I had to get to the bus. Not just any bus, THE bus. The only one back to Jordan that day, leaving from Nazareth. I did not have lodging, and there’s no Joseph on this trip. I’m traveling alone. My friends had said, “Oh, don’t worry about getting around in Israel. All the signs will be in Hebrew and English, and the people will be helpful. It won’t be any trouble at all.”
Which is why I did not study numerals, letters, or basic sayings in Hebrew before going to Israel, like I did with Arabic for Egypt and Jordan. Which is why I kept myself awake on the first bus from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, communicating with the bus driver using strategic eye contact through his giant rearview mirror. “Do not let me miss my stop,” my bleary eyes said. “See? I’m staying awake and aware. I’m being self-reliant. I’m willing to follow instructions. Just please don’t let me miss my stop.”
My nonverbal deal with the not-at-all-friendly bus driver had begun earlier that day, when I climbed aboard the almost-empty bus at the creepily-empty bus station, and clearly looked confused by all the signs only in Hebrew (*ahem* see above).
5:00 a.m. — The bus driver asks, in halting English, “Which stop?”
“No– which stop?”
“…Uh…The central bus stop.”
“Many stop in Nazareth. Which one?”
“I’m taking the next bus to Amman.” *shows driver name of bus company*
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmm WHAT?? Well… shit. I nod, point at my travel notebook (he glares, gives a curt nod, glares some more), take my seat, and frantically scour every scrap of information I’d written down for my trip. Confirmation codes, departure times and locations, arrival times and locations, bus line numbers, phone numbers… no bus station. All the other buses I’d taken had arrived at and departed from central terminals. I’d stupidly assumed Nazareth would be the same. Now I’m in Israel, it’s dark outside, I’m exhausted and can’t read anything, and I have no idea where I’m going. I also have a very tight timeframe in which I need to transfer from the first bus to The Bus to Amman. How tight, you ask? 20 minutes, give or take nothing.
(If you are related to me–particularly if you are my mother–I’d like to take this moment to remind you that I am currently writing this from the safety of my home, under a warm blanket, in one piece. [Which is more than can be said for most Palestinians. Just sayin’…])
So anyway, I’m on this bus, right? And it’s sooo effing early in the morning, and it’s just me ‘n’ this bus driver playing psycho-aggressive eyesies in the rearview mirror over the course of three hours and finally he just looks at me and nods. (Thank God I’d been paying attention.)
I grab my stuff, and walk to the front. It’s 8:02 am. The Bus to Amman leaves at 8:25. Three extra minutes.
“Get off here. Ask them. They will help you.” *points outside*
Ah, yes. The children with machine guns. Thank you, kind sir, for saving my ignorant American ass, and yes– I will go ask them. Nevermind that they scare the freaking ba-Jesus (Ha! It’s Nazareth. Get it?) out of me, or that I’m blown away by how much they look and act like they could be at summer camp. I’d been observing the Israeli soldiers through a few bussing adventures. They were everywhere, and they looked so, so young. Most made slight uniform adjustments to be trendier; some clusters would playfully tease each other, affirming a nuanced social hierarchy; and there was usually a shy one, standing off from the rest, sometimes reading. It was an absurd, eery echo of my own adolescence, but with much harder faces and much, much heavier artillery.
8:03 a.m.– I jump off the bus and walk to the mini-checkpoint-station that may as well be a telephone booth with 5-10 soldiers milling ’round with nothing to do. I show their leader (the one with the biggest gun who looks about 20) my handwritten itinerary. He scrunches a dark, furrowed brow.
“Where are you going?”
“Hrm. Which bus are you taking?”
“Uhhh the [bus company name]. It’s the only one that goes to Amman.”
He turns to his right-hand not-yet-man. Spirited conversation in Hebrew ensues.
*throws hands in air* “I don’t know. It must be in the Arab side of town. Go with him, he’ll help you.” *gestures to Arab taxi driver*
Whew, thank goodness! I love taxi drivers (seriously) and at four weeks into my travels, I’d cobbled together a quasi-sensible Aranglish+gestures that worked more often than not. This is one of the ‘not’s.
8:06 a.m. — Chatting with the cabbie is getting me nowhere in terms of catching my bus. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and we’ve been driving around asking randos on the street. They don’t know where The Bus is either, though it doesn’t help that I don’t actually speak Arabic. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates.
8:15 a.m. — He pulls over next to a group of middle-aged men drinking tea, minding their business, and conversing. He talks to one of the men through the window. They repeatedly ask me to clarify what I’m looking for. I try to answer calmly, and successfully resist the urge to scream. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates. Feverish anxiety disrupts capacity for complete sentences.
8:16 a.m. — All hope is lost. And then…a look of recognition. Hurried speech in Arabic. Profuse thank-yous from the short-haired American girl fly frantically from the window as the cab drives away. Blood pressure maintains. Sweating continues.
8:21 a.m. — Driver and girl banter excitedly, unintelligibly. Questions are asked. None are answered. Speeding ensues. A stoplight is spotted; the light turns red. Blood pounds at temples.
8:23 a.m. — I can see The Bus on the other side of the intersection. People are boarding. We are waiting. Time stops.
8:24 a.m. — He guns it on green crosses the intersection flips a super-illegal U-turn pulls up to the curb looks back and smiles and waves and smiles and waves and shoos the girl out of the cab while she pays too much not enough tip. She runs into the ticket office and endures a stern lecture for tardiness. Agrees enthusiastically to accusations of personal incompetency. Smiles, nods, pays, smiles, nods. “Shokran!!!”
8:25 a.m. — I climb on to The Bus. It smells like urine. SweetJesusthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou I’m home-free.
Here’s what’s messed up: I traveled around more freely in a place I’d visited once than people who’ve lived there for generations can. The military presence of Israel–within Israel, not even Gaza or the West Bank–is overwhelming and terrifying, if only because teenagers are being given machine guns en masse, and without a lot to keep them busy. I am not an anti-Semite (say it with me now, “I am not an anti-Semite”) or a Holocaust denier, or harboring any negative sentiments about Jewish people or the Jewish faith, and I really appreciated the help of Israelis in the above story…but the Israeli government’s (note: NOT ‘the Jewish people’) calculated militarization of a region and terrorization of a people is sickening. So is the American media’s insistence on portraying the conflict as a war between equal political sides. The prevalent subtext is “This is a highly complex, ages-old global issue. Don’t insert yourself unless you know what you’re talking about, because you’ll be swiftly discredited if you try.”
Rather than start with a laundry list of atrocities exacted by either side, though, I’m offering two political truths:
1. This is not an ‘ages-old’ conflict. It started in 1947.
2. This is not a conflict of two equal, warring parties. Israel is a modern nation-state, afforded sovereignty and its accompanying rights. In our current international political system, statehood is the ultimate form of political agency, allowing for a people’s representation and empowered negotiation on their behalf. Palestinians do not have access to the political technology of the nation-state, making it much, much harder to advocate for their security interests on an equal playing field with Israel, nonviolently or otherwise.
People with real lives, real families, and real histories are being used as disposable political pawns (on both sides) in a twisted game of extremist chess, except one side was never given a queen and the other has a blank check from the United States.
This is not a war between equal and opposite forces. It’s an occupation. Many Israelis agree, and want to see the violence stop.
Image from BBC News.