Our Mother Tongues Not Quite One: Late night poetry

For a moment,
we were not quite one.
We were…I and you.
We did not use our mother tongues
when we exchanged our “hello”‘s
and “thank you”‘s.
You, wearing your yellow clown costume
with red painted around your foreign lips
that blew into balloons
making children laugh…
Our and your children laugh.

You handed over a balloon,
and I handed over money in your currency.
We exchanged smiles in a moment you’d forget

At least for the moment
when we were not quite one.

We did not use our mother tongues
when we exchanged our “hello”‘s
and “thank you”‘s.
You didn’t discriminate and let
your kind fall in line before me
because I am the “other.”
I didn’t walk away and boycott you,
as I had refrained from buying that yellow
skirt made on land that is soaked
by my people’s blood…and yours?

We did not think of the war that was to come
in a year, and if you had enlisted
and carried firearms.
You, a clown. I, someone wanting to laugh.

We did not use our mother tongues when we exchanged
our “hello”‘s and “thank you”‘s.
For a moment,
we were not quite one.
We were…I and you…
and questions never to be answered,
not in our mother tongues…
not in any language.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 14: Time

Close to a year ago, I attended this Right to Education workshop, and one of the members mentioned that according to her and someone else’s calculations, students waste around a month per year on Qalandia checkpoint.

From the moment I or anyone else with a green identity card from the West Bank of what is known as the occupied Palestinian Territories reach Qalandia checkpoint, we think ‘time.’

The visas or permits given to us to cross provide the time we are allowed to enter and the time we have to be back to “our” side. There’s a date from when the piece of paper is issued and a date when the piece of paper is no longer of use…the day you should not exist on the other side of Qalandia checkpoint, the side that leads to Beit Hanina, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv…

We look at our phones and watches around our wrists to check the time we’ve been standing so the next time around we calculate the journey’s time accurately. We check the time so we can let others know how long the crossing takes and to warn them to “come earlier” than we had.

We wait, and time ticks by. We can’t sit and read or scroll through the Internet while we wait. I can’t upload these posts while I wait. Time in a birdcage is draining. You want to get out of there. No fights, no random “go to the other lane” after you’ve been waiting in this particular one for close to an hour. No sweat. No pushing or shoving or yelling. Just with some harmony.

You can hear the little children ask their parents how long it will take. My friends and I wonder if we’d make it to the internship by 9:00. Others want to go make their prayers. Others complain to the rest of us and try to plead with the soldiers standing that they have a doctor’s appointment they can’t miss.

About a month ago, I was asked how many parts I thought this segment of my blog was going to be. The segment will always be here, but for now, it’s a wrap as I won’t be going through the checkpoint until the next time I recieve a visa for entry.

On Qalandia, we are bound by a struggle, yes, but we are also bound by time…the minutes that tick by, the calculations we make, the warnings we give to others to “come earlier” next time, the Thursdays we dread since that is the busiest day of the week…

Time passes by and the blot of gray known as Qalandia checkpoint restricts, separates, and stands.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 13: The Cattle’s Roundabout

The blot of gray known as Qalandia checkpoint has these metal bars lined vertically that a person has to push in one direction to get through to the next part. They open and close according to the soldier/officer that is in charge, according to his/her liking/boredom or if the number of people is too much to handle. My friend gave it a name in Arabic, and my mind automatically translated it into “the cattle’s roundabout,” except, once again, it only goes in one direction.

On lane three, the lane I often found myself passing through, a cattle’s roundabout exists. Other than the fact that such a tool adds on to Israel’s effect of making Qalandia – and other checkpoints – seem like a human-sized birdcage or barnyard, the “roundabout” itself is not where the stories lie. It is what is written on it.

This specific one had the good stuff written. A random cellphone number, a few names, a few prayers, verses from the Holy Quran…Like the information on a cereal box, I found my eyes reading the words written on the metal bars.

“Palestine free alive or die” was one of the things written right in the middle…right where my eyesight hits straight ahead. After countless meetings with this phrase, my thoughts couldn’t help but drift off into a thought that is so distant…a thought that has been termed a dream, wishful thinking, a reality we may never see but we struggle everyday for.

Would the cattle roundabout be put in a museum one day…proof of a heinous occupation that once stood?

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 12: First Time

This time, we weren’t so lucky as to go through the “Lane for Humanitarian Causes”, which is code for whoever we feel like letting through, so we had to wait, push, and shove in the multiple lines that were being formed around us.

Finally, in the birdcage, I felt like I could breathe again. At least, each person had their own spot.
The old man behind me struck up a conversation with the man behind him about how we – Arabs- don’t know how to line up and how we are somewhat to blame for what the occupation has become. In front of me, as I stared ahead listening intentively to when the metal cages signal their opening, I felt the person in front of me staring at me.

She was a lady in a full length gown in black with a different shades of gray-and-blue colored scarf covering her hair. She was looking at me, and then past me, and smiling.

“May Allah give us patience, sir,” she began saying to the old man.
“Patience! What patience?”

She looked at me again and smiled. “I’m just glad I finally got here.” She put her hand to her mouth, still smiling. “Wait, I guess I shouldn’t say that till I actually get to Jerusalem, right?”

I smiled back at her. “You’ll be on your way there in no time.”
She looked past me. Those eyes gleamed with the eagerness of a young child and a nostalgia that only those who are old and wise would understand. I could tell not only from her words, but the way she observed everything and everyone, that this was her first time going to Jerusalem. Her patience and her smile…smiles that restrictions like Qalandia try to break.

Hers was still there. It was going to be her first time in a city that is probably a minimum of thirty minutes away from where she lives. I wonder how the city embraced her.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 11: Solve This.

“We don’t want them to solve the question of Palestine. At least, they should solve Qalandia.”

The man, as all seven passengers including the service taxi driver, was frustrated with all the traffic the checkpoint causes that is magnified in the month of Ramadan.

I used to audit a course of the question of Palestine. The professor, sleeves rolled up and all, would speak so passionately as the students who ranged from knowing nothing at all to having the Oslo Accords close to memorized listened quietly. The refugee camps, the destroyed villages, Oslo, the ’48 and ’67 wars, the first and second intifada were at the core of those discussions. If one were to place Qalandia checkpoint on the list of topics to discuss, it would be on the list as a topic of its own.

Lines and lines of cars and buses were to the left as we were headed back to Ramallah. People waiting, getting furious, yelling at each other, trying to bypass each other to get through the blot of gray that stands…

That blot of gray that is a question itself.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 10: Danger

On the side of the Qalandia checkpoint that some of us struggle to get to is a large sign in red that reads in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:
“This Road leads To Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority. The Enterance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against Israeli Law.”

I rolled my eyes reading this sign for the first time. Of all the laws Israel makes and breaks…

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 9: Damascus Gate

When I was eight years old, the time my family and I could come and go to Jerusalem with our U.S. citizenship privilege, there used to be baby chicks on the right corner on our way through Damascus Gate. I vaguely remember the man that sold them, but I remember he had a head full of black hair with white hair beginning to come through with the box that displayed the chicks in front of him. The chicks were colored in blue, pink, and a lighter yellow. My paternal grandmother and mother would promise my brother and I that we would get two chicks once we went around the old city.

Now that I look back at this, and in the past few weeks journeying through Jerusalem, I think that when I reach Damascus Gate, that is when I truly feel I have reached Jerusalem. When I was a kid, seeing the chicks on the right side corner made me, a child with an unspoken fear of being lost, feel safe.

Surely enough, my brother and I would come back home with at least two colored chicks. We would show them to everyone that cares and doesn’t care to see, play with them, and what happens after that to them is past me. This time around, though, the chicks aren’t there anymore. On the right corner of the gate is a man selling a few masabih and another boy selling socks. On the left, there are elderly women selling zucchini and grape leaves.

It is mind blowing to even begin to comprehend the years that passed with this gate and all these walls standing tall as they stand today. Who built it all? How long did it take? There are even little arrow holes where at one point in time, bows and arrows were used, Robin Hood style. Generations and generations pass by and through these gates and walls. It is incredibly unbelievable. Even standing from atop, how the city was occupied over centuries by different people only to finally end up in the hands of a heinous occupation, is incredibly unbelievable. How I got on the top and saw the Dome of the Rock shine and how some old houses have tiny domes as a roofs is incredibly unbelievable.

As I entered through the gate today, a father and two young boys holding his hand were behind me. I heard the father say, “Are you guys excited to see the Dome of the Rock?”
The eldest of the boys replied, “Yes, Baba, but once we’re done I want…”
We went our separate ways.

I thought back to when my brother and I would wait until we went back for the colored chicks, but these boys weren’t asking for chicks because there are none. My younger siblings won’t ever know those chicks on the right side corner. They’ll see the IOF soldiers that stand where they stood years ago. They’ll walk through the same gate. They’ll even probably feel the same feeling of safety seeing the gate, and they’ll definitely take the famous picture in front of the gate that everyone has to take once they get to Jerusalem. Damascus Gate will probably even be their “go-to” gate.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 8: My Grandfather’s Car

On our way past Nablus St., a street that seems endless up until the bus gets on the highway from the Damascus Gate, I saw my grandfather’s car. It wasn’t exactly my grandfather’s car, but it was an exact replica of it: a 1997-2000 model, gold Mercedes Benz C 200 with a yellow plate. The man driving it was an old man, though seemingly younger than my grandfather with white hair and glasses.

My grandfather had his car for as long as I could remember – from twelve or so years ago. Sometimes, on my way to Ramallah in the morning, I would find it parked before the Friends school. Other times, it would be parked in front of the mosque during prayer time. Over the last few months of his life, the engine got a bit rusty, but my grandfather didn’t want to sell it and get a new one. He would say to such suggestions, “Later on. Later on.” The last time my grandfather drove his car was back in September. After that, it was parked in the garage until a few weeks ago, when my uncle’s family came to the country. My grandmother has sworn to never ride the car again or to ever sell it.

My mother and aunt would tell my cousins and I how their eldest sibling would take them to Jerusalem via their own car. Although I know it wasn’t this car, I can’t help but imagine that it was. It’s the car that I fit into this story.

And it could have been this car, but as it happens, two old Mercedes Benz automobiles were separated by time…separated on either sides of Qalandia checkpoint.

The Two Sides of Qalandia Checkpoint Part 7: The Badge

A few days ago, as I was waiting in the “Lane for Humanitarian Causes”, I noticed a badge on the soldier’s military outfit. It appeared to be the image of a tree branch, a sword, a wall, some sort of yellow animal with the background being blue and white. The tree branch is what caught my eye.

While waiting for close to two hours in a crowded area between bars, I took a glance at the permit and noticed the badge design printed on the top right corner. I looked at the ID cards one can obtain from the state of Israel, and there it was.

“What do you think this stands for?” I asked my friend, pointing to the design on the ID card.
“Well,” she began looking closely at it. “The wall looks like the walls of Jerusalem…like David’s castle. The tree branch must be an olive tree branch.”
“You think so?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“What else would it be?”

I went back to our good friend, Google, and surely, Wikipedia had it posted that the olive tree was a symbol of peace. How ironic is that?

Two sides and the olive tree torn in half, once in Yasser Arafat’s speech at the UN General Assembly and once on the badge of soldiers belonging to one of the cruelest occupations. Once in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish and once burnt to the ground.