Going to Palestine After a Lifetime of Longing

A Palestinian boy collects materials salvaged from the debris of a damaged smuggling tunnel after it was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip 3 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS – Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

By: Doha Shams

Published Friday, March 2, 2012

The road to Rafah is reminiscent of the road to Baghdad. The trees and shrubs lining the road dwindle as we approach the province of North Sinai in Egypt. To the right, there are high voltage power lines. The driver points to them saying: “This electricity is going to Jordan.”
It is my first trip into Palestine.

Which one is the gas pipeline that goes to Jordan and Israel that has been blown up many times after the January 25 revolution?

He points to a stone fence in the middle of the desert that runs parallel to another identical fence, which appears to bury something beneath it.

The driver says: “This is the gas pipeline, next to it is the pipeline that carries water from the Nile to Rafah. But we don’t need it, we have an aquifer system.” He says the last statement with a sense of national pride.

It seems there is no love lost between the Bedouins of Sinai and Egyptians. I ask who bombed the gas pipeline? He says: “Either the [Egyptian] regime or the Mossad!” How is that possible? He answers: “In the regime’s case, to say there is no security without them, and the Mossad, to mess with the security situation.” As simple as that.

The road, turning eventually into a complete desert landscape, reveals its rare beauty to us.

A desert paradise of light and sheer color stretches endlessly. The horizon is divided, as if with a knife, into two colors – a clear blue sky, like the one you see from the cockpit of a plane flying at high altitude, and a yellow desert interrupted only by the shadow of curvy sand dunes.

There are no greys here and no gradients. Your eyes almost hurt from the brightness of the colors.

You remember the painters who saw the east for the first time. You understand what they meant when they said that they discovered color in the east.

It is an hour and a half of nothing but sand, but you don’t tire of looking. The road to the Rafah crossing from Cairo is five hours. I glue my face to the window of the car as it devours the road. From afar, you can see some camels here and there and some palm trees too.

The driver says: “Now I feel at home.”

The sign says the “Province of North Sinai Welcomes You,” and so do the army checkpoints. The Mediterranean appears to our left from behind the dunes. The people’s accent here has a little bit of Palestine and a little bit of Egypt. Olive trees suddenly appear. They’re not much but they’re enough.Another sign reads “The City of Sheikh Zuweid Welcomes You.” There is an army tank there too but no one stops us. Suddenly the driver says, as he points to a far away hill that appears from a distance crammed with buildings, “Ma’am… do you see the line of houses above the hill? That is Palestine.”

We finally make it to Rafah. Chaotic crowds occupy the area in front of the crossing that cuts the city in two parts: an Egyptian side, where we are standing now, and a Palestinian side that requires permits and authorizations.

It is the border then. And as with every border, the crossing is packed with people trying to eke out a living from money-changers and porters to tea and coffee vendors. Everywhere, travelers are overwhelmed by the luggage that they try haul out of taxis and buses.

Things run smoothly. The media center employee accompanies me from one office to the next. The cross-border transactions are finalized in half an hour.

Those of us lucky enough to have finished our paperwork go to a bus parked in a backyard. We buy a ticket for 25 Egyptian pounds (US$4.00) to get us to the Palestinian side of the crossing. We wait for an hour until the bus is full. Finally, the bus starts moving toward the Palestinian border center.

I glue my face to the window. I don’t want to miss anything. No sooner than the bus moves and we cross a gate 20 meters away, we stop. “What happened?” I ask a passenger sitting next to me. She looks at me laughing and points to a huge sign that says Welcome to the Gaza Strip – Palestine’s Southern Gateway. We have arrived.

We stand in a long queue in front of the security office window, which is where we also buy a bus ticket for 5 Israeli Shekels (ILS) (US$1.32)!

My God. I’m going to use Shekels? I can’t. I ask the employee: “Can I pay with Egyptian pounds?” He replies positively. But a young man gallantly takes out ILS5 from his pocket and buys me a ticket. Fine, I let it slide this time but what am I going to do afterwards?

I decide not to think about it now. I don’t want anything to ruin this moment for me – the moment I meet Palestine. So we drive through the gate crossing under a fluttering Palestinian flag and into Palestine.

So many feelings clamor inside of me. I feel so overwhelmed by it all. I look at everything but it is like I don’t see anything. I am “there” now! I have to quickly comprehend how the forbidden “there” has simply become…here.As soon as we leave the border area, I ask the driver to stop. I step out of the car with the green license plate. Fields of green peas stretch out before me, and scattered humble houses that dot the vista remind me of the villages of the Bekaa in Lebanon.

I take the first step, I look down at the land under my feet, as if I am learning to walk all over again. This is the land of Palestine? Hiding my tears behind my sunglasses, I stare confused at the white sand soiled by the dirt from the shoes of all the passersby.

How do I fulfill my promise? I did not know one can stand on the land of Palestine? I thought that this land can only be kissed. But now this soil is very real.

I make up my mind. I bend over and pick up a handful of soil, I raise it to my mouth and there I see…the remains of a chewing gum. I look at it with a lot of tenderness, laughing at myself, then I throw it back on the ground.

This act of mine did not go unnoticed. Two men in worn out clothes leaning against a small pickup truck in front of the border crossing watch me with an ironic smile on their faces. They comment out loud: “Look at this one…what brought you from your country to this place. Who leaves Italy to come here?”

For some reason, they decided that I’m Italian. I walk by them and greet them. They are taken aback and confused. I ask about the reason for this anger and bitterness? One of them says: “Who chooses to walk into a prison with their own feet?”He tells me that they are unemployed. And even though they’ve tried to go to Egypt hoping to find work there, they haven’t succeeded. The older guy adds: “Is there a country in the world where power outages last for eight and ten hours a day?”

Of all the issues he could have picked, he brought up the electricity problem (Lebanon’s perennial crisis too).

We head toward the city of Gaza. I ask the driver to slow down. I want everything to sink in. All my knowledge of Gaza was theoretical and it is now looking for its concrete image, its translation on the ground.

My Palestinian friend does not make things any easier. He floods me with information. Here is Khan Yunis, here Deir al-Balah, this road we’re driving on is called Saladin and it is the longest road in Gaza. It extends from Rafah Crossing to Erez Crossing in Beit Hanoun at the border with the “Jews.”

No one says Israelis. There is Israel and there are Jews.

This is Sea Street, which runs parallel to Saladin St., and to the sea of course. An Israeli settlement used to stand here before the liberation of Gaza. It has been turned into agricultural land for the Palestinian Authority. This barren land full of junk was once full of trees but Israel razed it during the occupation.

He points to an intersection that we just passed where a military checkpoint is stationed. He says the Netzarim Crossing was here. It was given this name because “they” would pass through it to get to a settlement by the same name located by the beach on the other side.

There were clashes here during the intifada, he says, before adding in a matter of fact manner: “And there, 20 meters in front of the Netzarim checkpoint, Muhammad Durrah was martyred in his father’s arms.”

We reach the city of Gaza racing against the fading light of the day. The forecast says a storm is coming that Gaza hadn’t seen the likes of in the past 50 years. There is no time left in the day to walk in the city. We pass by the port close to the hotel.

The sea is Gaza’s lung. But even the sea is fenced in by Israelis who fire at fishermen’s boats if they cross the three-mile limit that Israel has imposed on them, as if the sea is the prison courtyard where prisoners are allowed to take a little stroll.

The fishermen I met there confirmed that the Israelis fire at them even before they reach the designated limit.

The hotel is by the port. We don’t ask the guards at the port gate if we can enter. We just enter. There, amid a scene that resembles the ports of the poor, stands a monument. When we got close, we realize it commemorates the martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla.There are marble plates on the circular memorial that carry the names of the nine Turkish martyrs who died on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May 2010, written in Arabic and Turkish.

Gaza’s fishermen, like fishermen everywhere, are dark from the sun. But they are a lot skinnier. They look scrawny like the living they scrape from the three miles of their occupied sea.

“You don’t even get there,” exclaims one fisherman sitting by the sea with his friends, fixing their torn nets. By “there” he means the three-mile limit. “They shower us with live ammunition and insults and sometimes they steal our nets,” he says.

It doesn’t take them long to ask where I am from. They are delighted when I say Lebanon. An older fisherman tells me that before 1967 they used to come with their boats all the way to Lebanon.

“Our people would go from here and have breakfast at Dawra [north of Beirut],” he says.

They invite me to come back the next day to meet the person they call their “union leader.” When I ask, they tell me “of course there is no union but that’s what we call him.”

The old man looks at me and and says, as if to show off his experience: “Low pressure is moving in tomorrow and is going to last till Sunday. There will be no fishing. God have mercy, the port will be a mess.”

The driver drops me off at the nearby hotel on a street lined with hotels.

As soon as I step a foot inside, I hear a loud roar and the smell of diesel welcomes me, an indication of the electricity crisis in Gaza that I will hear about everywhere I go.

Why do I have a feeling I will not be homesick?

Al-Akhbar’s veteran journalist Doha Shams blogs in Arabic

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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