A drive on a forbidden road
From the Palestinian side, Raja Shehadeh assesses how life “behind” the walls and checkpoints looks like.
Whether or not it was prudent to risk going through back roads at night where several motorists have been shot trying to get back home, was questionable. But neither of us was in the mood to be prudent. We just wanted to get home.
My wife and I had driven to Beit Hanina, the Palestinian suburb north of Jerusalem, to pay condolences to a family friend. It is not uncommon after such a sad occasion to want to live it up. So we decided to continue to Jerusalem and have dinner there.
We dined and had a good visit with friends from whom we had been separated by the closure. How quickly one can forget about occupation and all the restrictions it places on our life and movement. But when I looked at my watch and realised it was already 9.30pm, I knew my respite was over. Only half an hour to get to the Kalandia checkpoint. We now rushed as though demons were pursuing us. When we got there we found two other cars ahead of us. One was allowed through – we didn’t know why, while the other was forced to turn back. When our turn came we were apprehensive.
We simply said we lived in Ramallah and wanted to get back home.
“I can’t let you, it is past ten o’clock. This checkpoint closes at ten.”
I looked at my car clock. “But it isn’t ten yet,” I said.
“It is 10.49,” the soldier said.
Now I remembered that Israel had already changed to summer time. The Arafat-run Palestinian Authority had decided to delay turning forward the clock for no apparent reason except perhaps to distinguish Palestine from Israel.
“But you’ve just let this car through.”
“Yes because he had a pregnant woman.”
“It’s not a big deal to let us pass. We’re tired and we just want to get home,” I said.
But the soldier was not budging and we were not in the mood for pleading or giving long stories about sick family members we had to rush home to see. In retrospect this might have been a mistake!
“You could go through Surda,” the soldier said suggesting that we use back roads.
“But it wouldn’t be safe at this hour,” I blurted out.
“For you it would. You’re not Israeli,” the soldier said as though cars in the dark blinked their ethnic origins.
Then I thought of my lawyer’s card and presented this to the soldier. He had a round pleasant face and was wearing dark glasses even though it was dark. He examined it then looked at me and said: “But it wouldn’t be fair to let you through just because you’re a lawyer and not to allow the others. Now would it?”
I wasn’t sure whether I heard him right. “Did you say ‘fair’?” I asked.
The soldier’s only reply was to motion with his little finger for us to turn the car around and leave.
I stayed put. I couldn’t believe my ears. The soldier was annoyed that we were refusing the order his little finger had made. With the full force of his hand he pounded on the hood of the car, startling us. We should have screamed, but we didn’t. We could have argued more with this solider and challenged his world view. And yet confronted by a claim of fairness from an Israeli soldier, a member of an army that has been in occupation of our land for over 35 years, who has destroyed our life and brought us to this point of having to beg to be allowed to get back home in the evening after having had dinner in Jerusalem, had rendered us speechless.
Silently, without saying any more, I turned the car around and left.
We first drove down the long stretch of a new settler road towards the juncture known as Eun el Haramieh (the eyes of the bandits), where travellers in Ottoman times used to be waylaid and robbed. It was a straight, long, modern road that bisected our countryside and rearranged it. The road signs indicated Israeli settlements: Shilo, Ofra, Dolev. There was hardly a mention of Arab towns; you couldn’t see any. An Israeli driving through would see no sign of Arab presence in this land. It was as though these Israelis had painted a reality for themselves and were living it, shielding all other realities from sight. It was a repeat of what Israel had done to its Arab citizens, confining them to small ghettos and giving most of their land to their Jewish neighbours.
The whole road was lit up. Entirely lit up, as though it was inside an urban centre, to make it safe. I was thinking of the large amount of funds it must have taken to build these roads and light them up like this. There were no other cars on the road. The well-built, lit up road was entirely desolate. The enterprise was not working: those for whom it was intended were too scared to use it and it remained empty. Most of the time I was not sure where I was, where Ramallah was, where all the landmarks I used to navigate my way back home were. All I could see was a long expanse of a straight, empty road cutting through the darkness.
Then we saw a turning to the west we assumed could be the road that would take us to Ramallah. We took it. Soon enough, we came upon a mound of earth. The road was closed by the army. We could see the village of Silwad which is only a few kilometers north of Ramallah but could not get to it. This road was not intended for the use of the Palestinian residents of Silwad, nor were we expected to be on it. We backed up and continued on the straight desolate road so well lit by the orange light. Finally, we found what we assumed would be the Atarah intersection and took it. If this was it, we should be just south of Birzeit, whence we can drive up to Ramallah. “Halamish,” Penny said in triumph, reading the road sign, “this is our crossroad.” Our new road markers were now Israeli settlements!
The road we were now on was no longer straight and it was not lit. The bushes on the side were ominously high and dark and I was wondering more than ever whether we were being prudent, driving at night on this road. What if a group of armed men should emerge from these bushes and shoot us. I can well understand why they would, but what use would this be? There was nothing to distinguish our car at night from the colonisers’. If we got shot, it would simply be our fault for having been so frivolous as to go for dinner in Jerusalem. Then I began to think but the fact that this road was unlit must mean that it was not used by settlers otherwise it would have the usual precautions they take on the roads used by them. The fact that we are on a non-settler road was a comfort and I no longer felt as worried. Penny remained silent and later told me that she had remembered that it was here, on this patch of road, that the friend of Amer, a driver we know, was killed. Fortunately I did not know this worrisome fact.
As we drove uncertainly in the dark, I began to have another worry on my mind. What if we came across an Israeli army jeep? We would be all alone with the murderous soldiers in this desolate dark road. My agitated mind had revived the memory of the death of a relative soon after the occupation. He had been driving alone near Latrun close to the border with Israel. He was stopped by an army jeep and killed; then the soldiers took his black and white checkered kuffieh dipped it in petrol from his car and set his corpse on fire. A few days later, his burnt remains were found by a shepherd.
Fortunately, we were spared more meetings with the army. We drove slowly in the dark feeling uncertain whether this was ever going to get us home. Then I saw a yellow taxi van approaching. I blinked my lights and called on him to stop and asked for directions.
“Continue straight until after the bridge and then take a dirt road to your right. This will get you to Birzeit,” the driver said and sped away. I followed his directions and eventually found myself driving in Birzeit where the unseen and unwanted live. Despite the lateness of the hour, the town’s market was still open and young college couples were strolling in the tree-lined streets. Through back roads I had come upon the people in the invisible communities that are shielded from the view of the colonisers who assume they do not exist. From Birzeit I drove without incident to Ramallah.
It is true this was a scary drive. It was also dangerous. We were lucky nothing happened. But I am glad to have had the experience. To see the country with its new night-time arrangements; to hear this soldier speaking about fairness indicating how shut off from reality he was; to see writ on the land the untenable position of the insolent, determined settlers who are not in tune with the times, making believe for themselves that the country, to which they have given Jewish names, was theirs only because they were not allowing other than their kind to use the roads or exhibit any signs of presence. All this was most edifying. It made me realise that Israel’s settlement programme was a passing phenomenon and was not going to survive. It’s anachronistic. The Ottoman Empire, after a 400-year presence here, also had to leave. But before they did, they destroyed our landscape by felling all the trees for fuel during World War I. How much damage will these settlers have done before they leave?
At the condolence, I had spoken to a friend who does business with industrialists in Hebron, a city of over 100,000 inhabitants. He told me the hard-working people there were still able to go on with their life. He said some had built new factories and were trading with China. In trade fairs, the name of Hebron was posted as though it were another country. And nearby was Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement of several thousand fanatic Jews who prayed all day and lived on the support of the crazy Americans and fundamentalist evangelical Christians who support Jewish settlement in Palestine to hasten Armageddon and the Second Coming.
Time is on the Palestinian side, I thought after I finished this harrowing drive. The Israelis have been inflexible, the spoiled children of the world who are allowed to get away with murder because of the sympathy felt towards them because of the Holocaust. But this emotional dispensation will not continue forever.
When I got home and thought about the experience, I remembered an entry I read in the diaries of Khalil Sakakini, who worked as an educational inspector during the British Mandate over Palestine. In it he describes a trip he took in the mid-1940s from the north to the south of the country. “We drove the whole day,” he writes, “and all I saw were Arab towns and villages. I did not see a single Jewish settlement. What then is the big fuss being made about Jewish colonisation?”
Meanwhile, to his surprise, the unseen people were organising, training and arming themselves; and when the time came, they emerged from their “invisible” locations, fought and won a war that ended up forcing out those who had only seen their own kind and failed to see the enemy in their midst. Sakakini, too, was forced out of his new home in Jerusalem never to return. Sixty years later, whose eyes am I to trust?