Tuesday, June 9, 2009

From Gaza to Jerusalem

After returning from Gaza, I met up with Medea Benjamin and some other CodePink activists to protest Obama on the fourth. I got a bad sunburn standing outside Cairo University all day holding a banner. We had three: "Obama, stop funding Israeli war crimes", "Lift the Siege" and "Open the Borders". We were there when the motorcade went by and we were there when everyone came out of the speech, which led to us being featured in the Washington Post, Times Magazine Online, Free Speech Radio News, and probably more. All these journalists and diplomats and fancy people saw us there and it was an interesting experience because for me the banners were personal. Twice to Gaza now, and I have seen the personal face of what the siege means, what war crime means, and what closed borders mean. This last time in Gaza, I visited Salah Din camp, the same camp I visited in March. And I saw the same woman, in the same tent, who is simply so enduringly beautiful and when we walked up she came out and immediately recognized me and we sat together again in her tent and she cried. Salah Din Camp is in North Gaza. About 150 families who lost their homes in the last war live there. They all share one outhouse type bathroom and a lot of the days there is no water. It was an intense experience to see this woman again. I came in March, we talked, I left, I came back. Yet she is still in the same dusty, hot tent, in the same inhumane situation, yet worse, because now the tent is faded, there is no more aid, the camp is more crowded, and it goes on and on. When I saw her there I thought, okay fine.. I've brought forty more people from the delegation I organized here to witness what is going on, but still this woman remains here and things are only worse. So now what? From the money we fundraised we were able to organize a 3000 USD aid distribution to the camp which is great, but still now I am left asking myself, now what? When we left Salah Din that day the woman and I hugged and kissed and all I could say was "I am with you" and that is not enough and we were both crying and I walked away and it was almost sickening. Another day in Gaza we visited with women prisoners who told us their stories of being tortured in Israeli prisons. One of the youngest women stood up and explained how when she was in the prison her family would come and visit her and they were her only lifeline to the world. Then she said, "Gaza is now a prison, and I feel that you are my family, my only connection to the world. Please tell our story, please help." I am so hoping that all the student delegates who were in the room will take that to heart. The prison analogy is not a false analogy. There is not a single car in Gaza, with the exception of UN vehicles, that does not use petrol that came from Egypt through the tunnels. Our delegation waited a whole day at the border and was denied the first day. So we stayed the night in Arish and that night the Egyptian Secret Police came to the hotel at 2am and the conversation was very threatening and in the morning our hotel was surrounded. When we tried to go to border we were stopped by police with riot trucks ready at the first check point. In the early afternoon we managed to get secret service clearance from the Palestine Desk in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but even when our group was allowed into Gaza, our one Palestinian member was not allowed to cross with us, she was not allowed to go home! When we left Iman and her mom, who are both Egyptian Citizens with Egyptian passports, tried to to cross to Egypt with us. They were denied, not allowed to leave Gaza to go to their home country! While we were in Gaza we met with students from Al Azhar university. At the start of our meeting they told us, "You are our first opportunity to meet with peers from outside Gaza. We now have just a few hours to convince you to help us." Many of them had received full scholarships to go and study at international universities but couldn't leave Gaza. The prison analogy isn't one to be taken lightly. I left Gaza with a heavy heart, and wondering what to do next.
After protesting outside Obama's Cairo speech, I headed to Israel with Maryam and Miriam. We are all American citizens, born in America, studying in Egypt on the same study abroad program with the University of California. Maryam is Muslim-American and her parents are from Pakistan. Miriam is Palestinian/Greek-American. When we got to the first check-point at the Israeli border, a little girl IDF soldier asked me, "Are you with them?" I said yes. She radioed something in Hebrew and we all waited. Still outside the border office, we were separated and questioned for the first time. They asked Miriam and Maryam how they got their money and they asked Maryam why she wore the hijab. They asked us how we know each other and almost every question you can think of over and over. They asked me, "What do you know about Maryam Khan?", "What do you know about her parents?". After the first round we made it inside the building, where we waited for seven hours. We were separated and questioned multiple times. They made Maryam show them her ticket back home. They made us move seats a lot because they wanted to mop the floor or open the cupboard behind us, but they had already mopped the floor and the cupboard was empty. Suddenly after seven hours they just came and said, "Thank you for your time" and we entered Israel. In Israel people go running and biking and a lot of the times it reminded me of California because of the trees and the outdoorsy feel. From the border we took a bus to Jerusalem and headed for the old city. We had a great couple of days as tourists. The old city souk is that perfect cobblestone souk from your dreams and the food is great and there is so much history packing a punch in so little a space. Via Delorosa where Jesus carried his cross and Dome of the Rock where Mohamed ascended to heaven and Church of the Holy Sepulchre where people lay their heads down and the Western Wall where Orthodox Jews dance en masse. I think a lot of people thought we were a strange bunch traveling together though: A Muslim, a Christian, and me who everybody thought was Jewish. A group of that mix is a rare thing in Israel since everything is so divided. There are Arab buses and Israeli buses. East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem have totally different feels and even in the Old City there is the Jewish quarter and the Muslim quarter. One night at the Western Wall I met a guy who'd recently immigrated from Michigan and lives in a settlement. He told me that all Arabs are fanatics and that it says in the Bible that all of Israel is for the Jews and since the Jews were there first really it the Arabs who are occupying. An old woman stopped me in the souq and told me to watch my bag since I was in the Muslim quarter and the Arabs only want to steal from me. I told a student that I met that I visited the West Bank and he replied, "What's that I've never heard of it." We took the Arab bus from East Jerusalem to the checkpoint to get into Bethlehem. We got through the checkpoint quickly but we saw a lot of Palestinians being held up. Once we got through we had to wind around wire fences to the other side of the HUGE wall. There was a lot of Graffiti on it, including "Stop Apartheid." We took a taxi from the wall to the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born. The road there used to be two kilometers but since a few years ago when they pushed the wall up closer now it is a longer drive. The church was really cool and I loved Bethlehem. There are very few tourists and everyone was out walking downtown and we ate REALLY good chicken shwarmas before randomly deciding to hop on a bus to Hebron. The drive there was beautiful, by Vineyards and hills and really California-y. We also passed a lot of settlements though. You see them on the hillsides and most of the houses look the same. There are Israeli buses which whisk people from one settlement to another. The settlements were bigger than I thought and there were a lot more than I imagined. We met a man on the bus who took us to his natural medicine shop for tea, and then to the mosque/synagogue where Isaac is buried, and then to his home for tea. Walking to the Mosque we went through the souk. There are Israelis living on the top stories in Hebron and the Arabs on the bottom. The Israelis throw trash down onto the souk below, so the Arabs put up chicken wire over the souk. Then they started throwing toilet water which can go through the chicken wire. We also saw bridges up in the Jewish part so they don't have to come down. In order to get to the Mosque we had to pass an IDF check point. Everyday anyone who wants to pray has to go through that checkpoint. It's so sad that even though the settlements and the checkpoints inside the west bank are against international law, they are continuing and it really is an occupation! My last day in Israel we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in West Jerusalem. The museum was really well done and in a beautiful area of Israel where you could smell the pine trees. The saddest part of visiting the museum for me was that, after the holocaust the world came together to create the Jewish homeland, and that is a beautiful dream, yet it has manifested itself in some very horrible ways. At the end of the museum there was a part about the idea of Israel from creation of a place for religious freedom and equal rights for everyone and it would have been so great if it had worked out like that. Now it's too late for that and the holy land is divided. I believe, as Obama said in his speech, that a two-state solution may be the best bet at this point. And it's sad. The holy land is so beautiful and diverse and I have seen and met so many different people there and for me as an outsider I get along with all of them and blend in and mix between the groups and I see how people are similar and want similar things.. it's so sad that history took its course this way. After the museum I parted with Miriam and Maryam I used Israel's AWESOME public transportation system to get back to Taba.. bus from the museum to central bus station, bus to Eliat, taxi to the border. This time the border took me about 15 minutes for both Israel and Egypt and I was back in Egypt! Where I realized I didn't have enough money to get home! The last bus from Taba to Cairo is at 430 and I'd missed that one. There is a minibus station though, but the problem was that no one else was crossing the border, so it was just me, and a private minibus is expensive. I only had 300 egyptian pounds and no money in the bank. So I waited for awhile with all the drivers who have no teeth and only speak Arabic and like to drink tea and sit in their Galibayas. And no one came who I could share a minibus with. There were lots of huge tour groups on tour buses and I asked if they were going to Cairo and no one was. I weighed my options and eventually just decided to take a minibus back to Cairo and eat the cost- 80USD to get back to Cairo. It took most of the night.. all through Sinai there are checkpoints and on top of that the minibus had something wrong with it so the driver kept stopping to check the oil and since I'm American a policeman had to ride with us but it was a different one every 100 kilometers... I was so glad when we finally got to Cairo!! A friend of mine met me and paid the rest of the busfare and I am forever grateful to him for saving me!! Today I'm spending my last day in Cairo at my friend Sarah's apartment and... CALIFORNIA HERE I COME.


Dad said...

WOW! That is quite the "catch up post".

Aunt Julie said...

Wow. Ali, Ali, Ali. What a trip. Thank you so much for sharing it. We'll be so glad to see you - very soon.
-Aunt Julie

Anonymous said...

Ali, I have been reading your blog for quite some time now and it has been great to follow you around in Cairo and in Gaza. Especially in Gaza. I believe that you will be an extraordinary witness to all the atrocities there once you are back home. Young people like you and your friends will change the world. Eventually.
I wish you the very very best!
Lilian in Alexandria

Ali G said...

thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for ages now, thank you for writing it & good luck with whatever you decide to do next :-)

Charlotte in France

Steven said...

What trip for sure - great reading as I try to catch up. Received an e-mail from your Grandma Hilda (my Aunt) - we have such an extended family - hope to get to California one day.
Steven Plummer (Cousin, Ottawa, Canada)

Anonymous said...

darling, you have no idea what you are talking about, the jews lived in israel for 3200 years, the arabs, in this case the palestinians moved in and controled the jews who lived there,the arabs were no invited but lets face it,the jews were not strong enough to fight them...the arabs own 99.3% of the middle east and israel is just another country (like greece) which the arabs tried to conquer...do your research first!