AT HOME IN PALESTINE
Kaput writer Amira El-Kordy visited her second home Palestine last September. A formative experience. For us she has edited her impressions of it in pictures and words.
The thing about traveling and returning is this: All the memories, smells, sounds, moments and encounters are still whirring around in your head in such a present way that you feel sorta lost in your everyday life at first. This is accompanied by the feeling to not be able to explain what you experienced to anyone. You are believing that now you have a much better understanding of the world while at home everything seems awfully unchanged. Creepingly you settle back in, somehow this works.
My latest travel brought me to Palestine, my second home. Or first home? What is home at all and how does it feel? Is home the place you were born, where you grew up? Or ist it the place where you feel comfortable and secure?
Questions that you are grappling with when you live here and your roots are at a completely different place – questions that seem more up to date then ever in the face of the currently attested masses of fugitives that hope for a new home in our country among others,
To get into the West Bank in the Middle East you have to cross a lot of borders. Borders that separate the airport of Tel Aviv from the city or Jordan form Jerusalem or Jerusalem from Ramallah. Borders that regulate, restrict and control the life of all the people in the country. Borders that show me that my German passport is useless with the Israeli security agency, because my name and my father’s background are reason for hourlong interrogations and investigations.
It’s not that I hadn’t anticipated this procedure and laid out a plan how I should handle the situation. I decided that I wouldn’t tell a story about a beach holiday in Tel Aviv and snorkeling in the Red Sea, but to stick with the truth; they presumably already were in the know: “Yeas, I’m driving to the West Bank.”
The hail of questions already starts showering on me on the European airport floor:
“Amira, that’s not a German name?”
“How is your relationship with your father?”
“Who are you going to meet during your visit?”
“When and why have you been to the country before?”
“How are you financing the visit?”
“Do you speak Arabic?”
Seemingly harmless questions, the answers on which are examined with the most absolute suspicion, and even written down one-to-one. In retrospect I can not really say why I was expelled from the airline while changing planes in Zurich. After I was led through winding corridors into a small room underneath the airport by the Israeli Security Supervisor, had to hand off all my belongings and had to comply to a physical search while being naked, they told me that I was not entitled to fly with the plane. And now I should get lost.
Once I was back at the gate a Swiss airport employee helped me change my booking. Paris first, then to Tel Aviv. Just a couple of minutes after touchdown I’m in the endless line for the passport control. A quick glance into my passport is enough; the clerk raises from her seat in the small glass cabin, impassively nods to me to show me I should follow her and shows me to the barren waiting area. I’m not going to see my passport until five hours later. Instead I’m being called to an ugly, cold room where I alternately see the stern faces of the Israeli officers and the framed pictures of Sharon, Olmert and Netanjahu on the wall.
I’m tired, and a lot more: furious. I can’t hold back my tears anymore, while I have to answer the same questions about my life and my travel plans over and over and have to unlock my iPhone so they can search my photos and contacts. They know the name and birthplaces of my grandparents in Gaza. They either scream at me or speak derotgatively smiling to me, that I am lying, that I am stating wrong reasons for my visit, that they don’t believe me about not having a concrete appointment with someone in Palestine. I can’t say anymore if they are consciously intimidating and tormenting me or if they actually are being so paranoid that they believe that I am a serious threat for the safety of the state. At one point after handing me back my passport I’m finally granted access to the country.
Tel Aviv is a vibrant city, young, hip and cosmopolitan. A big part of life here takes places at the beach and in the streets full of small cafés and night clubs. Jerusalem on the other hand is still characterized very traditional. One place full of century-old history is strung next to another, three world religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) and their most sacred sites are positioned so close together. I feel the atmosphere in the city oftentimes as very tens, maybe just because the Israeli military (Israel Defence Forces/IDF) are so omnipresent. At one point I’m in the tram squeezed in between several officers in uniform, conversing cheerfully. Automatic gun and baton are pressing against my arm. On their mobile phones are blue and white stickers showing the Israeli flag. Next to me loud teenagers and Ultra-Orthodox families with whining children. A totally normal every day situation in Jerusalem. A short time later, on the same day, I am sitting in an old bus that rockingly drives along the country road. It is one of the many busses that drives several times per hour from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the main city in the West Bank.
At Qalandia Checkpoint, the biggest and most frequented checkpoint of the territory an enormous sign warns Israeli citizens about the continuation of the journey into the Palestine territory of Area A. This is one of the three areas that the West Bank is divided into. The biggest part of the population lives in Area A, Palestine authorities have autonomous governmental power. Area B is comprised of large rural areas, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority are sharing the administration, while the PA is responsible for civil affairs. Around 60% of the West Bank are part of Area C and thereby are under the total control of Israel. This signifies intrusion in all the daily concerns of the Arabic civilian population, including restriction of motion and control of water supply and the expansion of infrastructure. The division into three divisions exists since 1995 and was created within the scope of the Oslo Peace Process.
The procedure at the checkpoint often proves to be tedious, especially at busy times when the Palestinians who work in Jerusalem have to cross the border to get there and back. Tourists get through easier, everyone with a Palestinian identification document have to go through different stations run by the IDF and the Israeli police.
After around 40 minutes on the bus I disembark on the busy courtyard in the center of Ramallah, I am seeing other people, I am breathing in familiar smells, I am hearing new voices, sounds and Arabic music that fills the street with sound.
For the next ten days I am going to visit other cities of the West Bank from here, including Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron – and on every evening on my way back to Ramallah I am going to sit in a crammed Sherut on bumpy, deserted streets, my nose pressed against the window so I can absorb every moment with the beautiful view on olive groves, boulder desert and deserted villages.
Everywhere I go I am received more than warmly and hospitably. I am drinking tea and eating baklava with unfamiliar people who invite me to their house, I am playing with children on the street and I am gifted huge bags filled with freshly made bread. The people from Palestine are very curious without being bothersome, and I feel great joy and something like pride about people coming to them and being interested in their life. As much as I avoid the interaction with strangers in Germany as much do I enjoy swapping stories about my life and my visit to Palestine with the people there at every corner of the street. At the latest when I tell them my name I am being showered with welcomes and make us of the opportunity to learn more about the life of the person in front of me.
Oftentimes it is just a small glimpse, walking a couple of blocks together and talking, as far as it is possible due to the language barrier, a coffee at the corner or a chat on a bench, and still I have the pleasant feeling to take along a bit more of my home.
I am meeting Mohammad Wassef at the hostel in Ramallah where I drops by almost every day and helps from time to time. He tells me how encounters with travelers are enriching him and offering him a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that he can just guess what it is like. He wishes to be able to visit the many friends and encounters from all over the world that he made the years. Up until now he was able to leave the West Bank only once; he was allowed to go to Jerusalem thanks to a special permit.
I try to put into words what life at home looks like, how I am living, working, residing and traveling. Once more I realize how differently our places are shaping us, how the perception of things changes and what kind of an enormous influence the society in which you grow up has. And what kind of basic privileges we in the Western world have, whose existence many people are not aware of enough.
Ramallah as the cultural center of the West Bank is very open and modern. A place where travelers easily can find their way. I really want to stop by the Palestinian Museum that is about to be opened soon. There are no regular opening hours yet, but a short call is enough to get invited to a private tour. The architecturally beautiful new construction that rises up from a hill near Birzeit University is slightly away from Ramallah’s centre. The exterior of the museum, designed by a Jordan designer, includes a café and is surrounded by graduated gardens planted with domestic trees, flowers and herbs.
Natalie Al-Masri is web content coordinator of the museum but she is also responsible for many other tasks that arise. She is already radiantly waiting for me and leads me through the museum that was build in 2014. The exhibitions are not supposed to be restricted to art, installations and screenings with a focus on Palestinian history, culture and society, she tells me. There is also going to be room for educational programs, creative undertakings and research work, which is going to happen in close cooperation and constant interexchange with international institutions and artists.
On Monday I am driving to Hebron with a couple of people. The biggest city in the West Bank is the only one in which the Israeli settlements were build directly in the center of the city. Barbed wire and nets above the alleys are drawing the line between Arabic inhabitants and militant settlers. On watch towers and in the streets soldiers are patrolling twenty-four-seven, they are supposed to protect the 850 settlers. In Hebron the Middle East conflict is palpably bubbling at the surface.
Muhanned Qafesha hails from Hebron and works voluntary for the organisation “Youth Against Settlements”. On this day he guides me through the historic city, arranges conversations wit inhabitants and explains the politic situation. The tour is interrupted when a agitated seeming man comes towards us and reports that just now a 16 year old Palestinian has been shot at one of the checkpoints after having thrown stones at the soldiers. Muhanned is palpably worried and my heart is also beating loud as we press our bodies against the walls of the narrow alley to make room for the soldiers at a military pace. We have to end the tour at this point as more and more riots are happening and the historic city’s streets are being blocked.
In Bethlehem I’m observing a similar situation that symbolically illustrates the conflict, from the car. Far from the tourist center of the city, where the Church of the Nativity can be found, we are driving along the Separation Wall that is decorated with hundreds of banners and graffiti (five of them from Banksy). The construction of the six meters high wall started in 2000 during the second intifada as an alleged protection for Israel and by now measures more than 700km, traversing through 85% of the West Bank. On one street about a dozen youths with slingshots are assembled and are belligerently watching a tank in the distance that was just dismounted by two soldiers. Our taxi driver explains that it is better to avoid getting close to such situations as they can become dangerous quickly. Although the provocation by the youths is reckless, the bottled-up aggression and frustration is understandable, and the relation of the power structure is not fair.
The last couple of days that I am spending in Tel Aviv before traveling back home are feeling strange. Too much has happened for me to join the locals and tourists in their celebratory mood. There is much more substance than what could be expected in the moment, in those short encounters with people on both sides that happen over and over again. At one point I am standing at a traffic light in Tel Aviv when a man from Jerusalem asks me for direction. That’s how we get talking and when he hears that I had traveling in the West Bank he gapes amazed and slightly startled at me. Had I been there on my own? But why? If I hadn’t been frightened?
I ask him what I was supposed to be frightened about and he starts stuttering. He says that it is dangerous there as you read and hear and overhear, and for him getting near the border would already be a danger to his life. I try to explain to him, what I would like to explain to everyone who had a similar reaction: That there has to be less prejudice, less hate and less hostility, more reflection on media reports, more openness and humanity. That most people from Palestine are kind-hearted, loving people, that the West Bank is more than a conflict area and that every single one can contribute to a more peaceful coexistence as long as there is no long-term solution for the Middle East conflict. I will be back, Palestine.