I’ve just been gifted The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I read it some years ago but no longer had a copy. Since I’m spending this year travelling, it feels right that the book has come my way again. Re-reading the introduction, which I found beautifully resonant, there were two sections in particular that caught my attention.
De Botton’s first chapter is entitled ‘On Anticipation’. He describes a park in winter and how the bleak weather serves to encourage sadness and banish happiness or insight. The sentence jumps out. I feel like the weather hasn’t been on my side lately. I’ve just been in Sheffield for six days where it rained more or less non-stop. Returning to London on the train, I can’t help but think about how, today, I should have been on a flight to London Luton airport from Tel Aviv. I am heavy at heart with the reasons for my unexpected change in location.
One or two pages on from the reference to the weather, de Botton first presents the question of why and how we travel, noting that the emphasis is usually placed on the destination, with the focus on images of exotic places in faraway lands. He posits that the study of the art of travel “might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers…termed eudaimonia or human flourishing”. I have always been interested in how we can develop and thrive as human beings. This curiosity has formed the backbone of my professional work as well as my personal life. Travel is something I’ve come back to repeatedly as part of the search in how we can flourish.
Departing and arriving
On April 8th I took an early morning flight to Tel Aviv, planning to visit Palestine for three weeks. However, events took an unexpected turn and the following day I had to fly back to England, having been deported by Israeli border control after being subjected to extensive interrogation and spending the night in a detention centre at the airport. It seems that the frequency of my visits to the country over recent years and my online writing presence were central to why I was denied entry.
A new reality
The questioning process while I was detained was long-winded, confusing and traumatic. The denial of entry to Israel apparently lasts ten years and its repercussions are significant for me; I’m still coming to terms with the decision. I’d been on my way to Palestine to do a sponsored walk in the West Bank and afterwards to take part in other voluntary work for a small charity I helped set up a couple of years ago. Instead, I found myself suddenly deposited back in an unseasonably cold and wet English spring and cut off from the Palestinian and international friends and colleagues I was expecting to be working with.
Meaning and purpose
Three weeks on I still feel bereft and disorientated, confused about what the future holds. On my first visit to Palestine I’d unexpectedly come across my vocation. The landscape, the people there, the traditional way of life and the reality of the fifty year old occupation all spoke to me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I helped out at three olive harvests in succession as well as visiting on a fourth occasion to do some other voluntary work in a cultural centre. Each time I was there I found myself in the company of like-minded people and each time I experienced a sensation of profound safety – a visceral sense of being at home – that was paradoxical given I was in an area known for its grave and ongoing conflict.
At the same time, I felt like I went through a period of accelerated growth during those visits. The word ‘privilege’ can sound over-used and over-blown when used in this kind of context, but a more apt term doesn’t easily spring to my mind. It has felt like a privilege to witness the dignity with which human suffering there is received. There is a transactional relationship; bearing witness is powerful for both the witness and the witnessed. Yet I am under no illusion of how much I have gained through travelling to and spending time in Palestine. I was anticipating a similar experience through this fifth visit. And, as on previous occasions, I was ready and willing to give what I could. Finding myself back in England unexpectedly, I had reserves of giving which were overflowing; I was calibrated to give but there was no outlet for this. Instead, I experienced a troubling and painful lack of purpose. It was extraordinary to realise how primed I had been for the trip to Palestine.
The received wisdom is that everything happens for a reason; people have gently pointed out that I will gain clarity as time goes by. I recognise the truth in this. With time, I will develop insight about this part of my travels. I will be able to see and feel and express the eudaimonia that has resulted from the deportation three weeks ago and transform it into something worthwhile. Even now, I’m beginning to have ideas about where to put my time and energy; occasionally, I have glimpses of still hazy yet exciting and meaningful projects on the horizon.
Looking back, looking ahead
Meanwhile, as I journey towards London on the train, the rain has stopped and the clouds seem a little higher. I look through the English ploughed fields to an olive grove last year and see a farmer – a dear friend – as he scrabbled through a water drain to access his land. I can see and feel his warm and dignified smile as he set out our picnic lunch later that day. I wonder at his fortitude, fearlessness and kindness and I wonder about the nature of human suffering. As a result of my deportation, I stepped in some small way in to the shoes of Palestinians, and of so many others around the world. I have a sense of the pain and loss of control they experience on a regular basis. Yet my physical health, home, family and friends are whole, intact.
As my situation settles down and the effects of this recent destabilisation lessen, I am becoming more able to analyse how I will grow from this experience. It remains a strange time – one that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated – characterised by feelings of real gratitude, yet also of deep sadness.