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Amal Awad

Palestine, where 'occupation' dangles from the name

'Under a wide blue sky, life carries on, no matter how broken and interrupted' [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 August, 2017

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The long read: Australian journalist and author Amal Awad journeys to her parents' homeland, Palestine, where negotiating heritage and border crossings becomes part of everyday life.
The road to Palestine from Amman circles sand-coloured mountains. You pass the occasional grocery store, familiar brand names caked in dust. The coffee is terrible, but this isn't a trip you take for the scenery and cafes.

My husband Chris and I are on our way to the King Hussein Bridge Crossing, our entry point into the West Bank. It's the day before eid, and we leave early in the hope it won't be crowded.

Travelling into Palestine feels a bit like a game sometimes. There are so many levels to pass – a transit office in Jordan, check. Next stop: Take a coach to the crossing, which Arabs refer simply to as the jisir (bridge). Get a luggage ticket. Check. Sticker on your passport (to determine how much of a security threat you are).

All of this and you're not even inside the building yet.

It's no secret that it's a tiresome exercise getting into the West Bank. It can pull at your nerves and drain your patience. Some might argue that's kind of the point. I've never found it "easy" to get into my parents' homeland.

As a kid, I remember being ushered into a small curtained-off space and being asked to strip down to my underwear by a stern-looking Israeli soldier. I must have been five. It wasn't scarring, just puzzling.

For a kid from Sydney, I was a long way from the familiar ease and quiet of suburban life. But such experiences inoculated me to an extent. How can one person live in complete freedom to travel as they please, yet another is stripped down, both physically and in terms of their rights?

I wanted to go to the crossing as an enlightened woman – the one who understands that conflict is complex, and that when you're in one, everyone feels they are right and justified.

But it's hard to feel enlightened when you're trying to get into the West Bank.

--

The primary difference this time is that I'm travelling with my non-Arab husband. While foreigners can be regarded with suspicion, Chris does not get singled out for a security check. I do. I'm not sure if my odd married name, equal parts Arab and Anglo-sounding, helps or hinders. It gets me two crosses on the yellow sticker a soldier places on my passport. (Check.)

Inside I'm directed to a waiting area where a young hijabi woman sits playing with her phone. She seems the cheerful type, not vibrating with the nervous energy of half the people around me. I ask her in Arabic if this has happened to her before.

To limit the narratives of Palestine to that of victimhood and pain is to diminish the resilience and humanity of Palestinians

"Yes," she says, with a smile. "This is the second time. It's nothing, they just pat you down, that sort of thing."

I don't get a pat-down, just questions. Lots of questions which later broaden to my husband.

"Did your husband convert?" the border control officer behind the counter asks me. By this stage I've passed through security and the line of people behind me continues to swell.

"Yes," I reply.

The man shifts focus to Chris. "Was she worth it?" he asks. "Of course!" my husband blurts out in response, clearly not expecting such a question.

Behind us, two grim-looking men who had been waiting as long us in the queue stare darkly towards me. I shrug an apology.

Israeli border guards stand guard outside the al-Aqsa mosque compound at Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City [AFP]

The border control officer shrugs and hands me two slips of paper. "Fill these out. You can sit over there," he says, indicating to a waiting area already crowded with people, mainly foreigners.

The game continues.

I know I'm in for a long wait; that my heritage outweighs my nationality and that of my husband

"Is there a problem?" I know I'm in for a long wait; that my heritage outweighs my nationality and that of my husband. Then again, foreigners are often the least trusted. They peg you as solidarity movement supporters, coming in to stir trouble not peace. In two ways I am disadvantaged.

"No, this is standard," he says, no longer trying to appear friendly. Beside us, another person receives swift permission to enter. "Have a coffee, get some snacks. It shouldn't take too long."  

I'm not about to settle in with snacks from the commissary.

Instead, Chris and I plant ourselves in the waiting area, fill out our forms and people-watch. I observe as young men get singled out and harassed by plain clothes personnel, taken in for arbitrary strip searches. Children zip around us, racing each other, being noisy in the way kids like to be. A couple of Europeans beside us go from smiling to strained within a couple of hours. I feel sorry for them. At least I knew what to expect.

I am nervous primarily because getting in is an unpredictable process.

I'd seen numerous status updates on Facebook by friends trying to get into West Bank; one woman said she was refused the first time and had to go back twice. A friend was denied entry because she doesn't share the same surname as her husband. Another spoke of a profiling system at Ben Gurion airport – they tag your luggage according to ethnicity.

No matter how you come in or leave, if you are Arab, you are a person of interest

No matter how you come in or leave, if you are Arab, you are a person of interest. It's around two and a half hours before a woman in fatigues calls out my name. Chris and I meet her in the crowded waiting area. "I will speak to your husband first."

---

In many ways, every time I arrive in Palestine, I'm struck by the familiarity of it all. Under a wide blue sky, life carries on, no matter how broken and interrupted. But the air remains filled with tension. The landscapes change and I wonder what the earth thinks of how it's being treated. This mountainous, wondrous space that is lost in a futile grasp for superiority.  

The roads seem only slightly improved since my last visit in 2004. The greatest change is the number of settlements. On the way to our hotel in Ramallah, Chris and I befriend a fellow passenger, Hassan. On what was an excruciatingly hot day, he had bought us a bottle of water while we waited for our serviis taxi to depart the station. He becomes a tour guide, but instead of exciting landmarks, he points out settlements and Arab estates, noting the differences between them. "The Israeli ones are cleaner," he jokes.

Life in Ramallah is filled with the ordinary hopes of everyday life, and the stifling realities of occupation [AFP]

After travelling around the Middle East, being in Jordan and Palestine brought the relief of being in what felt like a familiar place. A sense of connection to a part of myself that diminishes when I am home in Sydney.

As different, culturally, as I am in many ways, in others I am inherently Palestinian

As different, culturally, as I am in many ways, in others I am inherently Palestinian. The scent of sage tea is achingly powerful to my senses. The sight of bountiful fruit trees that drop figs or guava as you shake the branches fills me with hope. The harvesting of olives by the side of the road reminds me of the beauty of this land.

There is so much that Palestine has to offer to its inhabitants, but the landscapes are changing and everything is starting to feel smaller.  

All of this is splintered by the images of checkpoints. The difficulties of moving around when you're Palestinian are always evident. On a trip to Jerusalem, Chris and I try to navigate the confusing system that lets foreigners stay on the bus while others descend to obtain permission to get to the next point on their journey. Even in the West Bank, the game continues.

Nothing is a given when you travel in Palestine

A local taxi driver named Jamal becomes another new friend in Palestine. He has a loud, booming voice and speaks English with a strong accent. He plays Fairuz as he transports us from place to place.

Like others we encounter, Jamal becomes a guide and an important source of information. Long rides are filled with stories - gruesome experiences he's endured as a taxi driver, such as the time he witnessed a customer shot by a soldier for talking back when his wife was being harassed.

He shares his own trauma of being imprisoned following the First Intifada. "My father died while I was in there. They wouldn't let me out to see him."

One afternoon, a settler car pushes in ahead of us, narrowly missing our taxi and Jamal is powerless to respond. He knows it is wiser not to fight.

Jamal advises us on how to get to Jerusalem - he can't take us because there are limits to where he can drive as a Palestinian.

You get used to these oddities of life in the West Bank. You learn to weave your day. And you become adept at understanding that nothing is a given when you travel in Palestine.

Read more: Australia is having an identity crisis

Jerusalem, a spot that draws in pilgrims from around the world for its relevance in the holy texts of Abrahamic faiths, is beautiful and charred and tense. It packs in travellers and citizens in narrow pathways that transport you to another time, a troubled past that merges into the troubled present.

The military presence is strong. Trying to get to the Dome of the Rock proves difficult because you need to convince them you're Muslim.  

--

When I think of Palestine, occupation dangles from the name, inseparable, but a part of it not the whole. There is no detaching from the reality of life under occupation and the disastrous impact it's having on Palestine's infrastructure, economy, political life and society in general.

How do you thrive when you're being suffocated? But to limit the narratives of Palestine to that of victimhood and pain is to diminish the resilience and humanity of Palestinians.  

The truth is that life is not just hard there, it's limited, like trying to contain a large tree under a net. Growth is hindered. To progress is difficult. To make sense of structure and purpose even more so.

On our way to the jisir, leaving Ramallah, I find myself meditating on how life feels in Palestine. How all at once it's filled with the ordinary hopes of everyday life and the stifling realities of occupation. How the two seem to smash together and produce mixed results.

I think of Jamal and how full of life he is: His passion for Fairuz, the way he's built a business for himself; his ability to tell stories without being defined by them.

"Next time you come, I will give you a proper tour of Palestine," Jamal tells us. "There are places no one knows about, where the fish leap out of the water."

I wish to come back and visit those places. But the thought is immediately clouded by doubts: What will I come back to? Will those places Jamal speaks of still exist? Will they be closed off to us?

But I don't end on such dark thoughts. As I bid farewell to this resilient, kind man, I acknowledge something else: That as much as people in Palestine live by checkpoints and restriction, the essential point is that they still live.


Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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