Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Re-Entry #2

The exit from Palestine:
(Right now I’m sitting my friend’s apartment in Amman, listening to Immortal Technique)
Last Saturday, I woke up at Souli's. His cousin, Minwar called and it agreed that he would bring us breakfast and drive Souli to Zamn Cafe. I'd already decided that I wasn't going to Zamn, I'd already slept late and I hadn't planned very well for my crossing. Once I got to Tubas, how was I going to get to Mehola checkpoint? I don't think anyone goes from an Area A Palestinian city to the Israeli I wasn't going to have to wing it. Going through Israel was out, since it was Shabbat and the busses to Beit She'an weren't running until sundown. I was going to say nightfall. Nightfall. Sundown. what literal words.
Minwar drives a taxi, and is always on call if Souli needs to get around Ramallah or out of town, to Hizma to see the family, for instance, which we did the night before. We ate fried fish and fried eggplant and french fries and it made me think of New Orleans. Then Souli left me alone to bond with his sisters, and three hours later we were all snoozing in the dark and he had to come and collect me.
Minwar and Souli have a funny way of speaking together, it sounds like they're singing. While I was getting dressed and packing up my stuff, I could hear Minwar saying "Morgaaana, ruhhi al-urdaaaana." (Morgan, going to Jordan...) Then he'll throw in a high-pitched "bastanak!" (i'm waiting for you!) because he's waiting for me to eat breakfast and I sang a song called Bastanak in the taxi the first time I met him in November, and he likes to bring it up..a lot.
I went out and joined them for hummus and ful and falafel, and listened to them sing-songing like brothers will a million inside jokes. I just remember Minwar telling me, "Morgaaana, insh'allah tiji haaaana," which means hopefully you come back here! We all laughed, Souli and I a little nervously. He's been telling me, "I think you'll get the visa, that's my feeling."
Minwar dropped me off near Manara circle, where I said goodbye to Souli and started walking to the Service station. I walked up the ramp to the garage and looked around for Raed, the driver from Tubas/Tayasir. He did one trip to Ramallah every day, usually early in the morning, and I was hoping to catch him before he went back north, so I wouldn't have to take two Services. Unfortunately, my phone had died the day before so I couldn't call him to arrange the ride. Souli gave me his spare phone, so I could put in my SIM card, but all my numbers were gone.
I learned from the other drivers that Raed had left just 30 minutes before. Ok, Nablus it is. I hopped in the Service to Nablus, which took one hour. I was starting to get bored of this trip, but I looked out the window and admired the hills between Birzeit and Luban Sharqia, and looked at the settlements like an old nuisance, no longer a shock. I counted license plates...white with green letters for Palestinians, yellow and blue for settlers. Palestinian, Palestinian, Israeli, Israeli, Palestinian, Palestinian, Palestinian, Palestinian, Israeli, Palestinian, Palestinian......the main roads are Israeli-controlled, but most of them (gee, thanks) are open to Palestinians. It always amazes me to see how they share the road, like how a Palestinian can drive just behind a settler, and vice versa. Part of me expects a massive game of bumper cars.
We passed by Tappuah junction, the entrance to a bloc of settlements, and I saw two Palestinian men standing a dozen meters from the settler bus stop. They don't have a bus stop, so they wait on the shoulder of the road for a Service. Then I saw a Palestinian woman standing alone under the settler bus stop shelter, because it was raining.
(Haha, this rap song that's on is going, "no matter what you think, occupation is not victory!")
We got to Nablus, and I hopped into the Service to Tubas. It was a 30 minute trip. When I got to Tubas, I called my student Orwah, who met me at the Tubas station and explained to the driver to Bardala that I wanted to go to Mehola checkpoint. He agreed to drop me off there for 7 shekels extra. So I was in a Service with 6 passengers headed to Bardala, and I had my own destination.
The taxi took us through Tayasir and past Al Aqaba. I'd been in Ramallah for 5 days, supposedly "making my way to Northern crossing to Jordan" because I thought I'd have to go through Northern Israel. Turns out I could've gone from the village in one hour. Ah well.
The Service had to go through Tayasir checkpoint. I wondered if Jason was on duty. I wondered if he would try to talk to me. I wondered if I would want to respond. But I realized I was closest to the door, and I wouldn't stay in the Service like the lucky American, like I did at Hamra checkpoint that one time. I got out, and before anyone could tell me to stay inside, I made my way down into the pedestrian checkpoint. I got up to the revolving door and said "hey," like, "can I move forward?" Then I looked back and saw the six Palestinian passengers that I'd been riding with. They were all standing some dozen meters behind me, waiting. They had to wait over there? I felt like such a jerk, strolling ahead. But the soldier waved me in, so I went through the revolving door, and put my stuff on the table by the metal detector. I could hear soldiers chuckling at me. I went through the metal detector and saw three armed soldiers, standing outside the tinted cave where the soldiers on duty were asking for my ID. I handed over my passport, wondering if the soldier would notice that my visa expired today. One of the three soldiers outside asked, "where you from?" I said, "USA."

"What do you have in there?"
"Umm, clothes, and a laptop."
"Let me see."
When the soldier behind the window gave me back my passport, I took my backpack and opened it for the other soldier.
"What are you doing here? visiting?"
"I teach English over there" and pointed toward Al Aqaba."
"Oh. Is it nice?"
(I'd gotten the same question from a soldier who boarded my bus from Nablus to Bethlehem. He'd singled out me and my brother and asked us, "what are you doing in Nablus? Just visiting?" "Yeah..." "Is it nice?" He smirked.)

I waited outside the checkpoint while a few from my Service were going through. "Tal! wahad a wahad" Come! One by one! Then I walked toward the Service, which had gone through the road checkpoint and was waiting for us. I stood by the door while the passengers came down, one by one, and got back in. The last two were a father and little son. They were holding hands.

(The rap song that's playing now: "It's not racism, it's stay in ya place-ism")

The Service continued on to Bardala. The Jordan Valley is beautiful, and it seemed to be in full bloom. I'm sure in two months it'll be even more beautiful. I saw several more of the concrete blocks that read "No Entry-Firing Area," and wondered how outdated they were, and if there were landmines in there. Then I actually saw a sign over a barbed wire fence that read "Danger-Mines."

Our surroundings were getting more and more tropical, then we finally saw Jordan in the distance. We passed Ein al-Beda, and fields full of produce. Palestinians provided the labor, settlers got the profit. In front of Ein al-Beda, there was the fimiliar red sign that read, "Entering this village is illegal for Israelis."

Then the Service stopped, and the driver looked back at me. We were at the checkpoint. I paid my 14.5 shekels and got out. The Service turned around and headed into Bardala. I looked at the checkpoint, it wasn't like the one in Tayasir, it was big, and colorful. It was for settlers. I started walking toward it. I wasn't sure where to go, probably to the kiosk where the cars went through. Then I realized this wasn't a walk-up checkpoint either-there was a soldier headed toward me, motioning at me to stop. I stopped. What could this blonde girl have in her backpack?

“Where are you going?” he shouted.
“Beit She’an!” I replied.
He relaxed, and motioned me across the lane to the neutral ground (is that just a New Orleans term?). Two other officer-looking people were also headed toward me.
One of them asked where I came from. I said, “Ramallah, then Tubas….”
“I teach English near Tubas.”
“Ah.” I followed them behind the road kiosk to the pedestrian terminal. Two young female soldiers were hanging out outside, and they looked amused. They yelled something at the man I was with, something I understood like, “Who’s this?” The man replied good-naturedly, something with “Tubas” and “Beit Sha’an.” I wasn’t a common sight. But I spotted a soldier accompanied by a little German Shepherd and it was uncontrollable, I shouted “puppy!” All the soldiers laughed.
I got into the terminal and put my bags through the conveyor-belt thing. A pretty, young blonde soldier waved me through the metal detector. Then she took out my laptop and ran it through again. We were alone in the room. She asked me, casually, where I was coming from, I said I was American, but I came from Tubas today. She made that familiar face, like “weird.” She asked me more questions, then I asked, “Where are you from?” She said, “me?” Yeah, of course you! “I’m from just there, Beit She’an.” She didn’t have far to go for work. I wondered if there was CouchSurfing in Beit She’an. I wondered if I could ever meet her there, maybe she could show me around. She looked about eighteen, nineteen.

Then she had me go in a back room, and stand with my arms out while she checked me with the portable metal detector. It beeped on my bra, but she let it go. It beeped on my belt, I took it off. It beeped on the button on my jeans, and she yelled something to her colleague. Her colleague yelled something back. She asked me to take off my pants.
“All the way?” I asked.
She motioned, down to my knees.
She checked the inside of my pants, and around my crotch. Then she said, “ok,” and left through the curtain. I pulled up my pants, and grabbed my belt, and came out from the curtain. She said I could leave out “that” door. I walked outside, and realized there were no taxis, like I hoped there would be. I went back to the soldier. She asked, “you need a taxi?” I said yes. She gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. My phone wasn’t working. I was probably in Israeli territory now, so my Palestinian SIM card wasn’t working. She helped me find the right number, and called from her phone. She handed it to me…

“Tihki Arabia?” the man asked.
“Shwey,” a little, I answered, a little proudly.
“Wein ‘dek truhi?” Where do you want to go?”
“Al gisr Sheikh Hussein…bsir?” The Sheikh Hussein bridge, is that possible?”
“Bsir, bsir….istani…khamstash daqiqa…” Yes, wait fifteen minutes….
I figured this was just some random guy from a taxi station on the Israeli side. I wondered how far the bridge was and how much it would cost. I waited on a bench outside the terminal. One of the soldiers, a rather good-looking Ethiopian man, asked me if I was anxious. I said no, I’d just never made this crossing before. He continued pacing around outside the terminal. I watched the other soldier with his German Shepherd. He seemed to be very fond of his dog. I remembered the German Shepherd in Bil’in. She had gotten away from the soldiers during the commotion at a demonstration and my friend adopted her. He was very fond of his “soldier dog.” She had eight little puppies when I saw her.

The call to prayer began from Bardala, just over the hill. I wonder what the soldiers thought when they heard this sound. I imagined being in a little fortress surrounded by enemies. I thought of my Google search. When I was trying to find hours for Mehola crossing, the only results were “Mehola Junction bombing.” It happened in 1993. Never again.

A couple rolled up in a sedan. Damn, maybe I could just hitch a ride with them. One of the checkpoint employees, another young woman, spoke to them in fluent Spanish. They couldn’t be settlers, could they? I threw out a quick, “hablas espanol?” to the man, and after ten seconds he turned around and said “si, y tu?” I nodded. Not really true, now that Arabic was starting to kick Spanish out of my head. The couple was from Spain, just driving their rental car around the territories. Maybe they knew it as Judea and Samaria. They seemed nice. After the checkpoint people searched the car with mirrors and a German Shepherd, they confiscated the vehicle and took it into a garage. The couple seemed a little confused. I don’t know what happened to them, because my taxi arrived and whisked me away. The driver’s name was Rami, and he seemed to know the checkpoint people pretty well, he shouted out a few greetings in Hebrew and they responded, laughing.
Rami’s English wasn’t great, so I spoke to him in Arabic. I’d never been this far north, it was very green and tropical and beautiful. My text message to Souli hadn’t gone through, so I asked Rami if we were still in Palestine. He said no, Palestine khalas, over. We were in Israel. But he called the farms around us settlements. What a fuzzy world we were in. Rami was from Nazareth. I was excited about that, I wanted to visit Nazareth. Yalla, he said. He could take me to Nazareth for a few hours then to the crossing. I told him I wanted to cross before night, it was already 2:30. He said I could cross, then come right back to renew my visa. I told him I wanted to stay a little longer in Amman to make the crossing easier, insh’allah. “They don’t like volunteers,” I said.

“Ahh…I see.”
He asked if I was married. I said no. Boyfriend? Maybe. Palestinian? Maybe. He said he wanted to marry an international, or an Israeli, so he could move around more freely. I told him I’d try to get more foreigners to Palestine.

It started to rain.
“Geshem,” said Rami. “matar…in Hebrew.” Rain. “Btfakr….ebriye hilwa?” Do you think Hebrew is beautiful?
“La (no)… bhebbu (I don’t like it)….bas….Arabia wa Ingleezi (just Arabic and English).”

I asked him how much he wanted…he said for a volunteer, 250 shekels. I didn’t doubt this was his normal price, for a lone American traveler on Shabbat, when nothing else was working. 65 bucks for a 30 minute ride. Ouch.
We rolled into the terminal, and again, Rami seemed to know all the guards. They bantered in Hebrew. He dropped me off and told me to go to Window 2, then Window 7. I paid him. I went into the terminal, bought an ice cream bar, then went right up to Window 2. The exit tax was 103 shekels. That was better than Allenby, which made you pay 175 or something. Then I went up to Window 7 and stood there munching on my ice cream bar while they stamped my passport. Right next to my October 14th entry stamp, was a January 14th exit stamp. Nah, it didn’t look like I was going on a visa run!
All in all, this crossing had gone a lot more smoothly than I expected. It was a strange feeling, this ease, coupled with the anticipation of my re-entry. That would not be so easy. I exited the terminal through a squeaky clean Duty-Free shop that was blasting hip-hop. I paused by the Maltesers. My student in New Orleans, Dajonna, pronounced Day-janay, loved Maltesers when I brought them back from the Duty Free shop in Tel Aviv last January. Maybe this would be my last chance to pick them up if I didn’t make it back in. I shook it off. I’ll get back in! And they have Maltesers in Amman, come on.
I exited, and waited on a bench outside the Jordanian bus terminal. It was raining harder now. I sat there, looking at the Israeli terminal, surrounded by palm trees. The woman next to me was a nun with an Egyptian passport. She was talking on her cell phone in Arabic, “I’m waiting for the bus, I’ll be in Amman soon….”
The drivers got into the bus and waved us up. It was a 5 shekel ride. We went 10 meters then waited at the gate for about 15 minutes, before it was opened. Then we crossed over the Jordan River, and into the Jordanian entry terminal. At the terminal, I got my Jordanian visa renewed, 20 dinars, then got my passport stamped, then changed my shekels into dinars. At one point in time I was hesitant to explain, even to the Jordanians, what I was doing in Palestine. But so far in my experience, I’ve gotten the same welcome at Jordanian terminals as I have at the Palestinian Authority terminal. My presence there was a-ok.

I left the Jordanian terminal and wandered around for a while before finding a checkpoint employee. Wein al-taxi? Biddi aruhh al-Amman. Over there, he pointed. Just private taxis. I was afraid of that. There were no shared taxis, like at the Allenby crossing, because this crossing wasn’t for Jordanians or Palestinians, just foreigners. I looked around for the Egyptian nun, maybe she would share a ride with me. But I couldn’t see her. So I walked to the taxi station. Fortunately, it was a legit office with a guy behind a counter who wrote me out a receipt, so I knew I was getting a set price. But it was 39 dinars. oof. 55 bucks. I paid him and followed my driver to the taxi. Thus began our hour-long journey to Amman.

We made some conversation, the driver was nice. He was from another city, As-salt. I told him I could see As-salt from my village in Palestine. I think that’s true, maybe it’s another city in Jordan. He stopped and got us coffee. It had a lot of cardamom (hel) in it. Delicious. He offered me a cigarette, and I actually accepted. I like smoking in cars. I like putting the cigarette out the window and letting the wind carry the ash away. But I couldn’t pretend to be a smoker. The motion of it is still strange to me, and I don’t breathe in as deeply as people who smoke all the time. But it gives me a high because I don’t do it that much. Like argheelah, but argheelah can make me nauseous after a while.

So we smoked together as the taxi climbed up the mountains over the Jordan Valley, and I spent a good portion of that ride filming out the window. The sun was setting behind where I’d just come from, Israel/Palestine. I kept hearing the word “Israel” in my head, because there were rays of sun shooting down on the valley, and it looked like a postcard of the Promised Land. It looked like something out of the Ten Commandments. I wondered why that was my automatic reaction. Couldn’t epic beams of light be shooting down on Palestine too?
We got into Amman. I didn’t recognize any of the streets we were on. I didn’t know how long I would be here. Eventually we were in Wasat Al-Balad, and found the Jordan Tower Hotel. I walked in and snatched up a dormitory room that no one else had reserved…for 9 JD. Including breakfast and Wi-Fi, that’s a sweet deal.
So there I was, finally alone in my private dormitory room, catching up on my correspondence, with only the sounds of sporadic traffic outside. I had no sense of schedule, no sense of purpose. And my plan for once I got back into Palestine wasn’t that much more concrete. What am I doing? I couldn’t stay in Ramallah with Souli forever, I couldn’t plop down in Al Aqaba forever. What was my goal?

Go to sleep, Morgan. Go to sleep.