8 Days in Palestine
Fadwa Al Qasem - 03/09/2012
Wednesday 22nd February. The decision.
I would finally go to Palestine. To many, and sometimes even for myself, this decision was taken on the spur of the moment. I had actually been thinking of it, reflecting on it and waiting for it for ages. The idea was stewing slowly over this low fire that glowed in the depths of my soul. At times, it resurfaced, egged by my sister-in-law only to be pushed back in a corner where I only stumbled every now and then. To be honest, first of all, I must admit that I did not see how my visiting a country I belonged to but never knew would make any difference to me or to anyone. Secondly, I was afraid of coming face to face with the Israelis: the people, the army, the checkpoints, the machine guns and the occupation. Thirdly, I was afraid of my own reaction. What if I felt numb? What if I didn’t feel that I belonged? What if I didn’t like it? What if I stood out like a sore thumb? What about when I left, what then? I was just afraid and full of apprehension, mixed emotions and guilt.
Why now? Was it a question of age or maturity? Or was it the desire to go back to my roots? I think I needed to overcome my fear, to take my right to return even if was only for a short visit. I made up my mind after meeting Iman of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (www.pcrf.net) on Wednesday the 22nd February 2012. She told me that a group of women were travelling to Palestine in March and asked me whether I’d like to join them. Yes. I wanted to. However, I ultimately went there alone and did not meet them in Palestine. Looking back, I would have loved to meet these interesting women, but I'm somehow glad I travelled alone.
I will cross that bridge.
The crossing point at King Hussein Bridge also known as Allenby Bridge was nothing more than a rectangular hall with a long counter and about three small windows. There was a four-seated bench, where five officers were sitting watching TV, watching us watching them – this was the tourist information office. A group of chairs arranged in the form of an open square served as a waiting area that overlooked a cafeteria offering non-enticing dusty packages of chips and biscuits.
I approached the nearest window and presented my passport. It was passed from one hand to another in a calm, professional manner behind the glass. I followed it from the other side and watched it pass from one desk to another until I lost track of it. I asked for information and I understood that I had obtained permission to travel but my passport would remain in the hands of the officer until I get on the bus. Later, I realised that they had stamped a slip of paper instead of my passport.
So there I stood, a Palestinian born in Libya holding Canadian citizenship. I waited for the bus to go to my country as a tourist. Even though I was entering Palestine via an Arab country (crossing the bridge and not by plane arriving at Ben Gurion airport), any stamp on my passport marking an entry in Israel (even though I was visiting my Palestinian relatives in East Jerusalem, Palestine) could prevent me from returning to the country where I live. How and from where was I supposed to enter my country to visit?
I went outside to wait for the bus in the fresh spring air. I was happy to have some of my relatives with me.
We waited and waited and waited.
There were other people waiting too. Arabs, Palestinians, foreigners and tourists. I felt like I was a combination of all four.
The bus will arrive in ten minutes, we were told again and again.
The bus arrived after about 150 minutes. I climbed with my bag, my passport, my slip paper, my nervousness and pounding heart. And we were off.
The Other Side
There were ten people aboard the small bus. I got rid of my apprehension and nervousness and there was nothing else than the present moment. Now, everything was real and surreal at the same time. I sat facing backwards. I wanted to talk to the man sitting next to me and to the one in front of me. I wanted to ask them what to expect, but I did not want to tell them that this was my first visit. For some reason, this truth was making me feel embarrassed.
“If you’re planning to visit several places, do not tell them,” advised the man sitting in front of me. I barely had time to check if there was any water under the bridge (there were none), we had already crossed it.
Is that it? I asked,
“Yes” they told me.
Others had already arrived. They stood in line holding their bags. We joined them when we were allowed to get off the bus.
On my left-hand side, there were some Israeli army officials wearing blue jumpers, bulletproof vests and fatigues: a middle-aged man, a young man and a young woman who seemed to be in their teens. Was this a movie set? Their machine guns were dangling from their shoulder to the bottom of their knees. They were probably exercising self-restraint.
The group of people flowed slowly forming a queue, each time the Israeli officers allowed us to cross the small barrier in small groups. The man in front of me had no luggage at all as he was travelling just for the day. I jokingly offered him one of my bags (I failed to notice there were cameras everywhere and that such jokes were not funny in such circumstances). I also exchanged business cards with another man behind me. We approached a cubicle where an officer looked at our passports briefly, but intently. Our luggage was passed through metal detectors. I had already taken the precaution of wearing neither jewellery nor a belt and I had no coins on me and my mobile phone was in my handbag.
My bags were not searched but some of the others were stopped and their bags searched. An Israeli official surprised me with a flirty smile. Obviously, he did not realise I was Palestinian. I remembered a poem by Mahmoud Darwish:
“He is quiet and so am I.
He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee.
That’s the difference between us. (…)
He doesn’t see my secret glance.
I don’t see his secret glance.
He is quiet and so am I. (…)
I don’t say to him: the sky today is clear and blue.
He doesn’t say to me: The sky today is clear. (…)
I hum the melody of a song
and he hums the melody of a similar song.
I wonder: Is he the mirror in which I see myself?
And turn to look in his eyes… but I don’t see him.
I hurry from the café.
I think: Maybe he’s a killer…
or maybe a passerby who thinks
I am a killer.
He's afraid… and so am I.”i
I didn’t return his smile. I took my bags and walked towards the barrier counter.
Crocheting Under Their Nose
I asked them not to stamp my passport. Perhaps because it seemed more like an order than a request, the Israeli officer shot me with a defiant: Why?!
The questions followed immediately.
Why are you here? Is this your first time? Did you come alone? Yes, alone, I answered. Then to whom were you talking to just now? Of course, there were cameras and microphones everywhere. We were queuing together so we talked.
Where will you go during your visit? Only Jerusalem? Where are you staying? Who are you visiting? What are their names? Their telephone numbers? Repeat the number… 456? Again. Fill in this form. Someone will come for you.
I filled the form. I walked back to her, ignoring her instructions: there you go. No you must sit down there and wait.”
I sat down. I waited.
Ten minutes. A man approached me. He has a serious face with a tinge of ‘friendliness’ so as to seem non-threatening. Why are you here? Is this your first visit? Did you come alone? Where are you staying? Who are you visiting? My in-laws. Have you come alone? Yes. Visiting your in-laws alone? I thought: is there a law against visiting in-laws without your spouse? Or was it just a stupid thing to do? You are visiting your in-laws alone?!. Yes. Where is your husband? … OK, wait here.
Ten minutes. He came back. Where do you work? Is this your company? Where do you live? How long have you lived there? Is this your email address? Can you spell it to me? ... OK, wait here.
Ten minutes. Another officer approached me, the one organising the queues. Come with me, she said. But I was told to wait here, I said. No, come with me. But he told me to wait here; he might come back and not find me. She started to become angry. This is my job. I know what I'm doing, OK! Come with me. So I went with her. She took me to a hall with many chairs. There are others restless people standing, sitting and waiting. Wait here, she said.
I took out my yarns and crochet hook. I start crocheting. Although I had nothing to hide, I started to feel tense. My crocheting appeared nonchalant but the movement eased my tension. I think that my family and relatives had started to worry by now.
I waited. I crocheted.
Ten minutes. The man came back. What is your husband's name? Do you know his father's name? When was he born? His father? I fain stupidity. No, your husband. Was he a resident of Jerusalem? OK, wait here.
Now I was worried. I called my husband on my mobile. (Yes, I knew, they were watching, maybe even listening.)
They're asking me about you, I said. So? He replied. Ok, call everyone; tell them I'm waiting here.
I waited. I crocheted.
Ten minutes. Twenty minutes.
Fawda? An Israeli officer called me. (Fawda means ‘a mess’ in Arabic). Yes, I said, I'm Fawda. She gave me my passport. I headed towards the exit. I passed by an old Palestinian man standing in the queue before the barrier counter. Where's the exit? I asked him. He pointed about two meters away as he mumbled: May God protect you my child, may God be with you, May God guide you …
I exited through a plastic separator. I had arrived. This was Jerusalem. It was warm and dusty. It was 6.30pm. I pulled my bag behind me as tears rolled down my face.
Tourism Not an Option
You cannot come to Jerusalem your eyes shut, your heart closed and your mind like a dried up fossil. If that is what you want, go to Greece. Here in Jerusalem there are huge, and I mean huge walls separating, alienating, imprisoning, creating ghettos, creating new and constantly changing realities in Palestinian lives. Yes, yes, the wall, we all know the story. But it is not just one wall, there are many walls, and you cannot truly appreciate how imposing these walls are until you stand under them, touch them, smell them, see them from above, stare at them from below. These apartheid walls are illegal by international law.
I came face to face with one of them when I got off the bus that took me with a group of people on one of its alternative political tours.
There it was, winding its way, bulldozing anything in its path. Concrete slabs, topped with barbed wire piercing the sky, keeping a tight grip on towns and villages like handcuffs burning into your wrists. If you woke up one morning to find yourself ‘inside’ the wall, then inside the wall you must remain. To get out, you need permits from the Israeli government, permits that are extremely hard to obtain. The result is that you find your life governed by an impenetrable cement barrier, forcibly burrowing into land considered by a large majority of humanity as holy; your land, your ancestors’ land.
There are also walls surrounding refugee camps, like Shuafat refugee camp. I was quite shocked to discover that there are Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine; about 19 Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine. 19!
If it's not suffocating the refugee camps, the wall, as it tramples on, may actually be part of your own home. If your home is in the wall's path, the Israeli government may ‘generously’ give you two options: they either tear down your house (the house that probably belonged to your father, his father, and his father before him) at your own expense, or one of your home’s facade will become an integral part of the wall. Windows are barred and sealed. Suddenly your neighbour might as well be on the moon.
It can be even worse. I visited Umm Nabil (Nabil's mother) and Umm Mahmoud, the first one is an elderly person and the second one middle-aged. They both spent most of their defiant day sitting on white plastic chairs in the front yard, surrounded by their lady friends. They sat with giving their backs to a small, one storey house, and facing a two-storey house across the street. The one-storey house used to belong to Umm Nabil and the one across the street to Umm Mahmoud. Looking up from the pavement where I stood, I saw two children, probably aged 4 and 5, dangling their bare feet from barred windows. A car turned into the street and parked at the entrance of the house. A couple of Israeli men got out, ignored us, spoke, said their farewells, then one of them went into the house. Confiscated by the Israeli government, Umm Mahmound's house was given to a family of Jews hailing from Europe. Being of European descent, they most probably have no historical connection to Palestine, let alone to this neighbourhood, this street, this house.
What it is to be Here
Everywhere I went, it was as if I were in two places at once. All the time the feeling that everything was normal but truly nothing was normal enveloped me.
As I inhaled, I heard the familiar Palestinian dialect, as I exhaled I saw two Israeli teen army conscripts carrying machine guns, walking the streets, in public areas, at mosque entrances.
As I inhaled, I saw a Palestinian teacher surrounded by young school children – he was telling them about the history of the old city in Jerusalem. As I exhaled, I saw an Israeli teacher, surrounded by young school children – I don't know what he was telling them, but judging by some of the tours advertised on the web, he may have been telling them Israel's version of the history of the old city.
As I inhaled, I was a Palestinian walking these streets as a foreigner. As I exhaled, I saw foreigners from this land planted here as natives.
As I inhaled, I was robbed blind. As I exhaled, I was robbed blind.
Born in one place and travelling constantly from one country to another, trying to squeeze into national identities that may have been welcoming yes, but that ended up deranging my idea of belonging. I was not supposed to spend a large portion of my life feeling confused about my identity or my belonging. It was supposed to be something I took for granted, like everyone else. I was supposed to have been born here, breathing in this air that carries the memories and secrets of my ancestry, treading the soil enriched with their remains on which the olive trees grow. I was supposed to have had a normal childhood here. This was supposed to be my playground and these rocks were supposed to skim the knees of the tomboy that I was in my childhood days.
I was supposed to have had memories of my best friend here
I was supposed to have had my first kiss here.
I was supposed to have had my heart broken for the first time, here.
And so, I am Palestinian
I was born only to find that I was Palestinian. From my first moments of awareness I have been trying to grasp the fragments of the word Palestinian and the question of my belonging was what scared me the most from my first visit.
I cried when I reached Jerusalem. I cried when I visited Nablus.
I cried at the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Nativity, Bir Ya'qub monastery.
I cried at the crossings, the barriers, and the bullet-ridden walls.
I took a handful of sand from Jaffa and wrote my name on the beach. I wandered the streets of Ramallah in the pouring rain.
I committed all these clichés in my search, my search for a belonging that would accept me.
But I found my belonging elsewhere.
It was neither in the land nor in the soil; such a belonging takes much time to develop, it takes memories and a very personal history that I plan on building stone by stone with my naked spirit.
My belonging was elsewhere, waiting patiently for me since the day I was born. Waiting for me to reach out to it, to see it as it shone through the eyes of the people of this land and this soil.
I found it in the warmth of my family in-law, the kindness of my cousins, the generous hospitality of my mother’s aunt and her children, the bus driver Abu Samir, the taxi driver Fadi. The protection of the whispered prayers by the old man I met in once Jerusalem as soon as I was permitted to enter, the gentleness of the man who asked if I was ok because he saw my tears as I walked on Palestinian soil.
It was in the overwhelmingly sincere and spontaneous gathering with the most wonderful authors, critics, readers and intellectuals, and the wonderful owners of the wonderful bookshop in East Jerusalem where we all met; in their smart, transparent and deep questions and in their acceptance.
In the beaded Palestinian flag bracelet slipped onto my wrist by its owner after I told him that I liked it.
Belonging to you is the most beautiful belonging. My love for you is my belonging and from the glow of your humanity I was born to find that I was Palestinian, but today it is my choice to be Palestinian.
Fadwa Al Qasem
Co-translated by Fadwa Al Qasem and Elizabeth Grech
i From the poem “He is quiet and so I am”, Now as you Awaken by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from Arabic by Omnia Amin and Rick London, Sardines Press, 2007.