I finally went to Palestine
. At the urging of my friends here in Jordan I crossed last Friday and spent the weekend in East Jerusalem. I packed a few things in my bag and J2 and I met a group of archaeologists and shared a chartered bus with them. I figured with 4 Syrian visas, one Lebanon and one Iran, I would be back in Amman by dinner time, but I some how made it. After I was granted a visa one woman from the group told me that she thought there was no way they would let me in. I have come to realize that my one life skill is crossing borders. So I’ll begin by telling you how oddly easy it was.
We left Amman at 7 in the morning and took a bus with American Christian evangelicals to the King Hussein Bridge. People were stamped out of Jordan. The Jordanians put the exit stamp on the back of the 5 JD exit fee paper instead of in passports. They didn’t even ask, they just assumed. Interesting. Then, we took the same bus across the bridge. Typically, people arrive at the Jordanian exit point, take separate transportation across the bridge, and take a third ride into the West Bank. We jumped the que of busses and headed across the Jordan River. Once across, an Israeli woman boarded the bus and asked us if we had any weapons. From there we were herded into a building adjacent to the building where I saw them herding the Palestinians waiting to cross. We lined up for our visas. J2 looked nervously at me. I approached the woman behind the glass and slipped my passport through the slit. She looked at my passport and told me to wait. They processed all the others save me and one other man. He had traveled to Syria in 2000, he told me. The women behind the counter helped us to fill out paperwork, and told us to sit down. We did. At one point a woman asked me when I went to Iran (I guess they couldn’t read the date since the numbers are Iranian and not Arabic???). Then she asked me what my father’s name is. About an hour later the group decided to go. The bus was waiting for them, and me, J2 and this man said we would take a taxi to Jerusalem. So, we said good-bye to the group and told them we’d see them soon. They prepared to depart. Just as the bus started to pull away, the woman with our passports emerged from her glass box and told us we were free to go. I think they were just trying to delay us. The man waiting with us booked it outside and actually caught the bus. We were in Jerusalem by 10 in the morning. I’m told this will NEVER happen again. They did not search my bags or ask me any other questions.
Jerusalem was beautiful and, more importantly, cooler than Amman. The heat wave here last week made Amman just miserable, and the cool breeze was such a welcome change. I shared a room with a very fundamentalist Christian woman from Michigan. I quickly threw my stuff in our room and headed out with J2 and A, the lovely woman who invited us to tag along. A is amazing. She’s almost 80, comes to Jordan every summer to excavate, has more energy than most 20 year-olds I know, and has to be the kindest person on the planet. It was truly a privilege to get to know her. Both A and J2 have been to Jerusalem a million times, but both were also kind enough to show me all the tourist stuff since it was my first time. It was Friday afternoon, and we walked down to the Damascus Gate, which led us into the Arab Quarter of the city. We headed for a shop owned by a Palestinian family A has known for several decades. When the men in the shop saw her they jumped up and began kissing and hugging her and calling her Mama. It was such a sight! We had tea, and they caught up. She hadn’t seen them for a year. A told me a bit about the family. They are from Ram Allah. Originally they are from near Tel Aviv, and in 1948 ended up in Jerusalem. The man we spent the most time with, H, told me that his mom was almost left behind. His grandparents carried all the kids they could, and she made it only because her older brother was able to carry her. H and his siblings were all born in Jerusalem, and so they have the blue Jerusalem ID cards. Their vehicles also have the yellow license plates that allow them to move between Ram Allah and Jerusalem. This drive would take 20 minutes without the wall, but now can take about 3 hours. Palestinians who have vehicles with white and green plates, and green ID cards cannot enter Jerusalem. Blue ID Palestinians with yellow plates cannot go to Nablus or Jenin. It sucks. So, H’s father started with nothing back in the day, and now his sons have antique shops all around the Old City. They are by no means poor, but they are also not immune from the suffering heaped on Palestinians in the West Bank. H was shot at one of the check points years ago while he was trying to go home. He told me that he saw a Palestinian shot, and this man was bleeding and needed help. H jumped out of his car to help, evidently freaking out the Israeli soldiers, and he too was shot. After that he moved to Jerusalem, refusing to do the commute. He told me he doesn’t even have a car now. Can’t say I blame him.
Invited for lunch the next day, we said our Salaams and continued on seeing the city. We walked along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked to his crucifixion, and saw the Jafr Gate and later the Church of the Holy Sepulture.
I saw the stone where Jesus’ body was washed after he died, I saw Golgotha, I saw the place where I was told he is buried. It was amazing watching people come and worship. Men and women from all over the world entered the church and began weeping. Others seemed stunned and were silent and still. The Church itself it huge, and we spent a bit of time there. From there we headed to the Western Wall. It was approaching sunset, and A and J2 told me this would be the best time to see the Dome of the Rock. We stopped for a falafel sandwich and then walked through security into the plaza where the Western Wall is. It was sunset on Friday, and the place was packed. I don’t like crowds, but J2 told me I had to go touch the wall. I’m glad she did. Both A and J2 went with me. A told me that we needed to back away from the wall when we were ready to go. I’m so glad she told me that! We threw scarves on and walked up to the small section of the wall left for women to visit. As I walked up I saw young women backing away with tears in their eyes. We made our way in, and I saw the little notes that people write and stick into the wall. Women were rocking back and forth and reading the Torah. It was quite a frenzy, but I touched the wall! As you can imagine, the stones are nicely polished at this point from so many people coming to touch them. I awkwardly walked backwards away from the wall.
After that we went to the American Colony and had tea. We were all exhausted. I went back to my hotel and tried to write notes while my roommate continued to talk to me.
The next morning I ate my egg and drank my Nescafe and left the hotel to meet up with J2 and A, who seemed happy to have had ham for breakfast. My roommate followed me to the hotel because she said she needed to talk to A about how to take a taxi. I assured her that she just needed to walk outside and take a taxi! At the AC I handed her off the A who promptly sent her off in a taxi. We walked down to the old city, and it was even cooler on Saturday than Friday. As we walked down one street several Arab kids blocked our way and told us, “this way is closed.” We stood there for several seconds, and then they laughed and let us pass. Lest you think that random road blocks and all the other quotidian BS that taints the lives of these people is not ingrained in kids, be assured it is.
We did some shopping. I bought a beautiful jacket. Or, I should say that K bought me a beautiful jacket. After being unburdened of our money we met with A’s family for lunch. H was late meeting us because a friend of the family had drowned the day before, and he was buried that morning. 25 years old, and set to be married the next week, his fiancé was somehow rescued from the water where he died. H arrived at his shop and apologized for being late. He walked us up the Via Dolorosa and we turned a corner and continued to his house. What a house! More on that later. We went upstairs and met a room full of women who hugged and kissed us. H’s mama grabbed A and cried and kissed her. H’s mom doesn’t speak English, and A knows no Arabic, but I assure you these women were communicating just fine. We sat down to a table of hummus, shrimp, fish filets, chicken with peppers, soup, salads of all kinds, and warm bread. My usual panic set in regarding being fed by Palestinians. There was no way we were going to be able to eat enough to satisfy mama. Then, 5 minutes after we began eating H’s hilarious sister got up and emptied a bathtub-sized pot of grape leaves and chicken onto a place and put that in the middle of the crowded table! The chicken and grape leaves were so fragrant and delicious. The grape leaves had a bit of meat in them, and they were by far the best I have ever had. I particularly enjoyed the chicken with sweet peppers. Mama and daughter were amazing hostesses and continued to shovel food onto our plates despite our insistence that we’d had enough. Luckily I fasted that day to prepare, but still, I was told that I didn’t eat enough. What a wonderful ritual! Kateer zacky!
From there we went up several flights of stairs to the top of the house. The view of the old city cannot be better from any other place. There is a little crow’s nest on the top of the house. We shimmied up a ladder so we could look all around. Once we were done enjoying the view-porn we crawled back down and mama was waiting with tea and sweets. We sat with the family and H talked more about his experiences as a Palestinian in the West Bank. I will tell you that at the end of his narrative he told us, Every year we say ‘next year has to be better,’ and then it isn’t. People can’t go on like this. We Palestinians live to suffer. I will tell you that that wall will come down because we will tear it down with our hands. People are not naturally like this, they won’t live like this, and I don’t believe that most people want this kind of oppression for others. Even in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus, they are caged in like animals. The city of Jesus is surrounded by one of those walls! We are like Jesus. We are Muslims, but we now live to suffer in the land of Jesus. We know we will be rewarded for our suffering just like he was. But now, that is all we have to live for.
After lunch we went with Abu Yosef, a friend of H, to Ram Allah. AY has a Jerusalem ID. We drove along a road headed for Ram Allah and AY told me who is living where, “…This side Jewish, this side Palestinian…” At one point we came upon a row of honking cars. The bride and groom were at the front of the pack. We were all heading for the check point. Even on her wedding day, she sat in check point traffic. We drove along side of the Wall and eventually emerged in Qalandia. We passed from the developed world into the Neolithic. On the Jerusalem side, the streets are maintained and everything is clean. Immediately on the other side, the road was nearly impassable. There were massive pot holes (another reason H told me he won’t commute), and rubble strewn all over the place. There are massive guard towers abutting the break in the Wall where the check point is.
The tower I saw up close is pock marked. AY told me that people throw stones at it. Self-consciously engaging in Misery Tourism, I listened as AY told me things like, “many, many Martyrs from here… Many, many Palestinians killed here, and here, and over there…” We drove into one of the refugee camps in Qalandia. Houses were built upon each other, there is just no room for the amount of people there. AY said, “See them all just sitting around? There is no work! There is nothing for them!” Every house I saw had “Fatah” spray painted on it. One had “Fatah Hamas.” We headed north to Ram Allah. Ram Allah is strange to me. There is a lot of money there in some places. AY told me that Palestinians from the States or Canada are returning and bringing cash with them. They are building enormous houses that over look the camps there. Strange. In Amman everything seems so segregated to me, but it wasn’t there. Ram Allah has a new mega mall, and a nice Turkish Bath. The middle of the town was packed with people and really nice looking shops. There were Palestinian police all over the place. We headed to the Tomb of Arafat, which is on the property where his house is. You know, the house where he spent the end of his life under siege. I went there. We walked in and AY prayed at the tomb for a moment and then had a smoke.
I stood there slowly turning around only able to say, “Wow… wow… Oh my God.” We drove on and as we watched people regularly run lights, AY told me that there is no law in Ram Allah, “like in Jordan, you know?” In fact, in Jerusalem he had to remind me to put on my seat belt. (Haven’t done that since March.) Once we crossed into Qalandia, he reached over and pushed my seat belt button and said, “ok, you’re out of Jerusalem, you don’t need this anymore.” We drove on the road that skirts the wall, and I saw numerous settlements. AY said, “The Israelis build these, but no one lives in them! Maybe one or two families.” We passed an Arab community where cars cannot go because the road leading in there, which passes under the road we were on, was filled with rubble ostensibly for security. Now, people have to park somewhere and hike into their community. We headed toward Jericho (?) and turned right to what AY called an Israeli Check Point. The Arabic sign at the check point said Ahlan wa Shalan. AY told me that we would pass without problems because he has yellow plates and he said, “They think I am Russian or something.” He is pale and has beautiful blue eyes. He also had a car with 3 Western women. A soldier looked in the car after AY said Shalom to him, and we were waved though. AY told me that if I were muhajabee, or looked Arab, we would have been there all night.
AY drove us up to the Mount of Olives and we looked down on Jerusalem on one side, and Jordan on the other. He took me to my hotel. I thanked him and said good night to J2 and A. Again, I tried to write while my roommate continued talking to me.
Sunday I was up early to avoid further conversation and get to the Dome of the Rock before we had to head back to Amman at noon. A and J2 met me at my hotel and we walked over. After going through a few security checks we emerged on the platform and I saw the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. At this point I did get choked up a bit. Not because I was over come with religious emotion, but because I thought of my friends in Jordan who were excited about me visiting since they cannot. One friend here told me, “I wish I could go with you and see Jerusalem,” another asked me to bring a rock or something so he could have a little piece of the city. The profound religious experience is lost on me, but it would not be on my Palestinian friends here, and the profound sadness of this is not lost on me. Even with many troubling visas, I was allowed to go just because I was born in Washington D.C. What is wrong with this world? I took a billion pictures and a few rocks. The entrance into the Dome of the Rock was opened. I looked in. What an amazing place, and I feel lucky that I was able to see it. Tonight I will tell one friend about it, and give him some gifts I got his family in Jerusalem.
At noon the group came back together and we boarded our A/Ced bus and headed back to Jordan. This gave us one more opportunity for us to see that horrible Wall. My roommate knew nothing about the wall. She didn’t even know it existed. What an ideal state citizen!
We headed down below sea level to get stamps and forms. My passport was not stamped, though I told them they could. I have no evidence in my passport of my visit. Just as well, I guess. The others in the group asked to make sure their passports were not stamped as well. The Israeli security ladies asked each person “Why?” The answer each gave was that they might want to visit Syria some day. Oh, sure, that will happen. The same women who had NO IDEA that there are nasty things happening in the West Bank, who told me she is “miffed” when she wants to buy something from a Jordanian and he doesn’t speak English, she is going to keep the Syria option open. Excuse me if I’m skeptical.
It was hot in the Ghour! We headed out of the valley up into a much cooler Amman. J2 and I (after much argument with the bus driver) jumped out at the Air Port Road and took a taxi home.
Now it is nice and cool in Amman. I’m so glad. It was awful last week.
As I look over my pictures I have such mixed reactions to each one. I thought I would never go over there. I didn’t want to go and support what I consider to be a military occupation. But, my Palestinians friends here have in this year encouraged me to go and see for myself how people live there. It was as bad as I expected. When we entered Qalandia I could hear J2 and A sitting in the back of the car expressing horror at what they saw. I just sat there undaunted. I’ve spent 10 months documenting misery now. When I see mobs of people sitting outside of their small houses I think things like, I bet that guy over there is a wicked-good backgammon player. My perspective on this is not fresh enough to know if the people who live in the misery we came to see can also see it. I’m sure they can’t always ignore it. Those kinds of living situations produce a collective misery. Once misery is transformed from an individual experience to a community experience, I think observers loose the individual in that sea.
Jerusalem is a beautiful city. It struck me that Arabs and Israelis live together because they kind of have to at this point. I didn’t enter a single Palestinian-owned shop that wasn’t stocked with Jewish and Israeli souvenirs (i.e. caps that said “Israeli Army”, or Star of David jewelry). They need each other. And, they make it work. As individuals, people can come to an understanding. I saw Jewish Israelis conduct business with, and share genuine friendship with Palestinians. I come away from my very limited time there believing that the governments are the culprits there. I guess I’m not entirely surprised. A few evil people with the power to govern folks like my oblivious roommate is all that seems to be necessary for violence and oppression to continue.