Finally

Posted: March 31, 2011 in Stuff

Right, so I have finally made it to Gaza.

In the end I came from Egypt, crossing at Rafah, in the Sinai desert. This was only possible thanks to Yasser at the Egyptian Embassy in London. I had spoken to him over the phone and explained my situation with the tiresome Israelis. He told me to fax him my passport and letter of invitation from the Gazan mental health agency, and that he would forward my request to Cairo. He said there was no reason why they shouldn’t let the good doctor into Gaza, although it could take up to two weeks to get permission, and therefore I should request to cross on Wednesday 30th June.

On Monday 28th I received a phone call from Yasser. He said that my request had been approved and that I had to be at the Rafah crossing in 48 hours. A little stressful. I booked the next flight to Cairo from London.

I arrived in Cairo the following afternoon. On arrival, I went to the tourist information office to ask how to get to Rafah. Three different people told me to go to three different bus terminals. In any case, there wouldn’t be any buses until the following morning, so I took a taxi to a hotel near one of the stations. The streets were full of cars but everything was eerily subdued, not at all as I remember Cairo. The taxi driver was nonplussed when I attempted to stretch the seat-belt around my paunch, then he insisted that I smoke one of his cigarettes. People here are certainly less concerned about longevity.

I spent the night in Caesar’s Palace Hotel – a shit hole with an empty but nevertheless blaring disco next to my bedroom.

The following morning, I asked the receptionist to call me a taxi to the first of the three bus stations. He told me it was too dangerous for me to go there; I should go to the second bus station on my list. Fine, I did. Then I took a 5 hour bus to Arish. The road passed beside miles of dunes and occasional camels and nomads. From Arish, I took a 45 minute taxi to the border at Rafah.

Rafah is not a nice place. A lot of hungry, angry people shouting in Arabic on the Egyptian side. They don’t like to see fat American men, and they don’t like it when fat American men prefer to roll their own suitcases rather than engage their services. I went up to the gatepost and handed the official my passport and my letter, in Arabic and English, from the Egyptian Embassy in London. He looked at them, then handed them back to me shaking his head. He said something in Arabic. I spoke to him in English. Mutual incomprehension.

Occasionally, Palestinians returning to Gaza passed by me. A few of them did speak English and asked me what I was waiting for. I showed them my letter. They read the Arabic and tried to reason with the Egyptian official. He wouldn’t budge. An old Palestinian lady really lost her temper with him, on my behalf. Her grandson said, these Egyptians, they are idiots.

After an while, a foreigner crossed from the Palestinian side. He was with a number of English speaking Palestinians. I asked one of them whether he could find out why they weren’t letting me cross. He took my letter and went to find a more senior officer. He spent a long time chatting to the officer, then he returned and told me that I didn’t have permission from the intelligence service. I would have to return to Cairo to get a letter from them.

The angry hungry people kept shouting and I did not relish the prospect of a 5 hour bus drive back to Cairo.

I phoned Yasser at the embassy in London. Thankfully he was at his desk. He said he would investigate and that he’d call me back in a few minutes.

I hung up and immediately received a text informing me that my UK pay-as-you-go phone was out of credit. More stress. I tried topping up by text and was astonished that it worked. A very fine service, for once.

Yasser called back two minutes later. He had spoken to Cairo, and Cairo was calling Rafah. That made me feel important. Yasser told me I should continue to wait outside the gate and someone would come out within minutes to get me. I thanked him, profusely.

Half an hour later, still nothing. I called Yasser again and told him that the good Doctor was beginning to worry. He said he would call Cairo once more but that, if I wasn’t let through that evening, I certainly would be on the following day.

I waited for another hour. I thought I would almost certainly have to run the gauntlet of the hungry angry people and find a place to stay in Arish. There was no longer anyone else crossing in either direction. I was about to give up when a self-important official materialised. He took my passport, disappeared, reappeared, and ushered me through, wordlessly.

I crossed an empty car park to a deserted arrivals hall. After passing my bags through an X-ray, I was led to a bus, then driven a few hundred metres to the Palestinian border. Here a bearded wrestler in a military black jumpsuit welcomed me with open arms. Wrestlers, a fine breed, the world over. He led me into a room full of Gazans returning home. I was immediately greeted in excellent English by four or five rather tall, handsome, efficient and friendly Palestinian officials. They asked me why I was coming to Gaza. I showed them my letter of invitation. They shook my hand again and insisted that I have tea with them while the paperwork was being completed and we waited in comfortable armchairs for my driver to arrive.

A tall, grizzled, powerfully built man poked his head into the room.

‘You journalist?’ he asked.

‘No, psychologist,’ I replied.

‘You come for help the Palestinian people? Oh welcome, welcome.’

The day had been stressful and uncertain, but that was a fine feeling. Alright, so I might not be quite the Doctor they imagine, but I haven’t come here to fuck the poor buggers over like everyone else in the last 100 years.

After a while, the driver arrived. The sun was setting as he drove me alongside the Mediterranean, past mounds of rubbish. Then into Gaza city. I met my boss who showed me my apartment, gave me a phone, found me a sim card and bought me some dinner, all within 30 minutes. Gaza may be a bit of a mess, but so far I have encountered nothing but efficiency and goodwill.

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