Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

The stop-and-go journey

Dima Ghanim | 27-04-2021

The drive across the Sinai Desert to Cairo started at sunset. 

August in the Sinai desert is tough with mosquitoes and sand particles carried by hot waves of wind into the car. The sun stretches out its blazing arms that slip inside our steel cage to press down on our perspiring bodies.

The taxi picks up speed, but as soon as the tires squeal their excitement, the brakes squeal back and the speed plunges — another checkpoint. The car engine gets an unwelcome rest every five minutes as we hit one checkpoint after another.

I gaze out the rear window, keeping track of our slow progress. Question marks float into the scorching air. How long will take until the taxi’s tires are melted into place? Have we crossed enough kilometers so that the journey won’t take us overnight?

The special skills of border drivers

Border drivers are not like taxi drivers. They are always wrestling with time, spending days or weeks away from their families, delivering and taking passengers on a race. They know by heart every checkpoint’s level of difficulty. I see them picking up their phones to warn each other of new orders on roads. They have their tricks of dealing with soldiers at checkpoints.

Plan B can be an option if you are willing to take the risk of veering off the main road. They may suggest driving another way, which might be easily rejected if it takes too long and ends up with a return that has no paying passenger. That is how it works to try to take advantage of every drop of time.

“I feel sorry for you,” the Egyptian driver says, interrupting the silence. “May God be with you for what you go through. Back in the days, we used to deliver passengers from the Rafah border to Cairo within five hours.”

The mad scene at the border

Six hours earlier at the Egyptian border, people were like a flock of birds flapping their wings. They were rushing around the hall at the Rafah Crossing, following the protocol in a concerted manner, seeking to preserve the main asset of their journey, time.

My family members had their assigned tasks — filling out travel documents, standing in the line, getting the stamps, and securing the luggage. After handing over the passports, what was left was waiting. Waiting became unbearable as the hall jammed with new arrivals and the tower of passports piling in front of the officers grew higher. 

Finally one officer stood to call out the names of those whose passports had been stamped, and people jumped out of their seats or stopped in surprise as they roamed around the hall (they never left it, for fear they wouldn’t hear their name called). For those whose names were not called, another sentence of waiting commenced, while those who heard their salvation call were set free from the cage. But they were not completely free, though they did experience the joy of moving along to the next cage.

Nevertheless, this joy too could be quickly taken away. One woman, whose family had been forced to flee from their homeland in Jaffa to Syria in 1948, and then escaped the Syrian war to experience another one in Gaza, had opted for another scenario for the future of her children. After a long night of anticipation and hoping, she, her four children (including one who was kicking inside her, impatient to see the light) and her elderly mother were approved to set off on their uncertain future. But she was fated to carry this burden by herself, because her husband was deprived from joining them.

“No! I won’t leave without him!” she shrieked at the top of her voice. 

 “You have to leave,” the father tranquilly told his family. “Don’t worry. I will follow later.” He restrained his wretchedness while the children glued themselves to their father with warm salty tears on their rosy cheeks.

sunrise at checkpoint in the Sinai
Sunrise after a night spent at a checkpoint.

Palestinians have experienced all sorts of loss to the point that they are no longer capable of transcribing it into words. Ironically, determination and fear of loss in their eyes summarize it all. I saw this in the grandmother’s eyes. They were like the tap that is not fully closed, accumulating heavy drops that splatter from the rim. One of the children approached her, tapping on her paper-like hand and looking straight into her eyes without uttering a word. The child, who had autism and troubles in communication, had sympathized with another human being’s suffering and misery, manifesting compassion into the simplest, most meaningful language.

Borders and checkpoints are an integral part of who we are as Palestinians. They can open doors to the opportunity of enrolling in the world and witnessing its diversity. Or they can throw the doorkey into deep waters, sending one back heavy-hearted with disappointments. Either way, borders and checkpoints remain a certain reminder of occupation and blockade cruelty.  

On our way—our long, long way

After 12 hours of waiting at the border, we receive our stamped passports and set off by taxi for Cairo, knowing more challenges and many more hours are ahead. “Don’t think. Turn a blind eye to whatever you’ll witness, as if this day ahead of us never happened,” my father says, absurdly.  Being a Palestinian means adapting to any challenge thrown in our way. We learn to acclimate to the changing of the labyrinth paths and ploys; if a wall faces you, dig into the ground and appear on the other side like a magician. We tackle every trouble that comes our way with a resolute heart.

Now, after four hours of the stop-and-go, checkpoint-to-checkpoint drive, we reach the hardest checkpoint, which we must cross before midnight if we do not want to sleep in the car until the next morning. A snake of vehicles has stopped for their turn of detailed inspection, which means that yes, we will spend the night here.

Unknown Fate by Shafik Radwan

The next morning, as we get underway again, I decide to get rid of negative thoughts by playing a movie I downloaded, Schindler’s List. I end up following my father’s advice, distracted from the interrupted ride by watching this movie and thinking about the tragedy experienced by German Jews. The protagonist, Oscar Schindler, cries because he did not sell all his possessions and so ransom one more life to escape the inevitable death. The Holocaust is considered the most prominent example of extremist nationalism-fueled ethnic cleansing in history. But, as Palestinians, we are daily exposed to successive repetitions of ethnic cleansing. The latest such project is the displacement of Sheikh Jarrah residents in Jerusalem, by order of the Israeli court in favor of settlers. What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is a segment of the larger picture of the occupation’s erasure of Palestinians from the land. The occupation exploits the Holocaust to serve its political purposes today, and to mask the vicious present-day acts against the indigenous people.

I do not know how long these thoughts had been roaming in my head. However, the sound of the car engine brings me back to reality. It renews my elation at being underway. But just as suddenly, the sound stops. After two days on the road from Gaza to Cairo, I’m finally in the airport just like any other traveler, enjoying the freedom of holding a plane ticket in one hand and euphoria in the other.

Posted: April 26, 2021

Mentor: Bernie Koenig

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