Palestine (Part 1 of 4)
Trip Start Jan 18, 2008
44Trip End Ongoing
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I left Amman early in the morning from my friends, Rajai and Mona's, apartment, where I was temporarily staying thanks to their generousness. I found a taxi and told the driver to take me to Abdali, where the service taxis are that go to the King Hussein Bridge. He told me though that there are no service taxis at Abdali anymore so he would instead take me to another place. I was confused and thought my Arabic might be failing me because I had no idea this change had taken place and I had taken a service taxi a week ago to go to Syria. However, we arrived at a clean, spacious, newly-built bus and taxi station! I was excited as Amman desperately needed something like this, and realized how much of a tourist I was, or let's say a cheap tourist as most others would prefer a plane.
I took a big bus to the border for only 2 ½ dinar and then once at the border everything became extremely hectic
After paying my five JD exit fee I was ushered to a bus that was reserved for foreigners to take us to the Israeli border. Onboard, I started talking with a man (forget his name, we'll call him Brad) as I was paying for my ride and decided to sit next to him. He had lived in the states for many years, had four children who all turned out to be extremely successful, and is now the president of a university in Jordan, where he is originally from. He was going to Israel just for one night in order to give a presentation at a university, see some family briefly, and then go back. The last time he had been to Israel was I believe 15 years ago...he had no idea what was in store for him, nor did I.
When we got to the border there were two lines of buses. One line with two buses, including ours. The other line with about 10 buses all lined up filled to the max with people. Bob told me they were all Palestinian. That experience of sitting in the bus and driving from border to border was so surreal. The Israeli blue and white flag flew high and there were young Israeli soldiers hanging around everywhere dangling their massive guns; yet, the scenery was still the same as the Middle East, everybody who surrounded me was Arab, and most of them were wanting to reenter their own homeland
Once our bus made it to our destination we had to put our luggage in one place and walk to another. This room, as I was soon to find out, was where my day would really start.
Brad and I walked to a short line and started to wait for our turn to talk to an officer. He went before me, was questioned for a short while, then was told to sit down and wait. So I gave the lady my passport. She asked me why I wanted to go to Israel, what I wanted to see, who I knew in Israel, where I was going to be staying, how long I was going to stay, etc. My friend Andrew had told me before not to tell them I was going anywhere in Palestine, even though I definitely was. However, my friend Mohammed, a Palestinian American whose apartment I was going to be staying at in Ramallah (which is in Palestine), told me to tell them I was going to be going to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Haifa, and other Israeli cities. He said it should be fine and he didn't want me to completely lie to them.
So I told the lady, I'm going to be seeing friends in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and....Ramallah
Eventually, a young woman and man dressed in regular jean and t-shirt attire approached me and guided me to a separate area. She looked over my sheet as the guy stood behind her as if he had nothing better to do. Then the questioning began. "Where are you staying again in Israel?"
I told her, "At the ____ Hostel (already forgot the name of it) in Jerusalem." This was a complete lie as I was staying in Ramallah, but I didn't think it was a good idea to tell them that.
"And you're going to Ramallah?"
"You have a friend in Ramallah?"
"What's his name?"
"How do you know him?" I told her how we had met in DC and that he went to GWU, my university
Then she asked me a new question. "Are you involved in any civil rights or human rights organizations?"
"I said, well yes. I'm involved in the Democratic Party, Democracy in Action, various organizations at my college."
"The Student Movement for Real Change,"
"What's that?" so I told her. "What else?"
By this time I was ready to lay it all out there. They wanted me to reference Palestine of course and I was happy to do so. I told her...."The Middle East Peace Group." Ooo did she like that one. Her face lit up as the other officer's had and asked, what is that?
"It's an organization at my university that brings Jews and Arabs together to share their stories and tell their side of the conflict
As I was about to find a seat I saw my friend Brad and a group of people who were on the same bus as us. We were all waiting to be granted our visas. One was a woman from Florida who had family in Palestine. One was a man who was both Palestinian and American and had family still in Palestine. The other was my friend who was Jordanian and American. We started talking about past experiences of friends and family at the border. In sum, thousands of dollars have been spent by people trying to get into Israel, only to get denied entry at the border or in the airport. Once, an entire family had bought plane tickets from America to Israel, but was denied entry when they reached Israel and therefore was sent back. I personally know a friend whose family is Palestinian American. His sister was getting married to a man in Palestine and so they decided to hold the wedding there. On the way in to Israel, my friend's father was held for an entire five days at the border before being granted entry to attend his own daughter's wedding. Thank god he wasn't held for months, as some people are, and was even granted entry, or else the entire cost of the wedding would have been wasted. It's amazing what Israel does to people and families who are completely harmless. But, it's their way of saying, We're in charge, we don't like you, you're not welcomed here, please don't try and come back again.
Which is what they did to me but on a lesser scale. I had to wait in a packed room probably the size of a tennis court for six full hours, being questioned by six people, and never knowing if I would be granted entry. Here's the dialogue of one questioning session I had:
"Why is your phone number not an American number?"
"Because my American phone does not work in the Middle East. So that is my Jordanian number."
"Where did you get this phone?"
"My study abroad office."
"When did you get it?"
"January...wait, no May because my first one was stolen."
"Ok, we'll be right back."
All of these questioners are in their late teens, early twenties; some are dressed in civilian clothing, some like soldiers, and others in border security outfits. They generally go about their job like they don't give a rip about you, they are very rude, and they love when you say something about Palestine because then it means they can keep you in agony longer.
My last time being questioned was finally with a guy (the girls there were worse than the guys for some reason). He took me aside and said that they needed to know information about my visit to Ramallah and who I was going to see and his phone number and address and all the information I could give them. By this time I was completely pissed off because I had already answered all of these questions more than once and every single person that was on the bus with me, everybody I saw when I first got there, had been granted visas at least an hour earlier. The cleaning lady was washing the floor, the workers were gathering their belongings and going home, and there were about 10 people left in this tennis court-sized room that used to be overflowing with people.
I told the guy, "I already gave you all the information I have about my friend. I don't know what else to give you. I'm sick of this, I've been sitting here for six hours. I'm an American woman and I have seen everybody else in this room go before me. I don't want to go to Israel anymore if it is going to entail more questioning and more hours of sitting here. I'm sick of this, just give me my passport, stop questioning me, and let me go."
To this he replied, "No no no no no, please we want you to come to Israel, we really do. Look, I'll get things going. Don't worry, go sit down and I'll get it figured out and you'll be on your way."
So I went and sat down once again and then sure enough after about five minutes I was given my passport and visa. The whole experience at the Israeli border was annoying, stressful, angering, and unbelievable. I had no idea it was going to be that bad. What pissed me off most is knowing the fact that my country gives my own tax dollars to Israel for them to turn around and treat me like crap. Note to anybody who is going to Israel: they don't like people who even recognize Palestine as existing, so either lie to border security or expect to be waiting for hours on end.
I finally saw sunlight, as I walked out of that dreadful building with my visa, headed to find a way to get to Ramallah. Thank god a group of people had gotten out at about the same time as me (but arrived there hours later than me) and were all going to Jerusalem or else I would have had to pay a lot of money since there weren't gobs of people around anymore to share the bus fare with. We took a small bus to Jerusalem and then I took another bus to Ramallah. Once in Ramallah, Mohammed picked me up and took me to one of his apartments that he rents out to people. There was already a guy living in one of the rooms but there was another room that had not been rented out to anybody yet.
Come to find out, the guy he had been renting to is a GW masters student! His name is Mike and is a really great guy. He is interning for a polling organization in Ramallah for the summer. So that night he and I went to a place called Zen while Mohammed went to a wedding he was supposed to attend. It was actually the Fourth of July so we had a few drinks (god I needed them after my day!) and some pizza to celebrate. Later on in the night we randomly joined up with another table of people there. They turned out to be really nice and we had great conversations. Two of them were from Palestine and two of them were from I believe France but had Palestinian origins.
Mohammed joined us when he finished and took us to a restaurant called Sangria. The place was beautiful. It was outside and looked like a backyard, except a very nice backyard. The bar was in a gazebo, the lighting was dimmed, there were three different levels of grassy land where the tables set, and the place was filled with young people. We had a cup of tea each to wind down the night and then headed home.