My occupied Utopia

Israel’s wall in the West Bank. (Dina Elmuti)

On jagged roads, unpaved and covered in mounds of dust, enclosed by a monstrous, towering wall slithering like the venomous snake that it is, I await the bus that will take me to the place I’ve waited to see for far too long. A bus ride that would have taken me no more than 20 minutes 10 years ago will take me nearly two hours today, but I wait, ever so patiently. I figure I’ve waited 10 years — what’s 10 more minutes of my time? Even at such an early hour in the morning, the small, provincial bus stop, the center of the hustle and bustle of Ramallah, is full of animated characters from all walks of life, gathering to share stories, trade daily bits of gossip, laugh boisterously, and radiate resilience.

I think back to the year I lived here, when things were different, a time of “relative calm,” they all refer to it as. Today, everything just seems so different. Maybe, being away had allowed my clouded vision to suddenly clear, opening my eyes to what I had left behind. Maybe, things just seemed so much bigger to me then. They are a bit sadder to me now. Maybe I had just been away for too long.

Five minutes pass, and I just can’t seem to conceal my excitement very well. Today was the day I had counted down to, day by day. Finally, the bus arrives. Awkwardly, visibly displaying my out-of-place appearance, I step onto the bus and hand my six shekels ($2) to the driver. Towards the back of the bus, I eye the perfect seat and anxiously await the driver’s last call for Jerusalem.

The bus driver calls out lightheartedly, “Let’s go, let’s go,” his cup of tea in hand. I’m transported back in time by the fragrant smell of the mint in his tea. It gives me a calming feeling I can’t quite explain — a feeling that has sadly become quite foreign to me. Awoken from my reverie, I’m brought back to reality by the vibrant voices of students cramming onto the bus. I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of pride looking at them. Under an occupation that had shown no mercy or reverence for education, they defied the odds and bumps in the road along the way, figurative and otherwise. I don’t think I would have the same resilience. What did I really know about hardship or the obstacles they faced on a daily basis here? I’m privileged, I’m spoiled, I had the roads paved for me in America. It takes me five minutes to get to campus, seven on a bad day of traffic. I’ve never gotten up at sunrise to make it to class on time. I’ve never had to face the debasement of passing three checkpoints within a ten mile radius, each way. I’ve never had to justify my existence or my right to an education. I did, however, feel at that moment as if I had a silver spoon permanently implanted in my mouth. It was at that moment that I realized how little I knew about the life outside the sheltered life I had come to know for so long.

The blaring sound of the engine is accompanied by the early-morning, melodious summoning for kaak, the ubiquitous bread covered in sesame, tasting sweet on the tip of my tongue, nestled along fresh eggs warmed in the very oven the bread had just come out of, and a little zaatar, the fragrant thyme rolled up each morning in a small shred of a newspaper. “Kaak, kaak,” the vendor called as he did every morning, pushing along his wooden cart carrying such simple pleasures. Driving as if there were no tomorrow, the bus passes small shops along the way, leaving behind a colorful haze. I’ve come to realize that speed limits are a figment of the imagination here, and stoplights merely decoration. The cars behind us start honking before the light even turns green. Some would refer to this as being in a rush to go nowhere, but I couldn’t help but empathize.

Only a few moments later, the bus is no longer driving on paved roads. The monstrosity of a “security fence” has left roads in an unimaginable state. Separating neighbor from neighbor, cutting through roads like a painful incision, the atrocious wall continues to wind along with us, following along on our journey. Then, the bus finds its way to the Qalandiya checkpoint, which I had been warned about. Strategically-placed watch towers and barbed wire surround the entire area, creating an eerie foreboding sight. Soldiers watch our every move from above, guns ready, locked and loaded. The bus finds its rightful place next to all the other buses, and then the engine shuts off. What now? Do I sit here, do I get off?

I follow the crowd of students who gather their books and belongings and head toward the front of the bus. As I approach the front, the driver stops me and tells me that I’m a foreigner, so I’m to stay on the bus. Since I carry an American passport, there’s no need for me to get off to enter the checkpoint. That’s only for Palestinians, not Americans. Having possession of such a passport made me what, superior? Little did the bus driver know of my inherent defiance, but I wasn’t about to sit there. A foreigner? My Semitic features can hardly be mistaken. Feeling a bit stunned and hurt, I tell the driver I’m Palestinian. I feel myself getting close to being on the verge of tears, but I quickly swallow my immaturity and tell him in Arabic, “No, I’m Palestinian. I’m a daughter of this town.” He eyes me wearily, but lets me off the bus. What a strange concept, a foreigner in my own land.

I hurry up and catch up with some of the students and stand in line, awaiting the inspection process that has become nothing more that entertainment for soldiers barely out of high school. I watch as the few ahead of me in line take out their identification cards, anticipating their daily dose of interrogation. My eyes wander to the yellow sign to my left. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, it tells me all I really need to know to prepare myself for what has become the routine, sad reality of inspection, humiliation and intimidation endured by Palestinians every day at checkpoints where Israeli soldiers assert their oppressive authority.

This wasn’t right. How can this ever be construed as being moral or just? I quickly rummage through my disorganized bag, looking for my passport. I find the navy blue plastic case just in time to receive some sort of instruction from a soldier dressed in an olive green suit, with a machine gun strapped across his chest. I stare at him in disbelief for a moment, my mouth wide open, and then proceed toward the rotating gate. I hold up my passport and tell him that I don’t understand Hebrew. He motions for me to come forward and place my bag on the conveyer belt for inspection. He grabs my passport and looks over my stamped visas. “You from Chicago?” he asks me. If he thinks I’m in any mood to make small talk, well, then he must be sadly mistaken. I nod, feeling as if I had just dry-swallowed a bitter pill. The soldier looked no older than 18, yet he had the audacity to walk around with such blatant arrogance, to yell at the older woman behind me, commanding her to stay back as if she were rabid. This is what people endure on a daily basis, twice a day, just to get to work, to attend school. He hands my passport back to me with complete conceit and tells me to grab my bag. I walk over robotically to the conveyer belt to place my belongings back into my bag. My eyes shamefully catch a glimpse of the crowd of people waiting patiently in line, waiting to be let through, waiting to be turned back, always waiting. All I had to endure was nothing more than a bit of complacency. Turning my back on them to walk away, I never felt more ashamed in my life. How could such a simple piece of paper make me feel so guilty?

After making a few routine stops to let the students off, the bus continues on its way. Reaching the outskirts of Jerusalem, I notice that the scenery outside seems to transform right before my eyes. The roads here are clear and level, flat with no potholes or trash in sight. It is completely immaculate, and yet I can’t help but feel how unfair it was. Israeli jeeps positioned near bus stops every few blocks. This, a place only a few miles away from Ramallah, was a completely different world.

As the bus moves down the pristine streets with playgrounds and neatly landscaped houses in Sheikh Jarrah, I am quickly greeted by older buildings, full of character and history. It pains me to think how these buildings were once home to very different people. The buildings are a sign that I must be getting close now. After a few minutes, the bus comes to the bus stop near the Old City gates, reminiscent of a knight’s adventure land. After what seems like a lifetime, I’m finally here. I can’t contain my excitement anymore. I feel like a child seeing things for the very first time, like a tourist walking around aimlessly staring up at the sky, and I don’t even care. Walking down Salah al-Din Street, I take in all the different sights and smells of the city with all five senses.

Towards the legendary Hebron Gate, I pick up my speed and walk quickly. Down the steps I am transfixed, feeling as if I had just been transported to a scene from an old movie. I take in every little scene as if it’s my last time. Through the gates, I am greeted by loud music, vendors, sweets galore, a complete bazaar. Past old, forgotten shops, beautiful in all their loneliness and ancient scriptures engraved into the walls, I make my way to the place I know I could never forget no matter how long I’ve been away: the Dome of the Rock, a place still sparkling in my dreams, transcending all the lost time. I recall every turn and every step. Before entering, I place a scarf over my head and keep heading forward to where I’m met by two soldiers sitting at a table. They eye me suspiciously, as if I had no place being there and they did. Such indignant pride, but I won’t let them upset me. I won’t let them sense my frustration or pain. I look back defiantly and walk right on by. Bending down, I enter through a small green entrance, where I’m greeted by rows upon rows of olive trees, a grove so majestic and a golden dome brighter than the sun. I can’t imagine any place more beautiful, and here I was standing right before it. I can’t help but wonder how this place of beauty and purity could be the same site of so much bloodshed, animosity, and injustice. I look around and see children playing soccer in the courtyard, laughing unapologetically. This is how it should be, I thought. If I could halt time right there and then, I would have. I was in the place I knew I wanted to be forever, even if that meant only in my dreams. I was finally where my heart didn’t feel so full. I was home, and at that very moment, that’s all I really needed.

I had finally found my Utopia, my lost and sacred Utopia, and I never wanted to leave. Though it broke my heart to, I knew it wouldn’t be my last time. I knew I would return. One day, we would all return to be where the olive trees would mount with pride, no longer uprooted and caged, where the sound of children’s laughter would surpass the shattering noise of tanks and jets, where Palestine would thrive in freedom.

Dina Elmuti is a senior at the University of Illinois, majoring in Molecular Biology. Her dream is to one day practice medicine in Palestine and return to Palestine a optimistic returned refugee.