Sunday, December 4, 2011

Crossing Borders

The other day I was invited to attend a Crossing Borders meeting in Jerusalem. It was an extension of the Global Village Square experience, since a handful of people from GVS were there, and Souli was leading the meeting. I met Souli in Ramallah, after having spent an hour in a Service with a Spanish guy named Sebastian and a British-Palestinian named Faras. I absolutely couldn't tell he was Palestinian, he looked and sounded foreign. Apparently he had just hopped over to Nablus for some dessert, and he kept giving me and Sebastian insider secrets, like how to find the best coffee in Old Jerusalem, and he called me "teach." It was...funny. In moments like those I'm torn between embarrassment that us foreigners are making such a ruckus out of what would traditionally be a quiet Service ride, and elation at the fact that there are foreigners here.

Anyways, I met Souli at Pronto cafe, which was full of foreigners, as always. After talking to him and two of his friends, one from prison, we got in the little green car and headed off to Qalandia checkpoint.

Rewind: I'd gone up to Haj Sami around 11:30 in the morning, and said, "hey, so, I've been invited to a meeting in Al-Quds, with the same people from the Beit Jala meeting. I can tell them about the village. What do you think? Do you think it's a good idea?" He was a little surprised, what? Jerusalem? today? no adult class? But after a minute he said ok, re-schedule the class, and take some business cards...

Haj Sami doesn't even have a permit to visit Jerusalem. I didn't tell anyone else where I was going...

So after a three hour string of Service taxis, I sat in Souli's car for another 45 minutes, waiting for the checkpoint traffic to subside. Between Ramallah and Qalandia is a horrendous bottleneck, and everyone in the Northern West Bank needs to use this gate. Finally we parked the car, and I had my uh-oh moment. I'd left my passport at home.
"majnona, really? i'll kill you..."
We did a few slow laps around the car, wondering what our options were. Should I hop in a bus going through the checkpoint and try to blend in with the other passengers? Or try my luck with the chicken run? I'd made it through without my passport before, by slinking down in my seat while the other foreigners raised their passports, but if I was singled out...I didn't know. I was trying to enter Israel without any proof of visa. shit shit shit. I followed Souli into the chicken run and while we stood in line, I practiced what I was going to say. I left my passport in Ramallah? I left it in a taxi? Souli told me no, I left it in Jerusalem. Yes, I left it at my hostel, and I have to fly out of Tel Aviv tomorrow. And I've never seen you in my life. Here goes...
I put my driver's license up to the window, and gave an apologetic look. The soldiers, nay, the armed kids hanging out in the office, opened the slot and took my card and examined it. Where's the ID number? There's no ID, it's not national, just a driver's license. One of the guys made a phone call. I looked as hopeless and harangued as possible, and the guy on the phone hung up and nodded his head and returned my card. As I collected my purse off the conveyor belt, he said into the mic, "have a nice day."
I left my harangued face on as I looked for the exit, and waited outside the checkpoint, and when Souli came out I grinned, quietly, even though I wanted to shout "alhamdullilah!"
We caught the 18 bus to Damascus gate, and as we passed through East Jerusalem, I saw my first Palestinian Christmas store. Jiminy Cricket! Just like Kris Kringle in Leavenworth. Though they probably didn't have little electronic Christmas towns. Would that be too much to hope for?

From Damascus gate, we walked to a little bakery where I bought two mini-pizzas and two eclairs. I hadn't eaten all day, so this was just....tops. Then we caught a cab to the house meeting. We zoomed around the very attractive, Westernized Jerusalem and ended up in a nice, green neighborhood full of apartment buildings. Yovav met us out front, he'd also just arrived. We found the building and the apartment on the top floor, and it was gorgeous. We were greeted by the host, who’s name I forgot, and immediately went into mingle mode with the 50% of people that had arrived. I recognized Nir and Yonatan from GVS, and met some new people in the kitchen. I was shy right off the bat, and realized that that’s not going to serve me here, or anywhere, so I made an effort to join conversations. During silences I found myself sidetracked by shelves of books on Zionism and Judaism and Palestine and the conflict. They were in several languages and covered a pretty broad political spectrum. I saw Thomas Friedman, Edward Said, Tom Segev, and I don’t remember who else…but I realized how familiar I am with these authors and books, and their content, and I’ve never read any of them. The only one I’d found in the New Orleans Public Libraries was Thomas Friedman, and I just passed….

Yovav asked me I’d be interested in hosting a group of 20 Palestinians and 20 Israelis in Al Aqaba before Christmas. It was part of the trip they’d put together at the GVS meeting. I was surprised that he’d considered Al Aqaba for one of their two nights, I’d thought when he greeted me with “I’m actually really glad to meet you again,” that it had something to do with the blog. And it made me think again about using people's names. But I thought about his request. It was tough, logistically, to host that many people, so I said I’d get back to him. Then Yonatan asked me, in front of Yovav, if we could talk after the meeting, since he’d read my blog (this I knew already) and was curious about my thoughts on the GVS discussion, since he wasn’t that exposed to the other side of it. It was a very genuine, heartfelt request, and I said, sure, let’s converse!
But then I sat down with everyone else as the meeting started and started to feel nauseous. What if I was expected to share my thoughts, how deep was I prepared to go? Could I wax philosophical about Zionism in West Jerusalem, in an apartment full of Israelis?

Why could I do it in Beit Jala, and not here?

I started thinking of all the lines not to cross, all the red flags not to raise, and as the meeting got underway, I relaxed. Souli started out by talking about his political involvement, his arrest, the prison time, and the reconciliation projects since then, then an older Israeli gentlemen told us about his time in the army, how he ended up as a prison guard in Souli’s prison, and here they were, sitting next to each other as poster children for Crossing Borders. The third host was a women whose husband worked for the Knesset, and didn’t approve of her going to these meetings. It was a divisive family issue, especially now that her kids were soldiers. She was amazing. Then they were asked questions like, “what are the meetings like?” and “what do Palestinians expect to get from these meetings?” A familiar question. What do they want what do they want. Souli just said honestly, freedom, and an end to the occupation. At the end of the meeting, they have to go home to the occupation, and Israelis just go home. “It’s not the same situation.” When he talked about settler violence, one of the women piped up, “they’re becoming like Palestinians,” and he flatly said “No, I don’t believe that. Palestinians are not violent by nature…” and she kind of huffed. That was the most confrontational the meeting ever got. As it progressed, and I sat next to an Israeli named Sara who translated all the Hebrew for me and a Swiss guy, I felt warmer and warmer. This was such a good thing, as small as it was. Everyone here was interested in carrying the conversation further, and the organizers were planning to expand to reach more people. I felt free to just listen and absorb, and put my e-mail address on the list, and make new friends. We were all there in the same spirit, and I knew I had a lot to offer with the Guest House project. I wish I already had a website, or at least some business cards, but we would be in touch. All in due time....

I didn’t get a chance to talk to Yonatan, because Souli and I found a ride to the checkpoint, but I told Yovav that if he could get his 40 people up to Al Aqaba, we would find a way to accommodate them. All things were possible.


Yesterday I got my first e-mail in Hebrew. It was from one of the organizers of Crossing Borders. I think it’s time to sit down and learn some ebriyye.