From Ramallah to Gaza: Two countries, two continents and finally there

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Linah Alsaafin found that using her death stares against Egyptian border officials did nothing to speed her entry through Rafah crossing into Gaza

(Abed Rahim Khatib / APA images)

It was all decided over a brief couple of days. The intention was there, but how many times have we said we were going to Gaza only to end up not going for some reason or another?

“I have a conference in Cairo and I finish on Sunday,” my dad told me. “I’m going to Gaza directly after that until my next training starts after a couple of weeks. You interested?”

This was before the latest Israeli massacre in Gaza. I told him I’d think about it. The obvious answer was an automatic yes of course, but being a grown up has its perks and downfalls, and I had to organize my time and figure out what to do with my work and select an opportune time to go. When Ahmad al-Jabari was assassinated and 11-month-old Omar Masharawi was murdered on my birthday, I made up my mind and wanted to go as soon as possible.

A short distance, measured in years

My mother thought it was unfair for me to go alone. She talked my sister into taking a week off from university so they could go with me. We looked at ticket prices from Amman to Cairo. I fell asleep next to my laptop, the first real sleep I got after 8 days of almost 24 hour coverage, if not for work then for my own benefit, refreshing live blogs, keeping an eye on my Twitter newsfeed, skyping with Rana Baker until the wee hours of dawn, calling my uncles and aunt the next morning, from the office to home, with the TV and laptop always on.

We booked on Saturday. I wandered around Ramallah after work that day, trying to figure out what kind of presents I could buy. I envisioned the army of cousins I had yet to meet, about a dozen or more who have sprouted up in the seven years I was living in Ramallah, a city only an hour’s drive away from them in Gaza.

I went home on Saturday and my mother excitedly told me to go look at the clothes she brought.

“Is this for Sitto [my grandmother]?” I asked, holding up a long grey crocheted button down cardigan the size of a continent.

My mother was morally outraged. “I bought this for you!” she snapped.

“What?” I laughed. “Why would I wear elephant skin?”

Mama launched into her tirade. “It’s my fault I ever buy you anything. Why do I do anything for you in the first place? Always ungrateful, always unappreciative. I figured you and your sister would need some long loose shirts because I don’t want your family in Gaza noticing your extra tight jeans and tight shirts.”

Ah yes, our non-Islamically mandated clothes. Like any good mother, Mama exaggerates.

“As if a girl’s honor is measured by the clothes she wears,” I countered, earning a venomous your-leftist-way-of-thinking-will-be-the-end-of-you look from her.

I didn’t feel like packing. That didn’t seem important. Sunday morning I went downtown again for some last minute shopping, buying candy and dood (worms) for my cousins and looking at the faces of people in the street who’ve probably never seen the sea before.

In the taxi, a radio program was talking about how the geographical separation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was one of the explanations of why people work for their own personal or factional interests rather than the interest of the common cause. The driver snorted.

“I swear, those in Gaza live better lives than we do,” he growled.

The passenger next to him objected. “Come on man, you can’t say that.”

“These aren’t my words!” the driver almost snarled. “I hear this from them! When they come here they tell me this! They have everything they need. A falafel sandwich over there costs two shekels. Here it costs 5 shekels and the man you buy it from additionally throws in a dirty look! A cup of Arabic coffee here sells for shekels, but in Gaza it’s barely half a shekel! Not to mention that the employees there at least get their salaries on time, unlike us!”

The taxi reached the depot. I stayed in my seat.

“We don’t get raids like they do,” the passenger gently said.

“On the contrary, we do!” the taxi diver spat out. “We’ve had our own fair share of Israeli raids and curfews and F-16 planes hovering in the sky! We also had many martyrs and lost good young men!”

“That was in the past, during the second intifada,” the passenger replied. “In Gaza this is ongoing for them.”

“Excuse me miss,” the man next to me said. “You’re blocking the door and I’d like to get out.”

I wondered about this, as I filled candy bags in the store. What is Gaza for Palestinians in the West Bank? Is it a hellhole, a place only worthy of coverage whenever death and carnage sweeps over the coastal strip? Or is it a simple economic paradise lurking beneath the mainstream media description of poverty, over-crowdedness and Hamas, sometimes briefly shot with a picture of the sea, or a refugee boy’s smile?

“I am going to Gaza”

I had a few minutes before the taxi to the Allenby bridge came. I went to say bye to my friends living on the opposite side of the street from where I was, and we jumped up and down waving our arms back and forth singing “I am happy I am mheisa! I am going to Gaza!” over and over again. I ran back to my building and the taxi was already there.

Crossing from Jericho to the Jordanian side didn’t seem to take that long. My daydreams swept me through the security detectors, the tired old questions from the Israeli border officials, the bus rides, the loading and unloading of our suitcases. We took a taxi directly from the Jordanian side of the crossing to the airport. We ate ice cream, slept, played Temple Run. We finally boarded the plane to Cairo.

After an hour and a half, we touched down again. From country to country, from continent to continent. I briefly thought of the Israeli activists who come in their cars to protests in the West Bank villages and then go back to Tel Aviv, Yafa and Haifa. No hassle. My insides clenched with rage. I made myself think of Cairo instead.

We met my dad in his hotel. It was 10pm by now, and the minibus to take us to Rafah, the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, was coming at six in the morning. It’s a six hour drive to reach Rafah so the logical thing would have been to rest and sleep. Naturally, we didn’t.

We went and ate fish at the Qadoura restaurant, then had fresh juice from Farghali on the Muhandiseen Street. In the taxis we’d shake with silent laughter as we tried the Egyptian accent as we conversed with the drivers, rolling it around our tongues, sounding like bad actresses. Then we took a boat ride on the Nile and danced to whatever music was blasting from the speakers. We passed beneath the October 6th road, where the protesters were sprayed during the 25 January revolution. We rode in a horse carriage and went to Tahrir Square, which resembled some kind of sooty carnival with street vendors selling everything, people sleeping, tents closed, and looters at the ready.

We walked down to Talat Harb Square, where the architecture of the buildings changed back into buildings I’d seen overlooking the Seine River when I went to Paris last year. We went to see the Azhar and the Hussein mosques. At three in the morning we sat down and drank mint tea from the Fishawi coffeeshop, a place I’ve never been to before but unconditionally loved based on the name. It was an express tourist tour.

After barely an hour’s worth of sleep, we got up again and made our way to the minibus outside the hotel. Our driver was a crazy toothless old man, who narrowly avoided killing us about forty three thousand times. Whenever I’d doze off I’d wake up with my whole body lurching forward, my head smacking into something as the driver swerved and braked and speeded. Past Ismailiyeh, past al-Arish and its beautiful houses on the sea, and into Egyptian Rafah. We arrived at the border crossing.

It was all waiting. Two hours of waiting to be given our passports back. I thought the Jordanian border officials were bad until I met the Egyptian ones. I surveyed one as he flicked through one passport, taking 15 minutes, before taking a sip from his cup of tea, before glancing up and looking at the waiting room suspiciously, before leaning over to talk to his colleague next to him, before reaching his hand to hold the stamp, before getting up to walk around in the back room, before coming back to sit in his seat again, before flicking through the same passport taking another 15 minutes. No amount of obscenities I mentally directed towards him affected his stature. I tried using my death stares, but again to no avail. At long last, we received our passports, and crossed to the Palestinian Rafah side.

The atmosphere changed. The air was cool, the sky cloudy and clear in areas. The Palestinian border official gave us a stamp on a separate paper, saying that this was so the Israelis won’t give us a hard time when we go back to the West Bank.

As we left the building, families were receiving each other, crying and laughing and hugging each other so tightly. My mother cried seeing them. I was overjoyed.

Finally, we were in Gaza.