|Jericho City. Photo from Palestine Image Bank.|
New Year’s in a Garden on the Moon
By Pamela Olson
This is an outtake from Pamela Olson’s book Fast Times in Palestine, published in March 2013 by Seal Press. The scene takes place on New Year’s Eve 2004, in the middle of the Palestinian Authority presidential campaign, during which Olson served as the foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi.
Several friends and officemates loaded into shared taxis for a New Year’s party at the Jericho Intercontinental, desperate for a break from the violence of the second Intifada and the pressure cooker of the campaign. As usual we bypassed the Qalandia checkpoint, a detour that added more than an hour to the trip, but it was a lovely drive through the wilderness east of Jerusalem. The voluptuous parched hills were thinly, vibrantly green from the winter rains and striped by the paths of grazing animals. Bedouin shepherds and their flocks were out in force under a deep azure sky. There was hardly a hill without a herd of trotting goats or grazing sheep.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Abir, a friend from Gaza. “It makes you wonder what all of this was like a thousand years ago.”
Soon we saw a flying checkpoint ahead. Abir crossed her fingers. “Let’s hope nobody gets turned back…Including me.” Her permit to work and study in the West Bank had expired, which meant that at any checkpoint, at any time, she could be arrested and deported back to Gaza. Many Gazans were in the same boat and hadn’t seen their families for years. They missed out on weddings and funerals, birthdays and holidays, and the childhoods of their nieces and nephews, afraid that if they visited their families in Gaza, Israel might not allow them to return to their colleges, careers, and friends in the West Bank.
Abir had brought her Palestinian Authority passport instead of her Israel-issued ID. The passport said she was from Gaza in small letters, but it wasn’t as obvious as the Gaza ID, which was a different colour from the West Bank IDs.
The soldiers at this checkpoint didn’t notice she was from Gaza, but one saw that my passport had been issued in San Francisco. He grinned broadly. “Pamela Jane! You are from San Francisco. You know the SuperSonics?”
I had no idea what he was talking about-weren’t the SuperSonics in Seattle?-but I smiled and nodded. He came closer to my window, still grinning. “You like to travel, huh?” He hoisted the shoulder strap of his M-16 into a more comfortable position. “It is a very good life, I think. Look at us, stuck here in the sun all day.”
I tried to look sympathetic but was thinking, You’re complaining? You’re the one stopping us! “Every Israeli has to serve for two years, right?” I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“No, three years! Two for the girls. It’s not fair. They do the same work we do.”
Another soldier gave the signal that we were allowed to pass, and our driver took off.
Abir and I agreed the soldier was cute, but I said, “Does that ever work? Picking up chicks while you’re oppressing them?”
“Who knows?” said Abir. “Why do construction workers whistle at girls who pass by?”
“I guess men with big metal objects in their hands get over-confident or something.”
“Hey, you are from San Francisco! You know the SuperSonics?” Abir mocked the soldier and giggled. “And hey, you are from Gaza! You know Ahmed Yassin?”
I was putting my passport back in my purse when the driver called for our IDs again. I looked up. Another checkpoint. It hadn’t been 200 yards. We went through the same stress, the same waiting in line, the same nonsense again.
Two hundred yards on was another one-triple shot. I said to Abir, “How can three checkpoints within a quarter mile of each other be for security?”
“They’re just trying to make our lives easier,” she said.
“Didn’t they say they’d minimise checkpoints in the run-up to elections?”
Abir snorted. “They say a lot of things.”
* * *
The weather was perfect in Jericho, warmed by a blanket of below-sea-level air. We headed straight to the pool, where I ran into two guys I knew, an American and a Swede. They informed me that Jericho was one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The Swedish guy said it was one of the most often destroyed, too.“And no wonder. It’s in the middle of an indefensible valley. You’d think after a while they’d say, ‘Listen, guys, I don’t think this location is working out.’” Now this unlucky location couldn’t fill a hotel on New Year’s.As more guests arrived, we compared checkpoint stories. One woman had gotten out of her cab to bypass a checkpoint on foot because her ID didn’t allow her to leave Ramallah without a permit. Two soldiers spotted her and trained their guns on her. She knew many Palestinians had been killed for less. The soldiers questioned her, their guns pointed at her all the while, and finally let her pass. It was 15 minutes of sheer terror. She had literally risked her life to get to this party.Everyone dressed to the nines for the celebration that evening and sat at long tables enjoying food and booze and dancing to music turned up way too loud, as if to make up for lost time. We put on party hats and popped champagne poppers at midnight. Most of us turned in just afterwards, exhausted from elections work.The next morning we rented bikes to ride around town. Jericho is known in Arabic as Medina al-Qamar, the City of the Moon. The hills to the west and the desert all around look as dusty and barren as a moon, but Jericho itself is dazzlingly green, a garden city, wall-to-wall groves and greenhouses irrigated by ancient springs, one lush tropical food source after another.I yelled gaily over my shoulder, in a riff on a classic piece of propaganda, “Who says Arabs can’t make the desert bloom?”Pamela Olson lived in Ramallah for two years, during which she served as head writer and editor for the Palestine Monitor and as foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s 2005 presidential campaign. She has written for CounterPunch, Electronic Intifada, and the Stanford Magazine, among others. To learn more about Fast Times in Palestine, including how to order the book, visit www.pamolson.org.