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Transfer at Qalandiya

By Sarah Stern

I’m running to catch the bus. I’m trying not to run too fast, so as not to alarm anyone. The bus is sitting in traffic, so I probably won’t miss it anyway, but in this moment, I’m on edge. The news is especially bad today.

My colleague just did his final U-turn in our back-route tour of Palestine, dropping me off near Qalandiya checkpoint. On the drive over he tells me, “They’ve recalled 83,000 permits granted for Ramadan after last night.” I blink at the number, but I’m not surprised.

Last night, two Palestinian gunmen from the West Bank shot up an upscale outdoor market called Sarona located in the heart of Tel Aviv. Four killed. 16 wounded. The gunmen were from Yatta, a city in the South Hebron Hills that no bedouin wants to be relocated to. Poor quality of life there corresponds with rampant crime.

“So, at least the traffic won’t be bad,” I say to my colleague in regards to the permits. I’m practicing my Israeli humor.

I make the bus and wait in more traffic. I sit in the front, the zone where you’re obligated to be courteous, and sure enough, an older hijabi woman sits down next to me at the next stop. I pull out my American passport, readying myself for the checkpoint – she pulls out her blue ID.

We strike up a conversation when I mistakenly try to pay for the bus. Apparently, the fee is waived for my truncated ride. The drive mostly consists of the gaping maw of the Qalandiya checkpoint and questions from border guards. They feel bad making you pay for that.

The woman starts to talk to me in Arabic. I don’t quite get it all so she points to her ID. I see that she can pass through to Israel with her blue ID. She’s telling me to follow her to the next bus.

Our relationship progresses quickly. It moves from her helping me, to her asking me for money for her sick son, to her insisting that I marry her other son, or maybe she meant the same sick one. At her request, I pay for her transfer bus ticket, after she’s pulled me through a sea of men waiting to board – she can get away with it.

Her name is Jameela. She wants me to come to her home in Kufr Aqab. She’s planning out the menu. She will give me a dress.

“And where do you live?” She asks.

“Jerusalem. West Jerusalem.”

“So you’re Jewish?”

I realize in order to avoid her gaze and seemingly limitless generosity, I’ve been staring at the blue toy gun taped to the box where the driver collected my shekels.

“Yes. I’m Jewish.”

“You go to West Jerusalem, I go to East!” Jameela says warmly.

She explains this reality to me in the same manner that she explained how to transfer busses.

And at the end of the day, that’s the reality that we’re always left with here. That’s what politicians say is best for us. You go your way, I go mine. I look again at the blue plastic gun adhesive, and wonder whether it’s the same type of “Carlo Gustav” gun used in Sarona last night.

We pull into the stone labyrinth of Jerusalem and I realize that it’s time for me to go West. I say “Ramadan Kareem” to Jameela, and get off the Palestinian bus.