Monday, August 28, 2006

Palestine Diary: Crossing the Border (1)

27th July 2006, Bir Zeit

7.15 a.m. I am on my way to Jordan-Israel border in a comfi car that has been alloted to me by Prince Hasan Bin Talal. I met his highness in a reception hall two days ago and had a conversation along with the Jordanian university students. It was so nice of him to send met to the border.

I am excited, i am nervous, i am happy. I am not sure what to feel. It’s been just 2 weeks since the Israel attack on Lebanon started; Gazais under attack, and I am going to Palestine despite everything.

Before I can feel the happiness of my being admitted to the international summer camp that Bir Zeit University organizes every summer, the camp has been canceled due to the security problem and insufficient participation. I call the program coordinator and ask whether they could arrange a place for me to stay if I wish to go to Ramallah. I start preparing when I hear the reply “Sure”. I first go to Amman (Jordan) upon the invitation of Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah, who I met 2 weeks ago. I stay at his residence for 6 days.

Amman seems to be a preparation stage for Palestine: 70 % of the people I met are Palestinian, the city is full of refugee camps. As the attacks started, I didn’t feel like sightseeing. So i spent most of my time by learning about Middle East history and politics.

It didn’t take more than 45 minutes to go from Amman to Israel border. The car left me at the King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) and i ‘checked out’ from Jordan. There are two buses to go to Israel ‘check in’: One for Palestinians and one for foreigners. Selfishly, I was happy to qualify foreigner as the other bus waits for hours. My bus drives over the bridge and arrive at Israel side. It is rather crowded. The border that seems like a little bus terminal, there stand approximately 200 Palestinians and a few foreigners. We wait under the sun while
an Arab officer collects the passports and hand them over to the Israeli officers. It is interesting to see cooperation right away. After 30 minute wait, they call my name. The officer checks the passport carefully, notices I am Turkish and calls out to the Israeli officer. They direct me into the building. After I get put in 2 X-raymachines, there comes another machine in the shape of a prism and then I get disinfected with spray. I feel nervous when the confident serious looking officer comes to question me:

--“Where are you going?”
– First Ramallah, then Jericho, Betlehem and Jerusalem.
--“Why did you come to Israel in such a time?”
--I wanted to see Palestine and Israel, I made my plans before the Lebanon attack.
--“Why didn’t you cancel your plans when the situation got worse?”
--As far as I know Ramallah and Jerusalem are safe.
--“What do you have to do in Ramallah?”
--I want to see the city and Bir Zeit University.
--“ Do you have relatives there?”
--“Any friends?”
--“Why are you going to Bir Zeit University but not an Israeli University?
--I want to see Ben Gurion University as well, I’d like to see both.
--“How did you make connections with them?”
--I searched on Google and saw the summer camp program.
--“What will you do there?”
--“I want to see historical and religious sites and talk to people.”
--“Why do you want to see the historical places?”
--??? … I am tourist, a traveller…
-- “Are you Muslim?”
-- “Then why do you want to see the churches?”
-- I respect all religions, and want to learn about Judaism and Christianity as well.
--“How long are you going to stay?”
--14 days
--“Who will you see in Jerusalem?”
--Nobody special.
--“Show your hotel reservations.”
-- Here.
“How did you find this place?”
--Internet! There websites you know?
--“Show me your return ticket.”
--Why did you come from Jordan, and going back from Tel Aviv?
--I visited friends. After visiting Jerusalem I thought it would be more convenient to leave from Tel Aviv.
-- “What do you do in Turkey?”
--I work for an NGO and planning to go to grad school soon.
--“What did you study at university?”
--“What did you do in the US?”
--I studied English and communication and worked.
--“What kind of job did you have?”
--I worked with children with mental and physical disabilities.
--“You have been to Pakistan, and to the United Arab Emirates, why?”
--I went to Pakistan for earthquake help a few months ago, and visited friends in Emirates.
--“How long did you stay in those countries?”
--2 days in Pakistan, 3 weeks in UAE
--Who did you see?
--Many people, earhwuake victims, friends, people on the street…

After I answer tons of questions like these, the officer gets persuaded and sends me to a second interrogation. I wait for my turn for 40 minutes. There are 5 countersand behind them are female soldiers between 20 and 25. In the queue there are crying chidren, people sleeping because of exhaustion, and Palestinians with a look of fear and anxiety in their eyes. When it is my turn, an officer dissappoints me by taking my passport and says, “You are a foreigner, step aside, this area is for Palestinians.” Trying to be patient, I step aside towards another window and start waiting. When I realize that three people behind are speaking in Turkish, I leave my passport at the desk for investigation and start talking to them. 2 former parliament members and a doctor are going to Jerusalem for a visit also enjoy talking to me as we are all in the same situation as foreigners. The officer calls for me while we chat and we start again. After I answer questions of the same sort as in the former interrogation, the officer asks what I was talking about with those men, and how I know those people. I have a hard time convincing him that we just met there and then. She asks several questions over and over again. I feel such a pressure that I feel as if I am guilty. Yet, I keep calm and answer all the questions calmly and I get the permission to enter and a 3-month permission to stay. Later on I learn that it is enough to be denied at the entrance just to state that you are going to West Bank. This fact pushes many foreigners to hide their intentions. I feel lucky!

I join another queue in order to get my luggage that has been searched throughout. Meanwhile, I see this boy in Bob Marley shirt in his 20s and ask him how long it will take them to complete the rest of the procedure. The Palestinian youngster says he has been crossing this border every two weeks and that this is the last step. Faris is a Bir Zeit graduate and now he is the chairman of an NGO called “Youth and Peace Forum”. After he completed his studies at Economy Department in Bir Zeit University, he started to work for this organization and became the chairman in a short time. He visits authorities from various countries and explains the situation of Palestinian youth, share views. He also organizes youth-exchange programs. When I say I am going to go to Ramallah, he says he lives there as well and offers to get a taxi together. As much as Israeli officers make me uncomfortable, this boy looks very sincere and trustworthy and I don’t mind sharing a taxi.This saves me the trouble of changing 4 buses on the Jerusalem route. We find a third passenger, and arrive in Ramallah in 45 minutes. Faris helps me to get local cell phone sim card for cheap which helped me during my trip so much. He tells me to call whenever I need anything and puts me in another taxi to go to Bir Zeit dormitory. As the coordinator tells people in the dorm that I would go there, everybody expects me. I am met by an incredible hospitability and offered a flat with its bathroom, kitchen and living room, which is not any different from a luxurious flat. In the meantime, Bilgen shows up, a Marmara University student, whom I met once and learnt that she too was coming to the camp. As she came from Tel Aviv, her journey was much easier. I hug her with the joy I feel because I think that we did a big job crossing the border. We put our things in the wardrobe and go to Ramallah downtown with three students: Jamal, Maic and Sawsam, who volunteered to show us around.

We get a shared taxi all together. Students are happy about are presence. They say, many foreigners go there but they have not had Turks before. Even though it is sad that not many Turks go to West Bank, it feels special to be the only ones. I get almost shocked when I see the city center. Life seems quite normal. Minibuses, street vendors, pirated CD salesmen, restaurants, American ads on huge billboards are all around. The restaurant we walk in, to have something to eat, is quite clean, people eating, kids playing around, automobile horns in the air, just normal. God, am I in the right place? We were hoping to see Isreali soldiers, tents, exrtaordinary ruling. I go on an excursion. There are nice residences around, the roads are clean and wide. Later on we learn that today is the day when the employees (some, not all of them) got their salaries for the first time after 5 months. That is why the streets and the bazaars are crowded. Many luxury houses were built by Palestinians who returned from US after Hamas won the elections. Although there are no ‘tourists’ other than us, there are neither disturbing looks nor negative remarks. Prices are not that cheap: After we do some sightseeing and do some shopping, we go back to the dormitory. I in a shock, I can hardly believe the fact that everything looks so easy, conditions and the life standards seem to be so high. We go to sleep lulled bythe music coming from obviously a nearby wedding feast.

We get up early in the morning and go to Bir Zeit University campus. The coordinator Ms. Gadah meets us, tells us about her pleasure for our visit, and adds that she is going to help us as much as possible and allots a new host to us: Ahmad. Ahmad, who showed us around on the campus, and helped us meet students and teachers, is a 20 year old Palestinian student. He has a scholarship because he works for the Bureau of Public Relations at the same time. He shares a house with his elder brother, who works for the Association of Palestinian Prisoners’ Rights and his younger bro, who studies at the same university as he does. His family lives in a village around Hebron. It fills me with hope to hear his story and see his eyes full of hope. I meet the Palestine that I didn’t know before.

29 July 2006, Ramallah

We go to the department of Cultural Studies and ask for permission to attend a class. The topic is: Contemporary Arab Thought. The lesson is in Arabic but it doesn’t bother me as I am more interested in the general atmosphere. Some of the female students wear hijab, some do not. Males and females are seated together.The professor does not have a beard, he even wears flip flops. He puts forward a discussion topic and people express their ideas. Students are attentive and often participating. And even though it is obvious that we are foreigners, nobody pays attention to us. I am surprised at that fact because the case was different in other Arab countries. For instance, in Jordan or in Syria, which I visited last summer, it is rather difficult for a woman to walk on the street by herself because you continually get disturbed both by unpleasant remarks and looks of men. Unfortunately there is a narrow perception about “Western” women. People have a hard time undertanding the ones like me: Western looking Muslim women who cannot speak Arabic. There are no tourists in West Bank. Foreigners are there only to study at universities or to volunteer, and maybe that’s why the perception of foreigners are quite different: respectful and sincere. Of course, one also shouldn’t ignore the fact that the level of education and culture among Palestinians is quite high.

After the class is over, we go to the cafeteria to have lunch. The food is similar to Turkish food but a small difference is that it is somewhat more based on vegetable. In the mornings they have “simit” (a kind of pastry) and toast like we (Turks)do but “simit” here is four times bigger. They make toasts by putting cheese and mushrooms on the “simit” and have a kind of coffee, which rather tastes like Turkish coffee but is more aromatic when compared.

The drinks near the cash register catch my eye. Coca Cola and Nestle brands are put together there, which are brands that are protested and rejected by some communities but here students, who I would thing the most resistant, do not hesitate to buy them. Here is Ahmad’s explanation about this case: “We just don‘t use the Israeli products; no one is against American products.” Palestinians fight by studying and using ideas, but I do not see how much it can go like this in a world that money talks. This is an interesting case in such a school where Fatah, Islami Jihad and Hamas groups are organized. I ask about the communication among these groups. He says no conflict arises. Is there anyone who does not fast in Ramadan? Yes, the cafeteria is open and anyone who likes just walks in and has something to eat and does not encounter any verbal or physical reaction. “Sure it wouldn’t be very pleasant to do that outside the cafeteria”, says Ahmed, “I would regard this as disrespectful behaviour toward my religious beliefs, so they eat in the cafeteria”. There is a great deal of tolerance here. We keep strolling on campus. It is really hard to believe that we are in Palestine. It rather looks like an American university with its modern facilities, sports centers and modern amphitheatres.

We go to the Department of PACE, the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange focusing on Palestinian and Arab Studies. Foreign students attend classes for one or two semesters and study social sciences, history, politics and Arabic language. Even though it is easy to study here, one needs courage to come here. One needs a tourist visa from Israel and generally the application for a visa is rejected when they tell that they are going to study at this university. They have to go to Jordan and come back either every month or every three months, again hiding the fact that they are going to Palestine.

Ms. Besne, whom we met at the Department of Women Studies, complains that particularly female students encounter many difficulties. The roads leading to the campus are sometimes blocked by Israeli soldiers and it takes almost 3 hours for the students who come from a 5 km far-off village. Then, we go to the Bureau of Public Relations and meet Nancy from Chile. Nancy, who has been working here for 4 months is content with her life here and with the hospitality of the Palestinians. She tells us about the efforts that the students make for peace and to prevent conflicts. I am touched by her courage. She comes all the way from South America, learns Arabic and works for people. She tells us about a dance show that 700 spectators will be performed at Ramallah Cultural Palace by children and soon we book our tickets and set out.

When we arrive at the center that reminds me of Cemal Reşit Bey Concert hall (Turkey) we get puzzled again. The Palestinian elite are here. Expensive cars are parked ouside, the hair of the ladies have been done, the gentlemen are in suits and there are press members inside. We take our seats at the front and start watching the performance. The group consisting of young people between the ages of 12-17, 15 of whom are females and 15 of whom are males, sing songs in their traditional costumes, and do folk dancing. At the end of the show, The Minister of Education gives a speech and attributes the show to the ones who lost their lives in Lebanon and Gaza. She calls for cease-fire and everyone applauds but no remark against Israel is made; they choose to glorify the positive instead of damning the negative.

Because there is curfew in the dormitory, 10 p.m.,we immediately get ready and set out after we congratulate the choreographer and the organizers. The show is so similar to our “Anatolian Fire” show that we can’t help telling this to them and get astonished at the replies we get: “We invited them(the dancers in the Anatolian Fire) but they don’t want to come due to the insecurity and they didn’t act very friendly, either”.

While we go to the dorm, a Korean girl called Seruma takes the seat next to me. She has been here for 8 months, and studies political science and Arabic language but despite all difficulties, she says she loves it here. When I ask her what kind of difficulties she has faced, she tells about the trouble of going back to Jordan and get a visa every three months or sometimes even every month, her long waits at the border, and the sudden gunfires by the Israeli soldiers on the streets. Once, she says, they came to her house to search in at 3 a.m. in the morning, “but,” she adds calmly, “they didn’t do anything, just looked inside”. Then her cell phone rings and she starts speaking Arabic very fluently. I admire at her ambition, patience, and efforts. When I arrive at the dorm, I have a chat with the officers and go to bed, with the excitement of what will happen the next day in my heart.

It is Friday the next day, in other words, it is holiday. When we arrive at the city center, it is still and silent around. As soon as we learn that a demonstration will be held pioneered by Hamas at 1.30 p.m. right after the Friday prayer, we go to the Al Manara Square and take our place. Around 1000 people gather there, holding Hamas flags in their hands and they start walking while saying “Allahuakbar” after shouting slogans againstIsrael.I stare at the crowd, ¼ of which consists of women; have a chat with several of them, and take lots of photos. The security is maintained by the Palestinian police. Nothing unpleasant happens in this demonstration, which is quite normal to see on a Friday.

When the demonstration is over, we go to Al Jalazone camp to see a refugee camp. This camp, very close to Ramallah, reminds me of a typical Anatolian village. We go to the Palestinian Children‘s Club at the city center and get some information about the activities of the club and the general condition of the camp from the Chairman Ayman Ramahi. The camp, built in 1957, is under the control of the United Nations. There is settled life now; most of the people have a job in Ramallah, children go to school but what will happen the next day is unclear. The camp they live in is a rented area, they could be dismissed at any moment. It is forbidden to cultivate the land. Israeli soldiers visit the area with their tanks in order to “maintain security” twice a week on average. According to Ramahi, all they do is to frighten the people here. Most of the time they arrest someone for no reason at all. Because the adulthood legally starts at the age of 13 here, 65% of the prisons are full of kids below the age of 18. 13.000 people live on this camp and half of the population is below the age of 18.

We go out for a walk in the camp. As I see children on the streets I give them the barrettes I brought from Turkey. They accept them with shy looks. The ones who learn about the barrettes approach me and stare at me, but don’t utter a word. I also give them some barrettes, at that moment they start walking with us. Maybe it is 15 of them walking by me, but they don’t ever speak. But the happiness they feel because of a foreigner coming to their village and showing affection to them is visible. There is “life” in the camp: the hairdressers are working, people are dressed in fancy clothes, and when I ask the reason for this, I learn that there is a wedding feast in the evening. I excitedly ask whether I could attend the feast or not and I get really happy when I get a reply in the affirmative. Meanwhile, the groom and his relatives are dancing on a van, there is music coming from the vehicle in front of them and someone is recording them on the camera. They tour the whole camp this way, all the teenagers and the kids are dancing. We have one hour until the wedding ceremony and we go on with our excursion. We see an Israeli settlement just 300 meters ahead of us. I get warned against taking photos and staring at the settlement. The settlement, which is enclosed by huge walls and guarded by soldiers around the clock, is full of duplex villas. There is no connection at all between the Palestinian area and this settlement, neither social, nor economic. Surprised, we arrive at the wedding hall. There are two sections, one assigned to women and one to men. Haditha, Ramahi’s daughter, takes me to the women’s section. There are about 200 people there, all of them in their special day costumes. Meanwhile, I see the children I met in the camp today and I feel touched when I see that most of them wear the barrettes I gave them. I take my seat at the front row and watch the groom and the bride walk in. The bride is in a white wedding gown, and the music at the background is the typical music from Western wedding ceremonies but the lyrics are in Arabic language. They step on the stage and put on rings on each other’s fingers and come down to the platform to do their first dance. Everyone applauds and then the couple get seated. All the women and the kids start dancing. The music is very similar to ours (Turkish music).I congratulate the bride and the groom and wish them happiness and of course I don’t leave the place without attaching some money to the couple. Their customs are really similar to ours. But I cannot stay any longer since it is late at night and I go back to the dorm. Despite everything, people get married, enjoy themselves, go to school, in other words they live. And this way I’m getting to know the things I don’t know about Palestine.

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