The ceasefire held; the war was over. In its wake, I decided to visit my family in Nazareth, who during the war had seemed quite far away from me.
After sleeping in (a rare treat) and after several cups of savored coffee, I left. It was dohr prayer when I strolled from my house to the city center, and not the best planned of departures — as being quite absent-minded I had neglected to remember that it was Friday.
Friday is, after all, the holy day of rest, when the streets of downtown Ramallah are emptied of prevailing chaos, and suffocating silence subjugates the ghost calls of vegetable sellers, and prayer calls slice the silence, and yesterday’s trash lies in roads unaccompanied by trampling feet. After prayer the entropy of the city drifts away from the center, piloted by residual political unrest: from the mosques and to the checkpoints.
The tense stillness of the city eluded me on my preoccupied walk to the servees station. I stepped into the shared taxi and zoned out of the world. The stale attitude of the West Bank commuter is a defense mechanism born of routine familiarity with potholes, immovable traffic, and, if one is female, harassment. Cab discussions concerning politics and the clashes of the day become tired, menial background fodder to a foreground of physical occupation. The conversation now passed over me and hovered thickly as the servees sailed down the ancient Jerusalem road.
The servees stopped before the entrance of Kalandia, a village swallowed by a refugee camp, under neither Israeli nor Palestinian municipal jurisdiction. The passengers knowingly clambered out of the cab as I gazed out the window, waiting for the next stop.
The servees didn't move and through my hazy preoccupation I registered the stillness of the car, the lull in the habitual conversation.
“Ya bint.” You. GIRL.
Oh. The chauffeur met my gaze pointedly. “This is the last stop.”
“Uhh,” I looked around for answers. “But we're still not there?” Then, uncertainly, “Is this not the servees to Kalandia checkpoint?”
“Yes,” he said, “But it’s Friday,” as if that was supposed to answer my question.
I looked at him blankly.
“My car will get pelted.”
Thick sun and dust greeted me upon exiting the cab. I looked down Jerusalem Road, trashed and tarred, its length lined by storefronts and shadowed by the separation barrier, known ubiquitously as “the wall.” In cooperation with the imposing concrete border, the Kalandia checkpoint has smugly nestled itself between Ramallah and Jerusalem and is a primary cause of misery and traffic.
Besides a collection of tear gas canisters and shabaab, young men, covered in dust, the road was empty. It seemed a waste to turn back when forward was so close. I strolled to the dusty toy store with the yellow front, a perpetual “almost-there” marker for my Kalandia servees commutes, and asked the owner, “Do you think it's okay if I walk to the checkpoint?”
He took a pause from sweeping the stoop of his shop to point to the left side of the road. “Probably, but you should stick to that side,” he said. In the distance, the majority of young men were mostly dispersed along the right side of the road.
Signs of a checkpoint clash introduced themselves slowly. With every step forward, the smell of tear gas permeated the thick air. First the smell of gas, now the burning tires, the stockpiles of rocks. Now an assortment of kuffiyehs and T-shirts wrapped around dusty, rebellious faces, ranging in age from eleven to sixteen. The shabaab carried slingshots and coordinated in loose formation, fanned out, alternating frontline shifts, tucking themselves behind roadblocks or storefront partitions or barricades of scrap.
They were boys.
I hung back and watched a tall kid grab a rock from his pile, spin out from behind a partition, and fling it towards the checkpoint. He called with joking bravado to his friends across the street and ran back to his rampart. When he was back behind the partition, I approached.
We both arranged ourselves safely behind the frame, he looking out from the cover of a white T-shirt tied into a makeshift gas mask, and I holding the straps of my backpack.
“Listen,” I said, feeling like a guilty child. “I need to cross to get to Nazareth.”
I looked down at my sneakers, fully aware of the hypocrisy of my request, and felt the need to justify myself, “…to visit my family.”
He picked up a rock and seemed unaware of my discomfort, “Alright.”
Tossing the words, “Hey! Distract them!” to his comrades on the right, he looked at me with the swagger of a soldier tasked with a mission. “Stay under the awning. If you stick to the left side, you won't get hit. ”
I mumbled a thanks. “Ya’teek el ‘afye.” God give you good health. The kid didn’t sense my guilt, but he grinned and waved his slingshot as I passed, happy to show off.
I walked under storefront awnings and passed battle-lines of shabaab to the right, who sling-shotted and threw and ducked projectiles, business as usual – the routine of Friday – except now their stones were tasked with escorting a girl to a checkpoint, the very existence of which they protested.
My passport afforded a loophole to claim a right denied to most Palestinians. The boys understood, and crowded to the right side of Jerusalem road, and hurled stones that barely reached the Israeli checkpoint. They threw because they couldn't freely walk into Jerusalem or beyond, and so I could do what they couldn’t. In response, an invisible, barricaded enemy replied with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The awnings ended, and the rock-throwing subsided to accommodate my entry into Israeli territory. Ahead lay a small expanse of trash and road, scrap metal, an army Jeep, concrete barricades, the checkpoint.
I kicked at a pile of tear gas canisters to signal an unthreatening entrance, gave a flammable berth to the barricade sniper following my movements, and made a beeline to the checkpoint entrance. Armed soldiers stood in a row, protected by bulletproof helmets and superfluous riot gear
They regarded my approach with bored hostility and remained standing in formation. I waved a sarcastic greeting and paused. They looked at me; I looked at them. A moment of silence. I pointed through them. To the entrance
Wordlessly, the riot shields parted, and I walked through.
Behind me the sounds of the clash continued.