Guns, Books and Planes

Daily Travel to the Airport West Bank

My colleague and I chuckled at this one, “We want to go to the airport in the West Bank, can you take us?” we asked.  Of course, there is no way to the West Bank from Gaza  — the only way in or out is through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, if you’re lucky.  Otherwise, its the tunnels.  Palestinians in Gaza say they live in a big prison.  Indeed if one stays here long enough, a suffocating sensation takes over.

I met an American colleague for tea yesterday evening and saw that he had Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Museum of Innocence sitting on the table.

“They have books here!” I exclaimed.

I had assumed books were still not available in Gaza. He had asked me to bring him The Call of the Wild from abroad a few weeks ago, and my Arabic teacher was still having difficulties getting a hold of what appeared to be the only Palestinian Arab text book in Gaza so that he could make a copy.  Israel had banned books from entering Gaza when it imposed the blockade,  so I had brought several books in addition to those already on the kindle app on my ipad. (There are rolling power outages in Gaza, so I wanted to be prepared.)

I flipped The Museum over in anticipation of the label on the back. Would the price be in shekels or Egyptian pounds? Egyptian pounds it was! 170 to be exact — or about $29.  The book had come through the tunnels!  Of course it had.  Since coming here, I’ve noticed that everything — tea, pepper, deodorant, coca-cola, canned chickpeas, wedding dresses — comes through the tunnels.  Of course, there was a black market tunnel trade in Nobel Prize-winning literature.  Israel always refers to these subterranean  trade routes as “arms smuggling tunnels” but Palestinians in Gaza depend on them for everything from shampooing their hair to getting married.

My colleague couldn’t recall how much he spent in shekels for the book, but promised to take me to the bookstore this week.  I can’t wait to find out which books are so important, that people will risk death for.  Stay tuned!

Terrorist Spaghetti

Its been awhile since I’ve reviewed the list of food and durable goods Israel permits into Gaza. I’ll get to it soon, but in the meantime, I think its interesting to just “notice” which products are Israeli, and which ones aren’t here in Gaza.

The first thing I noticed (after a long day traveling across the Sinai), is that our toilet is Israeli.  Our water heater as well.  All of the washing machines at the washing machine store down the street come from Israel, as does the one on our kitchen.  And, perhaps most surprising, I discovered a used bag of fertilizer at the olive grove near the buffer zone I had been at last week — also Israeli.

As I was conducting the science experiment that is taking a shower this morning (I never know what will happen after, will my skin burn, will my hair stink or turn brittle, will the lotion absorb into my skin or just slide around on the surface  until I just give up?), I realized the perverse irony in Israel’s list of permissible items: expensive capital goods which require water — and indeed pollute water — are allowed into Gaza, but equipment that treats water and sewage is forbidden (Israel damaged Gaza’s sewage treatment facilities during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09).  Odd, that Israel forbids pasta and lentils from entering Gaza, but fertilizer is okay.

Water Tank

Are they worried that Hamas’ armed wing will fling overcooked spaghetti over the border or could it be something else?

Almost-finished bag of fertilzer from Israel at Olive Grove Near Buffer Zone


Journey Across the Sinai

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.”