Sunday, May 2, 2010

"March 11th" - #Blog4Quds

I always imagined my own version of the book called “100 Places You Must Visit Before You Die,” where the “100 Places” would be replaced by just one place that I had already chosen. In terms of geographic proximity, that place required no oversea, transatlantic flights. It required no light backpacks and comfortable tennis shoes. Nor did it require a camera with lots of memory space, because I was not going to “visit” (another term that needs to be replaced in the new book), nor was I going as a tourist. The place would also –hypothetically- require no visas or permits. But what was stopping me from visiting this one place, and why has it always been on my “Before I Die” list, if it’s that easy to access?

My one place is Al Quds, or Jerusalem. In a utopian world, I would be able to visit the city at my leisure, given that Al Quds is an hour and a half drive away from Gaza City, where I live. I grew up contemplating the moment I would see Jerusalem, until I graduated from university and was promised by my parents that they might be able to make the necessary arrangements (a paper permit) for me to visit the holy city. After bidding farewell to Cairo, I went to Amman and then crossed the border to Jericho in Palestine.

My father and I then drove to Ramallah- my first time there- where we spent the night. I couldn’t sleep at all, as my anticipation reached its peak. Besides my usual thoughts about what the city was like, what it smelt like, and how I would feel once I’d finally reach my destination, I was wondering whether I would be lucky enough to be allowed into the city in the first place.

Morning coffee and a rooftop view of the city of Ramallah marked the beginning of one of the longest, yet most memorable days of my life, March 11th. We took off to Jerusalem. At the first checkpoint I was immediately asked for my “tasgheeh” (Arabic, with an Israeli accent, for “permit”). The soldier peeked into the car and shouted something in Hebrew. Even though I understood what he said, thanks to my very basic skills in Hebrew, I told him in Arabic that I could only speak Arabic. Naturally, both my attitude and tasgheeh were rejected, and we were asked to drive back.

Next, we had to try the other checkpoint: the infamous Qalandia crossing. Abu Fathi, the driver, told me to leave the car and take nothing but my green Hawiyah (national ID) and my tasgheeh. As I stood in the queue, a very old and feeble old man was trying to walk through the very small revolving gate (these gates are built with low qualifications and standards because they cause humiliation to those crossing them, like the old man). No one was able to help the man, and he was too weak to let go of his walking aid tool. His family looked helplessly from behind us; all they were able to do was plea for someone to help him. But no one was able to help him, as the soldiers hidden behind the window screens and the loud speakers would shout at anyone who would cross the line. They wouldn’t even open the door that was made specifically for disabled passengers like the old man. Eventually, someone came from the other side, took the old guy’s walking tool first, and then helped him walk through the gate.

By then, dignified emotions were running high. When my turn came and I walked through the gate, all I had was my phone and my paper documents. I went to face the soldiers sitting behind the window screen. Just in case her loud, patronizing voice wasn’t heard well enough, loud speakers were placed on either side of the window to emphasize her unclear Hebrew commands. She shouted and ordered me to walk back through the detector and to place my phone, a small, lonely phone, in a tray, just to make sure it wasn’t a time bomb. When I went back to the window, she shouted: “EFO TASGHEEH?!” With a very disgusted look on my face, I put it against the window screen for her to admire. It was brief, and for that I’m grateful.

We enjoyed the beautiful landscape on the way to Jerusalem after crossing the checkpoint, even though there was worse to come. Israel’s Apartheid Wall stood like a knife cutting through the beautiful landscape and up towards the sky. It seemed so out of place, this ugly, alien grey wall. Right next to, and protected by it, were the countless settlements- equally alien and out of place, like red arrays of Lego pieces- they fit nowhere but in their original box.

Once in Jerusalem, we walked to bab al-Amood, one of the few gates that remain unclosed by the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem (although recent reports indicate that closing the gate is on the Israeli government’s agenda). The smell, the victory songs, the people, the anger, the frustration, the breeze, the tourists, the rabbis, the children, the gloom, the creepy mixture of silence and noise, the beauty, the old, the new, the almonds, the za’atar (thyme), the holiness, the alien, the familiar. None of it made sense, none of it registered. Why was the familiar –smell, sights, people, noise- mixed with the very alien? Has there ever been a more rutted combination? Why was the souvenir store selling “Don’t Worry America- Israel is Behind You,” “Bahebek Ya Falastin (I love you, Palestine)” and “Peace in the Middle East?! Hahaha” t-shirts in the same stall?!

None of these thoughts or questions were of concern as we finally arrived at al Haram’s (shrine) gate, or checkpoint. The soldier said I had to leave my camera with one of the shop owners, in case I planned on filming the soldiers inside al Haram. I protested as I was taken by the ridiculousness of his argument, and asked him, “Seriously now, do I think I’m going to al Haram to film soldiers? WHY on Earth would I want to do that?!” He gave up and we went in.

I saw it. It was so close to me, as close as it has always been to my heart. My eyes could see nothing but it, and my heart was pounding with joy. My mind wouldn’t buy it- it seemed so unreal, so close yet so far. Was I really standing in front of the Dome of the Rock, after twenty years of dreaming?! My eyes and heart answered YES, but my mind treated it like another daydream. My contacts were about to fall out of my eyes as my eyes wouldn’t blink (at least one nerve in my brain was responding to the excitement of the situation), and Abu Fathi’s tips and comments were a distant, unclear buzz in the background.

As I went up the holy stairs, the Dome of the Rock ascended along, and so did my love, my awe, my deep sorrow, and my greed: before I even touched the holy mosque, I found myself wondering when our next encounter is going to be.

Walking towards the mosque, my steps were a weird mix of heavy and slow, yet excited and enthralled and similar to skipping. My mind was sending slow signals to my feet, announcing that our long-awaited destination has finally been reached. The sight in front of me was like a flood that ran through the archives of my memory, replacing the image, smell, sound or feeling of everything I had seen before that I considered to be beautiful. It irreversibly redefined my knowledge of beauty.

As I proceeded to enter the holy Mosque, my eyes took the lead. It was as if my eyes were walking around inside the mosque, not wanting to stop or to take a break, they kept walking and walking, trying to register ever beautiful detail of the holy Mosque as if they wanted to make sure that they could always review them later. When I finally touched the mosque, my mind came to peaceful terms with my awed heart. There was so much beauty to be seen, so much beauty to be taught. The beauty of the interior, the beauty of the Mua’then’s (caller to prayer) voice, the beauty of the people, the beauty of the place, the beauty of the smell of the Rock from which the Prophet ascended to heaven, and finally, the beauty of everything that’s holy.

I will never forget my first prayer in the Dome of the Rock, engulfed by the exotic and holy smell: I asked God to grant this opportunity to visit and pray at the Mosque to every person whose deprived from it. I repeated the same prayer when I went to Al Aqsa Mosque, equally beautiful and breath-taking, but even more saddening and worrying. Abu Fathi walked me through the Marawani tunnel under the mosque, and showed me exactly where the threat is located.

It was then time to leave Jerusalem. After enjoying a delicious falafel with hommos sandwich, a famous Palestinian delicacy, we walked out of Bab al Amood and into the car. As we drove out of the city, we stopped at certain hilltops to take photographs of beautiful scenes, such as the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa, or the Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalena. The city seemed so harmonious, yet so tense.

We picked my father up from Ramallah, and then drove to Yafa. We passed through Tel-Rabiee (Tel Aviv) on the way to Yafa, a city that once bloomed with its Palestinian heritage and population. Yafa, another coastal city, reminded me so much of Gaza. Its streets spoke of a great history and a great people, but its present shows a suppression of the city’s heritage and Palestinian population. I have always longed for the day when I would see Yafa, the birthplace and hometown of my late grandmother.

It was time to return to Gaza. “I’m able to tell you only very few things about the roads, cities and villages that we’re driving through. Why? Because I’m not allowed to travel through them as often as I would like. If your late grandfather was with us in the car, he would’ve been able to tell you the names of every single street that we saw, and even the names of the families living in it. What will you be able to tell your children?” My father wondered out loud.

We drove south towards the Erez crossing, which was closed by the time we arrived. For a moment, it seemed like we would have to spend the night in the car next to the crossing, because my two-day tasgheeh would expire the next day. However, given that a number of people were trying to cross the border, and after a lot of pressure, the gate opened and we were finally let through.

As we drove home, I realized that I had never been so happy returning to Gaza, the prison I like to call home. I didn’t go back to Gaza through Rafah and Egypt, or Amman and Jordan. I went to Gaza after praying in Jerusalem in the morning, and passing through Ramallah, Tel-Rabiee and Yafa in the afternoon. I loved the idea, I loved how I spent March 11th, for it was a day when I felt that I belonged to a beautiful country called Palestine- one that I could actually see. I felt so grateful, yet so sad, for I know that at least 4 million refugee Palestinians can only dream of a day like March 11th. But then again, it was no more than a dream for me before that date.

Even though I am now officially back to the world’s biggest prison, and I have no idea when the next time out of it will be, March 11th set my mood to “happy” for a long time to come. I know deep in my heart that the day will come when I will repeat this trip, and go to even more cities. I know deep in my heart that my children will grow to know more, and love Palestine more than I ever will. Just like my father taught me to, and just like his own father taught him to. After all, I didn’t care that a two-day tasgheeh that took more than 3 months to be issued was required, but I did care to keep in mind that as much as my love and awe increased for this country, so did my obligation to do more for it, and to make sure that in the future, no one would ever need a tasgheeh to make the same trip.

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  1. It's amazing? I was wondering if the 4 million refugees are still thinking of going back ? I hope we didn't replace the beauty of our land with 100 $ bills, or wheels of a very expensive car.

  2. """Why was the familiar mixed with the very alien?"""
    the t-shirts store combintation is very interesting.. we face such surprises evey now and then.
    i loved your feelings.. and the detailed discribtions..inshallah someday soon i'll share your experience.. ya rab!

  3. Thank you ladies. Inshalla, inshalla one day you will share an even more amazing experience, one that will be more than just a one day visit :)