September journey part 6: Our reasons for living

Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian Territories through a month of trial. And today: From grandma’s house to the Tulkarem PLO headquarters.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living

Like a proper Little Red Riding hood, I set off this morning to visit my grandmother. She lives in a retirement home in the city of Kfar Saba. About twenty kilometers north east of Tel-Aviv.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
"Mediterranean Towers" retirement home, Kfar Saba

Kfar Saba is situated immediately on the Israel side of the Green line. so I shouldn’t be surprised that the lady sitting next to me on the bus over turns out to be a settler, but I am. She doesn’t “look it”, as far as the stereotype goes: no religious headgear, no automatic-weapon-yielding husband by her side. She’s just a very pleasant middle aged secular woman, with cropped grey hair and a peach colored summery blouse. Her name is Dvora.

I ask Dvora how life is on the settlement. “Would be good once they let us be,” is her response.

“Who are they?”

“The government. They won’t let us build homes. The younger generation wants to return from the city and live next to us, and there are no homes for them.”

“But I thought construction in the settlements never ceases. Netanyahu was resistant to all of Obama’s pleas to that effect…”

“Rural construction never ceases,” she corrects me. “Karnei Shomron is an urban community. Besides, the rural communities don’t have much luck either. This morning the government demolished three structures in Migron. To whom did these structures do any harm?”

I’ve got the name of a certain nation on the tip of my tongue, but choose to withhold. Why kill the conversation so early? Instead, I ask her how long she’s lived in Karnei Shomron.

“From the beginning,” she says, “it’s been forty years now. We started off in Kdumim, living in tents. We did something with our lives.”

Dvora is fond of the youths currently living in tents around the country, pushing for social change, but she’s worried that the struggle will slide to the left and turn her and hers into the enemy. I come out of the closet as a left-wing voter to see it I would consequently turn into an enemy in her eyes. Unfortunately, I do, and we spend the last portion of the ride politely arguing about whether my friends and I control the media and court system and whether we are funded by dark foreign regimes.

Unlike Dvora, who knows exactly who I am and what I am plotting against the state. My sweet grandma isn’t too sure of the visitor’s identity. I spend most of the visit talking to her Philippina caretaker, Rondi.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
The flatmates.

Both Rondi and my grandma are immigrants. Grandma Malka was brought here from Poland as a little child. Rondi chose to train as caretaker after twenty years of working as gym teacher. I ask her whether she experiences any of the tensions of the country in which she ended up.

“I’ll tell you the truth” she says, “I want your grandma to be very very healthy so I can stay a long time.”

On my way out of the home, I turn back to photograph it and am suddenly swept by a river of Muslim ladies walking into its parking lot.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
These ladies do not live in Kfar Saba.

They are the chambermaids, and they all know my grandma and love her. This is a good cue to make a change of scene, after two days of hearing mostly Hebrew (excluding cameo appearances by Nepalese, Tigrinya and Tagalog). I follow them to a bus stop and board a bus to the city of Taybe (Not the source of excelent Taybe beer, which comes from an identically named village near Ramallah).

We first pass through Al Tira, a large Palestinian Israeli town. The proximity of Kfar Saba is evident here. I counted 43 Hebrew words and only 9 Arabic ones in the image below, and the building itself could be in the heart of any coastal Israeli town.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
"Paradise Fish", Al Tira.

Taybe is one step further, and not only from Kfar Saba, but also from normality. It is a tragically crime ridden city, the kind of place that has the police station situated on its very outskirts. Police vehicles are known to only enter central Taibe in convoys, and only on “special occasions”.

The policeless interior of Taybe is part slum, part Bel Air.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
Neo-classical, but hardly neo-classy.

I enter a palace under construction. The interior is full of pigeon droppings. Construction must have halted a decade ago.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
One of the original Herculian tasks involved cleaning up something like this. I'm not kidding.

My mind begins weaving the tale of a roller coaster ride in Taybe’s underworld. One day you’re up, the next day your buried in pigeon shit. C’est la vie, ya habibi. As the saying goes around these parts: One day honey, one day onion.

Yes, but the shattering of a dream is still sad. I think back to what Dvora said: “We did something with our lives.” The sense of fulfillment people get from building a home in this land, be they Jewish or Arab, is transcendental: a reason to live.

My reason to live is a little different. I live to explore. Just north of here and across the separation wall is the city of Tulkarem,. not only have I never been there, I’ve never even seen a photo of it.

Restriction can be partially blamed for that. Tulkarem is considered “Area A”. The West Bank was first separated into Areas A B and C in the 90s as part of the Oslo Accords, a separation that was supposed to be an interim phase on the way to a two state solution. The Palestinians were first given control over about 10% of the territory, which includes city centers. These were to expend in later phases.

The later phases never arrived. Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. The peace process stalled, The pockets of Palestinian-controlled land remain surrounded by Mutually controlled area B and Israeli controlled area A, which makes up most of the West Bank. Follwing the Second Intifada, the IDF forbade all Israeli citizens from entering Area A, explaining that it cannot be responsible for our safety there. Later the ban was removed from Palestinian Israelis, who are free to travel.

At this point I can still go will little risk into many parts of Area A. I simply need to smuggle myself out through countryside roads that are blocked with gravel mounds by the army, rather then with manned checkpoints, or use checkpoints that are also used by settlers. I also must be sure to avoid contact with Palestinian police, because they are obliged to hand over all Israeli citizens to the Israeli authorities, which have been known to arrest, interrogate and fine, people whose reason for living is the bridging of such divides.

TulKarem is also excitingly forbidden, and thus attractive enough to justify complicated maneuvers in the heat of day. I walk on foot into the hills, reach a road designated for settlers only, pass the checkpoint eastbound, walk into an olive grove and emerge at a road accessible to Palestinian cars.

An hour later, i’m in Tulkarem, and it’s great.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
Notice the building with the colonial facade, I can't think of a similar detail in the region.

I love the bustle of a Palestinian city, love the nargileh and good coffee, love the friendliness of the people. At the market, the vendor won’t let me pay for two nectarines. Later, as I head out, somebody figures out I’m Israeli and tosses a nectarine to hit me. I end up getting three nectarines for free, though one of them ends up rolling away down the street.

It’s an attractive street, grace of the Jerusalem-like use of stone in the architecture. The Jordanians, who ruled Tulkarem between 1948 and 1967, chose to preserve the spirit of the old city in its modern buildings.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
You know a city doesn

They also gave Tulkarem enormous curbs, a staple of Jordanian cities.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
Hardly the town for people on wheelchairs.

While we’re at it, let’s also blame them for local English spelling.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
Pubik's rube.

My favorite monument in Tulkarem precedes Jordanian rule. It is the old Turkish governor’s house, turned city hall, turned offices of the PLO, with its staircases a la Chateau de Fontainbleu.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
From the top of these stairs, the high-rises of Netanya can be seen in the distance.

One block to the south of here, I strike a conversation with a restaurant owner named Jad. He believes me to be a British journalist and fondly speaks of a visit he once made to Wales. “I like the people there very much,” Jad says, “I like anyone who knows how to smile.”

A comment like this enables me to bring up the day’s existential question. “What do you live for?” I ask Jad.

“Only Jerusalem,” he says, “Jerusalem in the West Bank.”

It is about to get dark, I get a feeling that I should be heading back.

September journey part 6: Our reasons for living
"The last scud of day holds back for me" - Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 52.

I make it back to the checkpoint and there am stopped, not because anyone suspects I’ve been to illegal Tulkarem, but because I am on foot. It turns out no pedestrian traffic is allowed. An Arab speaker awaiting inspection in a lane designated for Palestinian-Israelis (Jewish Israelis pass un-inspected) invites me into his car. After a long wait we are approved and head towards the sunset.

His name is Samir, and he turns out to be a self-made Palestinian Israeli. Samir was born in Tulkarem, then met a girl from Taibe while working in an Israeli potato-packing plant. They married and moved there and he received a coveted blue ID. His parents, however, remain beyond the wall. “I pass here a hundred times a day,” he says.

I ask him how he would you feel if September’s UN vote would eventually turn the Green Line again into an international border. Borders in the middle east can be hard to cross. What if passing through became difficult or impossible?

“They’ll find some solution for us,” he says, “I’m not the only one from Tulkarem who got Israeli status through marriage. There’s a lot of us with our families inside. They’ll have to get us some sort of passes.”

“What if they don’t?”

“If they don’t and the border ends up being hermetically shut, then i’m scaling this wall. I kid you not.”

Samir’s reason to live is family, especially his children. I think this a good reason, and think back to my grandma. Towards the end of my visit today she said: “I’m beginning to remember you,” and there was light in her eyes as though we haven’t met in many years.

Samir refuses to drop me off in Taybe after dark and takes me to the pleasant center of Al Tira, where I can catch a bus. As I descend I think of the many family longings packed in this day. Mine for my grandma, Dvora for her children who live in the city, and Samir’s longings for his parents, which are strong enough for him to travel incessantly. Of all of these families, I realize, only one family does get split up for years, and as I pass through nighttime Kfar Saba I’m thinking of Rondi.

This post is dedicated in the memory of another grandma I love: Linsey’s Grandmother Elma Krantz, who passed away this week in Salt Lake City. May she rest in true peace.

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