The day of the flight woke from a sleepless night as I made sure that all of my things were packed, and all of my plans were in order. I took a train from Croyden to the airport, waited with an array of families and women in hijabs. I had to pay fifty pounds in order to make up for the weight, having purchased an extra bag, on Easy Jet that means you get to carry and extra bag but the overall weight you are allowed to carry remains the same. I ended up sitting next to a poor woman whose daughter had just graduated with her masters, they had misplaced her passport and when they checked her at the second point they said she wasn’t allowed to fly and took her baggage off the plane. The mother then found her passport after boarding the plane in the one obvious place they hadn’t looked; her purse. The captain wouldn’t wait an extra ten minutes to allow her back on the plane, and yet we still had to wait thirty miThe day of the flight woke from a sleepless night as I made sure that all of my things were packed, and all of my plans were in order. I took a train from Croyden to the airport, waited with an array of families and women in hijabs. I had to pay fifty pounds in order to make up for the weight, having purchased an extra bag, on Easy Jet that means you get to carry and extra bag but the overall weight you are allowed to carry remains the same. I ended up sitting next to a poor woman whose daughter had just graduated with her masters, they had misplaced her passport and when they checked her at the second point they said she wasn’t allowed to fly and took her baggage off the plane. The mother then found her passport after boarding the plane in the one obvious place they hadn’t looked; her purse. The captain wouldn’t wait an extra ten minutes to allow her back on the plane, and yet we still had to wait thirty minutes to take off. Her mother was extremely upset. I didn’t know how to console her as she cried, my mom would act the same way. The flight staff was rude to her the entire way, when she asked a question they never gave her a straight answer until finally the manager came by and said that they didn’t know what was going on on the ground as they had no communication, had they told her this in the first place she would not have bothered them. She was a very kind woman, she gave me some sweets and told me her story. Her and her family were Christians from Bethlehem, her husband a priest. A complete stranger on the plane handed her new born infant to the lady next to me to hold while she tended her other children. I have no idea who the gaggle of children were giggling and wandering down the tiny aisle. A veritable sea of dark haired and curled pigtails amidst diapered bottoms wandered around carelessly, makes sense, we’re on a plane, where could they go? And how can we expect children to just sit around for five hours? The culture clash between the flight attendants from England and their ongoing struggle with the tiny vagrants seemed to amuse the children (and me) while intensely irritating the flight staff. It was in short, loud. Children, snacks, water, and advice were passed around the plane as if it were a gigantic family minivan in the sky, on a road trip.
After we landed, as I waited in line to pay my 20 dinars for a visa, the initial shock of the culture was breath taking. The mix of so many different cultures, and we would say cultures, all attributed to the Middle East. Holy men from the deserts with brown wrinkled faces and long white beards waited in line in traditional white robes and leather sandals. The loveliest shade of pale lilac, almost periwinkle scarves, were draped across their thin shoulders, each with a white eyelet cap upon their heads. Their eyes looked around wide-eyed like mine, yet their stance was strong and calm. Did they fly often? Where were they from? Somalia? Were they on their pilgrimage to Mecca? They had a similar look to the Somalians I had met in the United States, I saw a bit of my friend Mo in them. Tear drop faces, wide foreheads, pointed chins, long limbs. But these were such different people to him and his fellows; they were wild, feral, and archaic. Their faces looked as if they knew the secret of life, of the desert. They looked as if they had reached that shrine of shrines and peace of peace. Did they study the mutability of the desert? The Arabic word for purple is Urjwaanly I thought to myself, letting the word roll in my mouth and whispering it to myself. I went to the baggage claim, it took two hours in line to get my visa, where shocked and appalled men watched me get my own luggage, and I waved off their help with a bemused smile. After leaving I sat just outside the airport merely looking around. Women in long black robes, faces beautifully made up and surrounded in bright expensive scarves clutched designer bags, lifting their robes for a moment to rest their feet off of their designer platform sandals. I sat inside at the café for hours waiting for the sun to rise, and the Al Lenby bridge to open, writing pages and pages worth of letters. I befriended the man who ran the car hire and services, and he let me use his computer to update my facebook and make sure that everyone knew I had landed in Amman safely. After standing outside, and offering him a cigarette, which he took, he told me that he would find me a safe driver in the morning, he knew just the man, I told him my friends told me it should cost no more than 20 dinars, he laughed and smiled at me.
“yes, he’s a Palestinian” after he left, a boy whose job it is to take peoples’ luggage to their cars and taxis, and sweep the cigarette butts from the cement said to me after a moment.
“You should have said lower” I thought that perhaps I should have, but it’s not so high a price to get a nice driver. Looking around I realised that it was possibly the cleanest airport I had ever seen, with no vagrant-looking travellers sleeping on the benches. I sat and read James Joyce’s Ulysses.
“To learn one must be humble/ but life is the great teacher”. How true it was. How true those words. They echoed in my brain. I wanted so badly to be humbled, and to learn. So I was there, sitting in an airport in Amman. Amman. I sat outside again, I met a woman from Jordan who had her masters in English, she loved travelling she said, she was doing a teaching exchange in the USA in Florida starting in August. She seemed as excited about that as I was about my trip. I told her what I planned to do, and she left me with some water, an apple, and a pack of crisps, before I met her family picking her up at the airport. Her English, quite possibly, was better than mine, she gave me her phone number in case I had any problems getting across the bridge, and needed a place to stay. She was my age, I felt as if she had a similar lust for pitting herself against the world and its circumstances. Hours passed and darkness began fading from the horizon. The call to prayer shook me from my book as I watched men walk to the airport mosque and take off their shoes at the door. It was glorious, even though the man singing it was less than a fair singer, I wanted to see inside, but perhaps that was only because I knew I wasn’t allowed. From where I was sitting I could peak in through the door. Nothing spectacular, I thought, men praying on mats, a man in the front leading them, but it was spectacular to them.
Finally the time came to drive to the bridge. My driver was a spectacular man who had travelled far only to return to his home country. He had lived eight years in Germany, six in Russia, he spoke English, German, French, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, all from just being a taxi driver. He didn’t care for the Russians he said, ‘they only care about sun, and water and vodka’. He told me about the Dead Sea, and the factories in Amman making beauty products from the mud, as I gazed from my window.
‘Isn’t that bad for the dead sea, isn’t it reducing in size?’(BOYCOTT DEAD SEA BEAUTY PRODUCTS)
‘yes it is’ he said, almost shocked that I would know ‘by one meter every year’ We stopped to get some gasoline, and then to kill time before the gates opened, we sat at a grimy and perfect café. The bottles of coca cola, sprite, and orangina, in a dusted and much abused cooler sat in front of the store, packs of cigarettes lined the walls behind the counter, and a brass coffee pot squatted on a table in front of the door. He came out with three packs of cigarettes and two coffees, I offered to pay, and he then told me that most people in the area would consider that offensive. The plastic chairs and tables had seen better days, and the thick coat of ash and cigarette resin in the ashtray said that it had been here a while. I drank my coffee, strong, sweet, with that strange nutty almost minty flavour. ‘what is this? Mint?’ I asked.
‘no, we put mint in our tea, yes, but we call it caramel what we put in the coffee’ I closed my eyes luxuriously and felt the morning sun dance onto me, and that strange breeze that feels so different from the closed areas I am used to. This breeze came from someplace open. After hopping in the car he explained to me the road we were on, and how far below sea level the Dead Sea was. We stopped at sea level, and I thought how far down it has to go just to get to water! Gazing out the window at those rocky and pale mountains, the old dry ravines, I wondered, was it water or ice that made this place? An ocean, a river or a glacier? Copses of olive trees and silver leaves danced above their gray-brown twisted trunks. ‘are those olive trees?’ I asked.
‘yes, this farm has been here for centuries. Some of these trees are even older’
We passed newly constructed palaces of stonework, next to farmers in their tents, with satellite dishes just outside the open flap and plastic chairs adorning the entrance. I laughed at myself, their tents are like our mobile homes. Can’t afford a better house, but you can afford cable and cigarettes. Finally we made it to the bridge, he wasn’t allowed to pass through the gate, but he shook my hand, told me to tell anyone who wanted to visit to use his cab service, and I thanked him profusely and passed through the gate, where a smiling Jordanian guard said.
‘Welcome to Jordan!’ never mind that I wasn’t planning on staying.
A man took my luggage in a cart, and asked me, I said ‘Palestine’ he asked me ‘VIP?’ I said ‘No’ thank god, I later learned that VIP cost 500 dollars and didn’t save you much time through customs. I didn’t know I was supposed to tip him, so he glared at me as he rolled his cart away. I met a few American Palestinians sitting and waiting, a husband and wife, and a boy my age named Mohammad Ali (no lie), the husband and wife were trying to move back for good, and the boy was visiting family, he had been living in California for most of his life. We asked the guard, what time does the desk open? 8. He replied tersely. I thought it was seven. It is, but today, it’s eight. The woman smiled at my response ‘welcome to the middle east’. We waited an hour for the desk to open, finding that a line had formed while we waited in the other room with the fan. It was early morning and already hot. We got through the line and were then put onto buses, which we had no choice but to use, or to pay for- ten dinars. We were held on the airless bus with screaming babies and annoying valley girls and Harvard graduates, there to enjoy the trails for hiking. Some of them didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the area they were going into. Just how ‘pretty’ it was. Hopefully the wait in customs was a slap in the face. The line to drop off baggage for inspection was chaotic, hot, and sweaty. A man with a large gun and sunglasses stood surveying the line. Then they asked us ‘where are you going’ ‘what are you doing’ for the first time. Then they checked our passports. Then another line to make sure we had nothing on our persons that would do harm. Another check of our passports and another line of questioning. Then another line, for foreigners, to enter into the country, another check of passports, they took me aside into a room with a desk and a chair and asked me exactly where I was going and why. If I had told them volunteering in Palestine, they wouldn’t have let me in, so I said I was a tourist, I wanted to see Jerusalem. Which was the story I had from the beginning, they made me put my places in order, they asked for hotels and addresses, I didn’t have any, I said I was just going to check into one when I got there. Then I had to wait in another line to wait for my baggage, which had to be re-checked. After two hours I began to complain.
‘YEEELLLAAAA’ I groaned, meaning ‘oh my god!’, like Wael does when he’s complaining about me taking forever. ‘why is this taking so long?’ an old woman in a hijab looked at me with a sardonic and calm smile. As if to say ‘you think this is bad? Try sixty years of it!’ The guards were eighteen year olds, in a hod-podge sort of uniform, meaning they had to wear at least one thing that said Israel, though many of them didn’t even have that. They were flirting, joking, and having a good time, while ignoring the people in the line, and taking breaks whenever it suited them, it was unprofessional, disorganized, and motley. They were rude and uncaring. They had guns strapped to them. I was hoping to be wrong about all of this. In the end it took me seven hours to get through from one end of the bridge to the other. By the time I got out, having been in line with no fans, air conditioning or anything. (the guards had fans… just cruel). I was so hot, exhausted and over wrought that I just collapsed on top of the cart holding my luggage and sat there for twenty minutes. I told myself with a breath, and a will, only a few more steps, you need to get to Jericho. Then to Ramallah. You can do this. Only a little further. Even though I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. I bought a ticket for the bus to Jericho, some boys on the bus tried to chat me up and get my number. I grunted a response and hoped that was a sufficient deterrent. Adeish il sah? What time is it? 13 o clock. Less then a half an hour to Jericho, upon arrival I remembered to tip the luggage man, and asked for a van to Ramallah, 10 dinars, I passed through the border, the Palestinian guards more than pleased to see me, and I passed easily. I got a bottle of water, and sat in a van waiting to go to Ramallah. Finally my journey was almost at its end, and I could rest….
Going through Jericho, through the fountain in the town center, the shops filled with tourist kitch, and the smell of frying falafel, people walking, staring, I looked next to me, just the driver; oh. They’re staring at me. Past the poor shacks, and the dark natives, their children, barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts, lush villages sat sequestered on the side of the road surrounded by fences, as rocky outlines of walls that used to be lined the hillsides, ancient olive trees grew over rubble, a man rode a donkey across the mountains. Then rising out of the mountains was a sand colour city. The first thing you notice is a partition, a scar, a wall rising out of the sand colour into bright graffiti reaching towards the towers with patrolling guards with guns. Lines of writing, pictures, and reasons lined the wall for miles and miles. Across the wall you could see the verdant courtyards and avenues of Tel Aviv. Ramallah was not so different, but water made the difference. I tried to call Marys to see where to meet her, but the number I had used that morning was no longer working. My van driver, bless him a hundred times, kept pulling over to ask anyone if they spoke English, as he didn’t, and then to help with the phone. Finally Hussein answered one of the phone numbers, at that point I was so frustrated that at some point I just yelled into the phone ‘I just want to sit!’
Hussein calmly told me to give the phone back to the driver and met me at his friend Manar’s flat. I thanked him a hundred times, tipped the van driver ten dinars (an exorbitant amount), for all his help and met Hussein. Hussein was Wael’s friend since childhood, and spoke excellent English, as did his lovely artistic friend Manar, whose hospitality I felt as if saved my life. After a glass of water and a shower, I didn’t feel near to tears anymore and she and Hussein proceeded to talk to me and soothe me and feed me until I was returned to sanity.