The Jordanian side
Day One started out just fine. I was actually the first one to the breakfast room; had breakfast; went back up; then down again for a second breakfast with others.
The Concierge taped my glasses. So I have one arm that folds normally on its hinge and the other that perpetually sticks out at a straight right angle, more or less.
Bus was loaded and we were off by 8:30 as planned. The driver’s sidekick started his tourist spiel and continued until Ahdaf couldn’t take it anymore, which was approximately when he was making some point or another about the Hashemite family. It sounded like a commercial for the ruling family and I couldn’t help but wonder if that part was required spieling – one never knows.
Thanks to said sidekick, whose name I’m embarrassed not to remember, we made it through the Jordanian border [Suheir, myself, and Lana were summoned so they could get our quadruple name, which, for Arabs, identifies our lineage for four generations back.]
The Israeli side
About an hour into processing at the Israeli side, most of the group was cleared to go on, except for five individuals: me, Suheir, Muiz, Lana, and Ahdaf
I was called out of the group and separated for special treatment. I wished a positive correlation existed between the probability of getting special Israeli treatment and the probability of winning the lottery.
Five hours, multiple interrogations, massive searching of my bags, I was allowed to join the other four outlaws, who waited together in another part of the border crossing. It was great to be with my fellow outlaws, my beautiful partners in crime. Our dear John, PalFest treasurer and quiet protector, had also stayed behind for moral support and to ensure that we had a way to go back if we were not allowed to go through. I slipped into their previous conversations, which were apparently mostly about food. None of us had eaten anything for several hours. I would learn later that Lana should never be left to go hungry. The mention of Kinder eggs stretched her lips into a brilliant smile and made Muiz lean back in his chair with dreamy eyes. No one had Kinder eggs handy but apparently, Suheir had snickers bars on the bus; so, we turned our hopes to devouring them soon.
About half an hour later [it could have been 15 minutes or two hours, honestly. I had really lost concept of time movement] a uniformed Israeli came out with passports. Everyone was allowed to go through, except me. The okay for me had not come through, “yet” and I latched onto the word “yet”, praying silently in my mind not to be turned back.
John and Ahdaf decided to remain with me until some resolution came, which it did, luckily, after a few minutes that I could go on through. I was ridiculously happy to get that news that I forgot how tired and hungry I was. Suheir handed me a snickers bar as soon as I got on the bus; and she, Muiz, Lana and I shared a “snickers toast.”
Becoming a group
On the way out of that awful place, I discovered that the time we all spent at the border – whether it was me waiting alone, my fellow outlaws waiting and being interrogated in another part of the complex, or those of us who made it through and waited together on the other side – brought us all together as a group. Few of us knew one another before boarding that bus to the border, but when we finally left for Jerusalem, we were a single group bound by six hours of worry and uncertainty at the border. For some, that was the first view of Israeli “procedures”.
At our hotel at last. The wonderful organizers of PalFest, Christina, Victoria, Robbie, and others, had sandwiches and drinks waiting for us. Ah…
No time to waste, we all went up for quick showers and met back in the lobby within 45 minutes to head out to the Palestine National Theatre for the opening night of PalFest 2010. While I was changing to get ready, I realized that not only had the Israelis stuffed my belongings into my bags, some of the things I had packed were no longer there. I joked later that “first they stole my home, heritage and history, now they took my favorite leather boots!”
The Palestine National Theatre – opening night
The evening’s event was in honor and celebration of the great poet Taha Mohammad Ali. On the panel, Ahdaf was the moderator. The presenters were Selina Hastings, Victoria Brittain, Najwan Darwish and I and the house was packed.
I read first. Moments before going on stage, I had chosen a passage from the beginning ofMornings in Jenin, when the Abulheja was forcibly removed from their village of Ein Hod. I thought the theme of theft was appropriate given the events of the day thus far.
Victoria Brittain went next, starting with a lovely tribute to Taha Mohammad Ali, who unfortunately had not been able to join us at the theatre. Then she told us about her most recent work: The Meaning of Waiting, a collaborative work with ten women, the wives of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, which shows hidden truths about the “war on terror” told through the stories of these women, of whom Victoria introduced us to three: Alexia, Sabah, and Yasmine. Alexia had been born in France, became a Muslim in Algeria, and she loved to play basketball. Sabah had been a school teacher in Jordan. Yasmine, who was raised in a traditional Arab home in Jordan, was the most beloved of her six sisters. Each is married to a man imprisoned without charge or trial or clear evidence in America’s Guantanamo Bay Prison. In the oppression of waiting, the anguish of not knowing, each narrates her story simply and with humanity.
Selina Hastings, a renowned biographer and literary critic, whom I later discovered was also a prolific writer of children’s books, spoke to us next. She introduced us to Somerset Maugham’s secret life. He was one of the most famous writers and his best known work, Of Human Bondage, is one of the most widely read works of fiction of the 20th century. His friends ranged from Winston Churchill and D.H. Lawrence to Charlie Chaplin. But this extraordinary public figure lived most of his life in secret – a double life. He was engaged in espionage in the first world war and he was homosexual in a time when homosexuality was not only considered immoral, but was also illegal. Selina concluded by offering that Maugham would have been displeased by her biography. He had wanted his secret life to die with him. In an interview well into his early 80s, Maugham said that there was nothing about his life to warrant a biography. That his life story was “bound to be dull”. It seems quite the opposite from Selina’s reading.
Finally, in another genre (poetry) and another language (Arabic), Najwan Darwish gripped the audience with his poems. One in particular, which I will call “fabricated” elicited laughter and several questions during the Q & A session. It was a funny poem, suffused with a cynicism that had people wondering what about life did he feel was not fabricated?
A giant of a man
For me, the highlight of the night came at dinner time, when Taha Mohammad Ali showed up. Najwan introduced this literary giant of a man with humor and humility. Unsteady on his feet, Taha leaned on the table in front of him as he stood; and with a shaky voice that still does not fully pronounce the R sound, he recited for us one of his poems. Here is the English translation:
Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
every which way,
like a partridge,
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.
I heard the words of a legendary gentle heart today. The aggravation of the earlier hours of the day faded to nothing. Now, simply I was there when…