The day before Purim and just past Kfar Saba, our bus made a sharp left turn. Within minutes we had breezed through the checkpoint (it’s always easier to go in than out) and entered Qalqilya. It feels strange when I first visit places whose names I learned from newscasts during the second Intifada. But it was sunny and quiet as my friends and I entered the UNRWA hospital to meet with some local doctors.
It was a proper Palestinian welcome, meaning more food than we could possibly ever eat. One of the doctors spoke with us about problems with the local health system. Particularly, he described redundancies between the four major sectors (Palestinian Ministry of Health, UNRWA, NGOs, and private health care) as well as major gaps in care, particularly specialty care. As I tried to think back to my first year global health seminars to remember the term for proper coordination between health initiatives- is it “harmonization“? something caught my eye on the plate of cookies being passed around. Dark filling oozed out between three pinched corners of dough. I looked around again, and saw them everywhere. Mixed in with other cookies, they were serving us hamentaschen in Qalqilya, on erev Purim.
The doctor concluded his remarks by telling us that he believed that the Palestinian people want peace, and it is the Israelis who are unwilling. I rolled my eyes, mostly because I have heard the mirror version of that statement from more than enough Israelis. The microphone was handed off to a young man who worked at the hospital, who told us about what it was like to study abroad, then come back to Qalqilya, where it is a harder life, but there’s a sense of cohesion and community and identity that he wanted his children to have. He spoke briefly about losing his cousin during the second Intifada, and about his mother dying of cancer (a not very treatable type, but still) after not getting a permit to enter Israel for treatment.
When he finished, the doctor grabbed the microphone back. He had misspoken, he told us, when he had said that the Israelis didn’t want peace. Through this NGO, perhaps we had heard of it, Physicians for Human Rights, he had met many Israelis who he knew wanted peace. He knows that they are a minority opinion within Israel, but he hopes that they will get stronger.
So do I, I thought, so do I.
We then travelled on to Nablus. We were supposed to meet with medical students there, but a Very Important Dignitary heard through the grapevine that there actually were American tourists in his town, and invited us to meet with him in his office and drink tea and eat kanaffeh (which tastes sort of like mozzarella cheese topped with fried dough and simple syrup, and may be an acquired taste.) He gave us a speech about how he believes that previous violence, which he once supported, was a deep mistake by the Palestinians, and how he now believes that negotiations are the only way forward, and how important it is that the current negotiations succeed.
He spoke with the voice of a lawyer and a politician, but I more or less believed him. I can’t see into his heart, but he is a powerful player here, and of everything he could have said, he used the time to lobby us to lobby our government to make the negotiations succeed. There was a time for questions at the end, and I asked him what might increase trust between Israelis and Palestinians. He misunderstood my questions, but part way through his answer, I noticed he was addressing me as if I were Israeli. Was it the question I asked, or did I look particularly Jewish right that day?
After lunch, which was late, I split off from our group to try to head back to Beer Sheva in time for the Purim Megilla reading. A doctor we were travelling with walked me to the bus station. He referenced our conversation last year outside of ma’arat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in Hevron. He said he’d been touched by what I’d said there, to the point where he’d told the story to several groups. I said that I appreciated hearing that, since I had started to think I’d been a bit overdramatic that day.
At the bus station, speaking a mix of English and Arabic, I attempted to ask for a bus either to Ramallah or Jerusalem. “Ween al-bus al-Ramallah? Ween al-bus al al-Quds?”
“oh, Yerushalayim?” asked a Palestinian man, in Hebrew. Again with being read as Israeli, despite the fact that I am not, that I spoke only English and bad Arabic. Not right, but not wrong, either, according to the local rules of who is an insider and who is an outsider. “yes, al-Quds” I told him cheerfully, and he pointed me to a bus that would take me as far as Qalandya checkpoint.
We hit traffic along the way, in a long line of cars snared by a checkpoint. Once we got through, the driver really gunned it. If I die in Palestine, I thought to myself, it will be from a traffic accident.
The driver let me off with two other passengers and told me to follow them past another traffic jam to the checkpoint. Cars with Israeli plates periodically drove down the shoulder, forcing us off of it. I looked more closely, some women wore hijabs, all the boys had tight haircuts. Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian citizens of Israel, returning from day trips. More identity parsing. They grinned sheepishly as they sped by.
One of the other passengers told me he was going to Tel Aviv. “Inta bishtarril fil Tel Aviv,” do you work in Tel Aviv? I asked him. He answered affirmatively. We spoke for a few minutes more, then as we reached the checkpoint, said to me with a smile in English, “and now you are home.” Again with the Jew-dar?
I entered the chicken cages, or cattle chute, or whatever you want to call the part of the checkpoint that is for pedestrians. Metals bars on either side of us, so narrow a space that a few of the men stood slightly sideways, a wire grate and barbed wire coils above us. Most people stood bored, leaning against the bars, a few checked facebook on their phones. The line slowly crept forwards, a few people let at a time through the magnetically locked revolving door.
When I finally reached the end, I put my bag through the X-ray, and walked through the metal detector. The border policewoman, from behind sheets of bulletproof glass, buzzed the buzzer at me and motioned for me to go back. I was confused. Had I set off the metal detector? I walked through it again and again she buzzed at me. This time she turned on the microphone and said, coldly, “akhora.” Go back.
So I stepped back until she called me, and she said “passport” and I held it up for inspection. “Visa”, she finally ordered me, still giving commands the way you tell a dog to sit or stay. In Palestine I was a Jew, and now in this limbo-world of a checkpoint, I am an enemy until proven otherwise. She studied my visa for a while, it may have been the first student visa she had seen issued in Kathmandu, and then without a word, she let me through. And then I was back in Israel proper and I could breath again. I thought of the border policewoman, drafted at eighteen and behind the plates of glass, barking orders through a microphone, only able to see threats and enemies. Of everyone I’d met that day, she seemed the most imprisoned.
I took another (Arab) bus to Jerusalem, and then a taxi to the new bus station, and then a bus to Beer Sheva, and then a taxi to the megillah reading. By the time I got there, they were halfway through. I saw my friend dressed as Wonder Woman and went to join her. I listened as they chanted the story of Esther overturning the plans for the Jews to be massacred, listened as instead their (our?) enemies were massacred. The numbers of those slaughtered in the megillah kept increasing. It seemed a bit too similar to the stories of massacres that we, Jews and Palestinians, are raised with, and who started it depends on where you start counting, and I don’t know how it ends.
The megillah wasn’t much fun this year. It reminded me of something a friend had shared on facebook, how the carnival-like atmosphere of Purim isn’t true joy, and another thing a friend and teacher shared, that for those of us who are finding the Purim story troubling, to remember what the rabbis taught about drinking until we know longer know the difference between Mordechai and Haman. I was stone-cold sober, but right then the difference between the two of them was rapidly shrinking.