Arrivé au Caire. We are tired, but Cairo is crazy, loud, dirty, beautiful, ugly, magic. The traffic insane. The hotel is close to Tahrir Square. On our way, the driver whips around the square which looks so familiar, and yet new to the eye. I had imagined it bigger. Mais ça me touche.
It is hot, even at 10 p.m. Later we sit on the roof terrace of the hotel with the others of our group, sipping a tea and enjoying the breeze high above the street noise, which never stops honking. Drivers here seem to blow their horn out of pure pleasure, just to signal their presence to other cars. Une auto qui va trop lentement se fait claxonner pour qu’elle se tasse. The hotel is on the 12th floor of a building one would never have guessed hosts a hotel.
Tomorrow morning Giza & Sakara. Our group is a bunch of linguists (Hagit Borer, David Heap, Stephanie Kelly, Máire Noonan (myself), Philippe Prévost and Laurie Tuller), a biochemist (Verena Stresing), and a composer (Antoine Bustros). We will be joined by Noam Chomsky and Assaf Kfoury. The purpose: to drive to Gaza and take part in an international academic conference held there. Apparently the first! (Addendum: we later find out that it’s the first in the faculty of Arts.)
In the morning Antoine detects the house where he was born and spent the first six years of his life down below from our balcony, quite close.
The day spent among pyramids built more than 4000 years ago. Entering the main pyramid, the big pyramid, costs an extra 100 pounds. We all go, but it’s a waste of time and money. And if you’re unlucky you’ll need a chiropractor the next day. You basically ascend a little stairways crouched to half your size. There isn’t much air in there. You arrive at the top gasping and sweating, and there is some kind of a small chamber with an empty non-descript sarcophagus. The way down is even worse – don’t go there if you have a fragile back or fragile knees. Or bad lungs.
The outside views, on the other hand: stunning. A hazy day, and so few people that it seems at times surreal to be there. At some point a group of head-scarved schoolgirls intercepts us. All smiles and laughter and giggles, lovely girls, very up-beat. They practice their English with us, and tell us it’s nice to speak with us, and that they like us. Some of us exchange emails with one of them so we can interchange photos.
The scarcity of other tourists turns this into another day of hardship for the myriads of sellers. So many horses, camels, horse carts, donkeys waiting for customers, but hardly anyone to hire them. Business is down, which makes the peddlers more desperate. It’s heart breaking to keep having to say ‘lah shukran’. Antoine, here Tarèque (Tarek) seems to have made a million friends within ten minutes. From every corner I hear ‘ya Tarek’, and he’s saying ‘ya habibi’ to guys he hardly met 2 minutes ago. The Egyptian in him is peeling out by the minute.
In front of the sphinx a small boy, Homsie, manages to make a deal with book marks. He offers them for 3 pounds. Only for his older brother to start shouting at him, say What, are you crazy, then turning to Antoine and saying (in Arabic): Sir, it’s six pounds, and you’ll get more, so it will be better for you. In the end he pays ten pounds.
The pyramids and tombs at Sakara are next. Sakara is worth every inch. But it is even more deserted. Apart from a forlorn group of Germans with a tour guide and two other tourists, we are the only ones.
We leave Cairo at 7 a.m. Our driver, Mohammed, from the Sinai peninsula, is not happy. He wanted to leave at 4:30 am to beat the bumper-to-bumper eight-lane morning traffic. But some of us are still jet lagged, and Chomsky only came in from the States in the evening before. So having a least a semblance of a night’s sleep seemed important.
First stop at a road side café. We greet Assaf Kfoury and Noam Chomsky. Delicious Turkish coffees are served. When I go to buy some sweets, the cashier gives me a broad smile and says Gaza (pronounced as ghazza, the first consonant is a voiced velar fricative.) Then they want to take a group photo of all of us.
On the road crossing into Sinai we are stopped. Our passports are collected, and some of the bags, only of men, are frisked. The car with Assaf and Chomsky seems to have passed without stopping. A few moments of worry that they might want us to open all our suitcases. But after some exchange by the driver and Antoine (here officially known by his Egyptian name Tarek) we are left to go. On we drive, now speeding across Sinai. A little mosque in the desert floats by. There is still quite some green and arable land.
A second checkpoint. Again all passports are gathered. We have the feeling they were expecting us, probably by a call from the last checkpoint. This time it takes longer. Every face is scrutinized against the passport photo. When he sees David’s (blue) eyes, he says: you have the same eyes as me, lifts his sunglasses and reveals a pair of stunning eyes. Traces left by the crusaders? The main guard continues joking with us, which diffuses the situation. (But David reminds me it’s those one should fear most.) He says he must call his general to verify whether the road is safe. Hagit says it’s just a cover. It may be just to – I learn a new acronym – CYA (cover your ass). We are asked for our official permissions to go to Gaza from the Egyptian consulate. We all give them. The consultation on the phone proceeds. Wahid alemaneya, wahid feranceya, arbah kanadeya, and so on. Antoine tries to explain about linguistics conference. Language conference is accepted. Finally we get the go ahead. But not yet. We have to wait, as from here we will have an armed police escort: ‘For your safety.’ The guys getting into the pickup look young. Young and with machine guns, and bullet proof vests. I realise that I forgot to bring my bullet proof vest. So did the others.
Back on the road, David reaches Maya in Gaza. She says police escort is great, we’ll be safer. David says not clear to detect irony or no irony over the cell phone. Some of us worry whether the police escort now means no toilet break, which we are in need of.
It turns out that the president (President Mursi) is also visiting Sinai today, hence the heightened security (which in the end was not so much on our behalf). We picked the right day.
Toilet stop at a mosque. First the woman go in. But the guy guarding the entrance looks anything but happy with a bunch of Western woman stumbling towards the men’s latrines. Although we have all covered up with scarves. (What – women aren’t supposed to pee?) Then the men go. The police escorts turn out to be a jolly bunch. They let David take a picture of them in their jeep. Every one is joking. Back on the road we see an official looking Mercedes pass. Someone jokes that it’s a Mursides (it’s such a bad joke I won’t accredit it.)
After a while the escort has left us. The next stop is El Arish, where some of us need to get money to be able to pay the driver and the 120 pounds per head for the border crossing. (But this turns out only to be a beginning. We seem to be getting out another 20 for this, another 40 for that. Luckily Verena and Philippe volunteer as bankers and collect it all. I gave up counting how much all this is costing. In the end, when you change it into dollars it’s not that much, of course.) Keeping fingers and toes crossed that the border crossing will actually happen. On the other side there is a delegation from the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) to welcome us. There will be a press conference, and presumably Chomsky will be asked to say a few words.
Standing in line at the bank machine I’m getting slightly discouraged by the prospect of having to be in long sleeves and covered by a scarf in this heat for the next four days. They should make men do this for a few days!
David is now getting very excited. In fact, he has been so for 24 hours, but he can now no longer hide it. His last attempt of crossing into Gaza was in November 2011 with the Tahrir and ended in six days in Israeli prison. (Luckily for him he was sharing that experience with twelve Irish men fellow inmates from the Saoirse, who quickly termed the prison the Givon health club spa.)
As I said, keeping fingers and toes crossed.
We get stopped again. But this time a nine-year old boy who is not at all happy that we won’t buy cigarettes from him.
Finally the border. Now it gets serious. As the van pulls to a stop we see Chomsky slowly walk toward us. Assaf seems to be busy trying to get the paperwork done. When he sees us waving, he breaks into a smile.
Now there are a lot of guys heckling and waving wads of shekels trying to exchange them for Egyptian pounds. We’ve been warned not to change here. But things never happen or not happen here without long and gesticulating conversations. Tarek is like a fish in water.
After about 15 minutes standing on the sunny and hot asphalt and bantering with a bunch of wannabe money exchangers, Assaf comes back, waving his and Chomsky’s passports. They are cleared. Cleared means, cleared to leave the first barrier of Egyptian bureaucracy (but we only discover this later.) Within moments they disappear in their car. Chomsky just has time to say ‘See you back in the United States.’ We laugh, but somewhat uneasily. We feel left behind. We were supposed to cross over in convoy. Chomsky’s presence was supposed to help pave our way, and now we feel strangely abandoned. Hagit, recovering from a stomach bug (no, not from Egypt, from funny noodles in Heathrow!) and still weak from it is not happy. We try to keep our spirits up. David’s excitement becomes mixed with a dash of anxiety. Is this going to be a third time not achieving the crossing? Gaza is quickly turning into the promised land. I secretly permit myself to wonder whether it is David’s destiny never to reach Gaza, and we are caught up in his destiny, like characters in someone’s dream, where they can’t escape. But it’s just a fleeting feeling. Deep down I believe we will cross over. And even Hagit now is optimistic. The colour is back in her cheeks.
And yes, finally! After about an hour (that’s nothing, of course!) we can go. We all hop in the van, the iron gate swings open, and we leave behind the guys hanging out at the border café. (Are they waiting to cross in, or coming out? Or is this just where they spend the day with some business to do? It’s not a happy scene to leave behind. But no one appears too depressed either.)
We drive through, stop, and someone hands our bunch of passports to Tarek. But wait – Hagit’s passport is missing! She spots it right away, her red Swiss passport. But now she realises that she never gave it to them! She’s had it in her bag all along!!! From the back we say, don’t tell. Just say it’s ok. We do at first but then quickly realise that this isn’t going to be a good idea, if she actually wants to leave Gaza again. So we turn back to the gate. Our hearts are sinking. For sure this is another hour, and maybe bad news altogether? But no, it isn’t. We are let to continue, drive across to the next building, get out of the van, pay our driver and say adieu, and enter the large customs hall. Now we need to pay more money, but only two pounds, so that a guy sitting at a table can give us cards to fill out onto which he then glues stamps. Aghast we realise that we are still in Egypt. We thought we were at the Gaza entry! Tarek gathers our passports with the stamped cards and brings them all to the counter (this is what he was advised to do. Everything is communicated with a whole bunch of jokes. But of course they pass us over the head.) We have to spend another hour in this hall. All the while Tarek at the counter talking. What on earth can they possibly be discussing for all this time?! We realise that without him as a translator things might have been quite a bit more dodgy. There aren’t many people waiting on the rows of chairs. We are the only Westerners, it seems.
Finally the go ahead. Now it’s for real. David, who a minute ago was unstoppable, has now disappeared. But he returns quickly with a bunch of juice cans that contain not only mango juice but also little chunks of mango. Unbelievably delicious.
We walk across, and there, hardly believing it: We are in Gaza.
We see a forlorn pair – Chomsky and Assaf – walk toward us across the square, now big smiles.They had waited for us to cross into Gaza.
Someone says something about seeing each other in the United States, but no one knows for sure what this can mean, except as a reference to the earlier joke. Chomsky’s triumph is even bigger, as the last time he tried to visit a Palestinian university (Birzeit in the Westbank) he was refused entry by Israel (what a PR faux pas!). With a typo, he tells us, and shows his passport on the page where a big stamp across says “Entery refused”. HA HA! Now he is in Palestine. We are here. I am here. The phrase that is always a truism (as David had reminded us earlier in the day). And yet so impossible to believe!
All enter a new van, suitcases and all. It’s is only about 200 meters. Then we stop, and there is a huge delegation waiting for us. They must have waited at least two hours, as we were so delayed. Cameras are poised, spot lights are on. Formal suits and big smiles all around. We feel dusty and underdressed, but so happy! David’s eyes are brimming. And now a Charlie Chaplin moment… We all wait, because obviously it should be Chomsky to exit the van first. But Antoine (Tarek) who is sitting in front beside the driver sees everyone’s eyes on him, and sees someone beckon him. So it is he who gets out first, and is introduced to the president of the Islamic University of Gaza. It is he who bows and says “Antoine Bustros”, and then realises the mistake, but has to carry on and greet the whole line. We are all quite unaware of this until later, when he tells us the story and we laugh tears.