The bus station in Bani Nayim is hot, humid, and thick with exhaust fumes from idling vehicles that have seen better days in the seat and shock absorber department. The service has to fill with passengers before it leaves, and we are in a holding pattern. I am sitting next to a young woman wearing a hijab with sparkly threads, a long coat, long sleeves, and leggings. I cannot imagine how hot she feels cradling an infant and trying to keep a one-year-old in his seat. As she negotiates the crying baby and the discreet breast-feeding and attempts to pour mango juice into a bottle while it drips over the infant’s plump thighs, I feel like we are mothers everywhere and it is time to mobilize for the tasks at hand. Chocolate wafers appear magically from my bag and the little boy stares at me with large brown eyes; he never blinks, ever.
I am wheezing from all the dust and pollution and marveling at what passes for advertising in the local markets. While most of the signs are in Arabic, I am mystified by a clothing store called, “White Woman,” another “Lady Chic,” the “Golf Plastic Industrial Company,” “Four Seasons Furniture.” Do they have four seasons here? There is clearly a lot lost in translation, which seems to be a metaphor for much that is happening in these parts.
We jolt by fields of vineyards and then there is a lush green vineyard that is surrounded by a wire fence and coils of barbed wire.
It is the only fortified field I see and it is owned by a Jewish settler who has bought this land and comes, armed with military guards, to harvest his grapes. This is another metaphor.
My understanding is that there is some Israeli law/directive that mandates the use of seatbelts in the occupied territories but that Palestinians view this as another oppressive Israeli directive, rather than some really good advice, so I watch the on-off seat belt dance as we drive, a quiet (self-defeating?) act of resistance.
I have not seen any car seats for children, so the mother buckles in her toddler, more as an attempt to restrain him in the back seat than to prevent injury in case of a sudden swerve.
The much too loose belt soon comes off and she wraps her arm tightly around him, trusting herself more than those Israeli laws.
He turns a bag of pretzels upside down and we are both back in mothering mode. A honey-toned woman’s voice croons on the radio, I can pick out the word “Allah” but remain mostly lost in translation again.
We pass mountains of watermelon, car skeletons piled in junk yards like corpses, and overflowing garbage bins and soon find ourselves zigzagging up and down the Container Road, a vertiginous highway built specially for Palestinians that takes travelers miles out of their way, keeping that area “clean” for settlers. (see language: racism, entitlement, and fear) The service slows to a halt as we approach a massive traffic jam at the Container Checkpoint.
Passengers get off and the driver asks me to move forward. I cannot tell if this is part of the checkpoint strategy. White American lady nearer to front? I decide to check the time and see what happens. It is a useful distraction and keeps me from total aggravation.
10:05 Traffic slows.
10:10 Full stop, cars and trucks everywhere.
10:14 More aggressive honking; we creep forward; the driver offers us water; we are unbearably hot; I picture myself melting into the warm sticky seat like some kind of Wicked Witch of the West.
10:16 A large truck travelling in the opposite direction needs to make a wide hairpin turn and the vehicles on the opposite lane cluster together to give him space; a truck with a sheep stops next to us and the sheep is panting rapidly and looks deathly ill and thirsty, the drivers keep anxiously looking back at the suffering animal with clear concern but no water.
10:19 We pull ahead in the breakdown lane on the right and now there are four lanes of traffic that need to merge into two; annoyance and frustration is rising and there is more talking and yelling between drivers.
10:20 Full stop.
10:22 Driver negotiates a merge into lane number three.
10:24 Driver asks for my passport and pours through my history of travel, “Cambodia?” There is thick black smoke beyond the checkpoint; a mix of burning garbage and tires adds to the smell of exhaust; I ponder how the occupation increases global warming and childhood asthma.
10:27 Two Israeli soldiers are working the checkpoint and they glance into the service, do not check any documents, and wave us through.
Suddenly passengers start laughing, joking, the driver pulls out a bag of wafers and passes them around. A victory over the oppressor, time for celebration. There is almost a sense of unity built out of the experience of common, indiscriminate, mindless suffering. The official Israeli line is that checkpoints are necessary for security, a holy cause that is used to justify the oppressive minutiae of occupation and throat-gripping control.
As we approach the village of Qalandia with its arched entry, I see a rotary and a dead olive tree. I think of the gorgeous, watered (stolen) olive trees at the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and I want to weep. Perhaps the Qalandia tree has died of sorrow as well as neglect. As we skirt the Qalandia checkpoint, the traffic once again backs up into a crazy jumble of vehicles, some trying to get through, some trying to get around, and everyone trying to survive.
I imagine doing this every day, morning and evening, to get to work or school, or to meet a friend in Ramallah. The endless waiting and uncertainty, the never knowing when and if you will get where you are going. This kind of brutality is powerful and suffocating, and it is the universal experience of the people who are living in this prison, their lives effectively under total control at the hands of young Israeli men and women with little life experience, their minds filled with racism, boredom, fear, and the power that comes with the gun.