After many weeks of waiting, wondering, and doubting, I finally crossed into Gaza. I flew back to Cairo shortly after the killing of 24 Copts protesting outside the Egyptian state television offices. Curfew in Tahrir had been lifted for the day, and I head straight to the Maspero to pick up my permission from the press office, which I had been told was ready.
I waited in the large, drab office, chock-full of 1950’s era desks and a couple of tired leather chairs, eyelids heavy from the long flight, while Mrs. H. retrieved the relevant paperwork. It had taken a few weeks for them to run the routine security check, the normal amount of time, I was told. Nonetheless, I gazed out the window at the Nile wondering if I had really, really, been approved and how one conducted a security check when one appeared to have forty desks but no computer, until suddenly I noticed a mounted machine gun to my right, and a very still soldier, gazing through the telescopic sight. Sniper!
Of course! This had been where Sunday’s protest had occurred. Whereas in Egypt the building was referred to as the Maspero (the name I had become familiar with), the western press — from which I received my news while abroad — had called it the state television offices. I had not made the connection that the building I had visited day after day in September, where I had made friends with the workers and eaten their cookies, was the building responsable for inciting people that night to “protect the army” from the protesters.
I stared at the soldier for an inappropriately longtime as my brain slowly made these connections until another soldier joined him. I looked away. After a few minutes I left with my paperwork. Only then did I notice six large army trucks and dozens of soldiers in black uniforms milling about.
I met with Egyptian activists that night. They all agreed that things were back to where they started, that the army thought that it could act as Mubarak did, with impunity, but they were not Mubarak. They asked me a lot of questions about the Wall Street protests in the United States over beer and a dish that looked like humus, but was really “old cheese.” Yes, that’s the official name “Gibne Qadeem” — blended up old cheese with vinegar. I was a bit a sad to leave Cairo, city of dust and revolution, where I came knowing no one, but left a slew of new friends. Alas, the country’s culinary innovations made it easier, and I took the first bus across the Sinai to Al-Arish and headed from there to the border.
The bus ride was largely uneventful. Indeed I slept most of the way, though the guy sitting next to me woke me up periodically to announce the good parts, like the bridge, the Suez Canal and particularly nice views of the Mediterranean. He also told me I sleep a lot.
We passed two checkpoints and anyone suspected of looking foreign or Palestinian was asked to show their identification. My bus companion, though Egyptian, happily handed over his identification each time “there’s a lot of Palestinians here that come through the tunnels” he explained. Apparently, I look Egyptian while asleep, as I passed without problems.
In Al-Arish, I took a car to the Rafah border, about thirty minutes away. “Do you want to go the legal way or the illegal way?” my driver asked referring to the tunnels. “The legal way,” I said. “I don’t think they will permit you,” he said shaking his head. He then warned me that there would be many checkpoints that would be very difficult and wanted to know if he should admit we were going to the border. “Yes, you can tell him the truth,” I said. The driver, looked at me like I was very stupid but then shrugged.
We passed five more checkpoints, replete with sand colored tanks, without getting stopped. Five checkpoints! It seemed that this had never happened before. Occasionally, the driver would point out trucks filled with white boxes. “They are going to the tunnels,” he said.
At the border, I met with someone from the press office who escorted me through in no time. I got on the bus to the Palestinian side, and there it was, a big sign that “Welcome to Palestine.”