My host in Amman for my final night in Jordan warned me at length about hte border crossing with Palestine. So did his guests. Everyone, really. So I was naturally quite worried about the process. It lived up to the hype, but luckily didn’t exceed it. Amman is about 80km away from Qalqilya as the crow flies. It took 8.5 hours to complete the journey, 5 hours of which were spent in immigration. On the Jordan side, I witnessed the absolute hilarity of an incompetent system – no one knew what was going on, the officials came in and out of their stalls with people banging on their windows to get answers, and passengers ended up telling each other the procedure in a long game of multilingual telephone. Here’s how it went:
- Alight from the bus.
- Sit around the waiting area to wait for the officials to show up.
- Funnel towards the window, ignored for a while by the officials.
- Give passport to the official, who indicates whether or not you need to pay the Exit Tax – unclear, changing rules which were poorly explained. (A Palestinian American ended up translating for me, then I relayed it further down the line).
- Wait for another official to arrive.
- Funnel to pay exit tax of 10JD to the new official, who hands you a slip of paper indicating that you have paid the exit tax. New official and old official do not communicate with each other, and many who need to pay the tax do not while many who do not need to pay are asked to.
- Funnel back towards first window (across a small aisle) and wait for passport to be brandished with photo page (necessitating clear line of sight with said window).
- Give first official the paper exit tax receipt, who slides it into your passport and places it in a stack.
- Wait until all passengers (unclear who is a passenger and who came by car) have passports cleared.
- Board the bus and drive the two kilometers to the actual border, while an official slowly passes back passports one by one, trying to recognize faces.
- Stop at border to let final official board to look at passports and collect paper exit tax receipts, who must endure explanations from every tourist who does not have one because they were exempt for whatever unclear reason.
And that was just the Jordan side.
All in all, that bit was frustrating and hilarious, but not harrowing. The Israeli side, however… I was interrogated thoroughly on account of having gone to Lebanon. “Do you have friends in Lebanon?” “Why did you go to Lebanon?” “What are you coming to Israel for?” “Are you sure you don’t have friends in Lebanon?” “Are you sure you are coming for tourism?” “You don’t have a phone. You are banned. You cannot come to Israel.” “You are lying. Who are your friends in Israel?” “Do you know anyone from…” and on and on. It reminded me of a few entries back into the United States where I was repeatedly asked why I hate America and whether I was a terrorist. After a lot of uncertainty while I waited with some unfortunate others (Palestinian Americans, a Jordanian man, and two French men), I was finally allowed in, withdrew money, and found my way to Jericho by bus. Unlike other border crossings, all travelers must take the bus to Jericho to finish the border crossing with another security check there – so no touts just yet. In Jericho I was repeatedly told that this was the last bus and that the border was closed, so there were no more busses to Qalqilya. They wanted to charge me ~$50 to travel the fifty kilometers, but a Palestinian American man told me that if I entered the collective taxi, they would have to take me. So I entered, waited, and they took me.
It was still unclear how much I would have to pay, but we picked up another passenger who spoke decent English on account of being an engineer. (I was a bit trepidatious about this due to Jimmy’s experience in Kazakhstan, but felt a bit more confident due to having asked the driver to call my contact in Qalqilya.) I eventually paid a much more reasonable $13.50, and a second taxi took me straight to meet Waleed Nazzal, the director of Al-Amal School for the Deaf. Oak Hall had a strong partnership with them in the past, raising funds for them and more importantly making a big ruckus that caught the attention of a rich donor. They are nearly finished building a new 2.5 million dollar campus – in large part thanks to the attention that Oak Hall students brought to them.
I spoke with Waleed over an amazing lunch (I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, having naively assumed I’d arrive at around noon). We used google translate voice to text to communicate, as he spoke about as much English as I do Arabic – essentially none. We still managed to communicate quite easily, and he laid out my plan for the next few days. I would stay in the girls dormitory of the school, empty of students for the summer – a bit cockroachy and quite hot, but sufficient.
I rested a while, thinking hard about my morning experience. Once for me. Every time for the Palestinians. I knew about this intellectually before, but somehow the experience gave the border and the occupation new meaning to me. New reality. In the evening Waleed arranged for me to meet up with his friends. I expected someone proficient in English. It was even better. All his friends were deaf. Of course! We communicated with much less awkwardness and my ability to draw helped bridge any remaining gaps.
After a quick pizza dinner, Waleed’s son took me to his friend’s farm where I met some of the youth of the city. Angry, frustrated, desperate – we sat on the rooftop of his farmhouse near the wall in the night as they pointed out the settlements all around, the farmland they’d been cut off from by the wall, and sarcastically shouted “I love you Israel”. The eldest only 21 years old, they talked to me through Mustafa, a public relations major with excellent English, about the city martyrs, those in prison, girls, music, jobs, and the future. I went back to the dormitory saddened and out of words.
A much more optimistic start the next day began with meeting with Dr. Sami Khader from the Qalqilya Zoo after a fabulous breakfast of the best hummus and falafel I have ever eaten. He enthusiastically showed me all around his museum and zoo – the only ones in the West Bank and gave me films to share with the Santa Fe Zoo. His excellent English and extraordinarily chill attitude accommodated two tagalong helpers in public relations at the zoo, the largest employer in the city with 120 employees. As usual, they delighted in my drawings and demanded that I draw them before I left, so I hastily scrawled some sketches that they did not quite approve of. They took them, anyhow.
Taking cars everywhere in the city, rarely walking, a municipality car was sent for me to met with the mayor, municipality councilmen, and the public relations director. They were not entirely welcoming – clearly weary, frustrated, and disappointed by the lack of “anything on the ground” from the sister city relationship. They want to have school to school relationships. They want to host a teacher from the zoo in Santa Fe to provide training to their staff. They want to send at least two people to Santa Fe to participate in a leadership program. They want UF and GRU to make good on their promises to send letters to USAID and help with the water and garbage treatment. But in general they seemed quite fed up. I had them specify precisely what they wanted and promised I’d relay those specifics.
I decided to discreetly avoid mentioning all the things we had done for the city. The school we had gotten funded. The Palestinian Sign Language to American Sign Language Video Dictionary here. The delegations from Qalqilya we had funded to visit Gainesville and Oak Hall – from the municipality itself and from the Deaf School. Unfortunately, so much politics is involved. I felt extremely conscious of any words that I said due to political ramifications. We haven’t sent letters to USAID as they ended all support for Palestinian projects. All visas from them have been denied by the US. In general, politics seems to have overcome collaboration once again, as you can see from the end of my short interview with the mayor.
I ate another extraordinary meal with the Public Relations director, who continued to tell me about their situation. It was difficult to stay composed. Somehow I felt the weight and the helplessness deeply. His father was in jail for three years for “administrative prison” – where he was charged with nothing and simply renewed/forgotten about for three years. He said the Israelis say they want peace, yet they build the wall. They want peace but build the settlements. Want peace but imprison, restrict movement, generally terrorize the population. Throughout lunch I had no idea what to say. I love hummus? In the end I simply stuck to the motto I’ve developed this summer – stuff sucks, but we try anyways.
I spent the evening by myself, digesting the emotions and information slowly with much needed rest before a whirlwind final morning in Qalqilya where I met Asmaa Hanoun in a Municipality Financial office and toured the construction site of the new school for the deaf. The wall is directly beside the school. Visible from every bathroom window. From every dorm. What must it be like to wake up and look at it? To brush your teeth with it ever in front of you? I then took a hilariously expensive 150 shekel taxi (on account of it having an Israeli plate, therefore allowing me to pass the wall into Israel) for the 10 kilometer ride to beautiful, safe, green Kfar-Saba.