(edited by Kathryn Hummel)
We stopped at a car park on the Israeli side of the Kalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem, through which one must pass in order to enter Ramallah.
‘Listen, Benny,’ said Yaron in a very serious tone, taking the keys out of the ignition. ‘This isn’t Tel Aviv, or even Yaffo or Akko. This is the West Bank. Different rules apply here. The army is king and every soldier can do whatever they want to you. Don’t be naïve. Be careful. I don’t want something to happen to you in there and for it to be on my conscience, because it’ll be my fault. You know that technically Israelis aren’t even allowed into Ramallah. It’s against the law. You’re lucky I was able to get you this permit.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, trying to look calm, but Yaron must have seen the fear on my face. All I knew of the occupied Palestinian territories at that time was what I read in newspapers and books: mostly about human rights abuses, brutality, and poverty. I knew very little about the culture and the people in places like Ramallah — a cultural and political centre for Palestinians but inaccessible to Israelis by law, with very few exceptions.
I stepped out of the car and walked towards the checkpoint. The separation-wall towers glimmered in the sunlight and the cold wind made my eyes water. The checkpoint was quieter than I expected. The boredom on the faces of the businesslike guards, and the ire and helplessness on the faces of the people waiting in the queue, were unmistakable. I stood in line behind a man in a grey suit, his dress shoes dirtied with mud. He looked at me intently.
‘Are you working in Ramallah?’ he asked me in English.
‘No,’ I said, practicing my cover story. ‘I’m a law student. I’m on my way to the university.’
‘Heh, you don’t look like a Palestinian student,’ he said.
‘I’m just visiting here actually. I’m on my way to Bitzeit to hear a talk.’
‘Heh, welcome to Palestine, my friend!’ he said, obvious sarcasm in his voice. ‘You think security at airports is bad? This is much, much worse! Sometimes I get to the other side in 25 minutes maybe — other times I stand for hours. You can never plan too far ahead.’
‘Do you live in Israel?’ I asked.
‘Yes and no,’ he laughed. ‘I live in East Jerusalem, very close to here. I used to drive to my office, but now this wall — I live on one side of it but work on the other side. I live in Beit Hanina — a Palestinian neighbourhood. I work in Ramallah — a Palestinian city. You understand? This wall here separates us from ourselves.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘The whole world is sorry,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘but that has not helped us. You know what would? Action. Seeing the situation for yourself and acting to change it.’
I waited behind the man for close to an hour. The line — or, better, the mass of people rounded up into a three-sided cage of barbed wire and metal bars — moved slowly, and seemed to pause for no apparent reason. When I reached the front of the line I put my bag and all the contents of my pockets on the conveyor belt leading to the X-ray machine. A guard with a blank expression searched me, not concentrating on the task at hand. I walked through a corridor flanked by prison-like bars — barely one person wide — and then through barred tunnels and numerous electronically-controlled turnstiles. I showed my Australian passport and the permit that Yaron organised for me to another guard, who stamped them both. I emerged on the other side.
The taxi I caught quickly reached the outer neighbourhoods of Ramallah. The driver steered the car in a careful and intent manner, as if he was enthralled by the road. I too was enthralled by what I saw. Ramallah was nothing like what I expected. In fact, we could have been driving through Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, or Ajami in Jaffa, or any other Arab neighbourhood back on the other side of the Green Line.
I walked through the central souq, the marketplace, near al-Manara Square, where among the fruit and vegetables were stalls selling clothing, jewellery, films and music. I had read that Ramallah has a religiously relaxed atmosphere, with a highly educated and fashion-conscious population. It is the cultural capital of the West Bank, where the rich and corrupt elites of the Palestinian Authority, the vibrant business class and young professionals, all live among students and activists. Employees of the many international agencies and non-governmental organisations are based there.
This is the city that the Israeli government wants the world to see when they form their opinion of the Palestinian territories: trendy Palestinians in upscale restaurants, not poor peasants a few kilometres away, cut off from their land due to the separation wall; healthy Palestinian feminist activists visiting movie theatres, not mothers in nearby refugee camps whose children have nothing but polluted water to drink; university students from many other Palestinian towns studying information technology or literature, not the students on the other side of the West Bank who must walk for two hours just to get to school because of a lack of public transport, road closures or dire poverty.
I came across a café in one of the side streets near al-Manara that had a mixed crowd and some signs in English. It seemed pleasant enough to sit in and have a quick coffee and a smoke. The café was filled with people and narghile and tobacco smoke.
‘Hello, do you speak English?’ I asked the waiter at the counter.
‘Yes, I do,’ said the waiter in a very convincing American accent. ‘What would you like?’
‘A black coffee,’ I said, ‘and… I’d like to smoke some narghile. What flavours do you have?’
‘Do you want Normal or Fresh?’ he said, putting his hands to his side like a measuring scale.
‘What’s the difference?’ I asked, sounding like a confused tourist and feeling slightly embarrassed.
‘Normal is the Normal one, and Fresh is the Fresh one,’ said the waiter. ‘Ha! Just kidding,’ he continued after a pause, taking a step backwards and pretending to muffle a laughing fit with his hands. ‘Loosen up, man, no need to be so uptight! What are you doing here in Ramallah, anyway?’
‘I’m a law student from Australia,’ I said, trying my best to sound Australian. ‘I’m on my way to Birzeit University, actually. Do you know where I can find the bus that goes there?’
‘Do you have a night class there?’ the waiter asked. ‘I didn’t know they started having night classes in Birzeit.’
‘No, it’s not a night class. I heard that tonight there will a talk there and I’d like to hear it.’
‘Ah…’ said the waiter. ‘I think that talk has been cancelled. My sister is one of the organisers. They didn’t let the speaker in apparently! Even though he was coming from Jordan and didn’t plan on entering Israel anyway. The bastards!’
‘I’m glad the event is cancelled!’ said a woman from across the counter. ‘I don’t want any Israelis coming here. It normalises the occupation, you know, kibinimat; it gives a false picture of mutual coexistence to the world. They want to portray the occupation as benign, but of course it’s not!’
‘You can’t boycott everyone, Ghada!’ said the waiter. ‘You have to be selective and pick your battles. But anyway,’ he turned to me, ‘that talk you wanted to go to is cancelled I think.’
‘That’s disappointing,’ I said, ‘I was looking forward to it.’
‘If you allow me to add just one more thing,’ said Ghada. ‘Forgive me if I sound confrontational. I see you are not from here and so I feel it is my duty to tell you this. You see, we in Ramallah are a perfect example of the modern neo-colonial structure. We have nice houses, bars, theatres, a decent university. All the things that Westerners like. We are a castle in a sea of slums and dispossession. All the Palestinian elites now come here to get rich off the peace industry, while at the same time most of Palestine is rotting away.’
The waiter put my coffee on the table but seemed to have forgotten about the narghile, a good thing because I was beginning to reconsider my earlier plan of staying in the territories after dark and probably overnight. I was getting very anxious, and various worst-case-scenarios were going through my head. It is difficult to free one’s mind of the supposed life-threatening dangers that abound in the territories, especially because almost all of the information about Ramallah and the Palestinian territories is transmitted via Israeli propaganda. The result is a false picture that paints the territories as a warzone and the Palestinians as bloodthirsty villains. But even though my first experience in the West Bank, apart from the checkpoint, was nothing but friendly and interesting, I couldn’t rid the feeling that at any moment this calm situation would erupt into an unmanageable disaster.
I decided to return to Jerusalem. I finished my coffee quickly and paid the waiter.
The taxi ride back to the Kalandia checkpoint did not take long. The queue to enter Israel was significantly longer than earlier in the day when I first arrived. The taxi driver surmised that there must have been a protest against the separation wall at a nearby village and that most of the people lining up were international visitors heading back to East Jerusalem, where many of them stay. The sun was low on the horizon; it was a stark, chilly evening. I walked to the checkpoint and joined the back of the line, feeling no less nervous, sweating more than usual and endlessly rehearsing in my mind my cover story. The queue seemed to progress at an ever-slowing pace, and I wavered between boredom, hunger and a petrified worrying. As Yaron had stressed earlier, the border guards, and all soldiers and security personnel in the territories, are literally free to do as they choose with you. There are no enforceable laws by which to demand your rights, no accepting police station where you can file a complaint, no witnesses, no booklet to look up what procedures you will undergo at the checkpoint: the ordeals come in many forms and spare no-one.
And for the Palestinians queuing up, there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to return to. Some are resigned to live in perpetual uncertainty, holding onto threads of family unity, to a shattered culture, to acts of nation-building by any and every available means; holding on to their passports, identity documents and permits.
It was two hours by the time I reached the front of the line. I put my bag and the contents of my pockets on the conveyor belt in front of the X-ray machine, then proceeded with my passport and permit to one of the guards.
‘Your passport is stamped Palestinian Authority Only: you can’t come into Israel,’ said the guard. An explosion of panic dislodged in my heart.
‘But I came from Israel,’ I protested, trying to stay calm, ‘earlier today. I came from Jerusalem to here and then passed through on my way to Ramallah. Here is my permit.’
‘Never mind the permit,’ said the guard, clearly annoyed at having to explain. ‘The permit is irrelevant. Your passport is stamped Palestinian Authority Only. Any foreign national like yourself who wants to enter the Palestinian territories must have a permit issued by the army, like you have, but they stamped your passport Palestinian Authority Only. You can’t enter Israel.’
‘But I came in from Israel earlier today!’ I pleaded.
‘Oh, yeah?’ said the guard. ‘How did you get into Israel then? Your passport isn’t stamped. It doesn’t show that you’ve been to Israel.’
‘I asked them not to stamp it at Ben Gurion,’ I lied.
The guard was silent for a while, either unsure as to how to proceed or barely containing his rage.
‘Listen, we’re very busy now,’ he said finally. ‘You’re going to have to be honest with me and then there will be no problems, OK? What were you doing in Ramallah if you were in Israel earlier today?’
I recited my cover story, hoping all the while that the guard didn’t notice the incriminating fact that my birthplace, Haifa, is written in my Australian passport.
‘Come with me, sir,’ the guard said coldly. My palpitating heart and shortness of breath made it difficult for me to follow him.
He took me into an interrogation room where he sat me down and told me to wait. I didn’t have my bag or passport or permit with me in the room — in fact I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a panic-stricken expression. I looked around the room: two chairs, a rectangular table, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and nothing else. It was a cellar of sorts: no sound coming in, dead quiet except for my occasional sighs of panic, confusion and anger. Why did they stamp my passport Palestinian Authority Only? I wondered. Was it a mistake? I thought Yaron had organised for me to be allowed to exit and then re-enter Israel? Did the guard notice that my birthplace of Haifa was written on my Australian passport and conclude that I am an Israeli citizen and had thus entered Ramallah illegally? But I thought the permit would be sufficient. Why did the guard insist the permit was irrelevant? Maybe it was a simple mistake, stamping my passport with the wrong stamp? But if it was such a mistake, what now? Could it be fixed? Or would they put me in a military prison or deport me?
And where is my bag? I’m thirsty. I think I still have some water left in my bag. And my passport? What are they doing with it? And this chair is really uncomfortable, like sitting on a pew! I’m getting up. Why did they stamp my passport with the wrong stamp? How long has it been? I stare in panic at the back of the door for a while. An hour? Two maybe? The whole night? I don’t know. But judging by my hunger cramps and dizziness, it had been hours since they told me to wait. What am I supposed to do? Maybe they forgot about me? I should go ask them what’s happening. But the door is locked! Of course, no surprises there. But I had a permit! I’m so hungry. I’ll knock on the door: a dull thump. The door is too thick. What to do now? I’ll sit down, my legs ache anyway. I’ll sit down so that when they come in they’ll think I’m alright, that I’ve been waiting patiently. I won’t let them win. They’re trying to scare me, I’m sure of it. But what if they deport me? Or put me in prison? They can’t, I had a permit! A permit! A few more hours pass. Maybe I should bribe them? No! No bribes! I’m in enough trouble as it is. But why did that clerk have to stamp the wrong stamp. Didn’t the clerk see I had a —
‘All right, you can go now.’ A guard I had not seen before opened the door very quickly and disappeared before his sentence was even finished, though not before putting my bag and passport and the contents of my pockets on the table.
I stood up. Blood shot to my head and it took me a few moments to regain my balance. I drank the water left in my bag and hurried outside the room, feeling dizzy and weak. I walked towards what looked like the exit.
‘The exit is that way!’ shouted a voice behind me. ‘You’re not going back to Ramallah, are you?’
I walked to where the person suggested, hearing snickering and muffled laughs. Why did they release me? I walked out to the Israeli side of the checkpoint with a great sigh of relief. Were they playing a joke on me? Did they honestly forget me in that room? Did they know I was an Israeli citizen and wanted to teach me a lesson for visiting Ramallah? I must ask Yaron about that permit.
* Feature image: ‘Abu Dis checkpoint; East Jerusalem’ by Kashfi Halford, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Eran Asoulin is a Sydney-based writer, musician, and academic. He grew up in the Levant, and is influenced by the literature and music of that region. Eran has published poetry and writing, and released several music albums.