A Rainy Night in Jaffa, Part One

old postcard of Jaffa Bay
Jaffa Bay

We had come from Sarafand, a mixed bag of Military and Regimental Police. The truck had dropped us in Jaffa and we were to work our way through the Matishieh Quarter to the glittering lights of Allenby Road in Tel Aviv. Our mission was to search brothels for absentees and those seeking pleasure out of bounds. It was late evening in winter and the sky was full of rain.

Jaffa looked dead. There were few people on the streets and to my young eyes its atmosphere typified the sinister world of souks and bazaars, the mysterious East where no white man, and certainly no white girl, was safe to go alone. The whole place with its dim lights, strange shadows and unidentifiable smells, narrow alleys twisting into a maze of decrepit buildings gave me a sense of adventure I had never known before. I had been one week in Palestine and I was delighted to be there.

Our patrol of six was from different regiments and was commanded by a dour sergeant of the Corps of Military Police. He was a veteran of many battles with soldiers who had enjoyed a convivial evening and wished to continue the night's festivities. His face bore the scars of a difficult arrest and his rigid bearing would have made the average guardsman look like something out of Dad's Army. It was clear that he was not impressed with us or our ability to look after ourselves. He surveyed us closely, looking each one of us in the eye.

"Right! Pay attention. I don't care what regiment you are from, you'll take orders from me. I am responsible for you and this place is dangerous. You will stay together and on no account use your weapons unless I say so." He paused and we shifted uncomfortably and looked down at our highly polished boots. A lounging Arab moved closer to listen and was promptly told to go forth and multiply. The metallic voice continued:

"Don't involve yourselves with civilians. That's the job of the Palestine Police. Our job is to bring our straying lambs back into the fold." He smiled sourly. "Just do what I say. Any questions? None. Follow me."

At Madame Khoury's, Mimi and Farida, highly painted, perfumed, chattering, plied us with black coffee and cake. We sat uncomfortably in a small 'waiting' area while the business of the evening went on in the side rooms. The girls disappeared and reappeared while the occasional new customer greeted us sheepishly as they edged past. Madame was in good spirits and anxious to please. At one time, to my embarrassment and with sniggers from the rest, Mimi sat on my lap. She was sharply told by the Sergeant to get off. "Don't allow any familiarity, Corporal," he said. "It's not regimental."

We made a perfunctory search of the place but our absentees and deserters were enjoying their pleasures elsewhere. As we descended the twisting stairway to the street below we passed a group of tarbushed Arabs coming up. We practised our Arabic. "Saida, saida," and they replied delightedly with a chorus of blessings and salutation. We felt like old hands.

Outside it was raining. Only the Sergeant had thought of bringing a ground sheet which he donned. As we made our way through the dark labyrinth there were mutterings of, "Let's go back to the knocking shop. I'm soaked to the skin." The grousing fell on deaf ears.

"They say Madame keeps an army officer in luxury," said a Lance Jack from the Border Regiment, wiping the rain from his face.

"More likely a Palestine Policemen," replied a voice from the HLI. "Those coppers get all the perks. There was a silence for a while and the same voice continued, "Cushy number they've got. I could ..." The Sergeant cut him short.

"Cushy, lad?" The disapproval in his voice added ice to the rain. "You don't know what cushy means. The police are a disciplined force who have to do a good job to stay in it. They have exams to pass and languages to learn. They are not allowed to socialise with civilians on or off duty. Those that do, get the sack or get transferred to some God-forsaken post. Unlike the army they do their duty in one's and two's. You call that cushy?"

No one answered him as we trudged on. I had not yet met one of these paragons of peace-keeping but at the back of my mind I remembered some photographs I had seen some few years back. They showed Palestine policemen wearing steel helmets, lined across a street facing a mob. They were carrying shields and batons and behind them was a row of mounted police. There were a lot of bricks and rubble lying about. The police looked calm while the mob looked so mad that it reminded me of those old illustrations depicting heroic stands against overwhelming odds. Other photographs showed the police dispersing the mob and there was one constable lying in the roadway ...

Jaffa clock tower

A stream of water from a broken guttering pouring from a hole in the roof of the covered alley put an end to my reflections. It ran over my face and neck and caught the RP from the Service Corps behind me. When he had finished cursing he said, "I hope it is rain! you never know in this ..... place." Everyone laughed.

We came to an unlit passage. "At the end of this tunnel of love," said a Royal Ulster Corporal, "is Rosa's place. If she's free we could stay there for a while." He nodded towards the Sergeant, who was forging ahead. "That's if Glasshouse Charlie agrees."

We all murmured our approval and hoped that our leader was also feeling the cold.

Rosa worked alone and, according to those who had done this patrol before, was young and kind-hearted. She loved soldiers and soldiers loved her, particularly deserters and absentees. It was said that she had a badge from every regiment that had been in Palestine as well as visiting troops from Egypt, the Sudan and the French Foreign Legion in Syria. Rosa was a veritable war museum.

She had been sleeping and now, half awake, looked sllightly aghast at the six of us in the gloom. In a moment her relief became obvious. Giggling she ushered us through the door. "Always you are coming here," she chortled. "It ees out of bounds, you know."

Inside she produced a bottle of arak. "Let us drink," she said, pulling a satiny dressing gown more closely to her fat figure. Her kohl-darkened eyes darted from one to the other of us. "No?"

We looked at the Sergeant and he gave a slight nod. I wondered if the stories I had heard about arak were true. Someone had told me that one nip could have you falling about blind drunk. I decided to risk it and watched Rosa as she poured the clear liquid into glasses. A little water and it was milk.

Do you remember the taste of your first glass of arak? How the aniseed titillated the tongue and the warmth spread down through your throat and lined the walls of your stomach making the world a nicer, kinder place? So it was with me the first time and, although always enjoyed, never quite the same again. But that could be said of many things.

Jim Hartstone, Black Watch Battalion and Palestine Police, Palestine Police News Letter No.107, June 1977.

Part Two