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Stuck inside of Cairo with the Gaza blues again

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Susan Johnson is a Doylestown, Pa., grandmother with two volunteer gigs in Gaza waiting for her. She’s written about her big trip earlier this summer.

And here I sit in Cairo, exhausted and disappointed. I have been denied entrance to Gaza twice! I’m amazed I’m not angry and ready to give up, even though I’m discouraged.

My trip began August 24 with my flight from JFK being delayed for two hours. Arrival in Cairo though three hours late was simple; purchasing a visa, exchanging money, processing through passport control, collecting bags, walking out of the terminal into the blast of Egyptian heat and relief upon seeing "Susan Johnson" in the midst of the driver’s signs.

I knew not speaking Arabic would be a disadvantage…boy was I correct! Mohammad, my driver, speaks some English which is a relief. The ride into Cairo was wild. I’d forgotten the traffic going at break-neck speeds, no traffic lights, horns blaring and turns being made in all directions. It’s amazing!

Mohammad invited me to his home for Iftar, the meal breaking the fast during Ramadan. It gave me my first experience in sharing the culture, not just observing it….one of the main reasons I’m here. We had chicken, rice, salad, a fantastic soup with bay leaves, whole cloves and other spices I couldn’t name. Mohammad’s wife was the cook; his mother having relinquished the role to her daughter in law. Mohammad’s family is Palestinian, moving to Egypt in 67. His father couldn’t imagine why I wanted to go to Gaza and kept saying no, no good. I tried to explain but his English is very limited…he only does well when trying to sell telephones, calculators, watches, etc. 

No matter where I go I’m asked "WHY" when people learn I’m going to Gaza.

They see no point in me going, especially the Egyptian-Palestinians. On the other hand, Palestinians in the US are excited and supportive. In fact they’ve been fantastic; I’ve received phone calls and emails from them since I’ve been here.

After the meal it was off to my hotel. Most of the shops are closed until sundown during Ramadan and then open until after midnight. Throughout our drive there was a carnival atmosphere; stores were open, hundreds of people of all ages walking the streets, shopping and visiting. Groups of men reclined on grassy spots. They looked like old friends but that’s not necessarily the case. Strangers are welcomed and just join in the conversation. The only place that might happen in the States is during a sporting event but without the intimacy.

Saturday we made the five hour drive to the Rafah border crossing, leaving at 4:00 am. The drive was long and exciting. Again, the cars and trucks race along, at times at 90 mph. When a car wants to pass they blow the horn and the "offending" car, truck, motor scooter or donkey cart moves over. Only saw one case of road rage…. The donkey carts were usually driven by women and sometimes loaded with goods for market. As Rafah drew closer the women were more conservatively dressed, many with all but their eyes covered. Workers were packed into vans and trucks with people hanging onto the back. Small houses made of concrete blocks dot the desert, some with a tin roof held down with rocks, others had no roof at all; most of the windows didn’t appear to have glass or shutters, There were also large houses, partially built in with the first floor finished and the metal supports for the second floor installed. There’s an enormous amounts of building every where; from Cairo all the way to Rafah. El Arish appears to be booming with new homes apartment buildings, industry and shops. I wonder if the US aid has something to do with it.

Goats and camels grazed in the desert, on what I don’t know. Small herds of goats, un- attended, wandered in village streets and even in El Arish. In a deserted area a large wooden camel marked the entrance to a camel farm. That was about the only commercial evidence I saw for live stock.        

As the border crossing appeared before us, I began to feel anxious about the process but had no real worry about being denied entry. A large ornamental gate encloses the actual gate and the head man has a room with typical glass window. I cheerfully went and presented my documents, which he examined with a puzzled look. I was motioned to go– go somewhere out of his sight. Once again I was the only woman present except for three women selling almonds and dates…they were covered with only their eyes exposed. Plastic chairs were placed under the only shade tree and occupied by men. I took a chair and moved it away from the group but was not going to sit in the sun. My driver, Mohammad sat with the men and I believe he put in a good word for me.

Periodically I would walk over to the man with the power, checking the progress on my request….Not yet…go sit…Not yet, go sit.

My buddies under the tree offered encouragement with thumbs up, big smiles and laughter. As for Mr. Power, at times he had four or five soldiers in his room…Once I arrived at the window finding everyone asleep. Who was working on my request? Or even taking it seriously? Mr Power said he was phoning the Embassy, it would take ten minutes, then, come back in 15 minutes, it will take another 10 minutes, five minutes. Each time I’d go sit down under the tree, wait and then  walk the long short distance to the window.

Finally I said I’d call if I could use the phone…Mr Power proceeded to tell me..no outside, only inside call. That caused my mood to blacken..Then how could you call the Embassy? You aren’t being honest! All of the sudden he knows no English. I receive the same response when I ask for his name. I resumed my place under the tree…my buddies are sending signs of encouragement but I’m sure they knew way before I that I was denied entry to Gaza. The game had been played for five hours and it didn’t dawn on me until about 4 hours 55 minutes into it that I wouldn’t be crossing into Gaza.

The driver and I prepared for departure and my buddies under the tree waved good-bye. I was a bit discouraged about my failure but was quite excited and happy with the cultural experience. That was successful even though the border crossing wasn’t.

That night I stayed in El Arish. I kept asking the driver to take me to the Sinai Sun  Hotel… He conveniently didn’t understand English and took  me to an Egyptian hotel located in a semi-residential area. As we opened the door I saw a group of about eight men gathered around the front desk. By the time we made it up the three stairs to the lobby they had disappeared. Once again, I was the only woman within sight. This time it felt strange… I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t women hidden away somewhere.

I had a difficult time explaining I didn’t want my room service dinner delivered until after sunset. Finally I said Ramadan; made motions of eating then put my hand across my mouth and shook my head no. Understanding at last! I’d decided to try participating in the Ramadan fasting out of respect and good will. Most people, especially Muslims, discouraged me from fasting adding that I wouldn’t be expected to fast. Makes no difference to me; I’m fasting but need to drink water because of medications. This is my fourth day!

Looking out my hotel window I could see desert in the distance and up close, small enclosed back yards…about the size you’d find behind row houses in an American city. Amazing sights…a small herd of goats in one, chickens and small hutches similar to ones used for rabbits in another; one with a lovely outdoor seating arrangement, clothes drying on bushes in another; even a roof top chicken yard.

The next day, Sunday, it was back to the border and more of the same…only it wasn’t as much fun; still fun but not as much as the day before. I decided to try waiting by the window while Mr Power did nothing with my papers. He was in a terrible mood, screaming and hollering at the police, soldiers and "porters". Once or twice tempers gave way to shoving matches. Who knows what caused the upsets but they certainly weren’t there the day before.

Must mention the "porters" who are really gangs of teenage boys hell bent on carrying your baggage. It’s a bit like throwing corn on the sidewalk and being overtaken by pigeons. They jump into cars grabbing suitcases before the passenger can get out. They work in teams and there’s some system that allows certain boys to carry baggage through the gate into "no man’s land" and put it on carts. The scene is wild but everyone appears not to notice….except me. The first time we arrived at the border and were overtaken by the helpers I was terrified. That’s the only fear I’ve experienced here. 

To make a long day, short; once again I was denied entry to Gaza. It didn’t feel good! Thankfully the ride back to Cairo was an adventure, making up for some of my disappointment. The driver was from El Arish and spoke no English. As the hours passed we developed some communication…usually involving humor. Mohammad (the original taxi driver) kept calling and it became a joke…as soon as the phone rang we’d say "Mohammad" and begin laughing. 

The big adventure was having dinner at a truck stop. There was an indoor area that contained the kitchen and what appeared to be a shop. There was a small room set off to one side for prayers. All the seating and a large elaborate home made grill were outside. Once again I was the only female…don’t know what the thoughts were about my sitting at the same table with Amed. The food was delicious and rather fancy for a truck stop. I ordered grilled meat, which turned out to be beef, served on a bed of greens. I’d already begun to eat with my fingers when someone appeared with a fork. We had two kinds of salad, mangoes in a syrup, an amazing soup beyond description, pickled something, I know I’m leaving out things…and lots of pita! Amed called for a hookah and after having it refilled twice finished his smoking and we hit the road again for another wild ride. 

Today I’m afraid I’m no closer to entering Gaza than I was yesterday. I can’t seem to make any progress. Getting in touch with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is more difficult than contacting god. The emails sent to address listed on their website are returned. Phone calls to numbers I’ve been given to use in an emergency are not in service. I finally reached a person at the Ministry who spoke a tiny bit of English. She gave me two phone numbers for someone who handles Palestine. One turned out to be a fax number, the other was never answered. She also gave me the Foreign Ministry’s address. First thing tomorrow morning I’ll take a taxi to that address. If I have any luck it will be the correct address and someone will be able to help me. I really do want to go to Gaza!   

Susan Johnson

I became involved in the issue of Israel's occupation of Palestinian in 2004 when I was invited to visit the West Bank with Women of a Certain Age. The experience turned me into an activist for Palestinian rights. In May 2009 I visited Gaza with a delegation of 13 people, Philip Weiss being one of them. That brought me to mondoweiss. The trip raised my outrage and passion to tell anyone who will listen (and some who'd rather not) about what I saw...which was devastation and an attempt to destroy the people of Gaza through the siege, constant harassment by the IDF and the Dec.-Jan. invasion and bombardment.

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