It was still raining hard when we came out of Rosa's place and, despite the arak glow, very cold. We made two more unsuccessful calls, the area becoming more sordid as we progressed. "Who said, 'warm, romantic Mediterranean nights?'" someone muttered as we slunk through the mean alleys, wet and shivering. The Sergeant looked at his watch. "Midnight. Time to get back. Another waste of time." His voice was cold and full of disappointment.
Narrow lanes almost completely roofed over the crazy buttressed buildings and iron latticed windows. The water swirling through the souks pushed aside the garbage and raced on. It was so dark that at times we felt our way along the dripping walls. Muffled figures slid past. In a small oasis of light from a basement the voice of Cairo's Umm Kalthoum drifted shrilly upwards and was lost in the watery dark. Arabs in cloaks, secure in a haze of smoke, sucked nargilehs and played tric-trac in a haven of warmth and a murmur of sound.
"Let's go in and stir the bastards up," a voice said bitterly.
"Keep moving," the Sergeant said sharply.
An English voice came from the shadows. "Everything OK?
He was standing in a doorway, blue peaked cap and mackintosh streaming with rain. Beside him, draped in a ground sheet, was a slightly shorter man wearing an incongruous hat which I later learned was a kalpak and surely one of the most useless articles of headgear worn in the middle East. Their badges with the entwined PP glinted dully. The Englishman was about 25 years old and sported a luxurious moustache.
"Everything's OK," the CMP Sergeant answered shortly and started to move on down the alley. The others in the party were less reassuring. Nothing was OK, they told him as they hunched forward. They were cold, wet, fed up and far from home. In fact the Holy Land was a whore's paradise and a soldier's hell. Roll on the boat. And much more.
The British constable made no comment to us but said something in Arabic to his companion who flashed a toothy smile. I did not know whether the Patrol's remarks on the country were hurtful - or even valid. They moved off grumbling into the dark. I was in the last file.
"Are you armed?" I asked him.
He nodded and touched his side. "Four-five - and a baton."
"Been here long?"
"Tonight? About four hours. Oh, you mean in the country. Two years. I go on leave next year."
"Is it a good life?"
"Good and bad. Better than pen-pushing or trying to sell things." He smiled wryly at the memory. The Palestinian constable flashed his teeth in sympathy. As we talked I asked him about the police, the country and the country's trouble so euphemistically called "disturbances" and I began to imagine myself as a member of this unique Force. I could see myself on a white horse riding through the Judean hills; fluent conversations in Arabic with village headmen would flow from my lips as I listened to their troubles and advised: I would arrest trouble makers and other villains, mould myself on TE lawrence, the legendary "El Orens" ...
Again my thoughts were interrupted, this time by the British constable. "You'd better get along," he said. "Your friends are out of sight."
The patrol was indeed out of sight and I sped after them in the darkness. The Sergeant was not pleased when I finally caught up with them.
"Keep together, corporal," he barked. "You can get yourself killed in this place muckin' about on your own after dark. And worse", his jaw tightened and his scowl deepened, "it could cost me my stripes."
As we moved on and the rain continued to fall I was thinking of the young policeman, a blue-coated knight with his squire upholding law and order in a lawless land. His calm, quiet air was something which had not permeated to the NCO level of the British Army of those days: it was that something, je ne sais quoi, and for what he stood, that made me think of Don Quixote, or Beau Geste, of boyhood heroes long forgotten. I was young and I believed in things which today have no priority and would bring scorn should they even be discussed ...
By the time my discharge had some through a year had passed. The emergency was worse and police recruits from the Army, if not exactly welcome, were needed. We were not the cream from Crown Agents but "tatooed wonders" on two-year contracts destined for the Northern Frontier, Nevertheless, apart from a few unpleasant moments my years in Palestine were the happiest of my life. Truly, I never became an "El Orens" or even joined the mounted section; my Arabic was halting and my Hebrew worse. In the police I met some very fine men and some who were not so fine. Thinking back, I was not so fine myself.
The war came and the men of my Black Watch battalion died in Somaliland, Crete, the Western Desert and Burma. Two members of that night's patrol also died. Time has blurred their faces and names bringing with it a sense of reproach for something that should be remembered. I tell myself I would have joined the PP anyway. Perhaps my admiration for the Force began that rainy night in Jaffa so many years ago. Or was it a dubious attempt to attain fame inspired by an unknown British policeman. I don't know. The decision to join probably saved my life. Which, to borrow a phrase, is of no fame at all.
Jim Hartstone, Black Watch Battalion and Palestine Police, Palestine Police News Letter No.107, June 1977.
|October 2011 | home|