another day at the checkpoint

Palestine is icy cold when there is no insulation and drafty windows and heat comes in the form of electric heaters and hot water bottles. People dance from foot to foot at the checkpoint and nobody minds being crowded too much because the wind whips clear through the chicken wire, occasionally slamming a plastic piece of siding so loud that everyone jumps. Above the heads Qalandiya airport sits decaying in the distance. The air control tower stands empty and scrubweed has started to grow on the runway.

This is ridiculous someone mutters in Arabic. They’ve got the old here today.

An old fellahiya woman, crumpled with age and with white hair peeking out under her white hijab fumbles with her blue shopping bags. Is she one of the women you see in Jerusalem sitting on the ground with their herbs and vegetables, selling a kilo and a half for a handful of shekels to make ends meet at home? Her beautiful dress, embroidered with the colors of flowers and sunny days, is the only bit of spirit at the checkpoint on a gloomy, windy day.

Despite the desperation to move – it’s been an hour waiting now before the turnstile – she is shielded from pushing and hobbles through, moving slow with arthritis. She alone hauls her bag onto the X-ray machine and shuffles through the metal detector. A crackling voice over the intercom begins to bark orders in Hebrew. With trembling, oak-like fingers she presents her papers to the girl behind the bulletproof glass. The barking orders escalate into a shrieking insistence and it is clear the woman does not know Hebrew. Those behind the turnstiles watch in silence as the painfully loud, unfamiliar tones grow louder and more painful. A door opens and a young woman with long curly auburn hair comes out with a gun, towering over the woman like some ancient war idol, shrieking and pointing back, back! The woman wordlessly gathers her things from the x-ray machine and shuffles back through the checkpoint to the wordless gasps of the group still waiting. With as much dignity as she can muster, she walks back out through the traffic, soldiers, watchtowers, and children selling gum and information.

With a buzz and a click, the turnstile opens again and now two – no, three are allowed through. An old man drops his change in the metal detector and painfully stoops to collect it from the muddy, cold concrete. More shrieks, low growls, and sarcastic crackling tones.

Wait again for some twenty minutes before the next buzz-click, when more are let through. In line now, waiting with difficulty. It has been almost two hours. Too many through and waiting, a mistake perhaps? The shrieking slams down again, feedback accompanying the orders. A youth who knows Hebrew turns to the crowd. “We have to all go back,” he says in Arabic. Nobody moves. It’s been too long. Such a struggle to wait and squeeze through with bags, two or three to the gaps in the turnstile. No one will be first to move. Soldiers appear alongside the chicken wire with large, other-worldly guns, waving them at the crowd and yelling “RUH!” – move, go, get out. Nobody moves. Who is going to be the first?

The door opens again and out comes a young man in glasses, fat around the waist and with an annoyed look in his eye. He sputters in Hebrew and lifts his gun at the crowd, finger on the trigger. Nobody moves. Who is going to be the first? He steps closer, angry now at the disobedience. There are young and old animals here, animals on their way to class or to work, sick animals, hungry animals, but all the animals are cold and tired of waiting. Go home and bullshit with the friends at Mike’s Place over a beer – You wouldn’t believe how difficult the Arabs were today!

The youth turns again to the crowd, raising his hands. We need to go back through he says.

Back through the turnstiles? someone answers disbelievingly.

“Yes, back through the turnstiles. One by one. They want us through one by one.”

The crowd behind the turnstiles, those still waiting behind the wire, murmur with despair as one by one they are forced to make room for shuffling feet and unwieldy bags. Each one is another five, ten minutes added on to the time it takes to go three miles to Jerusalem.

When all of the people are back through the turnstiles, the door to the booth opens again and out come young women with hair up or down, standing with hips cocked sipping Fantas and lighting cigarettes. It’s time for a break, or perhaps a shift change. They pull out cell phones to call girlfriends in Tel Aviv and bitch about the weather.

La ilaha il Allah! one woman cries out, a reminder to everybody that it is only God who can protect them from the evil that he has created.

2 responses to “another day at the checkpoint

  1. This is great writing… its important people understand what its like on the ground from a personal perspective.

  2. Pingback: repost: another day at the checkpoint, 2009 | m a n y f e s t o

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