Category Archives: Palestine

How I met my Neighbors? Trip 2 to Nablus

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.”

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.

“What’s your religion?” and other fun questions en route to Nablus.

Weeks before I left my boyfriend got a job teaching English at a school in Nablus. Of course, I was super excited because this meant I would be 110 kilometers (68 miles) away from him all semester. Of course, what would be an hour drive down I-25, turned into a 9 hour trip, leading me to wonder if it would have been possible to put a more difficult 70 miles between us.

I left to go visit him after my class ended at 4 on Thursday. It was the day before Yom Kippur would begin, so I had been extremely careful in planning my travels so I could make it into the West Bank before the checkpoints would be closed, and would be able to leave and get back for my classes on Monday. My program helped me arrange a taxi to the Sheik Hussein border (known as the Jordan River border in Israel). The taxi passed through Irbid, and some beautiful hilly valleys before it approached the crossing. Once dropped off at the gate, I entered Jordan’s side of the border. I smiled at the man behind the counter, kindly asked if he would put my stamp on a separate paper. He happily accommodated my request, and sent me on my way. From there I got on a bus that would take me over to the building that I would come to know a little too well.

I must stop myself for a second and let you know about the plans I had made before hand. First, I had not brought my Libyan passport after this was strongly suggested by several people in my program. I had also could not tell the IDF my boyfriend is teaching in the West Bank, so I created a slightly not so true alternative to why I am entering Palestine.

There are two sections of the Israeli side of the Sheik Hussein Border crossing. The first is security and the second passport control. It is my understanding that security is not operated by the IDF. The security guards did not wear the uniform, and one man told me operated separate from the Passport control. So, I get in the security line, which should be as simple as showing your passport and scanning your bags. No other people were asked questions or anything. As soon as the security guard saw my name, she asked, the first in what would be hours of stupid questions,

“Do you have another passport?” DAMN! They are good. Fitouri doesn’t even look Arab when written in English, at least not to me. Perhaps she is taught to question all foreign names? I don’t know.

“No”

“What is your reason of travel into Israel?”

“Tourism”

With that she let me continue through to the tigers at Passport control.

Tiger is not a fair assessment at all, really. Passport control is run almost entirely by 18-22 year old girls. With made up faces and flowing hair, they are quite possibly some of the most beautiful girls I have seen. Perhaps they are more like poisonous frogs, like the ones you see at the zoo that are bright colored yet deadly. I handed my passport to the girl at the window. All was going well for about a minute and a half. She asked several procedural questions and accepted my responses without hesitation. I thought I would try my luck,

“Do you mind, I’m a student and I still have a bit of traveling to do. Would you stamp my passport on a separate piece of paper?”

She acknowledged my request and continued with the questions. And then came the bombshell…

“What is your father’s name?”

Ok, so it is easy to lie about your travel plans, you’re major, etc. But at this point I was faced with a dilemma, deny my Arab heritage and have an easier time passing through, or tell the truth, and risk a long delay or possibly being turned back. I couldn’t lie on this one, because in the back of my mind I kept thinking, I shouldn’t have to lie.

“Ezzedin”

Pause.

“What is your Grandfather’s name?”

Shit. Already chose to say the truth, right?

“Mohammed”

The young girls face looked as if I had screamed curse words at her. She said something to one of the girls at the other window, and then sent me down to her.

That is when the real interrogation began. This time, my answers were not accepted and each time I answered, the truth or not, it only lead to deeper questions.

“Where are you traveling in Israel?”

“I’m meeting my boyfriend, tonight in Nablus, and tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem?”

“What are you going to do in Nablus?”

“See the holy sites”

“Where are you staying?, Who are you staying with?, How long will you be there?, What are their names? Why were you in Jordan? Where was your father born? Where were you born? What state? What city?

The questions went in circles, finally she passed me a paper and told me to write down my name and phone number. I put my US home number and my Jordanian cell.

She continued the questions in the sweetest voice you have ever heard, which made me want to vomit.

“Why do you have a cell phone in Jordan” (Didn’t you know, statistics show that 7 out of 10 “terrorists” possess Jordanian cellphones.)

“Because my program provided me with one”

“What program?”

I could already see where this was going. Arabic

“AMIDEAST”

“What are you studying in Jordan?”

What do you think, woman?

“Jordanian Culture, Politics, and Arabic.”

“Oh, you speak Arabic?”

“Very little, I just started studying it.”

And by just started I mean I went to a Muslim Sunday school where I learned the letters, have spent months in Libya (which you don’t know about because you won’t get to see my Libyan passport), have taken 2 full years at my University, and helped create the Arabic Club at my school.

After what seemed like an hour of this badgering I was told to sit down and wait. I sat down next to two American girls. After talking I learned that they went to Berkley and in their hippy ways had failed to make any concrete plans about their trip, during which they planned to spend 2 months couch surfing throughout Israel. When I sat down they had already been there for 6 hours.

Over the next several hours I sat waiting. Every now and then one of the girls would peak their head out the door and ask me another question, usually one that they had already asked. I arrived at the border at 5:30 Israel time. At about 8:30 I began to panic. I had been warned that the checkpoints into the West Bank would be closing, and no one was sure what time exactly. A call from my boyfriend sent me to tears when he suggested I turned back because I probably wouldn’t make it into the West Bank. By this time the Border was almost completely empty. The IDF soldiers were sitting around laughing and playing with each other while drinking coffee and pop, and I was sitting alone in tears. One of the girls, who I am very indebted to came over and started talking to me.

“You are a young pretty girl, you are supposed to be happy, not sad”

I explained to her my situation, and she assured me that people were often held for several hours, but they were always let in. She also seemed shocked when I said that the checkpoints would be closing because of Yom Kippur.

“But the Arabs do not fast on Yom Kippur and they need to get out, so why would it be closed?”

Because your country has oppressed the Palestinians to the point where they have resorted to acts of desperation that makes your government concerned for security reasons.

She began to mobilize making phone calls and talking to the other guards to find out about the checkpoints. She did discover that the checkpoint I had planned to pass through was closed, but there was another check point that was going to be open all night that was a little ways away. One of the soldiers escorted me so I could go to the place to exchange money. Another wrote out directions for a cab driver in both Hebrew and English. Then the final run of questioning hit.

This scrawny little girl, who had been the meanest so far, yelled to me where I sat from 15 or 20 feet away.

“Why does your boyfriend have a cell phone here?”

Reassured that I would be let through by the other soldier, and by the fact they had been helping me, my answers became bolder.

“Because in American currency it was dirt cheap and he wanted to be able to call me for cheaper.”

That’s what happens when your economy is entirely dependent on mine.

“What is your religion?”

The room got quiet. All the girls who had been helping me stared at their comrade. One girl said something in Hebrew that sounded like a protest to the question.

“I don’t have a religion.”

“You know, Christian, or Muslim….”

Yes, because there are only 2 religions in this world.

“My father is Muslim, and my mother was raised Christian if that answers your question.”

“What is your boyfriend’s religion?”

I get at this point that she doesn’t give a fuck what we actually believe, but wants to know how we were raised.

“He comes from a Christian family.”

In the Middle East not having a religion isn’t really an option.

She retracted back into the office, and within a half an hour of the border crossing I was presented with my passport and a stamp on a separate paper allowing me to enter the Zionist country, and the occupied Arab lands. My posse of new found friends had at this point arranged for me a taxi that would take me all the way to Nablus for the steep price of 600 Shekels ($162.00). I negotiated this down to 550 Shekels ($148.00), but the cab driver refused to go lower because it was after 10:30 at this point and it was risky to cross into the West Bank. This taxi driver was Israeli, and because of this was not permitted to take me into Palestine. He passed me off to a Palestinian driver who took me the rest of the way into Nablus. I arrived in Nablus at 12:00 am, approximately 9 hours after my journey had begun.

Reflecting over this trip I found 2 specific points very interesting.

1-      Because in general, Israelis cannot enter the West Bank and Palestinians cannot travel out of the West Bank easily, information does not travel between the two populations. This allowed the Israeli population to have access to the actual hours of the checkpoints, while everyone in the West Bank had been told and believed that all the checkpoints would be closed.

2-      I found it interesting that while the Israeli Government/ IDF were keeping me from entering the country; it was IDF soldiers that were reassuring me and helping me make plans and arranging taxis for me. This was a reminder that in any country where military service is mandatory, there are going to be soldiers who aren’t dedicated to the actions of their government.

Once in Nablus the trip was really enjoyable. The city is very depressing. I learned that Nablus had been destroyed during the second intifada and up until recently still experienced nightly raids. The population had been forced to live their lives in fear. The physical structures had clearly been through war, and writings and drawings on almost every wall were a reminder of the pain this city had been through, or rather, is going through. I have spent years researching the facts, attending and even running protests, arguing with friends, but no matter how much you think you know the conflict, it is impossible to feel the conflict. What I felt when walking down the streets of the old city and seeing pictures of martyrs on the walls was only a taste of the feeling that is occupation. A feeling that every kid on the street was born into and lives with everyday. I repeat the mantra echoed through the Zionist organizations prior to the creation of the state of Israel. Visit Palestine. If you are in the region, visit. If you aren’t, go someday. Because there is nothing you can read, research, hear, that will teach you how it feels to be in the occupied lands.

I departed from Palestine Sunday morning. I took a service to Jenin, and then do to a miscommunication that I still can’t figure out, I ended up on a second Service that took me to the Malik Hussein (Allenby Bridge) border crossing. This meant going from Jenin, back through Nablus to Jericho to the Border. Woops! This apparent curse, turned out to be a blessing. Foreigners are only supposed to travel through the Sheik Hussein border because that is where they issue Visas. My visa, still good for 3 more days, allowed me to cross through the Malik Hussein border, an experience few foreigners have. This Border is used almost exclusively by Palestinians, and the condition was reflective of the degree Israel respects its neighbors.  I quickly passed through the Palestinian Authorities side of the border. The next stop was the Israeli point. We were herded onto large busses with about 50 people. The bus drove up to a gait and parked behind a line of five identical busses. Lucky to be sitting next to a Palestinian woman who had been born in the United States, she explained that the IDF only let through one bus every 15 minutes, or at least it was supposed to be 15 minutes. In reality it was much more inconsistent than that. It was about 2 hours before our bus was let through. At that point there were 8 busses lined up behind us. The bus was hot, crowded and had no air-conditioning. Who knows how long the people in the last bus waited for? That bus took me to another building that was dirty and full of booths to check passports. The IDF agents were unhelpful and stern. Then one told me to go to another desk because I had an American passport. That desk took me to a different room for foreigners. This one was clean and empty. After paying a ridiculous exit fee of 167 Shekels ($45.00), I was let through with no problem. I waited about 1 hour for a bus, which took me to the Jordan entrance.  Entering Jordan was Hassle free, and I shared a taxi back to Amman with three other people making the cost only 8 JD ($11.00).

                It was more than worth it to go to Palestine, but the shit they make you go through to get there is, well, Shit. I have never felt more devalued and humiliated than I did entering the country, and all they did was ask me a bunch of questions and made me sit in a room for several hours. The occupation has destroyed the lives of MILLIONS of Palestinians. Whether it is by forcing them to leave their homelands and seek refuge in surrounding cities such as Amman, or by depriving them of fundamental rights and destroying their towns.

I have included a lot in this post, but if there is anything else you want to know, or would like me to elaborate on something, please post a comment and I will be happy to respond.

 ألحرية لفلسطين

 Freedom To Palestine

Sara

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