Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Grounds of Palestine

There are cracks everywhere. Pebbles, stones and rocks all ranging in size, littering the streets of Palestine. Pavements with lengthy cracks and potholes you gotta jump over. The dirt, dust and sand play together in the warm breeze, attaching themselves to any object which crosses their path. Some areas manage to maintain a somewhat unadulterated pavement while others, particularly near what some locals comically refer to, as "The Great Wall of Palestine" where vehicles and pedestrians will mix freely. The ridges in the roads look as though cement was left to run and dry with no mention of an attempt to take off the excess, something which my OCD cannot handle. These are the inconsistent but lovable streets of Abu Dees, a small village-town in East Jerusalem.

I’ve never in my life paid so much attention to the ground I walk upon. However, when I’m faced with living in a Muslim a country, a place which takes me so easily and gracefully back to my default setting, my head seems somewhat unable to raise itself up to pass the gaze of those I'm surrounded by. I like to imagine that I’m invisible, what I used to do as a young Muslim in England. But people here, men in particular like to make it painfully clear that I’m far from invisible. It's understandable that people can see that I'm not a local; this is a small place and unfamiliar faces tend to stand out, especially when they make little attempt to fit in to the surroundings.

When I intend to take a peaceful walk, I end up engaging in a game of dodge the stares, weaving around groups of men who remain silent and walking at speed to avoid any unwanted approaches. When I think about it, England isn't a whole lot different. However, here it is more concentrated and understandably so, wherever the forbidden fruit factor is in play. What baffles me most is even with all of that; I feel safer here, I feel at home here. There is an element of potential danger where the occupation is concerned, but for me; I find it to be a magnified mirror image of how I felt when I was growing up. Here, I am faced with the same emotions I ignored as a child and can now see where I fit in… I don't really fit in but I've also come to realise that it isn't really a problem. Not fitting in or conforming is something I've come to do well, even when all I once wanted was to be like everybody else.

When we landed in Tel-Aviv, the pit of my stomach tightened. I knew going through passport control would be a hassle, I just didn't know how much hassle or if being honest with them about the purpose of my trip, would cause more harm than good. We, an Englishman and a Pakistani woman, were addressed by the man in the booth, let's call him Dave. Dave asked the Englishman if he was here on a religious trip, practically giving him the answer required, to which he replied that he was here to see the sights. The Englishman's visa was issued in under 2 minutes and he was free to leave the airport. Maybe this was going to be easier than I had thought. Dave then proceeded to ask me, a British-Pakistani woman, where my parents were born. No conversation about sightseeing or the hotspots of Tel-Aviv, just straight into collecting facts I have no control over. I told him they were born in Kashmir to which he replied, "Ah, disputed territory" with a knowing smile of the looming familiarity which was now present between us. I nodded and smiled and he proceeded to point to the waiting area where I was told to go. He kept my passport, knowing it is the only thing which could keep me. Thanks Dave.

The waiting room became something of a community in the 4 hours we ended up waiting. We spoke to a guy from the US and he told us how he goes through this every year when he comes to visit friends in Israel, "the best thing to do is be polite and comply, or they just make you wait longer." Mental note taken. I was interviewed by a young, athletic-looking, dark haired man. He was polite and calm and I felt less nervous when his first question was "how are you?" I gradually felt like I was talking to a friend, not being interrogated regarding my visit, which I made clear was pointed towards Palestine not Israel. Many people, including Palestinians, had told me to avoid telling them I was volunteering in Palestine, I told him anyway and he took it well. As I answered question after question regarding my background I noticed him watching me. I may as well have been on mute because he was staring directly into my eyes looking for any signs of a lie or abnormal behaviour. I noticed this and made a point of maintaining eye-contact to increase my chances of entry. For all I know my nothing-to-hide-here look may have done the trick.

2 hours later my visa was issued and I was free to leave the airport. An incredible weight had been lifted and I was finally free to actually be excited about my trip. In the 2 weeks from confirmation to my actual flight, I stayed firm in the very real possibility that I would be denied entry and possibly detained until the next flight home.

I am finally in Palestine.

I'm ready to learn, absorb and experience. I'm exactly where I'm meant to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. Little did I know, I had just stepped into a time machine which would magnify every aspect of my childhood I had worked so hard to get away from; welcome to The Grounds of Palestine.

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