A taste of a homecoming

“Are you up? Good, pack your bags we’re going to Palestine.”

Before my dad had even finished his sentence, I was already feeling the excitement. No more watching the news and reading articles on the Electronic Intifada, in just a few hours I will actually be in Palestine. It wasn’t my first visit. I was there almost 13 years ago but I can’t remember much of it, just some random memories here and there.

We got to the Jordanian checkpoint and it was no different than I expected; no order, no lines and no respect for time or space. After more than an hour of paper work and reaching over each others’ shoulders to see who gets their papers stamped first, we boarded the blue striped bus heading to Palestine.

Ten minutes into the bus ride, we stop at the first Israeli checkpoint where we are asked (or more like given an arm signal) by a solider to get off the bus. That same young Israeli soldier roams the bus with a weapon stuck to his chest, looking for what precisely? I wasn’t sure.

Hop on the bus again, another ten minute drive and we stop at the second and main Israeli checkpoint, where we are ordered to stay in the bus for almost an hour and twenty minutes before given the approval to pass. Along the way, gazing outside the window, I began taking pictures, determined to document every bit of the journey.

We get off the bus and find our luggage thrown on the street. With not much light to find our bag, I find myself clambering over other peoples’ suitcases just to find my own. Is this what Palestinians have to go through every time they want to get home?

All around me were young Israeli girls and guys, not much older than 20 years of age, all dressed in their uniform holding their guns and serving their nation. While waiting for my father and brother to get the bags through, I stood on the side and began observing everything around me.

It was a real tragedy.

I could see the Arab men and women chaotically struggling to hand in the luggage and stamp their papers, with no tolerance or patience for one another, and then how the Israeli soldiers were looking down upon them and sniggering. It made me really angry.

We finally get inside and I pass through the security detector with no beep or buzz. As I reach for my passport in my pocket, an Israeli soldier stops me. “Arabic or English?” he asked. My heart stopped. “Please come with me.”

I followed him into a separate room where he asked me to sit down and started speaking to me in Arabic. I realized that the surveillance cameras had caught me taking pictures of our scattered luggage. The soldier grabbed my camera and started grilling me with questions.

“Why did you take these pictures?”

“Who sent you to take them? Nasrallah?”

“Why did you study in England and not in Jordan and who paid for your expenses there?”

“Where does your father work?”

“Why are you here?”

“There is really no need for you to be here, it’s a headache to go through all of this just to separate your ID from your father’s, don’t you think?

“Is it really worth the hassle?”

His questions were intimidating and made me sick to my stomach. His job was to get answers and make me uncomfortable and he was damn good at it. Once I had answered all his questions, he deleted the pictures off my camera and asked me never to take pictures at Israeli checkpoints ever again.

After seven hours of checkpoints, questions and searches, we finally got through and I found myself physically and mentally exhausted. That night in bed I found myself already missing home, missing my mom and wanting to go back to Jordan.

The early morning hours the next day changed everything. I stepped outside the balcony overlooking the beautiful city of Nablus, took a deep breath and I could smell the sea (only some 40 kms away). All around me were mountains, so beautifully planted with olive trees and right across was Al-Nasser Mosque with its green dome. I could hear the buzz and noise from people down town chattering, shops opening and a new day starting. I knew it was going to be a worthwhile trip.

Walking through the streets of the old town at night gave me goose bumps. I felt like everything talked back to me; the walls, the trees, the shops which all had stories to tell. Not to mention the 100 year old clock in Nablus which still functions perfectly.

What moved me the most were the posters stuck all over the city, with the names and pictures of the martyrs who fought and died for Palestine; their faces also had stories to tell and I started wondering what their lives were like.

Over the next four days, we went back and forth between Nablus and Ramallah. We spent those car drives listening to the only two CDs we had, Fairuz and Ilham Al Madfa’i, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

I could see the signs pointing towards Jerusalem, which was so close but unreachable. We were not allowed inside because we held Palestinian IDs. Not only was it illegal for us to go into Jerusalem, it was also physically impossible to see it thanks to the 8 meter high concrete wall cutting through the West Bank.

I’ve seen the apartheid wall in pictures and read about it, but seeing it in reality, touching it and looking at the graffiti drawn on it was something else. Thanks to the wall, Jerusalem was right in front of me but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see Qubet Al-Sakhra, I couldn’t visit Kaniset Al Qiyama or pray in Masjed Al-Aqsa. I felt like a heavy weight was placed over my heart and I felt a great sense of restriction and deprivation.

I still consider myself lucky to have visited Palestine, to experience this roller coaster of emotions, to see where my great grandfather once lived and to witness firsthand what life in the West Bank is like. It surely doesn’t compare to the millions of Palestinians who suffered, who grieved and who had their homes and dignity stripped away from them. But I certainly somewhat understood what it was like to live under occupation and not have freedom of movement, speech or expression.

That feeling is beyond words…

It is certainly true that this trip made me think… where and what is home? Does it have to be black or white or is it ok to have some grey answers? As much as I felt I was at home in Palestine, I still missed Amman. This confusion also brought about feelings of guilt. Is it ok for me to feel nostalgic towards two countries? I certainly still don’t have a clear answer to that question.

We’re living at a time where racism is at its peak, whether it’s between the West and the non-West, Muslims and non-Muslims or even worse between us Arabs; Palestinian-Jordanian; Muslim-Christian; Sunni-Shi’a. We live at a time where individuals are placed under pressure to prove loyalty to an ethnic group or religion.

I wonder how things would have turned out if there had been no colonialism, no establishment of borders…maybe better, maybe worse, God only knows.. I just hope I live to see the day, when we can actually get past our differences and start treating each other with the respect that we deserve as human beings.

As for you Palestine, I will be back… I promise.

[The city of Ramallah]

[View overlooking the city of Nablus]

(Contributor 232)