As it turned out, Kasem was unable to go to Nablus with me today. He came to the hostel this morning and said he could only go with me as far as Ramallah as he had an important meeting in Jerusalem at noon. The company he works for had just found out that Israel is planning massive closures in anticipation of protests and violence leading up to the Palestinian UN bid. They expect these new restrictions to take effect on the 19th. This means he will most likely lose his permission to travel to Jerusalem which of course is a big deal when you're a guide. He and the rest of the Palestinian guides will now have to scramble to make contingency plans so they won't lose their business. Imagine flying all the way to the Holy Land only to be told by your guide that he can take you anywhere but Jerusalem. Everyone wants to go to Jerusalem. If the Palestinian guides can't take them and Israeli guides can, who do you think they'll hire? As with everything else, he just let's this roll off his back and my amazement grows.
To travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah, you must pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint. It's a site that has seen much violence but this morning was very quiet. We sat in the back of the bus and crossed without incident. Kasem explained to me how Israel does not care who goes out. They only care about who comes in. He told me on his way back to Jerusalem he'd be forced to exit the bus at Qalandiya and queue up with the rest of the Palestinians to pass the checkpoint via the walk-through. He said when I came back later today I should stay on the bus, only the Palestinians had to get out.
During the ride to Ramallah, I told him about my experiences in the souk yesterday. He assured me my instincts had been right about the two men asking me who's side I was on. He said the Old City is crawling with young settlers who dress and act like Palestinians to spy on people in the souk. They carry concealed weapons and he said if it was quiet enough, I could hear the static from the walkie-talkies hidden under their shirts. He said there had been one in the shop we'd stopped to buy water at yesterday. He'd kind of rushed me out of the shop and at the time I didn't know why. Kasem said the man had been staring at us because he saw that we were together. I didn't even notice. I have so much to learn.
We arrived in Ramallah and I asked him to take me to Yasser Arafat's tomb before he left me. He took me to The Mukataa and we paid our respects. There is a lone PA soldier that stands guard over the tomb. It's very solemn and it made me sad.
Kasem put me on a bus to Nablus, gave me one last lecture about what to do and what not to do and left. The ride to Nablus was long and HOT. Along the way I counted the miniature white cities dotting the hillsides. Settlement freeze, my ass.
The bus dropped me at Balata Refugee Camp and I spent the next half hour fighting hysterics as I suddenly found my situation unbelievably funny. I'd been left along side a dirt road, surrounded by demolished buildings with not a soul in sight. Exactly how was I supposed to summon a bus when I was ready to leave? It only got funnier to me when a few minutes later, I came upon a herd of goats with a lone shepherd. I'm sure he thought I was insane, the only white person for miles, laughing so hard tears are streaming down my dusty face.
I eventually found my way into the camp and found it teeming with people, vendors in the streets and children skipping home from school. Everyone said "Hallo" when they saw me. Children asked my name and then asked me to take their pictures. They recognize digital cameras and they love to see their pictures as soon as you've taken them.
As always, even though everyone seems pleasant and passive, I start to feel like I'm intruding so I just put the camera away and walked. And walked. And walked. SPF 100 did nothing to protect me today.
I wandered a short way into Nablus but the time was getting late and I had promised Kasem I would get myself back to Jerusalem before nightfall. I changed buses in Ramallah after spending another half hour or so looking around the city. (I like Ramallah. I could see myself living there.......)
As expected, the bus stopped just short of Qalandiya and some of the passengers exited. I sat in my seat and patiently waited. Then more people exited. They kept exiting. To my horror, I realized I was the only person left on the bus. Easily one of the biggest freak-out moments of my life. On impulse I decided to exit, too. How am I supposed to write about this stuff if I don't experience it myself, right? I followed the crowd toward the corrals and took my place in the queue. I was sure I was going to get in trouble for this but I figured I'd just play dumb and tell the soldiers I didn't know I was supposed to stay on the bus. It was hotter than hell.
There were probably a hundred people crammed into what I now call the cattle chute and they weren't letting anybody through. The air-conditioned buses were all waiting for us on the other side of the checkpoint. I looked around for the cameras I knew were there. I pretended like I was texting someone and quickly snapped a couple of pictures.
It got hotter and more crowded and when they finally decided to start letting people through, there was a stampede. Apparently, they unlock the turnstile for 5 seconds at a time and as many people as possible try to cram themselves through. I thought I was going to die. Faces are being smashed into the bars as everyone's shoving their way through trying to be the next person out. I kept thinking to myself, "If I ever get out of this alive Kasem's going to kill me". I don't blame them for their behavior. They have jobs to get to, lives to live and they're forced to go through this shit several times a day, every day. I tried to be aggressive and finally made it through the turnstile after several failed attempts. Once through, all belongings go through the scanner and you go through the metal detector. I watched the people in front of me place their IDs face down on a scanner so the soldiers behind the glass could read them. When it was my turn, I slapped my passport down and immediately heard "YOU WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO GET OFF THE BUS!!!". They asked to see my visa stamp from Ben Gurion and then waved me through. I boarded the buses with everyone else and made it safely back to Jerusalem.
I'm about to head up to the roof to attempt some more night-time pictures of the Dome of the Rock. It's incredibly noisy and hard to sleep here but I do feel a little better about being in the Old City tonight. Mohammed from Chicago works downstairs at the front desk. He's very religious. There is no alcohol allowed in this hostel and unmarried couples cannot stay in the same room. He listens to the Koran at all times. I'm not sure why but it makes me feel safe. Good night.