The Waiting Game

(Musa Al-Shaer)

Waiting happens everywhere in the world. Waiting in Palestine, however, is not just a routine and bothersome phenomenon that can better be neglected because there is nothing to do about it. It happens so frequently, and it is so testing and influential, that it often dominates people’s lives.

Waiting in Palestine happens in front of the hundreds of permanent or mobile checkpoints, or when people try to get permits, or when the inhabitants of a residential area under curfew are closed up at home and don’t know when they are allowed to go out on the street. People also wait of course for all the other things needed to manage daily life.

Recently, my lawyer tried to obtain a written response of the Civil Administration why it ceased granting me a permit for working in the West Bank, and why it was impossible for a foreigner married to a local to start a family reunification procedure, as is allowed for by any other country in the world. For several months the Administration did not respond. The (Israeli) lawyer called and called. I have the impression that Palestinian and Israeli lawyers working on cases related to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza spend more than half of their time calling army staff just in order to get a response.

For a long time it has become a kind of human condition here, waiting. In a way, the Palestinian condition is out of time, people feel as if they live in a state of eternal temporariness. Palestinian refugees and others living abroad wait to return, wait for a state, wait for real progress in the way towards peace. It would be so welcome if there was a road map and a time table towards some kind of peace.

A family member of Mary in Dubai, on visit in Bethlehem, tells that the ultra-modern town in which he lives is completely artificial. All people there feel as if living in a hotel. They are surrounded by malls and apartment buildings and long straight roads without tradition or other distinctive features. The couple’s house does not feel like a home but rather as a temporary place. He and his wife and baby would wish to once come back to a home in Bethlehem or Palestine but under the given circumstances there is no choice than to “keep all options open,” and wait until, yes, what?

A friend of mine, a theologian, once argued that the waiting stages in Jesus’ life have never been really well-considered in Christian theology but are in fact much telling about Jesus’ life and His message. A typical point for a Palestinian. The title of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, about waiting for an unknown someone who never comes, has been quoted by nobody so often as by Palestinians.

Waiting here means: having no control over your life. You live in uncertainty, sometimes meaninglessness, and in the end you get a feeling of slowly being inactivated, paralyzed. At bottom, if people let you wait systematically and intentionally for unclear reasons you get a feeling as if you are not seen, as if you don’t exist for those who let you wait, and, in the end, as if you don’t exist at all.

In this country, waiting is not about dysfunctional time but is intended to get a message across: We who take a decision to let you wait, will never wait for you. It is you who has to wait for us, like a slave waits for a master, and not the reverse. What we do is more important than your life.

Although letting people wait can be lethal, as when pregnant mothers or seriously ill persons cannot reach a hospital in time, it is generally not bloody and spectacular and therefore does not invite media stories. Through waiting, people suffer without physical contact. Letting people wait is a pervasive, routine and effective means of control.

Long waiting without purpose makes people irritated or resigned. How often have I noticed how impatient travelers waiting at the main Bethlehem checkpoint try to steal a few meters beyond the waiting line which is some 20 meters from the soldier’s booth. The soldiers sometimes allow this, but also frequently summon people to organize themselves behind the line once more. Those in line feel like naughty school kids corrected by a teacher. It also regularly happens that soldiers request groups of foreign visitors to pass the line of Palestinian waiters, which is humiliating for the Palestinians and embarrassing for the foreigners. (But last week I couldn’t resist sneaking in the line of a group of German volunteers who were allowed to pass the checkpoint quickly).

* * *

An acquaintance delivered a particularly rich speech while waiting for hours at the Civil Administration office in Etzion. All Gods and political leaders of the region were thoroughly cursed without exception. “What do you do in this damned country?” he asked Mary. “Go to Holland, stay there for two years, what are two years after all, get a passport and make a life.” He kept his mobile open while the soldier with whom he tried to have contact on the phone conversed for more than 20 minutes with other callers. “Otherwise, they will tell me that I behaved rudely by closing the phone.”

Once, while waiting in front of the Bethlehem-Gilo checkpoint I tried to read a newspaper. Like life in the West, you try to do something useful while waiting. Perhaps I also wanted unconsciously to show the soldiers that I was unaffected by their game of letting people wait unnecessarily. But reading in such a situation is somehow out of place. It looks as if you close off yourself from a situation where other people are hurt intentionally. So I felt that I should better fold up the paper and concluded that there was no way to deal pragmatically with waiting at such checkpoints. Like others, I became occupied with grim existential questions. How to keep up human dignity while being pressed between metal bars and walls (the image of collected cattle comes up inevitably) and wait for soldiers who studiously avoid to look at you and slowly take their food, talk with each other or do nothing?

* * *

Lately a settler was quoted in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronot who used to daily follow the same route south of Bethlehem as I often take. Once, observing a Palestinian waiting line, he underwent a remarkable, life-changing experience:

“Most of my life was spent at Alon Shvut, a settlement in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem. Thousands of times I have passed army checkpoints. Thousands of times I saw, without really noticing, the young Arabs crouching at the roadside, waiting for the checking to end so that they could pass through. They were a kind of transparent part of the landscape. I saw them but did not feel any deep empathy, after all we are living under difficult security conditions. And then, one day, I saw at a checkpoint an old man with a young girl child. They were not being specially mistreated. They were just told to wait and obeyed with weary resignation. Also the child had that expression. And suddenly something clicked into place in my mind. I suddenly understood that this was not an issue of security. That all this enormous military activity was needed so that I could live in a beautiful villa, with a terrific view from the windows, among people which I liked, in Alon Shvut.”

And he left the settlement to go and live inside the borders of Israel and associated himself with a dissident religious movement.

Why did he change his mind after seeing that particular father and his child, both so utterly resigned and powerless? Somehow, it seems that the victim’s image of powerlessness can succeed in changing a rare individual mind, and thus to a tiny extent succeed in weakening the wall of those who let the Palestinians wait. Given the importance, more than ever, of changing the public mind in Israel with regard to the occupation, it is a seemingly strange but relevant question whether from a different perspective, that of a non-violent struggle, this powerlessness of waiting can somehow help to challenge the power of those who stop and let wait. It was Gandhi who in India showed how during prolonged sit-ins in front of barriers and rows of soldiers, the act of waiting to the point of intensive suffering could become meaningful and even show human control over the situation. Suddenly those who are asked to wait are demanding others to wait. In fact, sit-ins in front of a checkpoint are seriously considered by some in Bethlehem as well as elsewhere in Palestine. Yet the public mood, tired of waiting, presently says that the Israelis do what they want to do and that it is impossible to change what they have in mind.

* * *

During a late summer evening, we eat fresh sabr, cactus, at the balcony. The cactus, deeply and ineradicably rooted in the land, is the Palestinian symbol of perseverance and patience. But how can you keep patience under the present circumstances?

* * *

Unaffected by all the waiting games, Jara can’t wait to go to the big school. Saturday was her first day in the first class. A big moment. She is so proud to wear the red-blue checkered uniform of St Joseph. We take her picture while leaving home. She keeps shouting Istanna! Istanna!” (“Wait! Wait!”) to Tamer. I suspect she is doing so primarily to reinforce the family hierarchy. Tamer, meanwhile, doesn’t know the meaning of waiting and always runs or climbs or stumbles. We better not wait but keep running behind him.