The Qalandia checkpoint. (Photo: Scott/Flickr)
November 14, 2013
I moved to Qalandia refugee camp because of several reasons, one of them, relevant for the reader of this story, is the Qalandia checkpoint located just about 5 minutes walking distance from the camp. I involved myself in this "crossing Qalandia" experiment from the very first days of my arrival; I wanted to feel the checkpoint better. I wanted to see it from closer. I wanted to see it from inside. I wanted to see. I did. During the first two months of my stay in Qalandia I’ve tried everything: different times, different lines, different attitudes.
Each time I would cross, I would take notes and so I collected a bunch of stories of how I felt at the checkpoint. I don’t try to represent; I am not saying that Qalandia is always busy at 10AM on Fridays or that it is always empty at 2.22 PM on Thursdays. I don’t generally generalize.
At the beginning of this experiment I thought I will get used to crossing the checkpoint twice a day. I pictured myself becoming one of these Palestinian women rushing their children, "yalla yalla," to cross quicker. Things are waiting on the other side, jobs need to be done there. I pictured myself as one of these Palestinian men, who are helping old clueless ladies to cross, who are doing this for the first time in their lives and feel dislocated from their familiar environment – a tiny four edge room somewhere in a greyish white stone house.
I am glad it was only an experiment to me. For so many it is the reality.
People were denied entry. Children pulled their parents to go further even if denied; to go to Jerusalem, where a new toy gun or a doll is waiting to be bought on their expenses of patience. Who talks about money? Babies’ diapers were changed on the checkpoint floor. Wind blows. Old ladies faded down like flowers fade when they don’t get water in the heat. But I have not seen flowers there.
I stand in the line and I wait. I can’t turn. I can’t go further. I can’t go back. I lift my head up – bars. I can’t lift my head up.
When the time comes, I walk in. I walk in slowly despite the rush around me. Every single time I stand in front of the soldier, I can hear my heart. It is loud. It is so damn loud that if not this bulletproof window in between, I am sure they could hear it too.
And maybe be a little bit more considerate.
At least about the old, whose hearts are not in the best shape any longer. And who fade like flowers.
When he sees me – he changes. I am like an alert – I am white. I am backpacked. I am a human. Yes, humans are around. When he sees me – he removes his legs from the table and spares a moment of his busy "candy crasher" time. My skin is pale. I know. This wakes him up – we are humans too on the other side of the window.
Have a safe and pleasant stay, the sign says outside the passport control. Weird, but I noticed it only today, months after I’ve been crossing the checkpoint every day.
After all, maybe I am getting used to this – I start noticing the signs.
I hope I am not.
Friday, August 23, 11:45
The metal detector generates this sound which alerts most of the waiting people. She removes her bracelets, packs them in a bag and tries again. But when this sound comes once, the second time does not surprise and is very likely to come. She goes back again, lifts her arms up looking like an athlete before jumping from the diving board into 10 meters deep swimming pool and… she jumps. She jumps deep into the X ray machine. But this time the machine is having a bad mood and beeps again.
She walks back, takes a confused look at the crowd of people behind the gates. As if they could give her a hand. Or a tip on how to trick this unsatisfied machine. And we do, we all have a hundred of advices, we shout louder than our neighbour, because we know better, yep, it’s your shoes, nope, it is your necklace. She gets even more confused and after two more minutes of a hopeless smile she decides that she is not the best athlete. And only the best athletes reach Jerusalem, the amateurs stay in Qalandia. The amateurs stay behind.
I am not an athlete, but I have a red passport.
Monday, August 12, 8:22
Her baby is crying, so are the annoyed men waiting in line. You should stop him from crying, one of them finally addresses the young woman who has been doing her best cradling the baby up and down. The little one is not in a mood to sleep, but all of the men are. They slowly sip their morning coffee waiting for the moment to release their belts.
Alright, the mean looks from all around confirm that she should act now. She seems uncertain, but she kneels down, puts the little screaming creature on the smelly checkpoint floor and unties its diapers. I catch an awful thought of my own – this baby looks so natural next to the cigarette butts and empty plastic cups of coffee. The baby stops complaining once the diaper is off and everyone continue sipping morning coffee. The sticky knots in their stomachs are getting relieved.
She takes a look up at the coffee sippers asking if you are satisfied now. We are, I guess.
Wednesday, July 24, 16:56
Young family of five waits just in front of me. He is tall and all proud holding the youngest daughter in his hands. Her eyes are beautiful and wide open; they jump around: first on the colourful hijab of this woman, then on my glasses, then somewhere into her father’s thick hair. Her mother stands with two little boys. When the gate turns, they manage to come in all together, first slide – the proud husband with his little daughter, second slide – his wife with two sons. Usually there is a third slide and so I push the gate firmly. It bumps me back.
They all walk through the metal detector and present their documents while keeping their fingers tidy on the corners, nothing extraordinary. Young soldier behind the window checks their details carefully. He does it again and once again, nothing extraordinary. At the end, the soldier decides that the mother can’t cross while her husband and three children are free to go. She takes a second look at him – are you sure – and he discusses the matter with his peers.
I don’t understand what exactly is happening, but the frightened look of one of the boys indicates that the soldier did not change his decision. The younger boy with big watery eyes takes his mother’s hand and starts pulling her towards himself and towards Jerusalem. Another moment passes and all I can hear is two people exchanging a quick conversation after which the husband tears the little boy away from his mother.
He fights. He uses all his power and stands firm. He is not moving anywhere without her.
But she just strictly cuts off his mutter – "Khalas" – and his little hand is hanging in the air hopeless. His eyes keep watering.
She pushes the gate back and appears in front of me so real and so present. I could never imagine that actors from another side of TV can invade my reality and it feels just like that. It feels just like that.
A short cry, but she does not look back, she walks away. I stand in front of the gate without noticing how the green light comes up. "Yalla, yalla" and a gentle push on my back awakens me. Before I prepare my passport, I take a closer look at the floor of the "passport control" room, but no tear drops. Maybe it was just a bad dream, I say to myself.
I am looking for a remote control to switch the channel.
Thursday, July 11, 8:18
An old lady with an old man gets inside the passport control room. People who were waiting in the line are on alert now – we all know this is one of the cases when it takes a while. The old couple smile. Their eyes. Lips. Gestures.
Pre-emptive smiles are common at the checkpoint. They ask: don’t be angry with me, I don’t know what to do here. The occupation is getting more and more modern. The morning newspaper does not tell how to cross the checkpoint, what to take off, where to leave my belt and shoes, why there is a wall-less door in the middle of the room and why it makes noise. The soldier behind the bullet proof window is not very helpful either.
Hebrew is not my native language. Hebrew is not my native language. Hebrew is not my…
-Remove your watch, – the soldier tries in English. His voice rises.
The old couple smile
English is not my native language either.
August 25, 8.16
I count people in front of me; we usually get in by three each time; two women and then me. Yes, I am going to make it in with the next turn. The old lady in white gets in first. She presents her ID in a green cover and the rest of the documents. Looks like she knows what she’s doing. Her daughter follows her and I slowly open my passport with the visa page ready to go.
The lady in white seems to be done with her documents and she rushes to collect her bags which are sliding out of the X-ray machine. However, the soldier behind the window is not of the same opinion. He raises his voice: "Haja, Haja". She stops for a second, takes a look at the soldier, turns back, grabs her bag which just came out from the machine, stops for another second and runs over the exit gate; the gate to Jerusalem, which, of course, is locked. The impatient youngster repeats again "Haja" and the lady in white pushes the gate to Jerusalem stronger. She knows exactly what will come next; and it comes.
"Haja ,ala Ramallah!" finally he clarifies. "Ala Ramallah?" – the old lady whispers as if surprised.
"Ala Ramallah!" – comes from the loudspeaker again.
She turns to her daughter, hands her a cell phone and a set of keys; just a moment passes and she walks back to the gates leading towards Qalandia. As normal as if it was nothing extraordinary about her being restricted to enter Jerusalem.
"Shalom, Shalom", – the soldier adds towards her disappearing silhouette.
My turn to go, but I don’t move. I take a look at the soldier behind the window. He throws me a bright smile which translates in my thoughts: "Look at me, what a great job I did, kept Jerusalem clean from one more old woman".
Usually I do answer in my thoughts, but this time I am silent even there. I am just hoping that it will never become as normal to me as it became to the lady in white.
And I am thinking if he ever smiled to any Palestinian before.
August 26, 7.24
The streets of Qalandia are packed. I close and open my eyes once again – nothing changes. It is just as early as I usually leave for work when nobody is in the streets, when I can finally walk sidewalks or cross the street without waiting for a gap to appear in a thick flow of traffic. But this morning seems to be extraordinary; I just don’t know the reason yet. Groups of men are gathering everywhere; suddenly they merge into one big group. I am slightly worried. Will I cross today? If the streets are so crowded, what the checkpoint looks like?
People look angry.
What is this?
I see an ambulance coming. I don’t understand; and why this guy is carrying a gun? I just woke up and was going to work as regularly. I walk to the checkpoint. Slightly worried.
Nobody is there. Not even a single person, dozens of soldiers though in olive green, black, dark blue uniforms; all kind of boots, hats, guns, but same faces: ready for something.
I cross quickly.
On the other side, I sit down in an empty bus, two more people enter and we move. Two more people and we move?!
When I push the gate of my office, "how is Qalandia?" appears instead of hello.
"Weird" – is my honest answer. "What happened?" – I add.
"Come inside and tell us "– he responds to my question. "The radio says three has been killed" – he adds.
I swear, I don’t understand.
14 October 7.50
Tomorrow is Eid and Qalandia is a nightmare.
I stand in the line and I wait. I stand in the line and I think. I think that probably I will be late for work. I try to estimate how much late? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? More? Less?
Magically the line starts getting shorter quickly. That does not normally happen. What normally does not happen in the occupied Palestinian territory I call magic. Not much of it is here though. Not much magic. Quite a bit of an occupation.
The line shortens quickly, I go on my toes – I am trying to see what is happening in front.
I am surprised.
People get in the "passport control" room by six or even eight and you will probably say – what is so surprising? By the very nature – this is. Because that never happens. Not in Qalandia.
The soldier behind the window takes a look at their documents and waves them to go. Takes a look and waves them to go. Takes a look and waves them to go.
I am surprised.
I wait patiently in the line; this is going to be interesting to the least. Six people in front of me get inside. Six or five, I am not in a condition to count now. I am in a condition to stay surprised.
Two young guys are separated by the gate; the skinny one gets in, but the other stays in front the gate waiting for the next turn. He says something to his skinny friend inside and the other just gestures that he will wait for him somewhere there. Somewhere there is the right explanation when in Qalandia.
The soldier behind the window notices them gesturing and presses the button for the gate to turn. Green light appears and the "click" sound, well recognized by everyone who spends some time in Qalandia, follows. The young guy in front of me looks confused and the soldier waves him to come in. He does.
I am in front of the gate. I stare straight at the soldier.
This never happens.
I stare at him. This never happens. I stare at him. He notices. Green light, "click" sound and he waves me in.
All the documents are checked quickly. One, two, three, four, five, six… I lose the number again.
I am the last. I am standing in front of him. I see his hand is moving to the loudspeaker slowly. A painful thought that I will be questioned again about what did I do in the territories, why I am here and where am I going hits my mind. I know my answers. I am prepared.
He turns on the loudspeaker:
Good morning, how are you today?
What? I am confused.
His voice is not raised. He even looks at me, not at his Smartphone.
I don't reply anything. I can’t. I am not prepared for this one. I show him my passport. Another soldier behind the window is saying something to him. When this happens he turns to me and – "Excuse me just for one second" – comes out of the loudspeaker.
I stare. It was already a lot for me to grasp and now this "excuse me". Are you being sarcastic?, – I ask myself.
He turns back to me, types my data in the computer and asks if I am from Lithuania.
I reply "yes".
And then this guy in a uniform (I can’t call him a soldier anymore) says:
"Have a nice day"