“Why are we waiting now?”
It was about the seventh time that morning we had found ourselves in some corner of no-man’s land, nowhere to go, nowhere to go back to, and no one to ask what would happen next and when, or if we were even in the right place. I was taking my parents across the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge – the land crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank.
A few days later, a friend, born and raised in Palestine, remarked that at least the crossing was better than it once was. “They used to make everyone take off their shoes. We’d put them in huge bins, dozens of pairs all piled together, before walking through security. And the floor was always wet.”
Experiencing the border with my parents brought to mind the kinds of border stories that many Palestinians tell, and we witnessed firsthand many versions of them that day: determined parents with infants and toddlers braving interrogations and pat-downs to bring their kids across borders to visit relatives, to see their homeland, to celebrate a holiday. I, too, was traveling with my (decidedly and obviously non-Palestinian) family. But in this scenario, I, the child, was supposed to be the one who knew what was going on. My parents were asking most of the questions.
The number of times I had to say “I don’t know” during the three days we spent in Palestine was staggering. I lost track.
Over the past year or so, I’ve had a number of encounters with Palestine, a place that I’d previously only read about. I met refugee youth and their families in a Beirut camp; I ventured to the southern border of Lebanon for a glimpse of northern Palestine, set starkly green against the bizarre architectural arrangements of the Hadiqat Iran and its miniature Dome of the Rock. I lived in Amman and chatted with dozens of taxi drivers whose villages I could visit but they could not, and floated in the Dead Sea, looking across at the other side, which seemed at once easily swimmable and another world. I cooled my feet in the waters of the River Jordan, dumbstruck at how close the Israeli side was – not swimmable, this, but jumpable, and pondered the frightening and invisible sway that the imagined borders held over all of us there, keeping us within the lines we’d been given. And twice I rode through the stunning hills outside of Amman – past at least one more miniature Dome of the Rock – and across the bridge to the land itself.
How can a place be so overwhelming and underwhelming all at once?
Overwhelming. Settlements cloaking hilltops like poorly-designed barnacles. The stunning hills of Jericho. The immense peace that permeated the (actual) Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, despite the riot shields we passed by on our way in, a quietly stacked reminder of where (and when) we really were.
Underwhelming. As someone lucky enough to have been both traveler and pilgrim at some of the holiest sites in Europe – tracing the footsteps of Compostela pilgrims and Francis of Assisi, absorbing the hushed drama of the Sistine Chapel – I felt little that was sacred or holy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so mobbed by tourists and lines and flashes that I was sure the prayers I said while placing candles were drowned out. How many of those tanktopped tourists knew that just across the square was the Mosque of Omar, built expressly as a commemoration of the avoidance of inter-religious conflict in the holy city? In such a tense place as Jerusalem, it felt as though such details were being trod underfoot. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem offered a similar spectacle: crowds of people launching their volleys of flashbulbs at the altar or at the supposed site of the manger before scurrying back out again. I was sure that the Social Justice Jesus of my childhood imagination would have been appalled.
Overwhelming. Taking my parents through Qalandia late on a cold and rainy night after the line for foreigners had closed. Laughing on the West Bank side because the correct entrance was so hard to find and the light was so bad I couldn’t read the small-print Arabic-only signage and our taxi driver had to get out and shout us in the right direction; arriving at the Jerusalem side with nothing but silence and tears. Those metal gates will snatch away your laughter while you’re not looking if you’re not careful.
Underwhelming. The lack of questions asked of me at the border when I was traveling with my parents (particularly in comparison to the family one window over, who had the exact same itinerary and passports as we did but whose grandparents, it appears, were Indian, not Irish, and who were questioned much more closely than we).
Overwhelming. Khalil (Hebron), where we watched Israeli soldiers marching two by two into a mosque with guns and boots amidst old men with prayer beads and sheepish tourists who have taken off our shoes and clumsily draped shawls over their heads in our best attempts to be respectful. What do these gestures of respect mean when our government helps subsidize the boots that trample through the holy spaces of others and the bullets that lie within the guns those boots are holding?
Palestine left us all a little restless, a little less comfortable, with more questions than answers, with photos, with a heightened awareness of just how much we are ignorant of. For now I’ll have to content myself with sharing a few images and stories, and for with the temporary calm that listmaking sometimes affords…