It was early morning last Wednesday, 18 September, when my father received a call from an official explicitly stating that no Gazan student would be allowed to travel via Rafah crossing at Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. I was shocked but insisted that I try nonetheless. After a few minutes of further phone calls and nervous hesitation, my father reluctantly gave his permission for me to try.
Within two hours, my long and perilous journey to the UK began. I reached the Hamas-controlled checkpoints leading to the border checkpoints with Egypt. It appeared that the decision to close off the border crossing was met with a fiery response from students whose right to study abroad was being denied.
The room was packed with chants and cries of protest. Many students soon joined them to arrange a sit-in demonstration, physically barricading the road. Unfortunately this came with great risk. Casualties were reported. In one instance, a demonstrator’s leg was broken by cars passing through the human barricade.
The policemen, in an unsuccessful attempt to control the situation, insisted that we retreat. Their efforts were dismissed by the student body, and after an hour of further protest, the head authority of the Rafah border crossing arrived. He made a statement that the crossing would be opened for students one day later, on the condition that we cease our protests immediately.
This promise was naturally met with skepticism. A spokesperson for the students, who had demanded written confirmation of this agreement, was then left with the responsibility to organize the whole student body and delegate members to collect students’ names and passport details, while the officials watched on with amusement.
The moment the registrar submitted our names, a blanket of silence and tension fell over the room. Some of us waited with tears in our eyes, contemplating our futures; a single decision determining the difference between traveling to the outside world to pursue our dreams of higher education, and the other possibility of being stuck behind. Some of the demonstrators fainted from the overwhelming anxiety and the oppressive wave of heat and humidity.
After ten hours of protest and anticipation, the room of more than 1,800 passengers was brought to a standstill with an anti-climatic announcement made by one of the police officers: “You have to leave; we have finished our work for today. Come tomorrow and maybe you will be able to travel.”
After an outcry from the crowd, the police quickly announced that the next thirty names that were announced would be allowed to pass through. Thirty names were called, and none of them were mine. When a few didn’t answer, some more were called.
The names Malak and Malaka were called. Malak did not answer. I could see the police quietly pronouncing my name once more. Seeing the announcer across the crowd, I made my way towards the two officers. “I am Malaka,” I said to them. To my astonishment, of all those 1,800 passengers standing and protesting for ten hours in the heat, my name was one of the few to be announced. It felt like a miracle.
I made my way to the table where I received my green departure card. I was told to come back the following morning at six o’clock sharp.
As I was turning to leave, I was struck by the sight of my friend. She was standing there crying after an entire day of anticipation. Her name had not been announced. My efforts to soothe her were in vain. School had already started abroad. A choice left in the hands of indifferent officials determined who could leave and who would stay behind. This meant so much in the lives of these other students. I could only hope that her day would come tomorrow.
The following day felt like one week tightly rolled into the compact space of 24 hours. It was the first time I had to say farewell to friends, relatives and the land that I have known my whole life. It was a personal experience that can’t easily be communicated.
I was one of many Gazans starting the day with these tearful farewells. And I was not comforted by the stench of hopelessness hanging in the stifling air.
After saying goodbye to my loved ones, I stood in line with my friend Rana. We exchanged nervous glances and agreed that further protests could possibly occur should we be left in the dark for much longer. We repeatedly asked the police officers what was happening, only to be told that the bus for the green card holders would arrive. We waited. Bus after bus stopped. But it was almost two hours later when our bus came.
Still, we were not allowed to board the bus. Instead, we were ushered from one line to the next, having our passports stamped and a series of questions repeatedly asked about our destinations and the purpose of our travel. Eventually we were led towards the correct bus. We could see the Egyptian military, tanks and police officers awaiting us with another level of hostility.
After another period of waiting, a police officer signaled for us to enter the next room, taking us closer to our bus. Moments later, he told us not to move any further. We were left dazed and perplexed, and were forced to wait under the baking sun for another hour.
We were finally led into the Egyptian hall, the last room leading to the bus. At this point we were separated from our luggage and forced to wait. After thirty minutes of negotiation, we were allowed to have our passports checked.
Little did I know it would be another five hours before my passport was verified. I reminded the police officers that the border would be closing in an hour and that I needed to have my passport returned to me.
Like the character K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, I passed from one line of officers to the next, determined to get an answer that made sense and led me to my passport. I was directed from one empty office to the other, my passport nowhere to be seen. I could see my chance of leaving slipping out of my hands like grains of sand in an hourglass. With one last morsel of resilience, I kneeled on the floor and prayed. At last, my name was called and I was finally able to receive my passport.
It was nightfall by that time. I was left to deal with a rather threatening situation for a single young woman entering Egypt.
Within Egypt’s current political climate, strict curfews are applied to drivers, resulting in a scarcity of transport at certain times. I knew that I was in a position where I would need to find transport urgently, or as the police kindly phrased it, I would be left to travel alone in the Sinai desert — an area deemed incredibly dangerous and volatile for all travelers, regardless of their gender and origin.
In a state of growing concern, I was fortunate to come across some of my international friends who were also leaving Gaza. Luck was on my side; they had already booked a taxi with a known Egyptian driver and kindly invited me to join them. During this drive to the hotel we were stopped and questioned by Egyptian military officers. They seemed particularly keen on questioning Palestinians.
Faced with blatant disapproval and derogatory body language, we were reluctantly allowed to pass when I had given suitable answers to the officers’ questions. I was lewdly and repeatedly propositioned by officers. The whole experience was humiliating and dehumanizing, to say the least.
Having reached the hotel, I parted from my friends. Feeling scared of the threatening atmosphere in Egypt, I felt very uncomfortable to allow myself even a moment of sleep with the fear that something would happen.
In my haste to leave, I booked another flight — with Emirates Airlines — to take me from Egypt to Dubai. I spent the rest of the night calling my family members and waiting in the hotel lobby, Internet access at hand, typing away at a laptop. In the background I could hear Egyptian television broadcasters spreading rumors of kidnappings and murders being committed by Gazans in the forbidden sand dunes of the Sinai desert.
I felt like an imposter, unwelcome in foreign lands, while really we practice the same religion and culture, speak the same language and ultimately share the same gene pool.
Having faced a last hurdle of interrogation at the airport, I boarded a bus and then the plane that would take me to the UK. During the sleepless flight, I started to reflect on my ordeal in Egypt. My only consolation was finally arriving in Britain where I would be able to pursue my study in international politics and law.
Upon reaching Gatwick Airport, I immediately noticed how kind and polite the immigration department was. The immigration officer asked me if I had my papers confirming my scholarship from the University of Sheffield. His only response when I told him that all my documents were in my other bag was “it is okay.” He had a soft smile. That was the last part of my travel.
I then waited for the head of the student union at Sheffield University, Ally Buckle, who kindly picked me up from the airport to take me to Sheffield. I have reached my destination safely, but I still feel traumatized by the situation in Egypt.
I also think of hundreds of students who are still stuck in Gaza and cannot leave. My friend Manar has lost her scholarship at Canada’s Trent University as she couldn’t make it to Egypt for a visa interview. My friends’ schools have started and Rafah has been closed for the last five days.
In Gaza, life is full of uncertainty. There is nothing you can take for granted besides corruption, cruelty and potentially a life of lost opportunities. These fears are never more than two steps from one’s own shadow.
The odds of obtaining an international scholarship are slim enough, never mind other circumstances that are well out of our control: obtaining a visa and finances within a short deadline, the journey through the infamous Rafah crossing, the political instability in Egypt, the blanket of curfews in the Sinai desert, the perpetual threats to a young woman’s safety, the cruelty and discrimination of the military and, finally, the flight out.
Nothing is certain, and a lifetime of aiming for greatness can be shot down in the blink of an eye.
Malaka Mohammed is a graduate in English literature student from the Islamic University of Gaza. She is now studying for a master’s degree in international politics and law at the University of Sheffield in Britain.