Sunday, September 04, 2005

Travel and Arrival

After months of planning and worry and excitement I have finally arrived in Birzeit! I’m sharing a flat with a very nice, very British woman named M, who worked with ISM last summer and is learning Arabic because of her politics and also because she has a half-Palestinian grandson. In other words, she is super-cool.

My travels across the Allenby Bridge were a bit nerve-wracking, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself . . . let me back up. I arrived at the Amman airport in Jordan around 12 am on September 2. I was supposed to arrive much earlier, but Jordan Royal Air decided to cancel the 5:30 flight and put everyone on a 9pm flight, which didn’t actually leave until about 10:40. I was traveling with my father, thankfully, because when we arrived in Amman, my bags didn’t come out on the luggage conveyor belt. Apparently they were headed to Cairo – now, I could have handled this problem in Arabic, but it would have taken me quite a bit longer than it took him, and my bags may well have been on their way to visit the pyramids by the time I made myself understood. Luckily, we were able to get them back before the other plane took off.

While we were waiting for my bags, my father bumped into a friend of the family, actually a good friend of two of my cousins who are about my age. Ironically, he was also traveling to Jerusalem that day, and he had made the trip several times before, so we agreed to travel together. This was a big relief for my father, and I have to admit I was pleased to have a travel companion. By the time we had sorted out all of our travel plans, and I had been reunited with my bags it was pretty late. I managed to get about 3.5 hours of sleep before it was time to get up and meet R. We met R at our hotel (The Four Seasons) and ate breakfast, then drove to the bridge with my father and a friend of his. I would just like to say that the women’s bathroom across from the dining room in the Four Seasons is larger than my entire apartment in Silver Spring.

When we reached the Allenby Bridge, instead of going through the main gate R insisted that we drive to the second, VIP gate which is apparently for people with European/American passports (he is Palestinian but has a Canadian passport). Once we arrived, he made all the arrangements, which involved a lot of pushing and shoving, a little baksheesh, and an $80 VIP fee (which I refused to pay, but my father insisted I stay with R, so he coughed up the cash). After about 1.5 hours we were herded into a small van and we drove across the border. We had to stop at three different checkpoints on the 10 minute drive, each time the driver got out with our passports, and had to be cleared to continue. When we arrived at the border station in Israel, R and I were pulled aside and separated, and our small bags were taken from us (the big ones had already been sent off in a different direction. This made me nervous because I had a lot of money in my bag, but I just kept my mouth shut and waited.

R and I had already prepared our story. I was traveling with him because he was getting married and I was an old friend (he actually is getting married), we had met in 1997 while he was a student at McGill, blah blah blah. I was purposefully not mentioning studying at Birzeit, because I’d been warned by my program they might not let me in if they knew why I was visiting Israel. To justify my desire for the 3 month visa, I said after the wedding I wanted to spend time visiting the Holy Land, the beaches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, etc . . .

The questioning was pretty intense, and I was a little shaky by the end of it because they had asked me twice if I had another passport, and of course my Kuwaiti passport was hidden in my money belt in my jeans, but I did not share that information. Then we were escorted to the VIP lounge where we sat for about 2.5 or 3 hours, and were questioned again. In the end I got my three month visa, but I was pretty exhausted by this point. They stamped our passports (my piece of paper) then sent us into a very large room where everyone’s luggage had been chaotically thrown around. It took me about 10 minutes to find my stuff, but it was all there. Next we caught a cab into Jerusalem and dropped R off at his fiance’s family’s house, then I headed to the Kalandia checkpoint. Since it wasn’t too busy, and I was really tired, I stayed with the cab all the way to Ramallah and was dropped off at my hotel without any trouble.

The cab driver was very nice, and at one point he even pulled over so that I could get some beautiful pictures of Al-Quds. When we arrived at the hotel he gave me his number and told me to call him if I needed any help. . . I thanked him and took the number, but I don’t think I’ll be using it. Once at the hotel I called G and B who are both friends from previous Arabic courses and we agreed to meet for dinner. The hotel in Ramallah was certainly a far cry from the Four Seasons, but I could hear kids playing outside my window and there was a nice breeze, so I was happy. I was starving by the time I arrived, so I asked the man who showed me my room if there was a place nearby where I could get some food, but he insisted or ordering a pizza to be delivered for me. Turns out, they only deliver large pizzas, so I sat downstairs and ate my strange Palestinian pizza with corn on it, and made the employees eat with me. This was cool because I was able to practice my Arabic with them, and I did pretty well. I guess I did learn a thing or two this summer.

I met G and B, and we bumped in a woman in the lobby who was also in our program, M, who is now my roommate. So we all went out and grabbed some food, drank some local beer called Taybeh (which is much better than the Egyptian beer) and talked for a while. While we were sitting out in the garden behind the restaurant, shooting started. No one around us seemed concerned and one of the waiters came over and told us people were celebrating a wedding . . . From my room that night I could hear the Ramallah PA marching in the streets chanting Allahu Akbar while I was getting ready for bed.

Had my orientation at Birzeit the next day, and things look like they are fairly well organized. There are about 30 people in our program . . . 6 Germans, 4 Americans, and a interesting mix of other nationalities. Orientation took up most of the day and included a tour of the campus, which is very nice, and then we were picked up by our respective landlords. My landlord is very nice, and the apartment in much bigger than I expected – only M and I, each with a separate room, a nice big kitchen and a sitting area. I had requested to share a room, and this is a little above my budget, but I think I can swing it without too much trouble. We are in the village of Birzeit and very close to where the service buses pick up for the University or for Ramallah.

After settling in a little, M and I headed to a restaurant in town to meet up with some other students from the program. I’ve met three other Peace Studies students, there are quite a few journalists/ journalism students and a bunch of International Relations students. While we were at the restaurant last night some soldiers showed up in town and were driving around, so I guess the locals youths all ran out and started throwing stones at them. All the men in the restaurant ran outside to see what would happen, but I guess nothing did, so that was the end of that.

Today I went grocery shopping and cleaned up the apartment . . . I like sharing with M but I could do without the other roommates. So far I’ve killed about 6 spiders and a couple of bugs I couldn’t name. Tomorrow I have my language placement testing, then classes start Tuesday.


Blogger Marcy / مارسي said...


I'm so happy to see that you've arrived and that you are safe in Ramallah. I'm surprised you didn't write about Qalandia. It's the most horrifying part of the Ramallah area. Anyway, as you're wandering around you should definitely check out the Al Kasaba Theater (great plays, films, etc.) and also Stones restaurant rocks the house. It's near the ISM office and the HSBC bank in Ramallah Tahtah.

You should also pick up the fabulous monthly brochure/magazine This Week in Palestine as it has everything you'll ever want to know or do.


4:39 PM  
Blogger American in Beirut said...

Hey Sahar,
I am so happy to hear that you arrived safely.. Thanks for the wonderful post.. it was so full of suspense, I can't imagine what it was like to live through it. Please keep posting as often as you can.. I will try and figure a way out to drop by your way as long as I can figure out how to insure that I won't get an Israeli stamp on my passport. Take care, Allah Ma3ik...
Yu7anna Boulous min Lubnan

5:28 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Wow, corn on your pizza? You've got it rough :) I am very happy to see you got through okay, I know that you were worried about that part. Great to hear from you, keep writing!

PS. Laura says hello :)

3:20 AM  
Anonymous P-zAk said...

Hello my Saharness,
Glad to hear you made it over safely. Your blog is really awesome to read and I hope you continue to share more of your adventures. I'll send you an e-mail soon and update you on my little world... although DC doesn't compare. Anyway, keep rockin' the not-so-free world. Take care of yourself.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous P-zak said...

PS: and i love the name of your blog.

6:10 PM  
Blogger BitterSweet said...


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11:14 PM  

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