The story starts early on Monday afternoon, standing on the Palestinian side of the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah, after a two-hour servise ride from Gaza City, bag fully packed and in hand, ready to say goodbye [for now] after eight long months in Palestine. The Egyptian government had only agreed to open the border for three days, however, and bystanders were convinced that I would have to wait until Wednesday. But with a Tuesday evening flight to Beirut in mind, the home town of my great-grandparents, and where I planned on meeting up with rapper-revolutionary Lowkey for Israeli Apartheid Week, I was not going anywhere until I had crossed that border.
I had been waiting for hours, but after blagging my way past the first checkpoint (“Yeah don’t worry, I’ve got co-ordination…”), and now finding myself just outside the border gates, I was feeling patient and ready for a long wait. So patient, in fact, that I bought myself a couple of qibda sandwiches. A group of young guys in the ubiquitous Hamas dark-blue bomber jackets came over to sit with me…
“Yeah man it’s gonna be so difficult, they’re not gonna let you leave today man.” they told me.
“Don’t worry,” I replied, “everything will be fine.”
As the second and third guys piped in with their emphases of just how impossible it was going to be, and as I took the second bite into my qibda sandwich, a dark four-by-four with blacked-out windows pulled up next to us. The window was wound down.
“Are you Jody?” the driver called out.
With my mouth full of liver and pita bread, I could only manage a nod in response.
“Get in the car, let’s go.”
He took me through the gate and about five hundred metres down the road, with me trying to wolf down my sandwiches and balance my bag at the same time. It was time to leave Gaza. Someone ran up with a wheelchair.
“No, no,” the driver of the first car protested, “I’ve got a better idea… bring an ambulance, then they’re not going to ask him anything!”
So, that’s how it came to be that I left the Gaza Strip sitting in the back of a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance. The disappearance of the dark-blue-bomber-jackets, and the arrival of camouflage uniforms and red berets, let me know that I was on the Egyptian side of the border. And from there, my hell started.
“How did you get to Gaza?” the Egyptian immigration official asked me.
“Well, I went it with the Viva Palestina convoy a couple of months ago…” I replied.
“So, why didn’t you leave with them?”
“Because I like it in Gaza… the beach is well nice!”
“Fine, go and sit outside.”
I sat for hours waiting for the Egyptians to stamp my passport with that all-important entry visa. And I’m not talking about “rah that bus took ages” metaphorical hours, I mean literally hours, sitting in one place, doing absolutely nothing. I must have been the only foreigner leaving Gaza that day, but there were hundreds of Palestinians. All around me I saw mothers crying, fathers running around in panic, and young men and women pleading with Egyptian officials. The officials couldn’t care less. I caught fragments of conversations… “my sister is stuck on the other side of the border…”, “they only let two of my three sons through…”, “my grandfather is sick he needs to get to hospital now!” The pain this border has caused… it makes you wonder, why do we keep building walls between each other?
It was evening by the time a guy came out with my passport. What they had been doing for all this time was beyond my imagination. I went to the next desk, paid 15 dollars for the visa, and the passport was stamped. Finally, my ordeal was over.
I walked down a long hall to the other end of the border terminal, where my passport was taken again. I asked when I would be getting it back, so that I could leave. First it was one hour… then two hours… finally, I found out that they were making everyone wait together until midnight, and then everyone would be taken on buses together to Cairo. There were hundreds of Palestinians in the border terminal, and every hour a few more people would join. Another family on their way for brief respite from a life under siege.
But, in reality, I felt more besieged here than I ever had in Gaza. We were all kept in a huge hall, with no proper access to food. All the seats were full up, so people had taken to occupying the dirty floors. Kept… like cattle… like refugees. Never were we told why we were being kept.
At first I felt incredibly frustrated, but then I realised that this was simply another test of my patience, another chapter in the struggle. I started to read; a collection of short stories entitled, ironically, “Tales From Nowhere”. I felt like I was in “nowhere” right now.
Midnight finally arrived. One by one, people’s names were called out and they were let out of the building, with their bags searched, yet again, on the way out. Of course, my name was almost last. I was told to go to bus number six.
I had planned to go to Sarah’s, a friend of mine in Cairo, for a relaxed evening before I left for Beirut (my electric wheelchair was still at her house after it had broken down in Cairo, before I entered Gaza) but now, that evening was gone. I wouldn’t be getting there until 6am, but at least I would be getting there. Or so I thought…