Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Good morning Qalandia

It’s 3:50AM when my alarm clock goes off and I feel terrible. Some 20 minutes later Luc and I set off for Qalandia to the sounds of the first muezzin call for prayer this day. As we reach the checkpoint we already see 3 rows of around 20 men praying at the exit of the terminal. They never pray before the entrance, they want to leave the praying after they had left behind hassle of passing through the checkpoint.

I go to the Ramallah side of the terminal. Luc will stay on Qualandia side to count people who crossed. This early in the morning this whole experience makes me sick. The terminal is empty, cold and quite scary. Its still minutes before the sunrise, so the air is still humid and smells of urine coming from the corners of the terminal. 

On the other side, I slowly adjust to the checkpoint reality. There will be more and more people coming in with every minute. I have my little morning routines at Qalandia. I greet the bejgala and zatar seller and do the first round to check how many ID boots are open. At this point of day I have a ritual conversation with one of the sherut drivers. Married? - Yes. Children? - No. Why no children? Than I lift my hands to heaven - Insallah - I say. Where are you from? Bulanda! Bulanda expensive? (always!) Hmm, I don’t know, it depends. How much chicken? - he never gives up. The whole chicken? - Yes. I don’t know about the whole chicken. One kilo of chicken is around 25 shekels.  Cheaper than Palestine - he always exclaims at that point!

Just as the sun rises the traffic gets tighter. Its before 5AM and every minute there will be more Palestinian workers getting out of sheruts and rushing to the gates. Or actually running to the gates. It looks a bit like if they wanted to get to the hell quicker. But actually they rush, because 15 minutes can make a difference - from 15 minutes to get through to over and hour.  When the queue gets really long I would distribute sheets of paper on which I note the arrival time at the terminal and they will hand it back to Luc at the departure time. This is how we measure how does it take through the checkpoint.

People know us here and are really friendly. At this point of day I am still the only woman at the checkpoint, but it makes no difference. I recognize some faces and some faces recognize me. Like Salim, who I know from the Capitol Hotel, who always gets in few minutes past 5AM. Like the man in a grey jacket with an impeccably groomed hair. Assalama alleykum, wa alleykum assalam. Afwan wa Sahlan! Afwan wa Sahlan fik - How are you today? Almost everybody appreciates our presence. If I take photos, they even smile to the camera despite the tiredness and despite there is a long day ahead of them.

Palestine and Qualandia in particualar is a land of plastic bags. Every man that passes carries a plastic bag with him. In the plastic bag you find a Qualandia essential set: pita bread, eggs, labneh and few packets of cigarettes. Some of them would top up their bags with zatar and falafel from bejgala seller at the entrance. As the queue gets tighter they tend to hang their bags on the other side of the fence, so they can pick them up once thy get behind the first sets of gates.

Just before 6AM I get closer to the guards. This is the worst time for Qalandia. Its the time of the heaviest traffic and also the time where the soldiers change their shifts. And because soldiers tend to be bored to death at the checkpoints everything that breaks the routine is a welcomed distraction. So they take ages to change the shifts. They exchange information about their weekends, girlfriends and new apps on their smartphones. Praise to lord for the iphones! Otherwise the Israeli military would die of boredom while the Palestinians wait and stare at their booths impatiently.  

At 6AM the military should open the humanitarian line. This is why just before 6 there is a large number of girls, women and families with kids waiting at the entrance to the humanitarian lane. And then again it might take ages before it gets open. Sharply at 6AM I call humanitarian hotline in the military to kindly ask them to call Qalandia guards to open the gate. Sleepy voice on the other side of promises to take some action. Nothing happens for the next 10 minutes. I call humanitarian hotline back and it looks like I am waking them up again... ah yes, in two minutes, you are calling from Qalandia right? At 6.15 humanitarian they open humanitarian lane. We never know if this is because of our calls.

There is another weird moment when you look into the soldiers' eyes. They tend to dehumanize Palestinians on the other side - out of fear that people on the other side might be ‘terrorist’ and out of the fact that they are left to wait in cages like animals. After few weeks at the checkpoint soldiers’ human sensors must go blind and probably they stop thinking that the people on the other side need to get to work, have schools to attend and relatives in hospitals to visit. So it’s quite weird feeling when they suddenly spot somebody who is a non - Palestinian. Racial profiling is an everyday reality on each checkpoint. They see ‘international’ face and it’s like a wake up call for them. Hello, we are all humans here. Not that it changes anything. It just makes them a bit less comfortable. Perhaps this is the reason why the shout sometimes at us if we get too close. But they shout in Hebrew so we do not understand anyway. The sad reality is that if you are ‘international’ you can play this game. Up to a certain point.

At some point I need to go and grab a coffee. I sneak out of the checkpoint and walk towards Ramallah to get a warm pastry and my first super sweet coffee. It will keep me alive for the next hour. I watch as the checkpoint economy quickly unfolds. More and more sellers arrive, pop up coffee shops brew coffee, men at the roundabout wait for the job offers. It almost looks like normal.If it was not for the gigantic Arafat mural that stares at me from the wall.

I go back to see that the terminal is now full of people. Its not lively, full of life does not really remind of a prison any longer. The sun shines through the iron walls and fences of the terminal. Even the birds sing from the top rails of the terminal which I always find ironic. Life goes on.  Its weird to see how we human beings are able to de - humanize spaces and then how at the same time we can make the most inhuman places humane. And how we can adapt.

The terminal now smells of coffee and cigarette smoke, I am getting a coffee for free and chat to the coffee shop seller. Yes. married. No no children. Ana min Bulanda. Ahwan wa sahlan fik.
At 6.50AM I make my way back to the Jerusalem side. At the ID inspection gates it takes ages to pass through- border police teenagers are busy with their smartphones and laughers. Feet on the desks and so on. After 50 minutes of queuing including 30mins in the cage (we take the normal line not humanitarian one in solidarity with Palestinians) I see Luc on the other side.  

Today around 1600 people crossed the checkpoint between 4.30 and 7.30. It took between 20 to 50 minutes to get through. It’s very easy to dehumanize people in hell places like Qalandia. While we cannot do much to change the situation the least we can do is to see human beings behind these numbers -  and that’s why we are there - to be there with them, to greet them, to let them know that somebody cares.

We take the bus number 18 and it takes us over an hour to get back. Unlike Palestinians who rush to work I jump directly back to bed. Leila saida.

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