Thursday, July 12, 2012

Visit to the U.S. Consulate

We woke up in Ramallah.

My alarm rang at eight. I wanted to make sure I had enough time to get to Jerusalem for my appointment at the U.S. Consulate, so I rolled out of bed at 8:20 and showered. I left Souli’s apartment by nine and taxied to the bus station, where the 18 bus would leave to take me through Qalandia checkpoint and on to the Old City of Jerusalem.

Qalandia checkpoint is made up of gates, kiosks and turnstiles, flanked by the Wall. Garbage is littered on the streets, and children are peddling Kleenex packets. This is supposed to be part of Greater Jerusalem, but it's been passed over for city services, because it the beginning of the "other side."

The crossing is easiest for internationals, and Jerusalem Palestinians. West Bank Palestinians, if they can get a permit, have to go through the large pedestrian checkpoint, the“chicken run,” as my mom called it. On the 18 bus, sometimes internationals and Jerusalem Palestinians have different instructions. Sometimes everybody has to get off and go through the smaller pedestrian checkpoint. Sometimes the internationals get to stay on the bus and the soldiers check us there.

This time there were a few people who didn’t budge, so I stayed seated and waited for the soldiers to get on. I was wearing aviators. Did that look suspicious? Would they ask me to take them off?  I realized I was also wearing a kuffiyeh scarf, and yanked it off and stuffed it into my bag. I never wore a kuffiyeh, but last night I told my friend Jehad that I liked his, and he took it off and gave it to me without pause. It was olive green and black.

But the soldiers came on and looked at my passport and told me I had to join the others. So I got out and waited in line at the small pedestrian checkpoint. I attracted the attention of both the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian pedestrians. What was this ajnabia doing here?

I considered the possibility that I wouldn't get let in. The last time I went through, the Israeli lady guard asked me what I was doing in Ramallah. Panic washed over me. Umm...just passing through? I kind of live there? I think I said I was visiting friends. What friends? More panic. If you're trying to please an Israeli soldier, there’s no right answer to that question. They don't want you to be in Ramallah in the first place. If we live with Palestinians, we must be terrorist apologists. I certainly wasn't up until three drinking vodka cranberry's and listening to reggae with my Palestinian, and Palestinian-American and American friends! Oh hell, there might have been some Australians! I doubt me and this lady soldier had spent the weekend much differently. I'm sure she would have fun if I invited her to Beit Anissa, from outside her bullet-proof kiosk.

I thought about how to respond if I got any trouble. I could tell the soldiers I had an appointment at the American Consulate. How would I phrase that? Stand up straight and say “I can call the Consulate, or I can not….it’s up to you.” I watched the Palestinians ahead of me rushing through the revolving door, as if speed would make a difference. After four clicks the light goes red, and if you’re rushing or not, the door will bounce back at your face. Of all the things that sap your dignity at a hold your breath as the door goes around and hope it doesn’t bounce back in your face, and if it does, you produce an equal and opposite reaction, as if the door is to blame. Then you turn around to the line behind you, maybe to remind yourself that others are with you, to commiserate, or crack a joke. One time we saw three small boys squeezing their bodies through the revolving door next to ours, and the man next to me said, “walla, ashtar minni,” “wow, they’re smarter than me.” Someone else chimed in, “and skinnier.”

I hopped from one foot to the other, counting the clicks of the revolving door.

“I can call the Consulate, or I can not…this is going to happen through you, or over you.”

What a metaphor. The longer you stay in the dark, the less likely it is that you’ll control your destiny.  How long can these soldiers bar the door to Jerusalem? Foreigners cross from Ramallah to Jerusalem every day, and they’re made to feel like criminals for it. Not to mention West Bank Palestinians, who could live their whole lives in the shadow of the wall and never see Al Quds, the “holy city.”

And I wouldn’t wear a kuffiyeh through the checkpoint, because I was afraid to be seen as “one of them.” Because I didn’t want to jeopardize my entry. I felt so gross.

The light turned green and I pushed through the door and put my bags on the conveyor belt, and went through the metal detector. I put my passport up to the glass and the girl soldier spent a minute typing in my passport number. I wondered if any of my encounters with Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley had resulted in anything in the way of a record. She made a face after hitting enter, and I started to sweat, but after a few seconds, she waved me through. Of course I’m fine, hahahaha, I tried to act nonchalant as I threw my backpack on and made a beeline for the revolving door exit. Of course I’m going to Jerusalem, adi, adi, adi, normal, normal normal. I trudged onto the bus and was so preoccupied with being adi that the driver had to remind me to pay the second half of the fare.

As the bus drove along the Wall and into East Jerusalem, I thought about my visit to the Consulate.  I'd been looking forward to this ever since I went to the British Consulate and sat down with one of their senior officials. He told me he'd driven his car into Nablus (the West Bank) and stayed with a family for a while to practice his Arabic. I thought that was really cool, for a diplomat. He was in the Human Rights sector at the Consulate, which was located in Sheikh Jarrah, in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

During that visit I learned that the American Consulate had moved to West Jerusalem and their officials couldn't enter the West Bank without an armed escort.

WHAT. It was one of those things that wasn't surprising to hear, but shocking and sad anyways. This meant that the person in charge of making the Human Rights report in the Palestinian Territories at the U.S. Consulate 1) works in Israel, the country that is occupying the Palestinian Territories and committing most of the human rights abuses, and 2) has to arrange a security convoy if they even want to see the Territories.

And I was going to walk in there and invite them to visit me where I lived, at the guest house in Al Aqaba, in the Northeast corner of the West Bank. It seemed absurd, and daunting, and honestly, kind of awesome.

I got off the 18 bus and checked my watch. 10:05. I still had 40 minutes, so I could walk. I walked to Damascus gate and through the Old City market, between my church and the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is said to have been crucified. I asked a man in Arabic where Jaffa Gate was, and after he pointed, I turned red and wondered if he was Jewish, I mean, not Arab, I mean, not an Arabic speaker. I couldn’t tell, and that always seemed to be a point of hope, that this city seems to want to be mixed, and ambiguous. In the Old City market, where you could find pro-Israel and pro-Palestine t-shirts in the same stall, it didn't feel as heavy a mistake.

I walked out of Jaffa Gate and the Old City, towards the outdoor Mamilla mall. All the brand name stores were represented, and loudspeakers bathed the occasional shopper in acoustic covers of the Doobie Brothers and Sting. It was a quiet, sunny day. Once outside of the mall, I walked along the old Mamilla cemetery, where the new Museum of Tolerance was being planned over Palestinian graves. I walked by Independence Park, and read the words in Arabic, Hadiqa al-Istiqlal, under the English and Hebrew.  

I stopped after the park. Where’s the Consulate? Across the street was a monastery, and I could see a security guard in front. There were a few security guards along that block, so I assumed the Consulate was behind there somewhere. I backtracked and crossed the street, wondering if confusion and kuffiyeh (which I’d put back on) and big backpack made me look suspicious. I walked past the monastery and up to a sign that read “Consulate General of the United States of America.” The crest with the eagle. I was home.

The guards (not soldiers, they were wearing nice sweaters and wires in their ears) approached me immediately.

I said, “Hey, I have an appointment at 11….I’m a little early.”

The guard chuckled. What was I thinking, getting there early? My face went red. He went inside to confirm my appointment, and I perched on a stone potter and looked around, swinging my feet like a little kid. I wondered how many Americans wandered up to the Consulate every day. I didn’t feel normal.

The guard came back out and waved me in. I did all the security checks, left my backpack, camera, phone, passport. They gave me a visitor’s badge and after a minute, my contact Tammy came to escort me into the Consulate. She was a smiling, blonde woman in her 30’s.

Tammy walked me through the compound, full of old buildings and palm trees. The section we were headed to was indeed an old monastery that had been converted into the Consulate. The monastery was beautiful inside, with cavernous stone walls, plants and trees, and red oriental rugs. Tammy led me into a medium-sized conference room, also with stone walls, also kind of cavernous. At the end there was a tree that went right up through a hole in the ceiling.
“The smaller rooms were all full, so we have to use this one.”
"This is great." I set down my purse and my book on the big table and took a seat. We chatted for a while before our third person arrived.

“So how did you get here?" Tammy asked. "Did you take an Egged Bus?”

“Egged? From Ramallah?”

She thought I rode an Israeli settler bus from Ramallah.

“No,” I said, “you know those mini-buses with the green stripes?”

“Yeah, like the green busses with the Egged sign?”
“No, I took an…Arab bus.”

It didn’t occur to me that the consular officials weren’t allowed to ride Palestinian public transportation.
“Ahh, ok.”

We chatted for a little while longer. I found out that she’d gone to high school in Portland, so I knew her school and she knew my college in Walla Walla.

Then Sandra arrived. She was a young, very pretty brunette. She was from Indiana, like my mother. She wasn’t keen on moving back to Indiana, like my mother. She was in Human Rights at the Consulate, and was very curious about my project.

I gave them both my business card and a flier for the Guest House. Tammy told me it might be possible for them to visit, but not to spend the night. I asked, “why is that?”
“If we go into the West Bank, we have to be out by sundown.”

I had this image of Palestinian zombies and werewolves coming out to feast on American flesh. Miskina, poor thing!

"Wow," I said. Then I felt rude, and awkward.

There was a brief silence and I waited for them to respond. Tammy said there’s a meeting to assess the security considerations of every Consulate, and this is what was determined for their U.S. Consulate.

“But…” said Tammy, I think…we make the security threat…higher…than it actually is…..”

Sandra was staring at the pen she was clicking on the table, nodding in agreement.

“If I want to visit a headmaster at a school in the West Bank, I have to have a motorcade with armed soldiers with me.”

I didn’t know what to say. We sat there for a moment.

“There are just some places where you shouldn’t bring guns, you know?”

Just then our conversation was interrupted by sirens and flashing lights. A male voice came onto the intercom saying, “THIS IS A DRILL. DUCK AND COVER.”

Through the din Tammy and Sandra looked at each other and made a face. “Can we just not and say we did?” We waited a few minutes for the siren to die, and it finally did, and we continued talking.

They wanted to know how I got connected to Al Aqaba village, so I told them the story of how I found the website for an American organization that built the Al Aqaba kindergarten, and now the Israeli army was threatening it with demolition, so I went in to teach English and now I’m running the guest house...


“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Tammy and Sandra worked in a different building, so they didn’t know the procedure, but a young woman came in and said, “this is your floor monitor reminding you to evacuate to the area of safety.” She said it good-humoredly, and Tammy joked, “at least we have a nice floor monitor.” We walked into the lobby, and down some stairs, past the office refrigerator where I noticed a huge stash of Palestinian Taybeh beer, into a small room where forty or so people were gathered. We were the last ones in, so we stood in the center, while the man in charge of security gave a few instructions on how to use the safety room. I looked around the room and saw people mingling on couches, old, young, black, white, in the middle of their 9 to 5.

I was just standing around, a twentysomething in jeans, wishing I could communicate like the security guy, shout something like, “I work in the West Bank! Come to my guest house!” They couldn’t stay over, and their families couldn’t stay over, and I was curious about their lives.

The alert was lifted, and we all shuffled out. Tammy and Sandra and I walked back up the stairs, past the billboards and the hot pink flier for the next chili cook-out, and we wrapped up our meeting.
Sandra told me to keep sending her updates about what’s happening in Al Aqaba, especially videos, because they could use those for the Human Rights Report. I told her I would. I couldn't tell if it was a productive meeting. I didn't know what I expected to accomplish....
Tammy escorted me through the compound, and we kept chatting. Her husband worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, which I found fascinating. I asked her what the relationship is like between the Embassy and the Consulate, and she said, “well, let’s just say they like to shift us around, because you kind of get Stockholm Syndrome with the people you work with...”

The European diplomats who’d visited me in Al Aqaba told me about the Embassy-Consulate divide. The Embassy people spend their time in Israel mostly with Israelis, and the Consulate people spend their time in East Jerusalem or Ramallah with Palestinians. One of the Belgians told me it was sometimes a strained relationship. Their counterparts at the Embassy in Tel Aviv didn’t understand their routine, which involved forays into Gaza and government meetings in Nablus where sonic booms made the buildings shake. It made sense to me that the Brits, and the Swedes, and the French, and the Belgians....would get Stockholm Syndrome. I didn't see how the Americans could get it.

I parted ways with Tammy at the metal detector and collected my stuff and headed out. It was a strange feeling, walking past Independence Park towards….anywhere. I could go anywhere I wanted. I could hop on a bus to Ramallah, like I’d done a hundred times before. It leaves every five minutes and costs 7.30 shekels. The bus with the green stripes and the Arabic on the side.

But I wasn’t headed to Ramallah tonight. I was staying with my Italian friends who lived in the Old City. They had found me on Couchsurfing and stayed with me in Al Aqaba the week before, so now I was going to be their Couchsurfer.

I went to get some work done at the Educational Bookshop on Salah-Addin Street, which is a modern bookshop/cafe, and an informational gold mine of everything Palestine. No matter how much respect one has for Israeli democracy, the existance of this shop feels subversive, even in East Jerusalem. I ordered a latte and hunkered down at a little table with my laptop and looked at the people around me. Mostly internationals and Israelis. Hebrew-Arabic study buddies, human rights lawyers with stacks of paper piled high, speaking hurried Hebrew on the phone, Christian accompaniers in tan vests, taking a break from checkpoint-monitoring, journalists, aid workers, murmuring or clicking away. The last time I was here, two British men in suits sat at the table next to me, and I asked them directions to the British Consulate. They’d just come from there, it was a fifteen minute walk away, to Sheikh Jerrah.

Looking down on the shop from the balcony I heard every customer’s request, for an Arabic book, a Joe Sacco graphic novel on Gaza, or a map of the Territories. The shelves were floor-to-ceiling on conflict and peace, at least every book on Palestine you could ever need. And a nice chocolate cake with coconut sprinkles. Foreigners were practicing their Arabic with the owner, who knew me by now, if only as the girl who had her camera stolen down the street and only realized it at the register. He inquired about my camera every time after that.

Fairuz was playing softly on the speakers, and I heard the same album on repeat several times. I thought of Souli, who had played one of those songs this morning. Fairuz's whimsical voice sang habibi, habibi, and it sounded like falling flowers...
Early evening my friend Mattias called, and I left the bookshop to meet up with him and Andreas. Andreas is about my height and Mattias is tall and slender. They're both boyish and charming and laugh a lot. They're from Sud Tirol, the northern part of Italy where more people speak German than Italian. The two of them were studying design through a university program in Jerusalem.  We wound through the Christian Quarter of the Old City, which is a labyrinth of stone alleyways and tunnels, and ended up in their little cavernous apartment. We sat around and drank tea for a while, and I confirmed that Souli was coming over as well, since he had things to do in Jerusalem in the morning. Crossing Qalandia in the morning could take hours. The boys had only met him once and there wasn’t a lot of space, but they were gracious hosts. Couch cushions on the floor would have to do.
Eventually we decided to go out and get dinner. After wandering around the Old City and nixing pizza, falafel, and street kebab, we decided on a restaurant near Damascus gate and got a whole spread of salads and grilled chicken and meat. It was delicious. I spent a few minutes staring at an aerial photo of Jerusalem on the wall. You could see right over Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Jordan. Was this land really that..small?

Souli arrived on the 18 bus from Ramallah around ten, and found us at the restaurant. It was a school night for the boys, so we all headed back to their apartment to hang out and get some work done.

Inside Damascus gate, everything was quiet. Only one shop was open, and only a handful of people were walking up and down the wide steps to the empty marketplace alleys. It was a beautiful place to walk at night. The four or five Israeli soldiers were still at their post. Mostly they hung out in the same spot, but now one of them was questioning a young Palestinian man. Souli skirted to the other side of me and picked up his pace and I didn’t understand what he was doing until it sunk in that his Israeli permit wasn’t a 24-hour permit. It expired at 11 every night. He mumbled, “it’s ok, I stay over in Tel Aviv all the time,” and he laughed. He had countless Israeli friends. I could see he took great satisfaction in that. But we weren’t on that side of the country, we were on the border, and the Jerusalem police are vigilant about Palestinians and their visas, so I walked faster, and we turned the corner without incident.
Back in the cozy little apartment, the boys were working on a design project for school. One was a city-sponsored project to design new manhole covers for Jerusalem. Andreas had designed a cross-section of an olive-tree with Quranic scripture in Arabic, English and Hebrew on it. I thought wow, that is a tough sell for this municipality. But the scripture was beautiful, about an olive tree and East and West…I thought it would make a beautiful statement about the city.

We set up the cushion bed for Souli, Mattias and I each took a couch, and Andreas had the single bed. I realized that just that morning I'd woken up in the West Bank, where my diplomats were forbidden to sleep. And now we were in Israel, where one of us was "illegal" for the next five hours.

I looked down at Souli, who was settling into the cushion bed. Months before he was my first couch surfing host, but we’d never couch-surfed together before. Just then I wished my couch was bigger, but I squeezed his hand and smiled and said goodnight, tisbah ala kheir, buona notte...
We fell asleep in Jerusalem.