February 9 to February 12, 2022: I can’t forget those days. They were the allotted time period for my permit to visit the West Bank. This would be the first such visit in my life. The seconds, hours, and days before my journey can’t be described. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, pushing time to hurry up so I could start my journey.
The night before I traveled reminded me of when I was a child, waiting for Al-Eid. I didn’t get enough sleep, as I woke up each hour to make sure that I wouldn’t miss my trip. I woke up at 7:00 and left home at 7:30, flying to the northern border crossing, counting each meter and saying goodbye to all the places and streets I passed by. My family members were extremely happy for me, saying goodbye with happy tears. We forgot that I would be back in three days!
As a Palestinian who lives in Gaza, I always considered traveling abroad as a far-off dream. Despite being Palestinian Egyptian, which is supposed to facilitate the process of traveling, I hadn’t had the opportunity to travel in my previous 21 years. My dream has always been not just to leave home or visit new places, but to have freedom of movement.
This dream began to take shape in April 2021, when my friend shared with me a Google form for an opportunity to join the first Youth Advisory Panel for the State of Palestine. As a youth activist, I was excited to apply; representing Palestinian youth nationally is a challenge and honor that I have always been working to achieve.
After passing the long individual and group selection process, I received an email in October 2021, informing me that I had been selected as a member of the YAP. I was on the edge of my seat as I read the email, and then I yelled shouted out with joy to my family members. They were so proud and supportive, as it would be my first experience being part of a national team.
I finally felt confident that I would travel to the West Bank for the first face-to-face meeting with the team in Ramallah, the seat of core Palestinian Authority decision making. Thanks to an initiative of the European Union, Denmark, and a group of United Nations’ agencies, the YAP was established to make sure that the interests of Palestinian youth are taken into consideration at the national and international levels. Finally, our voices would be heard. Now, I felt I was closer to my passion of representing youth and ensuring their effective participation in decision making processes.
At last — in the West Bank!
It was 11:00 a.m. when I inhaled my first breath outside of Gaza. On the way to Ramallah, I was so fascinated by the beauty of the landscape, the buildings, and even the roads, that I struggled between documenting what I saw and just enjoying the visual feast for my eyes. I can literally say that for the first time, I was free. I wanted to leave the bus and just walk, smell nature, hug the beauty, and take thousands of photos and videos.
Finally, at just after 1:00 in the afternoon, the fight I had with my friends over who could sit in the front seat in the bus — the seat with the best view out the front window — ended, and we arrived in Ramallah. The first thing we did was pose for a group photo at the Caesar Hotel in Almasyon area of the city. Our group of seven youths from Gaza were visiting for the first time “the other part of our home.” Yet we felt immediately that it was not another part, but an integral component of our identity, full of love, warmth, and beauty.
After we checked in and left our things in our rooms, we began our journey in the city – I mean the beautiful city! Those hours were full of pictures, smiles, and warm feelings. Even though it was raining, and the fog in Ramallah made me feel like I was in London, I felt warm. That night, I went to Jericho with my brother’s friends, and we shared a special time, talking about the differences between life in Gaza and the West Bank. When I came back to the hotel, I couldn’t sleep. I called my family and told them about the most beautiful day in my life.
My teammates and I had all been assigned separate rooms because of COVID-19, but when we realized that no one could sleep, we all gathered in a single room to share our thoughts about the day. We had made such exceptional memories.
I went back to my room, recapping the day in my mind. I realized that I had prayed Al-fajr (daybreak prayer) at Jabalia in Gaza, in the morning, and Al-Ishaa (night prayer) in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in the evening. I wondered why this was exceptional.
In the thick of an overwhelming storm, I finally slept.
The next morning, I woke up at 7:30, took a shower, and had my breakfast. Then, for the first time ever, after four months of Zoom meetings and other online communications, we met the rest of our team, from the West Bank. I stared at each one of these panel members with curiosity and affected way. I wanted to make sure I was seeing reality, that my teammates were directly in front of me. I realized that for the first time, no one would have a problem with communication because of a poor internet connection or the electricity being cut off.
We received training about identity, in which we discussed the differences in life conditions in the northern and southern provinces of Palestine. After finishing the training, we had lunch together, and then took another amazing journey around the beautiful Ramallah. We visited Rokab, the most famous ice cream shop in Ramallah, established in 1946. We had a photo session around Al Manara crossroads, and in the al-Tahta area. Our journey ended at night in an old but golden classic coffeehouse, full of Palestinian antiques. Being there helped me connect more deeply with my Palestinian identity. After spending an unforgettable three hours in the café, we Gazans said goodbye to our teammates, full of hope that we would meet them very soon in Gaza.
We went back to the hotel, but I couldn’t settle down in my room. I left the hotel and started on a goodbye journey to all the places and streets I came across. It was late, about 11:00 p.m., and I called my family to express how much I was feeling about having to leave the West Bank, and then I started visiting streets and areas that I didn’t know.
I wanted to get lost in the city, and luckily, it happened. I spent an hour or two walking aimlessly and taking photos of everything. At 2:00 a.m., I realized I was in the same area as the hotel, just turning around on different streets. Finally, I returned to the hotel at 3:00 a.m. I continued my goodbye journey in the common room where we had spent many unforgettable hours.
A chance to see Al-Aqsa Mosque
On Friday morning, February 11, 2022, it was time to leave. My friends Hmaid, Islam, and I went to the city market early to buy as many presents as we could for our families in Gaza. Then we checked out of the hotel and began our return journey. We asked our manager to let us see Al-Aqsa Mosque on our way before reaching the border. It would be challenging to fit that in, as the border closes at 3 p.m. on Friday and we didn’t have much time. Luckily, she agreed and asked the driver to take us near the mosque to have a “sneak peek.”
When we got close to Al-Aqsa, my heart started beating very quickly, and my tears struggled to express what I felt. We landed on Al Zaytoun (Mount of Olives), the highest mountain in Jerusalem, with a special geographical and historical importance as it directly views Al-Aqsa Mosque. The few minutes we spent there were full of warm tears, exceptional photos, shouts, and racing hearts. The golden dome shines in a fascinating way, and you really feel, as the Palestinian poet Tamim Al-Barghouthi said, “Each thing in the city has a fluent tongue.” For the first time, I recognized the tension of being so close to the mosque but not being able to have the honor of entering the mosque and praying.
After multiple calls from our manager, we left the mountain, and we left our hearts there, hoping for a longer and closer visit soon. For now, I wonder, why must I pass through four border checkpoints to move from my home in Jabalia to another Palestinian city, just 74.3 kilometers away? This should be a normal movement from one city to another, but the fact is that this visit was a far-off dream that came true once. God willing, it will come true again.