festive, thousands of families holding picnics on the grass to celebrate breaking the day's fast. Istanbul made me delirious, with its seething beauty, its drama, and then Istanbul made me delirious: I spent a night and a day violently ill in a small hotel between two mosques: listening to the calls to prayer, sweating and seething myself, a wrung-out infidel, dying in Istanbul.
After that, I got on board with Ramadan. I, too, began fasting during the day. I was quite picky with my food at night as well. No more riskily pungent meals at the going down of the sun.
The Holy Month now halfway gone, we moved on. In the south we walked in the mountains with Ali, who had been born and lived in a cave until he was 14. His mother had carried water to the cave every day for her four sons. Ali had a degree in linguistics, and was an expert on the subject of St George. He said, 'In Turkey, we welcome refugees, because they're good for the economy. These European countries with their ageing populations, trying to keep immigrants out: they're crazy! Their economies will wither away.'
Ali was a Sufi. He took us to a house that had been an ancient staging post on the Silk Road. 'So many people have passed through here,' he said. 'Traders. Sultans. Warriors. It's like The Canterbury Tales.'
Of the local prison, he said, 'It's full. Mostly family disputes. It is conservative here. They fight over land, or they don't accept a bride.'
In the last days of Ramadan, we flew from Istanbul to Israel, into the militarized zone of Israeli life. In Tel Aviv, armed soldiers wrenched open the door of our taxi, inspected us, and slammed the door shut again. Men in shorts and T-shirts toted military weapons in the street. Cheerful girl soldiers struggled onto the buses with their shopping bags, guns slung over their shoulders. In the hotel in Tel Aviv, a youth brought his grandmother and his military assault rifle to the breakfast room, and propped the gun against the table while they ate.
We left the weaponised city and travelled downhill, below sea level, into the Judean Desert. Here, the Dead Sea has receded so much that the land between the highway and the shore is covered in giant sinkholes. There are signs warning of the dangers of trying to cross from the road to the water; you will fall through the crust of the earth. In places, the road has fallen away. You can see the huge, round, white holes, big enough to swallow a house, pitting the surface of the land. In this parched, eerie, beautiful place, it's possible to comprehend that you're standing on the surface of a planet.
We rode on a tractor to the edge of the Dead Sea. The land was encrusted with mounds of glittering salt. Behind were arid red mountains, and the ancient fort of Masada where, in 70 AD, the Romans besieged Jewish rebels. When the siege was broken the rebels asked themselves, slavery or death? They chose death, committing suicide en masse.
The Dead Sea is hot, its shores are burning. You can't stay there long. The chemistry of your body starts to alter. You are being marinated. Across the water is Jordan, but there is no horizon, only hot haze. The air wavers, shimmers. Objects lose their form.
Back in Jerusalem one hot night, the moon reached the correct phase. The next day was Eid; Ramadan was over, and Arabs shut their shops and streamed towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Armed Israeli soldiers guarded the crowds praying below at the Wailing Wall. Anticipating the usual trouble, riot vans lined up in the square. On the ramparts above Jerusalem there was a moment of stillness, as if the entire Old City was pausing for breath. Then there was the slap of feet on the pavement, and two youths in shorts and T-shirts burst out of an alley and raced down the street. Both were carrying military assault rifles, and they were laughing. They disappeared. You could hardly believe it, and then you could. Israel is hard to believe at times. Did you really see that? And do you have an eerie sense that you've seen it before?
In the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, stars on the lobby floor record celebrity guests: world leaders, politicians, movie stars. Obama, Clinton, Bush. There's no hierarchy: Mikhail Gorbachev is next to Pamela Anderson. Photos of politicians and high-powered summits line the lobby walls.
In 1946, the King David housed the British Military Command. The hotel was blown up by Menachem Begin, the leader of the militant Zionist group, Irgun, who were fighting to drive out the British occupiers. Menachem Begin went on to become Prime Minister of Israel. It's the land of a thousand ironies, the state that terrorism built.

Ramadan was over, we were in the West Bank, and we were parked at the Dejavu. Spread out around us was the land brutally controlled by Israel's military. But for how long? Nothing here is constant; the future is full of sinkholes. In a land crammed with history – tyrannies, sieges, fortresses, walls and those age-old questions, slavery or death, who knew better than Menachem Begin that force can weaken, occupiers can be ousted, walls can be brought down?

The wind vibrated in the street wires. The old van made its slow ticking sound. We were lost in dreams of the Holy Land. By the walls of the Dejavu we lay down and wept. For we remembered the birthplace of Jesus, where a stoned youth begged us for money, and our cellphone welcomed us to Palestine.
In the white hills, under the blazing sky, the land itself – the very dust – was made of déjà vu. Down at the checkpoint, the soldiers gripped their guns. Mohammed had been talking on his phone for a thousand years. Across the road, in the white-hot afternoon, the Palestinian youths on the balcony were watching, and waiting.