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The ethereal promise of midnight in the Sinai

Israel/Palestine
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Cheyenne Stern is a pseudonym for a member of the Gaza Freedom March who wishes to preserve her ability to travel in the region. She has been in Egypt since December 26 with the Gaza marchers. The Egyptian government prohibited the group from even from leaving Cairo, and the march came to a close with the drafting of the Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid. Subsequently, hundreds of marchers set out on their own to try and make their way into Gaza at the Egyptian border of Rafah.

2:15 am, 7 January, 2010, Rafah border

Today I failed for the eighth straight day to find my way to Gaza. And so, with unending patience and flexibility, Gaza found her way to me.

I arrive to the the Sinai city of Al Arish at midnight on January 6th, having hidden myself under cover of hijab as my bus passed three checkpoints along the way from Cairo (foreigners, especially those involved in the Gaza Freedom March, are still prohibited to travel to Arish and Rafah). A sympathetic Egyptian, already late to join his family for Egypt’s Christmas celebrations later today, then arranges a sort of Palestinian freedom taxi to the Rafah border crossing for me, featuring a keffiyeh-clad driver and a ceiling-suspended screen playing old Egyptian movies. The taxi has just delivered a Palestinian family to Arish for the holiday, and the promise of Gaza beckons from the car’s interior as the family climbs out, pulling their luggage from the roof of the station wagon. We speed through the night to Rafah while every possible permission, letter of invitation, and official document burns a seal of certainty into my palm. Car loads of Palestinians fly past us on their way deeper into Egypt, a sure sign that my driver was right when he promised the border is open. The guards at our final checkpoint barely glance at my passport before handing it back with a smile. "Welcome," they say, and I can feel that they mean it.

When we pull up to the border crossing we are met with more of the ethereal promise that fills the cool air of the midnight Sinai.

A warm bed and black tea with maramiya (sage) await me in Gaza City, and already my body is relaxing into a post-checkpoint place. In some ways it’s strange to find such comfort in an area that has been tortured by the most powerful governments in the world, but I do think that, even from my privileged position as a US citizen, I am beginning to understand something about the comfort Palestinians of Gaza find in those remarkable instances when they are finally permitted to return home. Of course Gaza is not my home, and I will never truly understand the situation of the people who live there, or the mess of emotions that hang over the many Palestinians who are trapped here in Egypt or in other places around the world, but the craving at my core to return to Gaza has added a personal level to this journey that becomes overwhelming sometimes.

My body moves to the gate at the crossing, but my heart is already in Gaza, floating along the Mediterranean next to the flat where I will spend my nights. But then my mind springs back to the cold bars in front of me, to my passport traveling back into my hands, and to the guard’s face, grim and certain: "I’m sorry, miss. The border is closed."

Soon, three other Americans join me and we again make our case, passing every document we can think of through the bars. The Egyptian guards demand still more permissions in a circular game of "Go Fish" that the Israelis have taught them well. Finally we agree with the guards that we will try again at 10am, and drag our bags 200 feet to a small shop with nothing to sell except endless phone cards, for denied Palestinians who must call home with their bad news. We meet two Palestinians who have already spent several nights sleeping at the shop. A man named Ibrahim*, a kidney doctor currently based in Dubai, travels internationally for medical conferences, receiving preferential treatment at the world’s airports. Here he is treated like an animal by the border guards, forced to sleep in a plastic chair for three nights in the cold of the dark Sinai. We pull on layers of clothes and brace ourselves for an uncomfortable sleep, hiding our faces from the starving mosquitoes of the nearly abandoned desert crossing.

4:20 am

After two hours of difficult sleep, I awake shivering to find Ali, another new Palestinian friend, spreading a keffiyeh over my shoulders to warm me. His coat is half as thick as mine. Minutes later, the call to Fajr (morning prayer) reverberates across the never-ending sand. The sound is so great it seems that all of Gaza has risen in the darkness to call their sisters and brothers at Rafah home.

Daytime, 7 January, 2010

By eight am about three dozen Palestinians have joined us, waiting for the crossing to open at ten. Children drink juice boxes bought from the small cafe next to the empty store, and everyone shares dates and biscuits. We sip endless cups of tea, sprinkling their surface with maramiya that a Palestinian friend in Cairo gave me when it seemed I’d never make it this far.

As the hour for the border opening gets pushed back later and later into the day, I pass the time playing with Palestinian and Egyptian children and learning from new friends who are teaching us how to play this unwinnable game. Amal, a young mother of three small, sweet children, tells me that she and her family have been in Jordan for six months, and have now been waiting days to cross. They have been staying at an Arish hotel that is popular among stranded Palestinians, coming back each day to again be denied at the crossing. They are running out of money, and Amal and her husband are becoming increasingly frustrated with the project of feeding and entertaining two young girls and their infant son.

Others use this time to show us what the Israelis and Egyptians are trying so hard to hide. Nabil, a businessman currently working from Saudi Arabia, shows me photos of his enormous steel factory in Gaza. He tells me the factory was worth $1.5 million before the Israelis leveled it in an air strike during their vicious attacks one year ago. The images of the destroyed cement and rebar that used to provide for his family are devastating, and the money he received from the government in Gaza is not even enough to clear away the rubble. Nabil must now travel the world, finding work in far-flung functional economies. If he does not pass through Rafah in the next day or two he will travel to China to pursue opportunities there. But even with all the time he must spend away from his family he considers himself lucky: His wife and children, who were in their home near the factory at the time of the attack, rushed to a different side of the house to see the result of a separate explosion, and were therefore no longer in the kitchen when the factory fell, spraying dangerous debris across the table and counter. "My god loves me very much," he says, again and again.

A full bus arrives to the border gate, and a murmur runs through the small groupings around us. Amal explains that the bus has come from the Cairo airport, where Palestinians are detained in a single cell for days, weeks, or even months until there are enough of them to fill a bus that goes directly to Gaza. The detention hall is a much-discussed horror among the people of Gaza, but the arrival of this bus has given us hope: "If they pass, we may be able to pass with them," Amal says.

But maybe an hour later, the bus disappears, and not through the border crossing. Amal whispers that the bus has been sent directly back to the detention hall at the airport, where they might wait a month before they are bused back. I traveled to Arish on a bus just like this one, and I know there is no bathroom on board. The ride from Cairo takes at least six hours, and with holiday traffic they may have traveled for as long as seven or eight. Perhaps the driver will be permitted to stop so that they may use the bathroom at a roadside store or buy something to eat, but they may wait fourteen or sixteen hours in all before they can be escorted to bathrooms from the detention hall again, one by one, by heavily armed guards.

The bus’s denial is a signal to the Palestinians waiting around us. Soon they begin piling their bags into taxis and making arrangements to stay yet another night in Rafah city or Arish. It breaks my heart to prioritize my American privilege over their fundamental human right to return to their homes, but I begin to wonder if we might be permitted to pass through the crossing once they’ve left. And although it’s completely unjust we do come to an agreement with the border guards: The next day we will return to the crossing with the head of the government press office at Rafah, who will personally hand over an official letter in support of our crossing, approved by the Cairo press office (who, interestingly enough, haa never heard of this new permission before). But the struggle is over for today, and we have agreed with the guards that we will spend the night 50 kilometers away, in Arish. We drive to Arish under a darkening sky, and I can’t fight despair at the thought of traveling backward in this painstaking journey. I also can’t shake the feeling that we’ve made a critical mistake in leaving Rafah, and that our agreement with the guards was reached too easily. I am terrified that we will be barred from return at one of the three checkpoints we must pass on the journey back to Rafah the next day. My clean bed in Arish is little comfort, and I long for the cold of the desert and my half-broken plastic chair, now locked away at the empty shop that will sleep no one tonight.

January 8, 2010

At our first checkpoint out of Arish, our new Moroccan friend Hassan is pulled from our taxi. He has been with us since we first arrived to Rafah, where he was anxiously awaiting the Viva Palestina convoy. He had traveled with Viva through the police-incited riot at Arish where dozens of internationals and nearly fifteen Egyptian police were injured, some seriously, and where three police officers were temporarily detained by the convoy while six internationals were arrested. He was not permitted to pass through Rafah because he was never given an Egyptian visa at Al Arish, a protocol the convoy had agreed to. I saw the Egyptian guards play this visa trick when I left Gaza in June–we were nearly barred from our flight out of Cairo because the border guards had not given us the correct stamp at Rafah. Hassan must now wait for the convoy to return, as almost all of his belongings traveled to Gaza on the bus he was pulled from. He’s been stranded for three days with only the clothes on his back, his Moroccan passport, and a small video camera filled with stunning images of Viva Palestina’s violent stand at Arish. The Viva fighters are widely celebrated in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, and Hassan consoles himself with these images, playing them again and again.

Hassan is not permitted to pass through the first checkpoint with us, and so we must continue on without him. But the news seems good at the crossing. Hassan suddenly appears a half-hour after we arrive, and Amal has returned, telling us yesterday’s airport-bound bus spent the night at the Rafah police department instead, and will return to cross today. Soon a bus arrives, corroborating her story.

But as jumma prayer comes to a close and we are joined by more Palestinians, the story becomes clearer, and far less hopeful. The bus is full of Egyptian journalists, spending the day at Rafah to cover the departure of the Viva Palestina convoy. Trucks of riot police pass through the border gates, and more arrive to wait on our side of the crossing. A water cannon parks nearby. A friend in Gaza calls to tell me that British MP George Galloway, the leader of the convoy, has been escorted to the airport by twenty-five policemen, and was informed that he is now persona non grata in Egypt. When the Viva Palestina convoy crosses to Egypt, these young police officers, one of whom wears a keffiyeh and tells me he wants to visit Gaza, will be forced by their bosses to attempt to arrest six members of the convoy. The Rafah press official is prepared to bring us our letter but cannot come to us from his home in Arish because no one is permitted to pass through the checkpoints until Viva Palestina have left. And as the tension increases at the border, I can’t believe we’ll be permitted to pass, even if he arrives to us.

Meanwhile, Amal, who had been so hopeful this morning, and the other Palestinians waiting to cross have been almost entirely forgotten. They made one strong push earlier today, when it seemed they might be permitted to pass. When they were denied, Amal momentarily lost the seemingly unending patience she’s shown since we arrived. She shouts at the guards through the bars, and then marches to our small camp by the side of the road. "Fight Hamas! Not us!," she cries, in English instead of Arabic. I’m not sure if she shouts in English so we can understand her, or so the guards at the gate cannot. "You are a journalist?," she asks, "Write this. Write everything. Tell this story. Tell the truth."

Several hours later, almost everyone has left the border. Amal and her family wave goodbye from a cab, and most of the journalists have also disappeared. A friend among the Egyptian journalists sent a car to Arish to retrieve the Rafah press officer, who has arrived to us at last. He argues with the guard at the crossing gate, explaining his credentials several times before he is finally permitted to pass in order to plead our case to whoever happens to be in charge (the decision-making structure at the crossing is unclear—I think this is deliberate.) We wait for what feels like hours for him to return to us with good news, and I push my spirit out of my body again, sending it searching for the Mediterranean and my cold tea with maramiya. But as hard as I’ve tried to keep hope today, my heart refuses to be lifted and instead settles between my feet, one meter from the crossing gate. The press officer returns with the news we’ve all been expecting: Our official permission, blessed with the approval of the Cairo office and dragged to Rafah by the will of our journalist friends at the border and in Arish, of course lacks yet another necessary approval: That of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, who have thwarted the efforts of all Gaza Freedom Marchers since we arrived in Cairo on December 26th. The Cairo press office will draft yet another letter for the Foreign Ministry’s approval, but I am certain now that we will not be permitted to cross in the coming days. And I am running out of time: I must return to the United States in four days.

While next steps and schemes whirl around me, I stare through the gate to the border control building and then beyond, into Gaza’s sky. I whisper goodbye to the many friends who are waiting for me to join them, who have called again and again as I languish at the border, encouraging me to stay strong as I undergo my “Palestinian baptism.” (I truly appreciate their sentiments, but can feel the many levels of privilege that protect me from a the suffering of a true Palestinian baptism.) And then I plant my hand on the bars, swearing an oath to their surface: “We’ll be seeing you again soon, and you will fall away before us. No matter how long we must wait in front of you, we will watch you fall.”

***

Minutes later, we are piled into a taxi, headed yet again to Al Arish. The Egyptian journalist who sent for the press officer joins us, promising we will stay among friends. We fall out of the taxi and are rushed into a small apartment building, where we climb to the top floor to join a middle-aged Egyptian man for tea. He tells us of his dangerous work for the people of Gaza, of providing shelter and guidance to many doctors and human rights workers who passed through Arish on their way to Gaza during and after the “war” last year. [I sometimes find myself calling these December and January attacks a “war” as well, because so many Palestinians and Egyptians and the rest of the world call them that. But I do resent the use of this word—I know of no other situation where one group (the Israelis) breaks a ceasefire and then kills 100 times as many people as the other, and the world refers to this massacre as a war.] Our new friend has risked a great deal in his work for Gaza, and some of the men who work with him have been arrested, a terrifying prospect in Egypt. One of these men was paralyzed by a vicious blow to the head while in prison.

We sip tea and talk about the terrible situation confronting the people of Gaza, and the people of Egypt, as well. We talk about the impossibility of a real life under siege, and the tragedy of the 30-meter deep wall Egypt has agreed to build below its border, to cut off the tunnel trade that has become Gaza’s lifeline. I have seen some of these tunnels, and even climbed through one of them for several hundred meters when I last traveled to Gaza. I can’t believe these brave and resilient tunnel workers will be stopped even by an impenetrable 30-meter wall. But our new friend explains that the wall will break through the thick layer of sand under the border, ending in the water that flows below. “You cannot tunnel through water,” he says. Another friend tells us the wall is already 14 meters deep, and will be completed in about a year.

More Egyptians and a Palestinian join us, and we sit and talk for hours, licking the wounds that are still fresh from our denial. We discuss the shame this 30-meter wall is bringing on the people of Egypt and especially the people of the Sinai, who are close brothers of the people of Gaza. We talk about the political situation in Gaza and the nature of the global solidarity movement. Al Jazeera whispers to us from a nearby television—our host refuses to watch or read Egyptian news. The news anchors are interviewing member of the Viva Palestina convoy, who are still recovering from injuries inflicted by Egyptian police. They wear bandages on their heads and keffiyehs around their necks. Today we have learned that Egypt is now banning all convoys from crossing its border with Gaza, and that all aid will travel to Gaza via the Egyptian Red Crescent. Our host is furious by this development—he insists that Egyptian police steal the Red Crescent’s aid as it waits in warehouses for transport to Gaza.

I excuse myself from the conversation when my closest friend in Gaza calls, so that I can explain exactly what’s happened, and swear to him again that I’ve tried everything I can think of. He is silent for a while, and then laughs. “Welcome to Palestine,” he says. “You are beginning to understand the disappointment that is the theme of our Palestinian narrative.”

Our kind host presents us with unending amounts of hummus, meat, and pita, and we eat like animals—this is the first prepared food we’ve had in days. He then insists that we will stay in a vacant flat downstairs, free of charge. “But if anyone asks, you will tell them you are vacationers who are renting,” he says. He has emphasized several times that Arish is crawling with informants and secret police.

Our small gathering eventually ends and we prepare ourselves for bed, but I cannot fight the deep sadness overwhelming my heart. I spend at least two hours on the phone with a friend in Gaza, using up my phone credit, running to the store to buy more, and then using it up again. “You are 40 kilometers away from me, do you know?,” he says, and of course I do know. I can feel in my heart the pull of the beach where he is walking, just 50 kilometers from the stretch of beach I’m looking out on now.

January 9, 2010

The heart of Mahmoud, a new Bedouin friend, is breaking for us. We have no language in common, but I can see it in his face. We all have a great deal of work to do, having been away from internet for our entire stay at Rafah, but he insists on bringing us out into the Sinai desert, to eat dinner with his family. We crush into a cab, four of us in the back, and drive along one road for well over an hour. Finally we take a turn, and then soon we are turning again, onto nothing but sand. We stop at a small house to meet his wife and kiss his baby daughter, but then we are back in the car, and it’s clear our dinner plans are with someone other than his family.

We stop next at a one-room cement structure with only two walls and sand for a floor. Inside we meet Mohamed*, an elder Bedouin who greets us and then leads us to his brand-new SUV. We ask where we are going, but Mahmoud and Mohamed simply reply “the desert.” Finally Mohamed stops the car and we climb to the top of a sand dune, to watch the sunset. In spite of my sadness my spirit does begin to lift, riding to the tops of these dunes and sailing up into the fiery sky, lighting on the backs of the clouds silhouetted by the sun. We sit on the dune and drink Sprite as we talk about Gaza and the underground trail to get there, which Mohamed has traveled many, many times. I resolved before I came to Egypt that I would not travel by tunnel to Gaza, for a list of practical and ethical reasons (I believe the risks for tunnel operators and owners are too high for a foreigner to embroil herself in), but even if I wanted to try, that path is closed to me: Mohamed tells us that because of the Israeli air strikes on the tunnels two days ago and the three Palestinian lives they claimed, including a 14-year-old boy, the tunnel operators will refuse any foreigners who come their way.

As the sun sets we jog down the dune, crawling back into the SUV. Mohamed will take us to his home for dinner. We arrive minutes later to what feels like a palace, a stunning three-story structure with high ceilings and beautiful marble floors and carpets. Mohamed’s children greet us, and we play soccer in the beautiful foyer as we wait for Mohamed to return from prayer. We eat a delicious meal of beans, eggs, cheese, jam, and warm, thin bread. Mohamed apologizes several times for not feeding us better, but we cannot believe our great fortune as we enjoy the feast before us.

Soon we are back in the SUV, but we have one more stop before we return to Arish. Mohamed drives us to a large one-room building, where we meet his friend, a sort of negotiator who works to protect Bedouin principles from the Egyptian government who try to force their way into Bedouin law. We recline on mats and pillows set on top of the sand, drinking tea and coffee as we enjoy the heat of the small fire in front of us. Our host tells us about the struggle of the Bedouin against their own oppressors, and I am beginning to understand one of the reasons so many Bedouin participate in the tunnel trade, and take great risks to help the people of Gaza: Their oppressors may be different, but their struggle for autonomy is not so different at all. Our host is curious about how Americans perceive the Bedouin, and what people of my country think about Palestinians and the Hamas government in Gaza. I do my best to explain what I think is true, reminding him that I can only speak for myself and my perceptions. I tell him with sadness that I must return the next day to Cairo, and then fly back to the United States, but that I will be back soon. He smiles, telling me to please visit. “You are always welcome,” he says.

As our taxi speeds back to Arish and I am again crushed into Mahmoud’s arms in the back seat, he asks several times if we are happy. I smile at him with tears in my eyes, my hand drifting to my heart in an automatic motion of sincerity. “So happy, Mahmoud. Thank you.” As we arrive in Arish we join Mahmoud for one long shisha before we return to our flat for the night. And as he sits across from me, pulling slowly from his shisha, I think about the many hours he has given to we four strangers, time he could have spent with his family, or working. I cannot believe my good fortune to have found so many brave and wonderful friends in Arish. And I can’t wait to return to them soon, on my way into Gaza.

January 10, 2010

I leave Al Arish at noon, in a shared taxi headed to Cairo. We fly through the checkpoints without incident—the guards are uninterested in internationals headed away from the closed Rafah border. I drop my bags into the same room in Cairo that I left with such hope three days before, and walk down the street to the small store where I’ve bought so much credit for my phone over the past weeks. Ayman, the owner, greets me, asking how my journey went. I am so sad to tell him I did not make it after all. He does not seem surprised—this is the second time I’ve returned to his street, after promising I wouldn’t see him because I would be in Gaza. Soon I’m back in my room, calling a friend in Gaza. Even though my path to Gaza now involves a journey back to the United States and months of waiting, I am still dreading tomorrow’s flight from Cairo, when I will leave the timezone of my friends who await me. At least here I feel somewhat connected to them, knowing that we can look out at the same desert, the same sea, the same sky.

We talk for nearly an hour, and when my phone runs out of credit he calls me back, resuming with the same sentence he’d begun when I was cut off—we haven’t missed a beat. We spend most of our conversation laughing, trying to heal our broken hearts. We talk a little about the vicious nature of the siege, and the tremendous work in front of Palestinian civil society and the growing global solidarity movement as we move ever forward in our efforts to end this occupation, but mostly we reserve these few hours that remain before I must board my flight to the US, and we are again separated not only by a border but also an ocean, for a more personal conversation. He has reminded me many times that for people in Gaza, the siege is as personal as it is political, and I really am beginning to understand why he says this.

Tomorrow I will return to the United States, where I may face some sort of intensified search at customs, but probably not. Most likely, I will slip back into my country with an ease that I will find shocking after my many struggles simply to leave the city of Cairo, let alone to travel to Gaza. But my true work will only really begin once my plane has touched down, and I’ve unpacked my bag in New Orleans. Like the other 1400 Gaza Freedom Marchers and the 500 of Viva Palestina, my mind is on fire with ideas for building our Palestine solidarity community and supporting the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement that will someday end this siege and bring down this horrific occupation and apartheid system. And while I will throw almost all of myself into this project of building our movement, I leave a sliver of my heart behind, willing it through the bars at Rafah and out to the Mediterranean, where it waits patiently for my return.

***

* All of the names in this piece have been changed.

Many thanks to the three travelers who joined me on this journey, and especially to Z., who provided tireless interpretation at every turn. Thanks also to new Palestinian and Egyptian friends in Cairo and Arish, who have fed my body and spirit through these difficult days, even though my struggles cannot begin to compare to their own. Thanks especially to new Bedouin friends of the Sinai, who showed us great trust and kindness. And most of all, thanks to Amal, Ibrahim, Nabil, Ali, and all of our Palestinian friends who are still waiting at Rafah, and to the wonderful friends in Gaza who have taught me so much, and who are still teaching me every day. Thanks most of all to H. I’ll be seeing you soon.

The author can be reached at [email protected].

Cheyenne Stern
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