How I met my Neighbors? Trip 2 to Nablus
This past weekend I went on my second trip to the West Bank. I arrived at the Malik Hussein Bridge at 10:30 in the morning after taking a service taxi from downtown Amman to the border (8 JD). I was excited to see that it was a quiet day and there were significantly less people around than over the Yom Kippur weekend. Having got my Jordanian Residency, passing through the Jordanian side was as easy as can be, with several bored young men, more than willing to help. At this border it is widely known that the Jordanian officials refuse to stamp passports and as a policy always issue a separate paper with a stamp. Within the hour I was on a bus headed over the bridge and to the Israeli crossing. Two tall Israeli flags separate the Palestinian lands flying a green, red, black, and white flag, from the Jordanian jurisdiction marked by an almost identical flag, different only by a small white star.
I braced myself for what I thought would be another painful crossing. This time I had my story down. I had printed off a map to a hostel in Jerusalem, and even made up a fake half Jewish friend who was studying in Spain and coming to meet me for a weekend of Christmas shopping and spa visits. There were some interesting differences between this border and the Sheik Hussein border that I had passed through the time before. The half dozen booths labeled passport control were run by IDF soldiers, but the people handling the bags, running the security machines, and guiding the people through the various steps to entrance were all Arabs. I don’t mean they looked like Arabs, or they spoke Arabic, no, they WERE Arabs. I don’t know how to explain this. I’m not sure if it is IDF strategy. Since this is not an international border, most people passing through are Palestinians or Jordanians. Perhaps they hire Arabs for this job because they need people to speak Arabic, or perhaps it is because they believe that Arabs are more likely to obey other Arabs without question. I may be reading too much into this, but I just found it really strange. My previous experience had been a border crossing filled entirely with Israeli Nationals, where the idea of speaking Arabic of being Arab made you suspect. Now, I was being directed through the Israeli point of the border entirely in Arabic. Also, all the IDF soldiers at this border spoke Arabic extremely well. It shocked me at first, but then I realized that it was logical that some Israelis would learn Arabic.
I reached the front of the line and passed my passport to the young girl behind a glass barrier. The person before me had been asked the only too familiar questions. “What is the purpose of your visit?” “Are you going to the West Bank?” ”How long will you be here for?” In my head I had rehearsed my answers to these expected questions. The girl looked at my passport for what felt like a year. Then came my relief.
“You are one year older than me!” She said.
“You have the same birthday?”
YES! Talk about luck!
She asked me where I was going and if I was going into the West Bank.
“No.” Of course I am.
Then she asked “Do you mind if I stamp your passport?” I found it interesting that she asked each person this, instead of just assuming it was ok unless they asked otherwise.
“I would rather you didn’t, I’m a student, and I want to be able to travel elsewhere.”
There was a moment where you could tell she was deciding if this was valid reasoning or cause for suspicion. Finally she said,
“Ok, I need you to fill this out.”
And after I answered some basic questions I was through with no problem. Amazed by the simplicity of my entrance, I proceeded through and boarded a bus to Jericho. I learned in one of my classes that Yasser Arafat had proposed the “Jericho first” plan during the peace talks leading up to the Oslo Accords. The Israeli representatives had suggested the “Gaza first” plan suggesting that the first step should be giving the Palestinian Authority the Gaza Strip only. Arafat feared he was being pushed out of the West Bank and requested the small, insignificant town of Jericho in addition to the Gaza strip as a symbol of the Palestinian claim on the entire West bank. It was therefore one of the first cities to be under Palestinian Authority control. Once in Jericho there are services lined up going to every major city in the West Bank. As Arafat saw Jericho as his key into the West Bank, it has remained a key transportation hub, making the West Bank easily accessible to the thousands of people who pass through on their way to other West Bank cities.
From there I got in a Service headed to Nablus (45 shekels) and sat patiently working on my sewing for 20 minutes until the car finally left. I arrived in Nablus way earlier than I thought I would.
The next day was a school day, and I was excited for my opportunity to go to the school with my boyfriend and meet his students. He teaches at a school with kids from 1st grade up to 6th grade. We arrived early in the morning before any students were there. Standing out in the courtyard area the students began to arrive. I spent a while talking to some girls in Araglish. Children are the best people to practice speaking with. They don’t hesitate to correct you and they use simple sentence structures and vocabulary, so they were easy to understand. I was a curious specimen for sure. They were asking a million questions about me. It is hard to explain that I am from Colorado, go to school in New York, study in Amman, am visiting Nablus, and my dad is from Libya, especially when my language skills are so limited. That is a lot of different places to keep straight!
My day was filled with watching classes, talking to many different children, and even playing a game of Kurat Al Kudm (soccer (قرة القدم .Talk about a humbling experience, being completely schooled by 8 and 9 year olds at a sport! It was so much fun though.
That night I went to a public high school where some of the English teachers do an English and Sports program where they both teach English and play various sports with the kids. This was a special occasion. The English teachers were playing a game of soccer against the best players selected from the program. I arrived with my boyfriend and was immediately concerned that this was going to be an extremely uncomfortable situation. The private school was in a “rougher” part of town and I was the only girl in the courtyard. It was me, the English teachers, and about fifty High School boys. I sat alone away from the group and began to watch the game.
As I watched, I noticed every few minutes the boys in the stands slowly were moving closer to me. Before I knew it there were seven or eight sitting directly behind me. They were giggling and joking with each other just like American boys their age. I kept my eyes on the game, but slowly started listening into the conversation. Big surprise, they were talking about me. I’m sure their initial assumption was that I didn’t speak any Arabic. As I listened I picked out the familiar words used in talking about a girl. Gazelle, camel. Believe it or not these are compliments. They were trying to work up the courage to say something to me. Finally a brave boy asked me what my name was. I responded in Arabic. Well, that confused them. I spent the rest of the game speaking with these boys. I laughed with them as they cheered on their favorite teacher and asked them questions about the game and their school. They of course had as many questions for me as I had for them. The same “where are you from? Where did you learn Arabic?” that I had been asked that morning, but also some newer questions. “Are you married?” I’m used to this question from taxi drivers really meaning “Do you want to marry me so I can get residency in your country?” But the intent of this question was different. I think they were trying to work out the situation I was in within the context of their culture. There were no female English teachers there, so I must have been there watching one of the men. And I don’t live in Nablus or have any family there, so who was I visiting. A male? And a woman would not travel to visit a man she wasn’t married to. So it really was a logical question. At this point hardly anyone was watching the game, in which the mostly outplayed teachers were using the advantage of also being the referees to keep the score to a less humiliating level.
They asked if they could have my name to look me up on Facebook. Thinking this was a harmless request, I wrote my first and last name out in a notebook they had handed me. At this point there was a crowd of 20 or so boys all around me. As soon as I had finished writing it, they all reached for the page, resulting in a torn notebook and several people shouting trying to get a hold of my name. I was uncomfortable with this excessive attention, but I was enjoying our discussion and learning from these boys. I took another paper and wrote out my name about ten times. I then gave the notebook to one of the older boys to distribute them. Of course, I returned home to find several Facebook requests from my new friends. While I realize being Facebook friends with these people who I have only met as a rambunctious mob on one occasion is the most artificial form of friendship out there, it is satisfying to have a way to maintain a connection with these young boys who are only 6 or 7 years behind where I am in my life, yet are living in such different circumstances. Being able to look at their pictures and send them messages allowed me to see each one on a more individual basis. I related with them much easier than the younger children I had met at the school earlier that day.
After the game I walked through the school very quickly. This high school is one of many funded by the United Nations. A peek into a classroom showed dirty floors and upturned desks. I tried to picture myself sitting in one of those classrooms for several hours every day and trying to learn. I thought about the public school that I had visited in Amman less than 100 miles from where I stood. The classes were clean, the desks upright. The whole ambiance of this place was off.
On Sunday (a day later than planned) I returned to the border to cross back to Amman. This time there were few people there, but I was still stuck waiting in the crossing bus for 2 hours. We aren’t sure what the problem was exactly, all we were told was that there were some problems at the crossing ahead of us. After that I arrived in the Israeli building just in time for the electricity to go out, which left me waiting for another hour. Nablus is 110 km (68 miles) from Amman. This is about the same distance as Castle Rock to Boulder, a fun day trip I have made many times. Yet at least 3 hours of border crossing, three separate passport checks, three bag scanners and security screenings alienate these two neighbors from each other. As long as I reside in Amman these people are my neighbors, even if it took me hours to get to their town.
This is a mind-blowing perspective. I spent several hours trying to cross a border that is a shorter distance than from my house to my school. I realize that this is both a strategy and a result of poor cooperation between the three entities at the border. The bags that were initially scanned by Jordan must be rescanned by Israel, the bus sent off by the Palestinian Authority must be searched by the Israelis. I am not intending this to sound accusatory, as all three (the PA, Jordan, and Israel ) participate in this redundant bureaucracy, but rather as an observation.
It is, however, also strategy. As mentioned before, most of the people passing through this border are Palestinians and Jordanians. It is in Israel’s best interest to limit the crossing of these people over the border as much as possible. Freedom of mobility for the Palestinians means less control over the population for Israel. By making the crossing time consuming and difficult, people are going to cross the border less often.
As I finally reached the Jordanian side of the border two men asked me where in Amman I was going, to see if it would be logical for us to share a taxi.
“Sharra Mecca,” (Mecca Street) I told them.
“Where on Sharra Mecca” he asked, “that is where I live as well.”
Well it turns out that they live on the same exact street as me in the building across the street, and they know my landlord. Talk about a small world, with more than 3 million people in Amman, what are the odds that I would meet my neighbors at the border crossing. We got to our street, and they invited me into their house for barbeque chicken. It was a delicious meal and I was so happy to meet people from my area of town.
I had made it home, safe, yet not satisfied. My first time in Nablus I hadn’t got to meet many people from the city. Now that I had met many people, many children, I’m not sure how to interpret my emotions. Nablus, and the West Bank as a whole, are living breathing places. This isn’t just the battle ground of a sixty year old war, but the home of 6 year olds. Like I said, I’m not sure what emotion I felt being there. Was it pity, and if so, why? Was it anger. Well I know there was anger, but I don’t think that was all of it.