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Colours of separation

india Updated: Oct 16, 2006 00:04 IST

"In this place you can never plan your day," Ahmed explained as our car moved out of Ramallah. In the morning sunlight, it does not seem to be the troubled city we see on the news channels. It is only when the car stops some distance from the check-post leading out of Ramallah and we wait for the Israeli soldier to beckon, does reality sink in.

Here, the soldiers burdened under olive green fatigues, weapons and waterbottles are invariably gum-chewing youngsters. When our turn comes, various pieces of identity are put up for scrutiny. A sky-blue card, a green card, a piece of white paper and two Indian passports. Each colour defining and delineating where you live, where you work, where you can go and where you cannot.

Yusuf, the driver, is an Arab resident of Jerusalem and the sky-blue card defines his life. Ahmed’s parameters are drawn by the green card of a Palestinian, although the white paper he has, thanks to his employment, allows him access to some normally forbidden areas. We approach the nearest check-post on the road leading to Jerusalem. A young soldier takes all the colours in his hands. We are told to pull up on the side. After a few minutes, he summarily informs that we cannot go through because we have a green colour in our midst. He disregards the white colour. There is no scope to reason or explain.

We turn back, take a detour for nearly half an hour, and reach another check-post. Surprisingly, despite all the colours in the car, we are allowed to go through. It is not just the colour of the paper that determines life here. Yusuf had been called because his car has a yellow number plate, enabling it to travel all over. If the number plate had been green, the car would be restricted to certain areas and not allowed into Jerusalem.

After visiting Jerusalem, we drive towards Bethlehem. This time, at the check-post, the soldier is gum-chewing, young and female. We cannot pass through, she informs. This time, it is because of the sky-blue colour in our midst. We turn back, take a long detour to another check-post. When we arrive, it is empty, maybe abandoned, and we simply sail past.

The sun is setting by the time we head back. In the lengthening shadows, we can see the uniform Jewish settlements nestled in the hills. Their defining colour is the white of the water-tanks on their roofs. Arab habitations have black water-tanks. A glance at the landscape and the colour identifies the inhabitants. Colour has taken on intricate patterns and meanings in this region.

But the overarching colour embedding itself here now is the dull grey of the concrete separation barrier. The only thing that breaks the bleak monotony at times is the graffiti splashed across by the Palestinians. With a vengeance, the graffiti is colourful and bright, trying to blot out the grey.