Sunday, September 26, 2010 9:47 pm
Today, having nowhere in particular to go, I sat down to rewatch A Map For Saturday, a documentary about a guy from New York City who quit his job to travel around the world for a year. The film's title refers to the eternal Saturday of life on the road- no responsibilities today, none tomorrow, and none, really, for the foreseeable future. It hasn't been exactly like that for me; I've had a job of some description for about five and a half of the seven months since I hopped a plane out of Texas. Still, I'm far from immune to the travelers' casual ignorance of day and date.
Today, apparently, was Sunday. I somehow didn't put this together until hours after church bells tolled across the city and the familiar call to prayer answered back, louder, nearer. My life is anchored by events, not calendars, these days.
Tomorrow, I go to the West Bank. I have another five or six days before I'm strictly required to be there, but one of my future coworkers, a Lebanese-British girl named Sara, is in town. I'm hoping to meet up with her to go as far as the border before we split up and head our separate ways- me to Nablus directly, her to Ramallah for a few days. I have no idea what to expect at the King Hussein Bridge, my entrance point to Palestine and one of the three crossings from Jordan (as a sidenote, I'm embarrassed how long it took me to put this simple equation together: all three are bridges, because the countries are divided by the Jordan River... thus, the West Bank [of said river]. Duhhh).
My rough plan goes like this: Shared taxi to the bridge. Delays while they search my bags. Delays while they ask me questions. Delays while they peer at me suspiciously and wonder out loud what possible long-term business an American could have in Nablus. Passport stamp. Bus or shared taxi to Jerusalem, or Ramallah if I can manage to find one. Onward to Nablus, a mere 39 miles from Jerusalem- I found this out today, and had to double-check; it looks much farther on a map. Then again, Jaber drove to Aqaba and back today in five hours- essentially the entire length of Jordan. Maps can be deceiving.
I don't have any idea, apart from "time-consuming", what the border crossing will be like. The most common online tip for expediting the process is to omit any mention of Palestine, but since I'll be entering the PA directly, without traveling through Israel first, I might look a bit sketchy and/or idiotic if I walk up to the guards and say "Shalom! West Bank? Oh no sir, I would never!" Should I be concocting some grand story, or will the truth do the trick? How careful should I be in hiding/disguising/tossing anything which speaks of an interest in Arab culture (I'm looking at you, Basic Standard Arabic book)? Realistically, I don't foresee any major issues. The same totally unthreatening young-female-and-solo aura which is the source of so many minor hassles in day-to-day life here should, I hope, get me into Palestine with a minimum of interrogation.
My blog title can finally live up to its name: I'm in Palestine.
I won't bore you with the more mundane details of the trip over (lift to the bus station by Jaber, service taxi to the bridge, various passport windows to stamp me out of Jordan, bus to the Israeli side punctuated by more passport checks, long lines where we all surrendered our bags, metal detectors, further passport checks, bus to Jericho, service taxi to Nablus). But in between the metal detectors and passport control booth number seven, something exciting happened: I was detained!
Security seemed thoroughly unimpressed that I had a packed a book on Arabic and another on Turkish. I was initially surprised that they cared at all about the Turkish one- it hadn't crossed my mind that that could be an issue- but it occurred to me later that in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkish may well be number two on the Israeli list of suspicious languages.
Two stern border guards pulled me aside into a private room and questioned me for an hour or so; every time the first one seemed about done, the second one (who was scarier both because he was older and because he was a lot more difficult to understand... the !INTERROGATION ROOM! isn't an ideal place to be going "what? what? huh? sorry? what?") would start in with his own line of questioning. My initial plan had been to just tell pretty much the truth if I got any sort of in-depth interview, but the fact that a simple book on learning Arabic had landed me in the hotseat changed my mind, and my story, in a hurry. The best thing I could come up with on short notice was to say that I'm highly religious and wanted to see the Christian holy sites in Israel. This story, in retrospect, was desperate idiocy; I'm sure it made me look more suspicious, not less, when I couldn't come up with any specifics whatsoever.
"Bethlehem? What are you going to see in Bethlehem?"
"Uh... you know... like, Christian... stuff..."
meaningful glance between the grim-faced guards
The older and meaner guy told me at one point that I "seemed nervous." Dude, of course I'm nervous. At least they had the courtesy to leave their M-16s outside.
Eight am now, and I'm sitting on the balcony of the apartment I share with five other teachers, sipping a cup of strong, sweet Arabic coffee. Yeah, there's a balcony which looks over the whole city- there are also jets in the bathtub, and what oddly enough seems like the greatest luxury of all- toilet paper. Apparently all this swank isn't quite enough to protect us from what I hope will be an infrequent enemy through the next three months: power outages. I have haystack hair. I have it bad.
Palestine looks exactly like what I imagined, but didn't really believe I'd find. I've traveled what amounts to a third the length of the West Bank three times now- Jericho to Nablus coming in, then Nablus to Jerusalem return when Nick and I went to meet Ciaran. Reminders of the conflict are understated: a sign for Martyr Street, political graffiti, a man who slowly shakes his head when our shared taxi rolls up to an Israeli checkpoint. But there are no tanks in the streets, I have yet to hear gunfire, and the people filing off the buses clutching their green Palestinian Authority Access Only identity cards only seem a little tired, a little wary.
It's not hard to remember that I'm standing on some of the holiest ground in the world. The hills around Nablus- and all the way to Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank- are rolling, brown, and barren, but there's something indefineably anachronistic about them. I find it easy to imagine first-century goatherds wandering up the slopes with their animals, or even bushes bursting into flames. It's not just the countryside; the old city of Jerusalem, for instance, is small enough and sufficiently dense with "most sacred this" and "most sacred that" that five minutes of totally aimless wandering through the covered suqs inside the Damascus Gate brought Nick and me to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
You can hardly take a step in the confines of the old city without coming face to face with some ancient relic of an Abrahamic religion: King David's tomb, the Church of the Dormition, the Mount of Olives, a gigantic golden menorah accompanied by a sign stating a desire to see the Temple rebuilt "speedily and within our lifetimes" (it made no mention of the fact that the Temple's restoration would entail the replacement of the Dome of the Rock, the mosque built over the stone from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to Heaven and the third holiest Muslim site in the world). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as I said, was our first introduction to historical Jerusalem. Although it is supposedly built over the spot where Jesus was crucified and contains his tomb, we noticed right away that they're not big on signage. This holds true throughout Jerusalem. Most of what we learned was gleaned through eavesdropping on the tours passing all around us, which ranged from the annoying (hordes of Russian tourists pushing each other for better views) to the frankly fascinating (a procession of Spanish pilgrims making their way along the Via Dolorosa, bearing a massive cross and singing hymns in layered harmony).
Jerusalem isn't only about sanctity and history, though. It's no Tel Aviv- which is consistently ranked in the top ten party cities worldwide- but let's just say we certainly did dance on top of a van to Hebrew hiphop. Also... please please please don't take this remotely politically, but if good looks are anything to go by, I can see where the Israelis get this "God's chosen people" business.
I'm exhausted (and for the record, it's no longer eight am, not even close). Bedtime for me, and a promise of more blogging tomorrow!
Labels: Israel, Palestine