An Afternoon With Gilad Shalit
by Chas Newkey-Burden
When Gilad Shalit was on the brink of freedom, I wrote about a particular resonance his case held for me, and recalled my experiences during the years of campaigning for him.
I was privileged to spend the afternoon with him this Saturday.
I felt nervous as I travelled to meet Gilad. I wondered what emotional state he might be in after all he’s been through, and I dreaded the thought of accidentally saying the wrong thing and upsetting him.
He greeted me with a broad smile and firm handshake. We had a delicious tea with his family and then went on a sightseeing drive around London. We stopped to look around several landmarks, including St Paul’s Cathedral, and then took a stroll down the South Bank, before stopping at the National Theatre for a drink.
It was blissfully surreal to see Gilad, who was held hostage in Gaza for five years, out and about in London, eagerly snapping photographs of landmarks on his iPhone.
He seems, on the surface at least, to be remarkably well following his five years of captivity. He has a deeply curious mind and seems determined to see and understand as much of the world as he can. He’s interested in London architecture and loved the stunning red twilight that hung over the city ahead of dusk yesterday evening. He told me that in Israel the sky usually moves from light to dark in an instant.
He’s quietly observant and sharp. He asked me how old I am. People always say I look young for my age, so I suggested he guess my age and then readied myself for another flattering estimate. His guess was just four months out. I was crushed but impressed. Nobody ever gets that close.
We talked about football a lot. I was disappointed to learn that Tottenham are his favourite English club. “What’s wrong with Arsenal?” I asked. He giggled and explained that he always prefers teams with white shirts rather than red, due to his football and basketball loyalties back in Israel. He actually has a great sense of humour (by which I mean he laughed at most of my wisecracks).
I did feel like I’d put my foot in it at one point. I was telling him about the time I was waved through security at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport because I was wearing a Shalit campaign t-shirt. He asked me if I’d ever been stopped for questioning at the airport. “Yes,” I replied, “they kept me for two hours and 45 minutes once.”
It suddenly felt preposterous to have said this to a former hostage, so I nervously added: “But I don’t know why I’m complaining to you of all people about that.” I was relieved when he burst out laughing.
He laughed and smiled a lot during the afternoon. His vigour and humour after all he’s been through are inspirational. They certainly put my troubles in perspective. He is really living.
Really nice to meet you, Gilad. I wish you a beautiful life.