Olive trees, lemon trees, and cedars ceded way to Jamal Pasha’s great war machine levied against the British in 1915. Among the skeletons of his wooden bridges and railroads was resurrected the Edmund Allenby bridge in 1918. It has since been replaced by a Japanese funded modern expanse. Linking Jordan and the West Bank since the time of the Ottomans, it was twice destroyed; once by the Palmach in 1946, and once during the Six Day war. Today, the Edmund Allenby bridge has an annual volume of 1 058 526 travelers, and is the lone viable exit point for West Bank Palestinians. It was to be expected that my time in Jerusalem would, likewise, be layered…
SLAP! I was forcibly jolted out of a nervous daze. I had been somewhat amused by the carefree antics of what appeared to be a young girl, crisp auburn curls escaping her ponytail. She was traveling with her mother and her older brother. The family was Palestinian but they lived in the United States. She scuttled around the waiting travelers, hitting her older brother periodically. But her roughhousing was soon to reach a dramatic climax. She perched up on the coffee table, glanced around at her audience, slapped herself, and then squealed with laughter at the shocked reaction. Soon, the grimmest of faces were cracked into irrepressible smiles and chuckles. After chatting with her mother for a bit, we were to be even more surprised… the child was a boy, with a lion’s mane of hair, and his name was Armani. Armani’s mother opened up. “They let us through but are holding my brother behind.” They had American passports but that didn’t change their Palestinian origin. It was a common story at the Jordan-Israeli border. One family member kept behind while the rest of the family is allowed to go through.
After passing through the metal detectors, my travel companion, Rohana Mir, and I were to embark on an odyssey of interrogation. On my most Canadian and affable behavior I was commanded to sit in front of a young soldier who couldn’t be more than twenty years old. He remained standing, an intimidation technique no doubt. In broken English he demanded to know,
“Where you from?”
“Why you visit Jerusalem?”
“To see the holy sites.”
“Do you know any Palestinians?”
We were instructed to return to the waiting area. Next it was Rohana’s turn. Luckily, she had overheard all of my answers and she matched them exactly. At the next kiosk, our passports were taken, and we were again commanded to wait.
Armani burst into the second waiting room. I was relieved to have him as a distraction once more. This time, he had a new trick up his sleeves. Apparently, at the age of three he was a budding rapper. He had the arm movements down pat, his attitude was brash and cocky, and with a name like Armani, he was set. I tried to distinguish the words he was ‘spitting’ but eventually realized that it was baby talk.
We broke up the day by eating bologna sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise. Tall African guards in IDF uniforms walked briskly through the crowd of delayed travelers, looking strident and at ease. One assumed that they were among the Ethiopian Jews who had so recently immigrated to Israel, but they looked vaguely Somali to me. I smiled at the thought that Somalis, who are from a country that is 99 % Muslim, might be able to pose as Ethiopian Jews and infiltrate the Israeli Defense Force. I could tell that I was slightly disconcerting to these soldiers — I looked too familiar. Was I complicit in their ruse? Or was it simply the awkwardness of similarity and recognition?
Nine hours had passed. The guards began to pack up and head home, the cleaners were taking off their uniforms, and myself, Rohana, and a young American of Arab descent were the only ones left at the border. We were about to experience the most grueling phase of our ordeal. One by one we were lead through bare dirty hallways, to a tiny interrogation room. Three soldiers sat watching. I was offered a glass of water. Arrogantly, I accepted and began to sip, legs crossed. Another detailed interrogation took place, mimicking the questions Rohana and I had been asked twice before. The soldier took notes this time. Finally we were given our visas, and collected our luggage only to have the piece of paper ripped up by a guard thirty meters later. Franz Kafka couldn’t have written a more symbolic conclusion to these seemingly all-important ‘security’ procedures.
There had been no prayer room at the border, despite the vast majority of Muslims that use it. (Israeli citizens are not permitted to cross in or out of Jordan using the Allenby Bridge.) As soon as we arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem we conducted an exhausting series of prayers to make up those we had missed during our nine hour ordeal.
Early the next morning, at Fajr time, Rohana and I decided to meander our way through the streets of old Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa. Garbage littered the alleyways. Kittens scattered from our early morning footfalls and our feet skidded over imitation cobblestones. We lost our way in the maze of streets and decided to make our way back to our hotel room to return to Al Aqsa during the daylight.
Ashara! Ashara! Ashara! Blared from the market megaphones. Mechanical nightingales, they had been programmed to mimic what a street vendor would normally belt out to passersby. The cry was static and flat, tense bursts of noise that the sellers didn’t have the heart to communicate anymore. Rohana and I were picking our way through the Friday crowds at Damascus Gate, heading once more for the third holiest masjid in Islam.
Al Aqsa was awe-inspiring but deteriorating from neglect. A big behemoth of a staircase challenged its foundations from the vantage point of the Wailing Wall weakening them as part of archaeological efforts to uncover ancient Jewish holy sites.
When we got back to our hotel, Manal, the niece of a hotel worker offered to escort us around Jerusalem. She was wiry, with reddish wavy hair. She was a teacher. She complained to me of her inability to get a visa to go to Canada for a yoga camp. The employees at the Canadian embassy in Jerusalem had stonewalled her. She spoke of her students, her education, her family, and her favorite uncle over mansaf at a local restaurant. The bills were surreptitiously paid during the eating and chatter. I let it slip that I was a reporter doing a story on Jerusalem. She turned to my travel companion and queried “Oh no, are you a reporter too?” She did not want to discuss politics or history. Her life was saturated with both — her father owned a bookstore and was a writer. Her little daily actions were political and historical. Later, she brought us to the Muslim graveyard behind Al Aqsa and pointed to her own gravestone. Real estate is precious in this land, even the graves in which one is buried.
That evening, we stopped at a local pizzeria for dinner. Anwar Basti, Palestinian, 28 years old, came to our table, smiled and said “The lamb and chicken dishes are the best. It is usually 45 shekels, but for you, because you are students, 35 shekels.” He quickly bustled around the restaurant, serving German tourists, myself from Canada, and my friend from the U.K. He wore an orange t-shirt and blue jeans, and his face was tanned.
“What are you doing, studying? Working?”
“I studied Psychology.”
He zipped off to serve some more dishes and then returned. Black and white photography of mandate Palestine peppered the walls, crookedly mounted with plain black frames. Lions’ Gate, Damascus Gate. His father and grandfather sitting in front of the same café maybe sixty years earlier. His grandfather gazing steadily at the camera and smoking shisha. His father, six at the time, standing behind the grown-ups and wearing a fez.
“I have two thousand pictures in my collection. I collect pictures of Palestine.”
He brought out an album filled with glossy black and white photos. Palestinian women in traditional dress, red stitching on their bodices and coins streaming from the sides of their headdresses. They didn’t look at the camera or smile. They seemed self-possessed.
Between bites of lamb, beef patties and fries we listened to Anwar’s story.
“I was seven years old during the first Intifadah. Us boys, eleven and twelve years old, would throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. We made a game out of it. But they would shoot at us. Little boys.”
“Were any of your friends shot?”
“So many. They would come to our school and shoot at us as well. I remember one week when they put poison gas into the school. We all ran outside. I will never forget that.”
“When I was sixteen years old, I wore a bracelet with the Palestinian flag. Israeli soldiers pulled me aside and wanted to break my hand. I was thrown in jail for twelve hours because of it.”
“Years later, I was there when Sharon entered Al Aqsa. People were running everywhere, there was blood everywhere. They shot my friend. He died in my arms. It’s all in my heart. Soon after, I tried to kill an Israeli soldier with a knife. I got two years in an Israeli jail for that. It should have been ten years. I had a good lawyer.”
“At the beginning of my sentence, I was put into solitary confinement for fifteen days. Then for two days, I was placed in a cell one meter by one meter by one meter. You couldn’t even stand up. It was very hard. My mother cried a lot during that time. And I don’t even want her to cry for one day. But she cried a lot for two years.”
“They let water drip when I was in jail. It makes you go crazy. I studied a lot in jail. When I got out I was reborn.”
Anwar’s eyes would crinkle often when he would smile, but they retained a slightly pained expression.
“But, we are living here not only for ourselves but for you, for Al Aqsa. Palestinians are Murabitun. Do you know what a Murabit is?” I didn’t and Anwar wouldn’t elaborate.
His parting gift was a photograph of the Dome of the Rock on Mawlid from the 1930s.
“Allah knows what everyone does. We don’t deserve victory when we are fighting amongst ourselves.”
Later, back in Amman, Jordan, at the offices of Islamica Magazine, I looked up Anwar Basti on the internet. He had given one other interview in 2002. Not much had changed for him. He spoke of his inability to get married because the Israeli authorities wouldn’t grant him a permit to build on his property. I also searched for the meaning of Murabitun. They are the guards of Muslim lands.
I left Jerusalem filled with a sense of stale anticipation… the whole experience had been bewildering. The cobblestones of Jerusalem were historically accurate, but made of plastic. Megaphones populated the air instead of human voices. Al Aqsa was beautiful but unkempt. Cats filled the winding markets of the Old City. Excavations were underway to uncover the ancient Jewish temple, raising fears that the existing masjid might be weakened. Even our hotel was confusing — it was known as the Tulip Inn, or the Pilgrim’s Palace, or the Golden Walls Hotel… all depending on whom you asked. Everyone and everything exuded acrid and prolonged suspense — Anwar, the sellers in the market, Manal with her tombstone. Reflecting on the surreality of my trip, my mind flitted back to a brief moment in my hotel room in Jerusalem — I had flipped on the television and was channel-surfing when I came across the nightly news anchor covering the Israeli government’s plan to demolish the homes of bedouins living in the Negev desert. I went to sleep and waited for morning.
At the time of the printing of this article Anwar Basti had finally received his permit to build on his property from the Israelis (after waiting thirteen years) and has just become engaged… Mabrouk!