‘ToraBora Land’

Last night I did not sleep at all. As usual, I was online at my computer until 3 a.m. I have to wait until my cyber-manic daughter Yassmine is through with the internet before I can get online. At 3:30, I heard heavy gunfire, and decided to leave my unsafe office and go to sleep. But sleep was impossible: loud voices were coming from the building on the corner of our street. I opened the curtains a bit to see what was happening. The Israeli army (IDF) was ‘visiting’ my neighbor’s building. They ordered all the men to go down to the street, then they ordered the women and children to do likewise.

“Wait for me! I am coming!” screamed a little girl.

“She is old and cannot move quickly, leave her alone,” I heard Fatima, my colleague at Bir Zeit, say about her elderly mother, who lives with her. The army kept my neighbors standing outside for two hours in the chilly, pre-dawn weather of Ramallah. They finally set them free at 5:30 a.m. I decided to watch until the end to see if the IDF would try to come to my house. Would I have to wake up my husband and my little girl Yassmine?

Sireen, who always pretends that she is not afraid of the army’s shooting or presence, was the first one to wake up, come to my bed and hug me tightly. At dawn, we both finally went to sleep. I thanked God that my son Maher was not with us. He had gone to his uncle’s house after they lifted the curfew. “I’ve had enough of your faces,” he told me. His uncle moved to Jerusalem where he is working, and his newly built house in Ramallah is deserted. Many people now live like this: moving from one place to another to avoid checkpoints or to be close to their work fear of losing their jobs and livelihoods.

At 8 a.m my husband, Saleh, started his usual argument about waking up early. He argued with Yassmine. They lifted the curfew and she had to go the US consulate to get her visa. By 9:30 Yassmine, Sireen and I leave the house, heading for Jerusalem, Yassmine has to do an interview in order to get her visa. Some of our neighbors were gathered in the florist’s shop. “What happened last night?” I asked. “There is nothing going on in the city since they invaded it!”

“They found an empty box in their way and they kept shooting at it. Then they went to a nearby building, got a young man to use as a human shield, then they came to our building. They did not allow anybody to put on something warm. They asked men to sit on the side walk and women to stand with the children,” said Samer.

“If they found an empty box, why the whole neighborhood had to suffer for that!” said Bilal.

We arrived al-Manarah and looked for a car to take us to Jerusalem, I had to ask people where to get a car since I did had not been there for at least two years.

“You have to wait until I fill the van,” said the driver. “But who will go to Jerusalem at this time?” I asked. “We are in a hurry and we have to be back before they re-impose the curfew at 2 p.m.!” That is how we came to pay for 9 seats instead of 3, otherwise we would have to wait.

“I will take you to al-Ram through Rafat road since you have no Jerusalem I.D cards,” said the driver. The ‘road’ was not a road, however. He drove us through very rocky fields. I could not recognize where we were, it was so deserted, and I felt a bit worried. I decided to ignore my worries and enjoy the sunflower fields all around us. We were then ‘dumped’ in a very deserted area.

“You go this way, cross this far ditch, you will find some cars to take you to al-Ram,” said the driver. “But you said that you will take us to al-Ram, so where we are now?” I demanded. No point in arguing, we walked for about half a kilometer, then crossed a very wide and deep ditch bordered by barbed wire fences. The irrepressible drive to live had inspired someone to cut a hole in the fence and insert some sort of a ‘bridge’ for people to cross. The passage was so slippery, a young child was crying for his mother to hold him. She refused, she was so overloaded with many items, so we decided to help, but he refused. Eventually, we carried his mother’s load so that she could carry him.

We took another car to al-Ram. May passing cars and vans were flushing their lights to our driver, so he stopped. “There are army and police units all along the way; be careful,” said a driver in another car.

“If anyone of you is afraid to keep going, you can get out here,” said our driver. No one moved. We arrived to al-Ram, where we saw many police cars and army jeeps. “What is next?”, I asked aloud. We looked like peasants entering the city for the first time.

We then had to take a narrow alley before the checkpoint so as to bypass it. We walked for about one kilometer, then we had to cross a long fence, after which, we were all exhausted and very sweaty. We arrived to the main road to find a car waiting for us; the driver had seen us when we were at the top of a hill. Finally we are on the ‘normal’ road to Jerusalem. It took us nearly two hours to reach a destination that we used to reach in less than 17 minutes. We had to pay 45 shekels (US$9) instead of 19 (less than US$4), triple the ‘normal’ fare.

We reached the US Consulate, and a Palestinian guard asked us to wait.

“We had an appointment,” I protested. I looked at us and realized that we looked horrible: our feet were covered with dust, Yassmine’s eye lashes were almost white, my hair was like metal wires, my feet looked very dirty and our shoes looked like homeless people’s. In front of us was an Palestinian woman wearing the traditional embroidered dress. She was arguing with the guard, demanding to enter with her son, but to my surprise the son looked to be in his mid-thirties. We were finally allowed to enter the building, where an Israeli guard asked us to open our bags, he started to take out everything in our bags. He removed my mobile phone and a computer disk from Yassmine’s bag and put them in a drawer. I felt like I was in Tel Aviv airport where we also receive this “special” treatment. But the US Consulate is considered American territory on Palestinian land, so why does an Israeli have to search us? They have no Americans left in America? Or at least they could hire a Palestinian to work alongside the Israeli….. I decided to let go, we have to get the visa, after all, but tears burst forth from my eyes.

Then another metal-detection machine check, again overseen by an Israeli guard. We were asked to wait in an air-conditioned room. With the sweat covering our bodies, I felt an urgent need to go to the ladies room and try to freshen up. The place was stinking, though. The wall was leaking, and the floor was a mess. If high levels of hygiene are the pride of the so-called white man’s civilization, this was not a civilized place.

Back in the room, I noticed many women with their adult sons, I asked a woman near me, who was looking at me with a friendly way, where she was from.

“From Deir Dibwan, it was so difficult for us to come,” she said. “I am here with my son, who has to renew his American passport.” My curiosity was growing; I could not wait any longer: “But why does he not come by himself? He is a grown man.” I said. I had started to project my feminist ideas that all men have to depend on women to achieve what they want to do. But, I was mistaken.

“It is dangerous to cross the checkpoints or walk in the mountain ‘roads’ when you are a man by yourself, so I insisted to come with him,” said the woman.

“But he is an American,” I countered.

“If he gets killed they might apologize, but if he has a Palestinian passport, they won’t. This is the only difference,” said the woman.

Yassmine’s name was called, the interview started, she was asked some questions, and that was it. I felt very frustrated. We had made all this effort for an event that lasted less than five minutes. But at least ‘mission impossible’ was now accomplished.

It was noon, so we still had two hours to get home. Yassmine wanted to go to al Aqsa Mosque. “No we cannot!” I said. “That might take one hour from here and we cannot make it back in another hour; we have to reach our house before the curfew otherwise we will have to stay in Jerusalem until they life the next curfew.”

Instead, we decided to get a quick taste of Jerusalem. We went to the pottery shop across the street, which was almost empty. “It must be difficult now, you have no tourists. I heard some souvenir shops in the old city turned to selling Falafel,” I said to the shopkeeper.

“Yes, this is in general true, but we have different kinds of tourists now, not the usual ones. We have visitors from humanitarian organizations, journalists and diplomats,” said the shop owner. While I was chatting with him, I noticed a group of women working in a workshop, and this gave me an idea. “Do you accept young trainees in your workshop? I have a daughter who finished a ceramics course from her high school in America and she was the first in a class of twenty students,” I asked.

I hoped he would accept, since that might keep Sireen busy and stop her from thinking of her crazy idea of getting married so young.

“Does she have an American passport?”, he asked. “No, only Palestinian, but she can stay in her friend’s house for a month or so,” I said.

“That will not solve the problem,” he replied. ” I am not allowed to hire Palestinians who don’t have Jerusalem ID cards, if I do, they will fine me and put me in jail.”

Sireen left us for her friend’s house, she said that she had enough of us and needs to get some fresh air. It was difficult to leave Jerusalem without going to my usual bakery and buying the traditional ‘ka’ak’, a special kind of bread covered with sesame. Jerusalem looked different, less people in the streets, lots of impoverished looking men in the cafes, lots of police, lots of military, less cars, and even the garage for Ramallah and other cities’ cars was no longer there.

No drivers were calling for Ramallah passengers as before. I kept asking “Where is the stand for Ramallah cars?,”

“There are no cars here for Ramallah, only for al-Ram checkpoint or Kalandia checkpoint,” a man replied. Are these checkpoints replacing cities? I felt so alienated and again my tears began to stream down my face.

The cars for Kalandia checkpoint were close to the Interior Ministry’s office, a big crowd of Palestinians was sitting on the sidewalk, some were standing in the burning sun close to the entrance. In front of the entrance was something like a cage, similar to the prisoner’s cells in Guantanamo, in which an Israeli guard was sitting to allow the crowd to enter one by one. Palestinians are compelled to come here to add their children or their spouse to their ID cards, they also come to this place to get their laissez passe if they want to leave the country.

“When will God end this humiliation?! I am here since 8 in the morning and it is already 12.30!”, said an old woman. We got into the car, but a loud man was saying to the driver, “Did you take your pill before driving all these people?”

“What pill ?” I asked him.”

“This man can faint while driving if he does not take his pill,” he said. Should I take what he is saying seriously, or is this some new, vicious kind of economic competition? I decided to take the back seat and put Yassmine in the middle, just in case. I watched the Jerusalem road from my window, more hotels in the way, more walls, and this ugly suspended bridge leading to Jewish settlements. I never saw a suspended bridge with high closed walls like this before; they have become so obsessed with their security that they cannot enjoy the view. What a pity.

On the way back, a very long line of cars was waiting at al-Ram checkpoint, gloomy and frustrated faces glared from inside the cars. They are called one by one. I turned my face and decide to talk to my daughter.

“Did I speak well in the interview? Did I pronounce well?” she asks me anxiously. “I tried to remember all the speech therapy I got in English,” said Yassmine. I wanted to say ‘Why worry about your pronunciation?! Worry instead about getting your visa!’, but decided not to talk. I was too tired to argue about anything.

Finally something cheerful: We arrive to Kalandia refugee camp and see the school’s wall looking like a garden—new red soil and lots of flowers surround it, instead of the garbage we usually see there.

It was already one o’clock when we arrived to Kalandia. I didn’t know if we’d have to cross the checkpoint, or go through what we now call “Tora Bora” road, meaning a dirt road. “No, you can go directly, but not through the soldiers,” someone tells us. We walked through a narrow passage full of garbage and rocks, and finally I hear the drivers calling, “Ramallah! Ramallah!”, finally I heard the name of the city, not a checkpoint.

Arriving at al-Manarah, we see the now daily demonstration that follows the lifting of the curfew; I see the same, usual faces. An Israeli journalist was in the crowd. “What you think of the changes in the Palestinian security forces,” asked the journalist.

“Your security is different than ours. If the changes mean more law abiding and more care for the people, that is good. But, if it means more security for you, this will lead to more oppression and more restrictions for us.”