Friday, March 25, 2005
A Night at the Checkpoint
posted by: salam max at 2:14 PM
Bethlehem Bloggers received this story from Hani today. It's quite long, but I want to put it all up, because it's not published anywhere else. It's symbolic of the situation for all Palestinians; all Palestinians will relate to you similar stories. Shukran iktir Hani, and Mabruk to Wasim and the whole family.

If you have a similar story you want to share, send us an email: bethlehembloggers@gmail.com

A Night at the Checkpoint

A short story by Hani Odeh
My nephew Wasim is a musician in the Sabreen music group, which performs in Bethlehem and Ramallah. His job obliges him to travel frequently to Ramallah. He sometimes stays overnight there to avoid the long, nerve-wracking trip from Bethlehem.

My nephew fell in love with a girl from Ramallah. Social norms require that the two young people must become officially engaged before undertaking plans for marriage.

That is how it came about that, one day, Wasim came to see me in my home in Beit Sahour about the situation, as I am his eldest uncle and the person he must consult when he plans to get married. He confided to me that he was in love with a girl named Arij. I was happy for him. He is 29 years old, and his parents think it is time for him to settle down. They believe that this age is suitable to take on the responsibility of starting a family.

This was our conversation:
“The engagement ceremony will take place around Christmas, and the wedding will be next summer.”
“This is wonderful news, Wasim. Mabrouk!” (“Mabrouk” means “Congratulations”.)
He whispered with a slight smile as if he were going to tease me:
“The girl is from Ramallah.”
In a loud voice full of astonishment I asked him:
“But Ramallah, why from Ramallah?”
“That’s love!”
“But why can’t you fall in love with a girl from Beit Sahour or Bethlehem?!”
I looked at him: he was sitting very still. He looked at me with surprise, and a slight smile sprang to his lips.
I smiled back, and in a calmer tone of voice, I said:
“You know I don’t mean that, I know love is like that; I am not against you or your feelings.
I continued desperately:
“But I do not want to make the trip to Ramallah.”

As Wasim’s eldest uncle, I was obliged to escort him to his fiancée’s home. This is our tradition and custom. The two families must meet formally. And this visit from the family of the future bridegroom to the family of the future bride is a must.

“Uncle, it’s only one trip for you: I go there more than once a week.”
Wasim continued on with a sly smile, describing the route we would have to take to Ramallah:
“Nowadays, the trip is easier than before: it takes only two to two and a half hours, one-way .
He added, still smiling: “That is, if we are lucky. That depends on the politeness of the soldiers at the Wadi al-Nar container.”

Many thoughts flooded my mind. I traveled with my memories back into the past when Ramallah was just next-door. We used to go there in the evening to have dinner in its beautiful restaurants. Now, Ramallah seemed very far away, as if it were on another continent. I hadn’t been there since the beginning of the Second Intifada. I had tried once, when my presence was requested at an important meeting organized by the Palestinian Ministry of Education. The 45-minute trip had taken us six and a half hours, not to mention the return trip, and of course I had missed the meeting. It had been a nightmare.

Wadi al-Nar is a dangerous road. It is beyond me how people can come and go from Bethlehem on a daily basis along this road!

I looked at him and made an attempt to smile:
“What is the plan?”
“We will hire a bus to take us there. My parents, my two brothers and two sisters and their families will come with us besides other uncles from my father’s side and some cousins. There will be a very limited number of people - only 50, just one bus load.”
(Families in Beit Sahour are big. On such occasions, at least 400 people are usually present at the engagement ceremony.)

On the 27th of December, the bus left Beit Sahour at 2 pm with 50 happy passengers enthusiastically chatting and singing. The bus drove along the winding, dangerous road of Wadi al-Nar until we came to the container checkpoint. This checkpoint consists of an iron gate which opens automatically when activated by the soldier in charge. The checkpoint is designed to hamper traffic in two directions from leaving or entering Bethlehem. It is called “the container checkpoint” because a man who owned a merchandise container set up a shop in it to sell cigarettes, chewing gum, soft drinks and other refreshments to the travellers who started using this difficult road after the Oslo agreements.

There were some cars in front of us. Vehicles must stop about 100 meters from the iron gate where the soldiers are stationed. A car can approach when the soldier in charge flicks his finger at it. The soldier looks at the passengers, in search of a suspicious face; sometimes this satisfies him; at other times, he asks to see everyone’s ID cards.

Half an hour later, it was our bus’s turn. A soldier stepped into the bus to have a look at us. Everyone was quiet while the driver explained the reason for our trip in Hebrew. The soldier nodded and said, “Saa,” which means “Go” in Hebrew.
We continued our journey through the narrow, pitted roads of the village of Abu Dis, until we reached the main road of Bethany, which leads to Jericho. After a long time, we turned left into a bypass road to Ramallah.

Five kilometers farther along, we came to a second checkpoint which blocks the passage to Ramallah. The driver of the bus turned right into a bypass road that goes to Bir Zeit, which is about 15 kilometers from Ramallah. We were thus forced to spend another hour to finally reach Ramallah, instead of the five minutes it takes from the second checkpoint. This sort of restriction exists only to humiliate Palestinians and acts as an arrogant reminder of the power of the Israeli occupation. During that last long hour, we tried to compensate for a feeling of powerlessness by joking, singing and clapping in time to the music.

It was 4:30 when we reached our destination. Our hosts were waiting for us. They gave us a warm welcome and led us into a big room prepared specially for the occasion. A Greek Orthodox priest from Ramallah performed the engagement ceremony. Soon we were sitting around tables laden with food and drink. The father of the bride-to-be had prepared a good party for his guests. We were having a wonderful time when our driver put an abrupt end to our enjoyment, announcing that the Wadi al-Nar checkpoint would close at ten. His interruption woke me up from merry and beautiful moments and brought me back to reality. I started apprehending those two and a half hours we needed to spend on the road again in order to get back home.

It was 8:30 in the evening when we all hurried to the bus in order to reach the checkpoint in time. In the bus, we tried to continue our singing as if we were still at the party.

The bus drove towards Bir Zeit. It was dark, without any streetlights or road signs, and the driver lost his way. After a while he said :
“Oh! I made a mistake! We must take the other road.”
He made his way back until he found the right road. Everyone was looking at his watch, hoping that we would arrive on time. The driver had to drive slowly because of the dark. At a quarter past ten, we arrived at the checkpoint. The gate was closed. A military vehicle was standing next to it. It was cold, so we waited in the bus for the finger of the soldier to point to us so we could advance.

More than fifteen minutes went by without any sign of a soldier. A civilian car stopped behind the bus. After a while, the driver of the car came to inquire about the situation. In a bitter tone of voice, he said:
“They don’t care. We had better return.”
We started cursing and complaining in low voices. All the happiness and the joyfulness began to evaporate.
The driver commented in a desperate tone of voice
“It’s closed. I am afraid that they will not let us go through.”
Then he decided to go see the soldiers and ask their permission to enter after explaining what had happened.

Some minutes passed - they seemed like hours – before the driver came back to the bus with a soldier. The soldier looked at us. We were all quiet. Then, he said:
“You are late. We close the gate at ten pm, and we open it at five am. You will stay in the bus till morning.
Everyone exclaimed hopelessly all together:
“Nooooo!”
I addressed him in Hebrew:
“We are from Bethlehem, and we were at a wedding in Ramallah. We are on our way home.
He looked at me and replied:
“I am sorry, but these are my orders. There is nothing I can do.”

Many thoughts came into my mind. It was only a short distance to our homes, which we were forbidden to reach. Would we have to spend the night there? Should we return to Ramallah to continue the party? Could we sleep in our seats in the bus or chat until morning? How could we wait for so long, and how could we go to work the next day?

In a pleading voice I said:
“Is there no hope for us to go to home?”
The soldier nodded his head and said:
”Give me a few minutes to ask my commander. Maybe he will allow you to go through.”
The soldier stepped out of the bus. We looked at each other waiting for someone to say something. The driver spoke first with a smile:
“Don’t worry: we will get through.”
Everybody shouted in one voice: “Inshallah!”(If God wills it.)
I turned to my nephew and shouted playfully:
“This is your punishment for loving a girl from Ramallah!”
One of his cousins said, laughing,:
“Wasim loves, and we pay the fine!”
Wasim sat there without answering, as if he felt responsible for what we were up against. I looked at him: his face was pale, his smile had disappeared, and he looked as if he were feeling badly. To make him feel better, I stood up and addressed him:
“Where is your ’oud, Wasim? Play us some music, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the occupation.
Wasim laughed without saying anything.

Then, everyone started making suggestions about what to do if they refused to let us by. One person suggested we return to Ramallah. Another person wanted us to sleep in the bus. Yet another wanted to try to find a hotel in Bethany. There were lots of suggestions, but nothing came of them.

Time passed ever so slowly. It was midnight, and the engine of the bus was on in order to keep us warm. Some minutes later, the soldier came to talk to us in the bus:
“I spoke to the commander, and he is doing his best to let you enter.”
The happiness on our faces was obvious, and in a single voice, we all said: “Thank you!”
Time went by, and we got off the bus to stretch our legs, but it was very cold, and we got back on quickly. An hour later, the same soldier came again to speak to us:
“I’m sorry, our commander is still trying to arrange things.”
“He is nice “ Someone exclaimed.
One lady commented:
“He seems like a good person. He is so humane. He seems genuinely concerned about our welfare.”

Her remark reminded me of a story which I had read as a child. The story goes like this: A hunter went out very early one morning to hunt. In the woods, he saw a tree full of birds. He shot at them, and many fell down. Some were dead, and some were wounded. He began to pick up the dead birds and to kill the wounded ones with his knife. While he was busy at his task, a few teardrops came to his eyes because of the cold. Two wounded birds were watching and waiting their turn. One said to the other:
‘This hunter has a good heart. Look at his eyes: he is weeping for us.’
The other bird said;
‘Forget his eyes: look at his hands.’
Israeli soldiers sometimes try to be humane. If this is their real concern, then they should refrain from serving in the occupied territories. Do they prevent us from going home for security reasons? If we were going to Israel, they might be justified, but to Bethlehem? To our own city? What excuse could they invent?

Every hour, the soldier reappeared, saying:
“Just a few more minutes, and you will be able to go…”
It was as if he were giving us an injection of hope to keep us quiet.
The game continued until exactly five o’clock in the morning, when the same soldier opened the gate and, with his powerful finger, gave us the signal to proceed.
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