My Apartment, Student Village
There were new videos on the Israeli news sites almost every day. I thought it strange that the press would have such ample footage of people dying, and even stranger that they would share it so freely. But this was how it was done here, and I had grown accustomed to it, just like everything else. The most memorable video I had watched recently was of an unassuming old woman who managed to stab a soldier. But no matter who the assailant was, all the videos ended much the same: immediate death. Presently, I was watching a video filmed earlier today from the main stretch of Jaffa Street that I’d walked countless times. Two Palestinian teen girls were trying to stab an old man with scissors. He had ducked behind a pole to dodge them, and they were doing a sort of dance that could almost be comical; their gangly arms were lashing out awkwardly – almost half-heartedly - making it difficult to believe that any of their blows would connect. The man must have been crying for help, because moments later the girls were on the ground as if they were puppets with severed strings.
The caption for the video read that one of the girls’ brother had been killed two years ago in the same way. However, the real irony here was that the man they had stabbed was actually a Palestinian. Though the face of the fourteen-year-old girl would be plastered in West Bank shops alongside that of her brother and the other young martyrs who had ‘died for the cause’; though her mother might find comfort in the dead of night believing that her children were in an exclusive level of Heaven, the truth of the matter remained that they were both dead, and that her daughter had stabbed the wrong person.
I had planned to spend time with Stav tonight, but decided instead to tag along with Anis and Tyrone on their trip to Ramallah, a decision to which Stav responded, "Good luck in that God-forsaken place." He had never been to Ramallah and most likely never would, as it was located in the West Bank and was, therefore, considered off-limits to any "rational" Jew. Of course, there were still some Jews who tried to settle there, but they were heavily-guarded and perpetually repairing their stone-pelted vehicles.
In Jerusalem, there were two bus lines: Arab and Jewish. Some Arabs rode the Jewish line, but for the most part, they were segregated. The Jewish buses had grumpy drivers that never spoke, and the Arab buses had friendly drivers that never failed to laugh with joy when a foreigner made an attempt at Arabic. We squeezed onto a small Arab bus which drove us along the separation wall - formidably tall and concrete, topped with barbed wire that enveloped the West Bank. I found it discomforting and distinctly familiar as it scrolled endlessly by my window; I had seen its likeness in photos of the Berlin Wall and, at the Holocaust Museum I visited yesterday, the ghetto walls built by the Nazis. It called to my mind the quote: ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’
We approached the checkpoint, a metal complex guarded by IDF soldiers with big guns - some mounted on turrets, and we slid through without being stopped. We were immediately in another world, and, in reality, another country. The West Bank was separated into three zones: Area A, which was under Palestinian authority, Area B, which was under joint authority, and Area C, which was considered a "transition zone" under Israeli authority. We were currently in Area C, which resembled an urban wasteland. It seemed that the city had ceased mid-construction and entered into a state of decay. There was abundant graffiti calling to "save Palestine" and murals of militants throwing Molotov cocktails covering the interior of the separation wall. I noticed a lone ISIS image on the side of an abandoned building. We continued on past several refugee camps, but they were too dark to see into.
The streets grew brighter as we passed by the “Welcome to Ramallah" sign. The city still had a Third World feel, with grimy gutters and unfinished sidewalks, but it was decidedly a city. We got off the bus and walked towards the ‘Times Square’ of Ramallah (a few large flat-screens mounted on the tallest buildings). We received some odd looks as we walked, but no one said anything. A caravan of Toyota pickups filled with young men rolled by, honking and yelling, waving the Palestinian flag and another flag I didn't recognize. Anis asked a passerby what it was, and he said a prisoner from their political party had just been released. I thought I heard him say they were Fatah, but I didn't ask him to clarify.
Anis proceeded to take us to the “best falafel stand in the West Bank”, which was dirt-cheap and extremely tasty. We ate it right there, over a trash can in front of the stand, and then went back for seconds. After that, we went to a Palestinian ice cream shop. Yes, they had their own ice cream and it was fantastic. It was made with a special gum that kept it from melting and gave it a satisfyingly chewy texture.
After this, we were supposed to go to a bar, a plan which I wasn't entirely sure about until we arrived, because Anis and Tyrone were having a grand old time confusing me on whether or not drinking was actually legal in Ramallah. As we approached the elusive bar, they told me I would have to sit separately with the women. It wasn't until we went inside that I realized they had fooled me again. It was undoubtedly the nicest bar in Ramallah, filled with a lot of men and a few sophisticated young women suavely smoking hookah within historic, dome-shaped stone chambers. Anis was clearly a VIP here, as the owner greeted him fondly, and we were treated exceptionally well. We passed the long, pleasant evening discussing American politics. “If I were American,” Anis stated brazenly after a swig of beer, “I would vote for Donald Trump.”
“Really?” Tyrone exclaimed, eyebrows raised.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “He’s a joke. He hasn’t got a chance.”
“I am serious!” Anis chuckled. His face then grew earnest and he pointed his finger at the ceiling to signal the gravity of what he was about to say, “No one owns Donald Trump.” Tyrone and I just shook our heads. I wondered how many other Palestinians liked Trump.
Another topic that stood out to me particularly was Anis' acute concern with the treatment of Native Americans in the US. I took a while trying to explain that it was a travesty which we were trying to compensate for, and that they were now a very, very small percentage of the population. But it was clear that he considered them to be the equivalent of Palestinians in Israel, and that he feared his own people would suffer the same fate: their culture would wither and remorse would come too late….
We got so caught up in our conversation that we didn't realize we were the last people in the bar. As we exited wearily into the misty night, we found the streets devoid of buses, cars, or any living thing. It appeared we had overstayed our welcome in Ramallah. "Well, this is not good" stated Anis. I realized that I should be concerned, but the warmth of the bar still lingered within me and I was filled with a confidence that we would get home safely. Indeed, the bartender was happy to phone a cab for us and it arrived in a timely fashion. All was well until we reached the checkpoint. "This is as far as I can take you,” stated the driver.
So, we were out of the cab again and back in the chilly wet night, trudging toward the checkpoint through the shallow mud. We were seemingly the only beings awake within miles, except for the sleepy guards at the vehicular blocks and a lone drunk man that was ahead of us. We arrived at the first revolving gate, but it was locked. It was unclear if anyone was manning the pedestrian checkpoint, but we pounded on the bars and yelled. After about a minute, there was a buzzing sound and we were able to push through the gate into a narrow strip of concrete between this gate and the next. We still couldn't see any evidence of a guard, but we could see a pane of glass up ahead with a light on behind it. The drunk man ahead of us went to push through the second gate, but it was locked. He then yelled something at the unseen guard which the he apparently didn't like, because for the next two or three minutes we were stuck between the gates with nothing to do but hope that the guard would eventually open them. I had never been in a situation like this, and though I tried to maintain calm in believing that the gate would open, there was a wriggle of animal fear inside of me: we were, in fact, trapped and entirely at the mercy of an unknown person….
At last, the buzzer signaled us through. The drunk man held his ID up to the glass for an agonizing minute of inspection. He then took off his belt and personal belongings and placed them on the conveyer belt before walking through a scanner. The third and final gate was buzzed open, and he was gone. Tyrone and I were next to go through. We flashed our foreign passports to a pimple-faced boy behind the glass and were immediately waved through the gate. We then watched from the other side as Anis was subjected to a thorough scanning. There was a tension radiating from him that was contagious. For the entire time that we were inside the checkpoint, no one said a word.
When Anis finally came out, Tyrone shakily lit a cigarette and took long drags. "We're going to have to walk for quite a long way," Anis apologized. I didn't care much. It was 3 AM and it felt nice to be out in the open by ourselves, walking a straight length of road that paralleled the separation wall. I breathed in the chilled air as we walked briskly, enjoying the droplets falling on my skin. I remarked on how the lights mounted on the separation wall were only lit on the Israeli side. "You can see where the tax dollars are going" Anis said. At one point, I had to go to relieve myself and I squatted in the bushes while Tyrone and Anis walked ahead. I shivered a bit as the wall watched me impassively and I stared right back. This was turning out to be a strange night, I thought.
After walking for quite a long way indeed, we approached the outskirts of a town. It was dead, but we found a 24-hour Arab grocery store and went inside. As we were asking the owner to call a cab, a man making a late-night milk run offered to give us a ride back to Jerusalem, as he was headed that way anyway. He dropped Tyrone and I off at the dorms and Anis at his house, only asking in return that if we ever needed any steel work done that we would consider him first. I truly believed that Anis would honor that promise. I was beginning to learn that personal favors and promises were currency in Palestine, and never to be taken lightly.