Leaving Palestine: ‘Give ’em something to talk about’

A fleeting moment of romance in grueling border terminal that devours you alive — and yet you don’t die. A day at the Allenby border crossing. (Read part one of this series here.)

By Bassam Almohor

Saqallah ala ayyam zaman (I long for the old times) when we used to travel all over el blad (the country),” my father uttered with tears in his eyes; he longed for the old days. Are they really that old? Until the late eighties, I was able to go to Gaza in a single bus ride, no transfers, straight from Jenin to Gaza. And now you tell me I can’t even go to Jerusalem? That I need a brown paper? They call it permit, and a plastic card they call “momaghnata” (magnetic). Sagallah ala ayyam zaman, when it used to take us only half an hour to reach the airport in Lydda. Do you want to know how I have to travel? Are you ready for the details? Sometimes, it takes us 12 hours to cross the border, the first border to the airport; it’s a painful, dirty, ugly, long, tiresome, boring and sad journey.

It starts on a Thursday morning when I went to work as usual. I quickly finish up all that I could so I can leave before noon. I had a three-week vacation for New Year’s and I decided to leave the smoky, dusty area I live in. I arrive in the center of town and go straight to the bus station (or the van station, to be precise). The van I find is completely empty — except for the girl sitting in the front seat. I sit in the back, reading a paper I picked from the kiosk next to the station. I’m wearing a red jacket and a Palestinian keffiyah around my neck.

She was wearing a black leather jacket. That’s all I noticed from the back seat. I saw her from the back, her glowing curly hair and her facial expressions that I couldn’t really see. I thought I knew this girl, or maybe we’d met before. Our city is small and there’s really no reason we shouldn’t know each other. I quickly flush that idea out of my head since thoughts like those are only excuses to talk to the girl with the beautiful curly hair sitting in front of me, or only to get to talk to a young girl – especially when traveling, when getting to know people becomes easier, since we share the same fate.

She looks back twice, our eyes meet, but my eyes quickly and shyly run back to the bold headlines in my newspaper – trying to read something here and there. The van is full now, ready to go toward the land border, what they call istiraha (an eternal waiting room, or shed) or jisr (the bridge), the place I hate most. We arrive at last and I sigh in relief; we have safely arrived at the first stop, the one I was worried about as I thought about how we would cross.

Palestinians wait at the Allenby bridge border crossing. (By Bassam Almohor)
Palestinians wait at the Allenby bridge border crossing. (By Bassam Almohor)

I get out of the van and carry my backpack toward the queue of hundreds of people carrying whatever they can – boxes, bags, barrels of olive oil, a thousand other things that are impossible to count. The image reminds me of our exodus, our expulsion – it reminds me of the Nakba: thousands of people leaving, waiting for the unknown, carrying their belongings in boxes and standing in line.

I feel alienated. What am I doing in this place? It’s not mine; I’m wasn’t born for this. I feel tired, sick and nauseated. I try not to look at anybody, not to let my eyes meet anybody else’s. She is standing there next to me. She speaks on her cellular phone every now and then. I can hear her lovely voice.

I think of talking to her. It’s a great opportunity to talk to her, I thought to myself, but only when she finishes her phone call. I look at her again, but… I hate mobile phones. Her phone rings again.

And since I’m not that patient, I think to myself, “fuck it, forget it. I don’t want to talk to that ‘cellular’ girl.” Let me get back to my newspaper. I feel the urgent need to have a smoke. I don’t dare. It’s Ramadan!

I put down the rucksack I was still carrying, dig out my paper and continue reading. I start reading the opinion pages, which I have never done before; I was never interested, but in this place, with all this waiting, I could even read the sports pages. To no avail, I couldn’t focus even on one full sentence. There was no room for that; she is right next to me and it is clear we both need to talk, to break that silence between our noisy and miserable fellow travelers, to make these long hours of waiting the slightest bit easier in some way.

Read part one of this series

I examine the faces of my fellow travelers without looking into their eyes. They are miserable. Are all of them thinking what I’m thinking? “Fuck it. Why? Are other people forced to travel like us, waiting all these hours in a border town 250 meters below sea level? Why only us? Fuck borders.” Is that what all the hundreds of travelers all around me are thinking, or is it only me? I don’t know. At least some of them were thinking that, I think. Perhaps some of them are thinking about meeting their loved ones on the other side of the border. But this is only the first border; there is more checking ahead, three more stops on the western side of this miserable river called Jordan and two more on its eastern side. All of this misery and agonizing waiting just to get to a nice police officer who says you can cross. Some of them must be thinking of their studies, some about their lovers, their daughters, sons or their businesses. Some of them chat and laugh. They are strong. How can they have fun even in these long moments of waiting? Or are they trying to be sarcastic in an attempt to defeat this oppression?

It’s one of the more difficult moments in life — when alienation reveals its ugly face. It’s one of the most difficult situations when borders devour you alive, but you don’t die. You see hatred and exhaustion, you see patience in the eyes of mothers and children, and in the eyes of a nearly 80-year-old man inching along on his crutches, clutching his his passport like a wall to protect himself with.

All of this and more fill these moments, in these long hours of waiting that explode with anger and hatred that stick in our hearts. She shouts at the police officer who was helplessly trying to gather his dignity, or what was left of it. But in this place, dignity is dumped in the garbage bin. Everyone wants to get out of this place. Everybody pushes toward the bus that takes a few of us at a time — the bus that takes the lucky ones. And let’s not forget that it’s Ramadan. The travelers here are fasting, or not, but they cannot say it out loud. They can’t drink, smoke or eat until sunset. Even those who do not fast, or cannot fast, must do so in public.

It felt like a breath of fresh air, or a fresh, cold drop of water when she came back and stood close to me. At that moment, when I hear her shouting at the police officer, I think of what to say, to start a conversation with her: “Do you think we’ll make it to the other side of the border today?” But suddenly she is on the other side of the mass of human chaos. I think that maybe she found a way to leave, that she found an opening, a place to jump over the human wall. I am suddenly sad, but at the same time content because I won’t have a chance to get to know her. If I knew her, I think to myself, it would be more difficult and sad to leave her.

I roll my eyes back to my newspaper, to the article I was trying to read — to the beginning of the article because I forgot where I stopped reading when her shouting interrupted me. I forgot all about the article. Perhaps it was the tenth time that I reread the first paragraph. I check the sentences, phrases and words, trying to find something to distract me from the thoughts in my head, or the sadness that lingers over the moment when I will have to leave her.

But she comes back again and stands next to me. I look up and immediately find her next to me, this time very close. I feel stupid and sad that I didn’t have the guts to scream at the police officer. I stare at her again to double check that it is really her standing next to me. Yes, she’s the one. I hear her talking and cursing the police officers. I’m happy, she’s back. I’m happier this time; I can definitely start talking to her. I hesitate. I repeat the rehearsed sentence several times in my head, as if I’m going to deliver a speech on some international stage, until I am finally able to utter into her ear: “You gave them something to talk about.”

To be continued…

Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call here.