My way to Ras al-Ain

I had to cross the Jordan River to enter Palestine. This time not through the Sheikh Husain-bridge in the north but the Allenby bridge. I was standing in line waiting to show my Dutch passport to an Israeli woman guarding the borders of what has become known as “Israel”. She seemed like she wanted to let me pass. Probably she hadn’t read the visa, which clearly stated that I was heading to Nablus, a Palestinian city situated in the northern part of occupied Palestine. While she signed approval and I already had my luggage on the X-ray machine, an Israeli security officer ordered me to come to him. He asked me my passport and ofcourse I let him, eventhough my passports states very clearly: “the bearer of this passport may pass it to a third party only if there is statutory obligation to do so”. Usually I ask for a legal obligation, but this time I forgot.

Immediately after he opened the document (which doesn’t say much about my identity) and skipped the first page (“In the name of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange, etc., etc.”) he started cursing the security-woman (who initially wanted to let me through) in hebrew. I partly understood the words he said, due to my regular checkpoint experience. I heard “Shechem” (which is what the Israelis call Nablus) and knew immediately that I was not going to take the bus to Tel-Aviv. He ordered me to come and sit aside the crowd that was waiting in line, and told me to wait patiently. While I sat there I was remembering “A Million Suns in my blood”, a poem by Tawfiq Zeyad.

“They stripped me of water and oil
And the salt of bread, the shining sun
the warm sea, the taste of knowledge
And a loved one who - twenty years ago - went off
Whom I wish (if only for an instant) to embrace”

Another Israeli soldier came sitting next to me, without saying a word.

“They stripped me of everything
The threshold of my home
The flowerpots on my balcony”

Another Israeli in a suit, obviously “mukhabarat” came over and started to ask me questions: “for my own security”, as they say. Questions like where I came from (Jordan, tab’an, of course) and where I was heading, what I was doing there and with whom and for what (actually these where my major philosophical questions, to which after more than a year in Palestine I couldn’t find an answer yet) and whether I had contacts with political organizations (what do you mean?) or terrorist groups (what do you mean?).

“Did you ever meet anyone who is a member of a terrorist organization?”, he asked me without a change in his voice. “Maybe”, I replied stupidly. “What do you mean, maybe?”. “Well, first of all it depends on your definition of terrorism”, I replied even more stupidly. “What do you mean?”, he said. “Well”, I said, “some might consider some organizations as terrorist, while others might consider them liberation movements or just political parties, or perhaps even charitable organizations.”

Didn’t I want to just pass that border and continue my way to my apartment in Ras al-Ain in Nablus and unpack my luggage, have some diner, visit my family, and relax? Or did I really wanted to enter a debate with this undercover agent, who probably already had blood on his hands, serving in the Israeli occupation forces, or was I just tired of the whole humiliating treatment of Palestinians at any border in the world?

“Besides”, I said, “it might be that I met persons who are, according to your standards, members of such an organization, but if they were, obviously they won’t tell me”. That was of course stupid, that is, if I wanted to just pass the border quickly. It was honest though, but it won’t help you in a situation with panicking soldiers and nervous security officers around you, having their fingers near the trigger of the gun they are holding.

So, he started all over again. “What do you exactly do?”, “where do you live?”, “do you have contacts with the local population?” (What? If I have contacts with the local population? Of course,  I live in a city, I do my groceries there, I have neighbors, friends and most of all family, it’s not only the local population, it’s the native population of this whole country, which you have uprooted, dispossessed, expelled, occupied and eventually humiliated!).

“They stripped me of everything
Except a heart, a conscience and a tongue”

 Eventually, after many more questions, with brief answers to some, they allow me to continue my way. The woman at the visa-desk was friendly, but of course appearances are deceptive. I couldn’t succeed to convince her to just give me normal visa. She told me that this visa should be extended within the next two months and that if I wouldn’t succeed in extending it (of which the chances were extremely big) I would be expelled from the country. Additionally, she told me that I wouldn’t be able to extend it by going to Jordan, since they found out that I already did that three times in a row. In any case, I now have two month to apply for a six-month visa and it would be settled by then, hopefully.

“In their chains, my pride is fiercer than all arrogant delirium
In my blood a million suns. Defy a multitude of cruelties
My love for you; You people of boundless tragedy
Let me storm the seven heavens
For I am your son, your offspring
In heart, conscience and tongue”

I walked outside and took the bus to Jericho. After difficult negotiations for a normal price for a taxi back to Nablus with some annoying taxi-drivers, I fell asleep on the way driving through the Jordan-Valley.

 ”Our hands are steady and enduring
The hands of the oppressor 
However hard 

Finally, Area B became Area A and I entered Nablus, Jabel an-Nar (“mountain of fire”), Ras al-Ain, my temporary home. Ras al-Ain is a popular neighborhood looking over the old city of Nablus. The apartment that I rented is owned by Dar Abu Sannad (a known Nabulsi family of butchers). The apartment is built against the mountain, but the front door is below street level. One can only see my red iron door, which leads you to the stairs and the white door that said “please take of your shoes”. I didn’t wrote that. In my apartment and due to the dust coming from the streets and the draught the contrary would have been better.

On the other side of the building lives Abu Ali. He worked at the municipality gardens, a job that was in his family (Dar al-Koni) for generations. As soon as he arrives home from work he opens his shop and starts preparing humus for the neighborhood.

Actually, his place functioned more like a cafeteria. A popular place in the street where men, women and children gather, not only to get some humus for diner or breakfast, but also to hear the latest news, rumors, and the latest corruption scandals of the Palestinian Authority.

Ras al-Ain, the Citadel of the Martyrs, a popular quarter of Nablus was my temporary home in Palestine for two years. The quarter was known nationally known through “Bloody Friday”. On that day in 1988, hundreds of Nablus residents held a funeral march for the fourteen-year old Ashraf al-Haj who died of a gunshot wound sustained in clashes in the city.

It was during high-season of the Palestinian uprising, when Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza took the streets in a massive popular uprising aimed at ending more than two decades of Israeli occupation and calling for freedom, independence and return.

Abu Ali told me that on December 16, 1988, an Israeli foot patrol of six Israeli soldiers first confronted the procession before the mourners had proceeded more than several hundred meters. Other soldiers were stationed on rooftops strategically overlooking the area. He remembered clearly how the Israeli occupying forces fired at a large Palestinian flag held by a child who was walking in the funeral march. The child was shot in the shoulder and he lost his balance, but continued to hold on to the flag until an older youth came and took the flag for him, while others began transporting injured people to hospital in private cars and ambulances.

Later, Abu Ali’s cousin Daoud told me that the flag had seventeen holes in it. He told me that when the youngster who had rescued the flag saw the bullet holes, he folded it, and hugging it against his chest. Later, the youngster had told him that he wanted to keep this “wounded flag” in witness to the occupation. “This flag, like thousands of other raised Palestinian flags, will bear witness to the persistence and determination of our people to raise the flag of liberty, freedom, and dignity”, said Abu Ali.

Hisham, another neighbor and good friend of Abu Ali, recalled the scene as an intentional massacre. Four Palestinians were killed that December-day, which became known as “Bloody Friday”. Among them was eighteen-year old Iyad Hafez al-Hindi. Hisham told me that the soldiers, seeing that his head was wrapped in a keffiyeh, forced him against a tree where they shot him pointblank in the head and chest. Three others later died of injuries sustained the same day.

Immediately a curfew was imposed on the town, but Hisham said that the Israeli soldiers were unable to take control of the area until 3 am, because the residents took the streets in protest when they heard the news of the fatalities and the dozen injuries. The curfew lasted for a whole week. Despite the cold, the late hour, and the presence of a large number of Israeli soldiers, hundreds of Nabulsi residents participated in the funeral of twenty-year old Zaki Zahi Steiti.

With “Bloody Friday”, the number of martyrs from Nablus, “Mountain of Fire” - the name by which Nablus is known because of its history of resistance - had exceeded forty-one since the start of the popular uprising on December 9, 1987. Abu Ali showed me a leaflet which stated: “In old times it was said that martyrs are the torches that illuminate the road to liberation. In these times we see the truth of these words.” Indeed, as Hisham described, the residents of Nablus were not frightened as the Israeli occupiers had hoped for. On the contrary, the suffering only added more to their determination to end the occupation.