Crossing to Cairo: a Palestinian diary

Palestinians hoping to cross from the Gaza Strip into Egypt suffer from a frequently-closed border and severe restrictions enforced by Egypt’s military regime.

Ramadan El-Agha APA images

Each time Egyptian president Abdulfattah al-Sisi — at his whim, or the whim of the Zionists to whom he seems to have pledged the only truthful allegiance he thus far has made — declares the Rafah crossing to be “closed until further notice,” I am whisked back to September last year, when I, like many students, was locked up in Gaza unable to exit to pursue my graduate studies in London. The episodes I had gone through were outrageously hilarious.

The keyword was wasta — unofficial, but life-saving, connections. At the time, the Hamas government in Gaza had closed down its registration chambers because they could not accommodate the number of people who were restless to leave the Strip to whatever country that awaited them, to the prosperous outside world. I wanted a ticket too and was anxious to get news of any new Egyptian whim which would allow the Rafah crossing to be re-opened. Instead, the news that kept flowing was all variations of “the Internet network has collapsed, we will re-open the maabar once it has been fixed.” Assholes, I thought.

A couple of weeks later, the Egyptians indeed reopened the crossing for a day or two and there was finally some space for new travelers to acquire the glamorous tickets. Ill-tempered Hamas employees greeted us, but we were not any less ill-tempered. Those with European visas were treated as more “urgent” cases than those without; the visas were proof of something I do not remember. I was an obliging member of this lot and, sweat streaming down my face as if in a battlefield, I got my ticket with a triumphant look on my face, or so I thought. In the queue, an exasperated woman behind me declared that she was “never ever” going to visit Gaza again. She explained that she would not be willing to go through this garaf, dirt, again. I nodded in agreement. “You shouldn’t have come in the first place,” I said. She nodded back, which felt like a collusion precisely because we both expressed what we would have been ashamed to express in public.

In the queue, I was at war with everyone and often exploded at the women pushing from behind. “Stop pushing yakhti! You’re not going to make it any faster!” I would self-righteously yell. The women, taken aback by my shameless attitude toward my elders, shot back with that cold look that began at my head, down and then up again. When anyone’s turn had come, we had to be apologetic to the employee, trying to convince him with the urgency of our cases in order to allocate us to bus number one or two at most. The man already knew the trick; he pretended not to hear whatever pleas we feigned and went about his business normally, eventually handing us the tickets we deserved.

Humiliation machine

Every maabar, or Rafah crossing, ticket displays a date and bus number, sequentially arranged so that bus two crosses to the Egyptian side after bus one on a given date, and so on. On normal days (or abnormal, I should perhaps say) eight to ten buses would cross, and that happened on some days when Muhammad Morsi was president and extremely rarely under Hosni Mubarak, whose Zionist legacy is alive and well. The curse was to be allotted bus six or ten, for instance. 

Wasta, however, can magically take you from five to one, or from 28 to 25 September, for example. Because the Egyptians would let in one to two out of ten buses per day, all those who did not travel on the prescribed date would be put off at the expense of those who were supposed to travel the following day. In this manner, numbers would add up until one’s bus would be put off for as long as the Egyptians wished. Even when we knew that our buses were delayed, we still had to make the unholy pilgrimage to the crossing every day, lest Egyptian good-will decides suddenly to allow more buses than usual. If this happened and somebody’s bus had made it in without him or her, this somebody would need to get him or herself a new ticket and line up from the start.

The Egyptian humiliation machine is utterly impressive.

When my turn had finally come (i.e. “only” two buses were left ahead of me), I could not have imagined what was to unfold. In the morning, I kissed my mother and sister goodbye and climbed into the taxi, grinning. Passengers on the first bus stamped their passports on the Palestinian side and were waiting just outside the Egyptian gate, hoping for the officer, in the usual white Egyptian police uniform, to call them in.

In an incident which felt like Poseidon, the ruthless Greek god of The Odyssey unleashing his wrath on the unlucky Odysseus, an explosion, which targeted a military outpost in Sinai, took place before the bus could go in. Whether news of this explosion was made up or real, I did not bother to check. The result was all the same: further delay to the journey and potentially losing my place at the university. The maabar was immediately closed “until further notice.” I dragged myself home, the good-bye kisses amounting to nothing, but no one was surprised.

Two weeks passed. There was nothing I wanted more than to perform my own wrath on every corrupt officer contributing to the maabar’s closure. Existential questions, of course, were set in motion. Why was I born here of all places in the world? Couldn’t my parents just have married elsewhere? Why am I meant to go through this? And on and on as if I was the only person affected.

“Come back tomorrow”

Two weeks, or centuries, later, they reopened it. Everyone spoke in terms of “they” and “it.” What both meant was automatically understood. “When,” we would ask, “will they open it?” “May it,” we would pray, “collapse over their heads.” I carried my feet to the maabar again. The floor was strewn with suitcases of all sizes and colors. Throngs of people were sitting on them, and people yelled at each other almost unceasingly. A man, impatiently puffing his cigarette in one hand and flailing the other, eventually threw the stub and angrily stamped on it. The elites, with Egyptian connections, were all dressed up, perfumes wafting out, and stood nonchalantly in a corner keeping their distance from the “commons.” Everyone gauged who they were from their appearance, eyeing, resenting, them from a short distance. I happened to know one lot of these people, and I was utterly embarrassed, almost flinching, as our eyes met and I had to carry on a polite conversation with them in front of everybody.

In any case, one bus made it to the Egyptian side that day after which they closed the crossing again. The following day they allowed another bus and we prepared ourselves to go after it. We stamped our passports on the Palestinian side and were carried to the gates of Egypt. We waited and waited, sweating and hating, for the officer’s index finger to budge inward then outward, the “come in” sign. Behind this white-dressed officer, there was a tank mounted on the top by a young armed soldier, who seemed uninterested in the whole thing. The sign finally came, to everybody’s exhilaration.

That was that: we made it! We drove into the Egyptian side, then were stopped and five minutes later we were asked to return to our homes and “come back tomorrow.”

I was reeling with fury, which almost had me explode as morja, or “returned” (which to me felt like “shooed back, you wretched frog”) was stamped in my passport. Part of what happened that day can be rightly attributed to the elite family which I knew. Too fancy to ride in a bus with the rest of us, they followed in a car. The Egyptian officer was waiting for them to arrive before he allowed the bus to cross. When they came and the officer signaled us in, it had already been one o’clock, the closing time of the crossing if I remember correctly. Everyone on the bus, including myself, stared at them with absolute discontent and muttered curses. In the evening, my sisters asked me not to wake them up in the morning. I had already kissed them good-bye twice. In the morning, I hugged my mother see-you, but I did make it in that day.

On our way in, I saw the fancy family talk to Palestinian officers, trying to circumvent their way into the Egyptian side. We made it before them, and the sense of victory was insurmountable. 

The Sinai

Once we got off the bus on the Egyptian side, we were swarmed by impoverished young men who wanted to carry our suitcases in exchange of a payment. We walked into a dirty large hall which consists, basically, of plastic rows of chairs and Egyptian officers behind glass screens. We handed in our passports and were seated until they called out our names. They used no microphone to do so and it was impossible to hear them from our seats. Consequently, we stood close to the screen only to be threatened by a shabby-looking officer: “If you do not sit, I will not call out your names.”

My approach, and each had to improvise his or her own, was to pretend I was walking from one side of the hall to the other, passing the screen in the process to enable myself to hear my name. Hours later, having been questioned for a few minutes, and after the officers sipped tea and had a good chat, they called out my name. I got my passport with a hand-written note that I must leave Egypt in 72 hours. I snorted at that but was thrilled to have made it anyway. While waiting, it occurred to me that if someone was hiding in a sun-baked water tank as in Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, the person would absolutely meet the same fate as Kanafani’s protagonists. Now was the time to cross the insufferable Sinai.

Before getting into one of those dilapidated Sinai cars, often suspected of selling drugs, I had a fight with the young man who carried my suitcases. He wanted a handsome sum to which I eventually settled when he got furious and refused to give me my stuff. Defeated, I climbed into the car with a family from Gaza. Riding with a family is the recommended way for young people traveling on their own. It was blazing hot, and at the time, the road to Cairo was dotted with military checkpoints so that it would take over ten hours if not avoided. Our driver was quite experienced and decided to drive us through an alternative road.

Hot, long and lacking in any natural or artificial landscapes but sand dunes and small residential structures, the driver subsided these conditions by playing the sort of music that would serve the double purpose of entertaining him while keeping him awake. The alternative road was unpaved, the car hopped and swayed. It lurched forward and sideways so that I wanted to tie a rope around myself and have some peace. The music only made it worse. It felt as though I had a drum right inside my head and tambourine under my skin. With the sudden movements and jumps, I thought I was never going to arrive. I hardly remember anything about the family that accompanied me, except that I fell asleep on the shoulder of a woman sitting next to me. She very tenderly let me sleep and I felt extremely embarrassed when I awoke and found out. Despite the alternative route, some checkpoints were inevitable. One of them was remarkable.

Egypt’s Zionist masters

As the officers inspected our passports and trunk, a group of young soldiers was digging in the dunes. I watched them as they dug. One of them, realizing I was staring, began to wink and grin in my direction, prompting some of his friends to perform some acrobatics. Boys in uniform. I maintained a straight face, though I kept looking. Behind the sandbags erected somewhere next to this group, were soldiers with guns which, without exaggeration, seemed to me not to have been replaced since the 1967 or 1973 wars. In today’s context, these guns were no more than hunting rifles. I thought at that moment about the Camp David Accords, the 1978 treaty of shame between Anwar Sadat and the Israelis, and how crippling it has been to the army which uses its pathetic power to expel Egyptian Bedouins in Sinai, and to open fire on protesters in Tahrir Square and Muhammad Mahmoud Street. It is without doubt that the main purpose of Camp David was to keep the Egyptians in Israel’s grip, obedient servants to their Zionist masters.

The Suez Canal Bridge was closed for “security reasons,” and to cross to the other side our car boarded a ferry, which took more time but was nevertheless exciting for me. About ten hours later, I was in Cairo, and I flew to London the day after. When I took that trip to Cairo, Morsi had already been deposed but Sisi hadn’t yet been elected, in dubious circumstances.

Unlike The Odyssey, there is absolutely no courage or adventure involved in such a trip: it was, is, forced. Though some elements of the story may sound hilarious, even to myself, it is shattering to realize that public discourse in Egypt is already taking on the tone of corrupt state representatives, that outspoken individuals are in prison, basically. That it is only getting worse.