A Bittersweet Journey to Jerusalem

Featured, Features
May 30, 2011 17:37

It is 11 pm and I’m in my bed much earlier than I’m used to. I’m tossing and turning and forcing myself to stay under my blanket. Everything around me is very dark and quiet. The only thing I can hear is the sound of me moving in the bed continually. I want to get some sleep. I want the morning to come quickly. I want the clock tick fast so that its 7 am. But none of it is happening right now. Time seems to be crawling while my heart races with all the excitement I can imagine…

I close my eyes and all I can dream about is my visit to Jerusalem. I’m smelling its air. Having the view of its nature. Walking in its streets. Smiling at the people. But this all is adding more excitement and keeping me awake instead. Finally, I manage to get a few winks. I open my eyes and it is still 4:30 am. After all my futile attempts, I give in and wake up at 6.

It is a scene of chaos. Most people around me are chatting in order to kill their time. They’ve nothing else to do but to wait and wait until the border control people become active. I, on the other hand, put my headphones in the ears and listen to Fairoz. It is my attempt to live in my own world. To stay calm and peaceful amidst a storm of excitement and frenzy that engulfs my heart and mind. Though I’m sitting in the benches of Beit Hanoun border post (also called Erez border) all I can see in front of my eyes is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Here in the hall are lots of people, many of them patients and traders.

“Everybody has an excuse to go to Jerusalem and waiting to get the permission to pass,” I said to myself while my eyes confusedly wandered: one on the people around me and the other on the fences. Yes, the ugly iron fences with barbed wires that surrounded us from all directions. They seemed to be laughing hysterically and mocking us. Is it really funny that all of us here are waiting for hours to have a pass to go to our capital, Jerusalem. It’s not fair at all. I feel the need to shout and tell everyone I need no excuse to go there. It is my eternal right!

beit hanoun waiting erez crossing

I waited for hours to get the security clearance at the Erez Crossing, surrounded by large walls and concrete slabs. Photo - Shahd Abusalamah

Two hours have gone by and I’m still waiting. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait more. While I take a gander at people around me, an old woman sat next to me in her traditional Palestinian dress lined with red embroidery attracted my eyes. The wrinkles of her face seemed to bear many of the burdens of her life. I thought she must be in her late 70s but it turned out that she is just 66-years-old.

“Are you a refugee?” she asked while my eyes probed her face that lost many of its features in the trials of time. I smiled at her, nodding my head in affirmation. “I’m a refugee too,” she admitted. That was the start of a very interesting conversation about our lands, from which Palestinians were cleansed in 1948 and onwards. She was only three years old when her family was expelled from her native town of Acre. “I was the youngest of the family,” she explained while adding: “My parents and my older brother took turns carrying me. They had to put a cover on my face to protect me from the hot weather on that gloomy day.”

The remorse on her face wrenched my heart so I tried to make her laugh. “No wonder why we met here. We are here to return to our home! Here we come!” I said with a laughter. It wasn’t as funny as I thought. Her expressive face showed sorrow. “Oh, I hope so!” she sighed. And then she explained that she was accompanying her twin grand children who suffer from an illness. They sought a permit to admit them at Al-Maqased, a hospital in Occupied Jerusalem, and they managed to get it.

erez crossing barbed wire travellers

Erez crossing is one of the most horrible crossings into Israel that is manned by hundreds of Israeli soldiers equipped with sniffer dogs and latest military hardware. Hundreds of people have to wait for hours under extreme weather conditions to get into the Occupied Territories and Israel. Photo - Malashen/Virtual Tourist.com

I tried to change the topic, hoping to stop her from worrying about her kids for at least a few minutes. So I asked her if she knew where my original village, Beit Jerja, was located. While she was looking through the fence, trying to think where to point out, her son came rushing to tell her to get ready, as it was time for them to leave. She hugged me, wished me luck, and then left.

The graceful stateless lady left me in a restless state. I felt deprived but at the same time wanted to continue waiting to visit the destination of my dreams: JERUSALEM.

It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, that we have to make before leaving our borders for the Occupied Territories. It is a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Every single hour I had to wait at the border control passed like a year. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier.

And if you’ve been wondering what takes me to Jerusalem, the occupied capital of our occupied homeland, I’m meant to attend a visa interview at the US embassy in the Holy City. I am sitting here with my friends and we all have been shortlisted for the leadership programme in USA. And while we chit chat about our trip, a Palestinian who works in the Beit Hanoun border control, approached us and asked to get ready to leave the place. No words can describe my feeling right now. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” are the words that came out as a big scream. I am simply crazy, jumping out to express my indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around…

erez crossing corridor

In the Erez crossing corridor having a moment of joy after hours of frustrating wait. Photo - Shahd Abusalama

Now I was properly marching towards the checkpoint. I was taking big steps while breathing hardly. All I could think about was to get out from this place as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the hours-long wait…

As I passed through the first checkpoint, the alarm bell rang. I started to feel worried but one of my friends told me that it was because my bag contained a laptop. Seeing some Palestinian men working there helped me to relax. One of them told me not to worry as this was normal. He took the notebook from me and asked to pass through the machine again. I did, with my heart beating really fast. It was matching the pace of my steps it seemed…

After that we were led to enter lots of gates, one after another. My eyes waited anxiously to see the scanner lights go green. I then reached a point where I had to stand in an exact position. I tried my best to show that I had no fear. I saw the green lights and they allowed me to pass. I took a deep breath. Tried to calm myself down. But then I was so rushed! Unluckily, I heard some announcement in Hebrew being barked through the speakers which were spread everywhere. Then an old Palestinian man who was responsible to show the travellers where to go yelled loudly, calling me back.

“I don’t know what the problem is with you, my daughter,” he said with his eyebrows high, showing surprise and worry. “Come back to the same gate and do as I tell you to do,” he continued. I couldn’t hide my panic anymore. I did as I was told but the signs of worry on my face were obvious. “Smile or else the photo will be dark,” the Palestinian man joked to make me less worried. That was the instant break I needed to muster my confidence.

israeli checkpoint palestinians

Thousands of Palestinians pass through hundreds of Israeli checkpoints that are dotted across the Occupied Territories. Three of such checkpoints are located on the Gaza border with Israel. People are routinely subjected to inhumane treatment where Israeli soldiers inflict deep psychological wounds. Such incidents are never investigated by the Israeli authorities.

I wondered why everybody else was having fewer obstacles at passing through the gates than I’m having but I had no answer to my question. I thought that nothing could be worse than passing through these miserable security gates. I was mistaken again. The buzzers beeped again and they sent me to a special check point. I was ordered to go into an empty room with a glass window and an empty chair, a table, and a microphone behind it. The eeriness of that place freaked me out and I was about to cry…

But I tried to pull myself together. “Shahd, you’re a brave Palestinian. Stand up! Who do they think they are? Rise and conquer,” said my mind to the heart. I realised that being weak would make them feel strong and they’ll be so happy seeing me fall. I made a quick decision. I had to face the enemy with courage. I kept standing and just waited.

The room was totally quiet and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, while I looked around the place randomly, there appeared an Israeli female soldier sat in the chair. “You have to do exactly what I tell you,” she said brusquely. “Take off your trousers,” she continued with that severe, harsh voice. I looked at her with surprise, asking if she was serious. She repeated the same sentence, this time in a louder tone. I could not summon any reaction but the same shocked look. “It is an order!” she shouted, and continued, “You don’t have to worry as only you and I are here.” I kept my head high and I took them off, insisting on making my dream of reaching Jerusalem, a reality. She ordered me to turn myself around and then pull my t-shirt up. I put my stuff inside a box to be checked as she ordered. It seemed as if I was being checked by a sniffer dog or a bitch. A sadist one. There was nothing suspicious to be found. So then she let me put back the dress again.

You have no idea of how lowly my feeling was. Some people might say that I should not speak about this tormenting experience at all, but I must. The conscientious world should know how the Palestinians, including the women, are routinely humiliated. How badly our nation is treated, as if we are less than human beings. What is the point of doing this? Why did they choose me in particular? For absolutely no reason! They’re just sick in their minds. They wanted to enjoy inflicting psychological torment on somebody, and the lot fell upon me. I tried to gather my strength and confidence but this particular experience left a deep pain inside me…

israeli female soldier abusing detainees

Female soldiers, like their male counterparts, are also involved in routine detainee abuses. Once such scandal surfaced a few months ago when an Israeli servicewoman posted her pictures depicting abuse of Palestinian prisoners on the Internet. She is yet to be prosecuted and punished for her crime.

All my friends passed earlier than me. They were waiting for me on the other side. As I joined them again, I felt much better. I put behind the mortifying experience. I decided to live the moment and not to let anyone ruin my happiness of visiting our eternal capital city – Jerusalem. Finally, I reached the bus of the American embassy that was waiting for four hours to take us to Jerusalem.

I only needed to deeply breathe the fresh air of the lands on the other side of the Erez border to feel relaxed. It was such a special feeling that I never experienced before in my life. We all got into the bus which drove us to Jerusalem. I kept looking through the windows at the places around me. I was truly amazed. I saw fantastic natural beauty wherever I directed my eyes. My dark black eyes that were so hungry for such views. They wandered around wildly in order to catch every glimpse of the beauty: the hills, sandy and rocky mountains, green fields, huge trees, and colourful flowers. It started to become one of the journeys of life where you wish to stop the moment and never let it go…

On our way to Jerusalem from Erez border crossing, I pondered at the nature. I sang Fairoz’s song about the magical streets of the old Al-Quds. The feeling of happiness was enough to overcome the bitterness of every difficulty that I had passed through minutes ago. It is true that the enemy can inflict pain upon you but can they stop you from transforming that pain into pride and pleasure? I really doubt that. Not in my case at least…

The bus driver, who was originally from Jerusalem, noticed my painting book and asked me about it. “I am an artist and I always wanted to draw the Dome of Al-Aqsa mosque face to face one day. So I hope that this will be my chance to do so,” I said with innocent tone that surprised myself. “Do not be so dreamy. I have to drop you at the American embassy, and immediately after you all finish your visa interviews, I will take you back to the Erez border,” he replied in a flat tone. The reminder couldn’t have been more stark. Soon after I thought that everything was going to be fine, I was mistaken again…

It was not his fault. I don’t blame him as he is just following the orders issued by the embassy. I pity the situation though…living as a stranger in my very own homeland. Among my own people who were not allowed to treat me with love and care. The feeling of emptiness in a world full of material and comfort…

As soon as I got off the bus and stepped onto the ground, I started jumping and feeling happy that I was standing on the Holy Land. Shahd was alive again. She needs little things to be happy. She has learnt to live the moments in a place where days, months and years are just the same excruciating blocks of time. They never bring any joy or relief. But this moment is something very special. To step on the Holy Land and feel so liberated. As if I crossed the seven seas to get to this feeling of elation. I felt accomplished even though I faced more challenges ahead. The air of Jerusalem raised my spirits to an unknown high. Like never before…

Everything went fine at the US embassy in Occupied Jerusalem. The visa interview was perfect and thankfully I got the visa. Maybe it was the overwhelming sense of accomplishment or fear of returning to the harsh realities of life, I did not want to go outside the embassy. I knew we will be bundled back and won’t be given a chance to see the sights and sounds of our eternal capital. And I was right. Eventually, we had to get onboard the bus to return to Gaza. But I did not walk out empty handed. I was lucky enough to take two beautiful red flowers with me. I lived that moment in an eternity…

The directives given to the bus driver were very strict. He was ordered to take us directly to Erez. However, the driver sympathised with us. After all, he was a Palestinian who could understand what it felt like for Gazans who are in Jerusalem for the first time in their lives. How impossible it is for us to leave our eternal abode without catching a glimpse of  the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. He explained the restrictions but promised to take us through a street which would allow us a glance of our magnificent heritage.

view of dome of the rock jerusalem

A view of the Dome of the Rock from the street we passed. This is the closest we were allowed to. Photo - Shahd Abusalama

My starved eyes waited to witness the priceless glimpse of one of the most prized buildings on earth. Every yard that the bus covered seemed never ending to me. The heart beat was pounding once again as if silencing the buzz and excitement around me. Finally the moment arrived. I saw the Dome of the Rock from far away just like it is seen in the photographs. Nevertheless, I managed to see such an amazing scene that is beyond any explanation. My eyes could not stop gazing. It was like magic. Like a walk in the heaven. All the energies in my body just were attracted towards the Holy Complexes. What I heard was true. It is a spiritual magnet for millions of people across the planet. I still couldn’t believe that I lived that experience too…

“I have to move. I am sorry,” the driver said with a broken voice. I turned my head towards the Dome until it disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a long silence filled with deprivation and pity. The visual pilgrimage came to an end. We could see it for hardly a few minutes but my capture was timeless. Seeing that view, and the fact that we could not go closer, and even that we couldn’t open the window and put our heads out, all this made me very emotional…

I went to an empty seat in the back of the bus and lay on it, closing my eyes and letting my soul fly over Jerusalem’s Golden Dome. With a mixture of feelings and emotions, I fell asleep while my spirit encircled the skies of the Holy City. I let myself have this mystical experience till we covered the approximately 80km distance and reached Erez. I went empty handed with a violated feeling. But I returned as a victor. A winner who won all her tests and stood upright. A dreamer who saw the reality but decided to live it like a dream. A dream that is too big to be stolen and too high to be brought down. A dream that defines the essence and aspirations of my nation, of my ideology which the world knows as PALESTINE…

Shahd Abusalama  is a 19-year old Palestinian artist who lives in Gaza with her family. Her artwork has been put on display on numerous occasions. Shahd takes deep interest in issues relating to Gazan society and works on several projects related to the welfare of orphans. She considers it her moral and national duty to tell the world about the sufferings of Palestinians under the brutal Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. She also maintains her own blog titled Palestine from My Eyes. Story by Shahd Abusalama; Edited & Published by Moign Khawaja.

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