9. Red Zone

Twenty years ago we spent a couple of weeks in what was once called the Holy Land, is nowadays called Israel and may one day be called Palestine. The trip was part work, part holiday. The work bit involved a visit to a desert dairy farm where 2000 cows produced prodigious amounts of milk under a blazing sun and the baleful gaze of the watchtowers along the border with Jordan. The holiday bit was taking in the shining domes of Jerusalem and all that.


What did we expect? Hard to say. The first Intifada had just run out of steam and for weeks and months the nightly news had carried pictures of Palestinian teenagers hurling half bricks at Israeli battle tanks. It wasn’t all that hard to guess who was going to win!

My earliest memory of the whole Palestine thing was the massacre at Munich airport during the 1972 Olympics. I was twelve and I now find it odd that the images of the shootout didn’t leave more of a mark. But then again, in those distant days the news was a whole lot less sterilised. My generation got the chance to spot the difference between a John Wayne film and the real stuff care of the non-censored images of Vietnam that appeared every night at six for so many years.


By the time I reached sixteen, the Middle East question appeared in my O Level history course. I guess we were supposed to get the party line, but our teacher wasn’t much use when it came to towing the line. He painted a picture in our under heated fifth form classroom complete with peeling walls of mustard paint that was maybe my first insight into the cynicism of my country.


1917. The British High Command are hell bent on launching their greatest offensive yet on the Western Front. They promise that this time things will be different. Honest. Trust us. This time we will break through and romp all the way to Berlin. And they duly present the cabinet with the estimated bill for the planned offensive. We’re going to need this many million shells and bullets and false legs……. Oh, and here’s the quote from the suppliers…….

And all of a sudden there is a problem. A rather familiar problem. The Chancellor clears his throat and puts on a sort of embarrassed face. Sorry chaps, but we’re broke I’m afraid. Completely and utterly. We’ve emptied out every last one of our piggy banks and no bank on the planet will lend us another penny. Ever so sorry to be bearer of such bad news, but there we are. And all of a sudden there are pale, worried faces around the table and nobody quite knows what to say. All except the redoubtable Foreign Secretary, Mr Arthur James Balfour who has a very cunning plan indeed up his Saville Road sleeve.


Now listen up here chaps. And do bear with me. Hear me out and all that. No bank in the world will give us so much a penny’s worth of credit. Why? Because they think our collateral stinks and I for one cannot blame them. So we need to change the game. All the banks that have any money right now are to be found on Wall St. So no surprise there then. They have made an absolute fortune out of all of us over the last three years. Now I suggest you all give me the nod to pop over and have a chat with a few of their chaps. But what of collateral you will most surely ask. And quite right too. Well here’s the thing. I am sure that you are all more than aware that the vast majority of these banks are owned by the ‘Chosen People’. The Jews. And here is where I think I might be able to come up with a spot of collateral. I will ask for them to front us the wherewithal to launch this little offensive that is so dear to the heart of the High Command, and in return I will go public and promise a homeland for the Jews. Where you might ask. Well I say, ‘where else!’ Israel! The Holy Land. Palestine. And of course every acre is well and truly marked in red on the map. Gentlemen, it is our real estate to trade and I suggest we trade it.


Well trade it he did by way of the 1917 Balfour Declaration which sold the Palestinians’ homeland from under their feet. The Jewish banks on Wall St stumped up the cash for the battle of Passchendaele where the British Army made a gain of three miles or so at the expense of 200,000 casualties.


The people of Palestine were duly sold down the river in 1948.


This piece of flagrant cynicism was very much in my mind when we drove our hire car across the unmarked border that separated Israel from the Occupied Territories. There were no border posts back then. No check points. No wall. But you knew you were over the line alright. All of a sudden the roads were full of pot holes and the cracked pavements were infested with army patrols made up of over hyped young men itching to crack a few skulls. It was the first time that I had ever seen what a Military Occupation actually looks like in the flesh. Describe it in one word? Pornographic would be my word. To see laughing soldiers shoulder pensioners off the pavement and into the road is the kind of thing that sends the blood up to boiling point and beyond.


Everything we saw disgusted us. Outraged us. Appalled us. And at the end of every Israeli rifle butt were the Palestinians. The ones who had their homes and orchards and orange groves given away by Mr Balfour in exchange for the price of the carnage of the Third Battle of Ypres.


We caught ourselves a really lucky break in the hotel we stayed at in Egypt before crossing the border into the Negev desert. We met a fellow Brit couple and we all got along. He was the Financial Times reporter for Jerusalem and they generously offered to put us up for the duration of our stay in the city. They were able to give us a few tips that were pure gold dust. Some were practical.


Our hire car had Israeli plates and therefore would have been a particularly tempting target for young Palestinian stone throwers. Thankfully there was an easy way around this. Put a Yasser Arafat scarf on the dashboard. We did, and everyone was all smiles. However the key bit of advice we received was not to be all British and mistrustful when we came face to face with Palestinian hospitality.


Our British instincts are very finely honed when it comes to an Arab being extremely friendly and hospitable. What is he after? Is he planning to lure us into his den to cut our throats? Our host from the FT encouraged us to dismiss these instincts. He promised that the hospitality we would be offered was without strings. He promised that we were about to meet the most phenomenally generous people on earth.


Well, was he ever right. As a supposed man of words, I still find it hard to describe the unbelievable days we spent in the West Bank. If ever a people could be excused for being bitter, twisted and stroppy, it is the beleaguered Palestinians who were so cynically asset stripped by the British Empire. Instead they proved to be the most amazingly open and generous people it has ever been my privilege to meet. Privilege is absolutely the word. I feel truly honoured to have spent time in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jericho. The people we spent time with had every right to hate us with a seething passion for what had once been done in our name. Instead every door was open. I have no memory of being able to spend so much as a penny during our time in the West Bank.


Time after time we would ask what we could do to reciprocate such generosity. The answer was always the same. Please tell our story. Please tell the truth. Please let people know what is being done to us here.


And I made the promise.


So fast forward a dozen years or so and all of a sudden I found myself to be author of four novels, one of which had done reasonably well and sold 25,000 copies. And it became very clear to me that it was high time to keep the promise I had made in those narrow streets of East Jerusalem.


Please tell our story.


Please tell the truth.


All of a sudden I had no excuse not to keep the promise I had made.


However there was a problem. What reputation I had as an author was as someone who delved into the uglier corners of Scottish life. A book on the desperate tale of the Palestinian people through the second half of the 20th Century would never sell a copy in the kind of shops that sold my books. So I needed a Scottish hook and I found it in the midst of the high rise hell that was Sighthill, Glasgow which became the back drop and setting for ‘Red Zone’..


Sighthill was one of those 60’s experiments gone hideously wrong. The tower blocks were built to house 16,000 but by the Millennium the dreams of the 60’s were all dead and gone. By the turn of the century the blocks were home to 8000 desperate souls and there was room for 8000 more desperate souls. So in its wisdom, Blair’s government made the decision to parachute in 8000 asylum seekers.


Unsurprisingly it didn’t make for a happy mix. 8000 poorer than poor Glaswegians and 8000 lost and broken souls from all corners north, south, east and west.


One of those lost and broken souls was Ghazi who helped me to put flesh on the bones of the story that was growing in my head. But Ghazi was neither lost nor broken. He was in fact one of the very finest people I have ever met. Ghazi’s family were ejected from their family land in 1948 when the plans laid down by Balfour were brought into reality. He grew up in a refugee camp in Syria and somehow managed to educate himself sufficiently to become a teacher. The Syrian secret police didn’t like that. On 27 occasions they called round in the wee small hours of the morning to drag Ghazi away into the night. Sometimes they tortured him. Sometimes they merely slapped him around. Sometimes they locked him up for months on end in conditions of primordial cruelty. Other times they let him out the next day.


In the end he could stand it no more and set out on an extraordinary journey with his two young children that in the end landed him in Glasgow via Budapest.


The sixteenth floor of a Sighthill tower block was a tough gig, but Ghazi had known plenty that had been a million miles tougher. The good old boys from the Home Office were hell bent on sending the three of them back to the Syrian torturers until with huge embarrassment he took off his shirt to reveal the legacy of their handiwork. The Home Office worker all but threw up and Ghazi was awarded his citizenship.


Things have gone well for Ghazi and his family and they now live in Edinburgh. He is a brilliant poet who had also become a screenwriter and playwright. He has had some of his stuff on the BBC. But more than everything else, in my eyes he is an utterly exceptional human being. Having been subjected to the kind of cruelty that was supposed to have gone out of fashion in the Middle Ages, he remains the most gentle and charming of men.


When we first met, he told me a story which has become indelible. We were talking about Palestinian hospitality and he explained how it could cause problems at times. Let’s say you invite a friend around for tea. Of course he will say that he will come. It would be intolerably rude to refuse such an invitation. That is all well and good except it means that the person who has issued the invitation really has no idea if their guest is coming or not. In order to get a better idea of what preparations they should make they will therefore ask ‘but is that a promise?’. To which the prospective guest might say in an unconvincing sort of way ‘Sure. I suppose so. A promise. Yes.’ And once again this leaves the host none the wiser. So now there is a sure-fire way to circumnavigate the inconvenience of perfect manners. The host will ask ‘But my friend, is that a British Promise?’ At last the black and white zone is reached. The guest might shake his head with a regretful smile and say ‘No. Not a British Promise’ which means he has already accepted an invitation to go somewhere else. On the other hand he can beam and nod and say ‘Of course it is a British Promise. I will see you tomorrow.’


I found the story incredibly sad when I first heard it. I was sickened at the way we shamelessly tout the vision of Britain being home to fair play and cricket to the rest of the world. No wonder so many broken souls from the darker and more brutal corners of the world embark on such epic and horribly dangerous journeys to seek asylum on our island. How sickening it must be once journey’s end is reached to find such a cold, inhospitable, mean spirited place of grey skies and hard faces. For a couple of never to be forgotten years in the middle of the last century, we for once ignored our own self interest and stood tall for freedom and democracy. Was that all of us or was it simply the miraculous stubbornness of Winston Churchill? Who knows, but we have dined out on it ever since. Does the real Britain back up the pipe dreams that we sell to the rest of the world? And is a British Promise worth the paper it is written on? I guess those Wall St bankers who extended the credit lines to pay for the slaughter at Passchendaele would say we had been true to our word and delivered up a country for the price of a battle. How strange that the Palestinians who we evicted from their land should still hang on to the belief in a British Promise.


Well once upon a time in the occupied streets of the West Bank I made my very own British Promise and in 2003 I did my best to keep it. My book ‘Red Zone’ attempts to tell the story of what happened after 1948 through the eyes of the wonderful people we met who treated us with such hospitality. I hope it does them justice. I hope it does Ghazi justice.


If you follow the link below you can download a free copy of Red Zone from the Kindle Store and make your own mind up.




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