It’s not a new story, for Gazans: I never made it home this summer. After finishing my second year at university, I headed to Amman in order to wait for my entry permit to let me through the many checkpoints on the way to Gaza. As a Palestinian with a Gaza ID (an ID that indicates I’m a resident of Gaza), I cannot enter the West Bank through the Allenby Bridge, drive to Jerusalem, to Beit Hanoun ‘Erez’, and cross to my family. You may think the West Bank is home too and maybe, since it’s not under siege the way Gaza is, I can enter it as it is under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. Not the case. There are little bits and pieces under the rule of the PA but Israel, having the upper hand in the administration of the Allenby Bridge controls who gets in and who gets out, and Palestinians with Gazan IDs cannot enter the West Bank without a previously coordinated permit. Two weeks before I left Oxford this summer, my family in Gaza went to the Ministry of Civil Affairs and sent in an application for me to take the journey from Amman to Gaza. If you take a look at the map, it’s not more than a four-hour drive, really. But I have now spent more than a month and a half in Amman, and I still haven’t heard about this long-awaited permit.
I’ve watched my friends return to their homes over the world, this summer, without the slightest worry. I envy their simple freedom to just book a flight and go to whichever country they like. Most of them find it hard to comprehend the contorted procedure I have to go through in order to have a chance of getting home. They all stand silently whenever the subject is brought up. We awkwardly look at the ground until I make a stupid joke about how I would have more chance applying to be a relief worker there, than simply claiming my citizenship.
I was introduced to Comma Press by my own publisher, Just World Books, when Comma participated in the Ilkley Literature Festival with The Book of Gaza in October 2014. They had planned and failed to get two of their brilliant authors, Mona Abu Sharikh and Nayrouz Qarmout, to speak at the festival. In May 2015, a Manchester-based Gazan Mohammed Ghalayini and I were invited to speak at another festival, Writing on the Wall in Liverpool, once again in place of the two authors, who once again failed to get out. Comma, Mohammed and I felt that these events should not be cancelled; UK audiences need to hear from people and writers who live similar experiences to that of the authors. To defy the absence of the authors, the organisers videoed them reading their stories and showed them to the audience in Liverpool, Ilkley and eslewhere.
Nayrouz Qarmout’s story in the Book of Gaza follows the life of a girl growing up in the Strip, feeling restricted by social traditions and standards. The innocence of her protagonist and her longing for freedom speaks to the reader through beautiful descriptions of a close-knit family living in one of Gaza’s refugee camps. I got the chance to talk to Nayroouz, via email, from either side of the impossible border, and to ask her about the agonising process of trying to get out of Gaza. She found it important to go into the details of the process because collectively they make it effectively impossible.
Rawan: What do you think prevented you from travelling?
Nayrouz: When I’m asked this question, it’s self-evident that I answer briefly: ‘because Gaza is under siege’ as is the West Bank but in a different way, and one of the most important features of this siege is the closure of borders which prevents the movement of goods and travellers whether through Beit Hanoun ‘Erez’ checkpoint or through the Rafah border crossing.
At the beginning of the year, I decided to travel after accepting the invitation from Comma to participate in several events for the Book of Gaza and read my story, ‘The Cloak of the Sea’. I decided to travel despite the impact last year’s war on Gaza had on me, psychologically, despite its effect on my ability to write, and on every part of my life and my family. Even though the Egyptian border was still closed, I refused to be defeatist, and believed that this time I would cross the border (for the first time since I was a kid). So I embarked on the several months’ worth of paperwork needed to apply for permits.
First, I applied for a visa to enter the UK, from the British Consulate. This first visa application was turned down as a paper proving I have a job in Gaza was missing from the application. This was a problem because, besides being a writer, I work in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Here we can see the impact of both the Palestinian ‘divisions’ working in unison – the geographic and the political ‘division’ [Hamas in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank].
I had to ask a friend of mine who lives in Ramallah to request an official paper that states that I work at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs since I am technically an employee of the Palestinian Authorities in Ramallah, and not of any department in Gaza. Eventually this proof, arrived from Ramallah, and having it made the second attempt to get a visa easier.
Having finally been granted this visa to enter the UK, I then had to apply for a ‘passage permit’ from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to pass through [Israeli territories] to the West Bank, so as to then cross the Allenby Bridge, to Amman from where I would fly to London. [This is because the Rafah border crossing with Egypt had been closed, almost continually, for over a year; with the Egyptian government justifying this as being for ‘national security’ reasons, ‘protecting Egypt from terrorist attacks in north Sinai’; this excuse was an example of General Sisi building on the national Egyptian fear of the democratically elected and then undemocratically ousted Muslim Brotherhood, which many claimed had links with Hamas, and through them Hezbollah]. The Ministry of Civil Affairs is in charge of sending Palestinian applications to Israel and following up on those applications as the security entity responsible for us as citizens in the Palestinian Territories, according to the Oslo accords.
Here I was asked to provide a number of official papers including: an entry clearance to Jordan, a copy of the visa, the original invitation letter from Comma Press (which I only have an electronic copy of, [as physical post has reached Gaza since around 2009]), the date and time of my flight which was booked for me by Comma and then postponed several times as I waited for the permit to arrive.
The Palestinian side of this process was not easy to deal with. I had to call again and again to pressure various employees of the Ministry of Civil Affairs to ‘speed up’ the application and give it priority as time was running out.
I know that the government in Gaza does not care much for me as I do not officially represent any of its ideologies and am not a party member. That said, certain government-run media outlets, like Alkitab TV, did not hesitate in praising The Book of Gaza and its authors – this has been as a positive move, by the Palestinian writing community, and it’s a decision we respect.
My next step was to get permission from the government here in Gaza in order to cross the Beit Hanoun checkpoint… What I’m trying to show here is that we live in a prison that is ruled by multiple authorities and by an administrative system that is divided from top to bottom, a bureaucratic rule that does not care for the rights of the citizen or the individual. Both the government in Ramallah and in Gaza are under the authority of the Israeli occupation which controls them, not only by confiscating lands, and denying Palestinian sovereignty over what’s left, but also by monitoring all travellers’ movements through every checkpoint, under the pretence of security. Isn’t this more terrorising than the terror they pretend to be fighting? More than 1.8 million people, living in this tiny space, are forbidden from moving, and are asked only to eat and sleep…. until they lose hope in their own humanity, until they lose all autonomy, until their very ability to move – to change their lives through movement – is completely denied them, and they become paralysed, and stay in their homes most of the day. Is this a life?
I sometimes wonder about those who talk of ‘humanity’. What is Humanity? Is it only allowing food and aid in to shut people’s mouths? Is it only acknowledging a nation of prisoners with renewed rounds of military attacks?
Rawan: What did you want to accomplish had you been able to participate in the tour?
Nayrouz: I am sick of the stereotype that all international media outlets propagate about Gaza. Maybe we have a conservative ideology in a lot of what we express in our words, behaviour, and interactions, bur Gaza has a history, and a present, and a future. It’s part of Historic Palestine. Its society and culture developed through centuries in order for it to possess its own identity, which expresses itself through every city and town and village. It’s the sea and the orange groves and lemon harvests. It’s the olive oil. It’s the rebellious sands and rivers that seek an outlet onto the shore, to give shape and expression to their grace. Gaza has not completed a single cycle of building and re-development, after an attack, before another one starts. It’s always resisted and fought for its own freedom from the occupation, in vain. All it’s ever wanted is to free its citizens and to break the intellectual shackles created by the fear and horror of continuous attacks on Gaza, year in, year out. I wrote it in my story and I will say it again: ‘Gaza’s coastline is not clean. Everything is scattered about in disarray. The sand is littered with rubbish, and tents dot the beach like piles of hay where dreaming souls shelter, conversing with their most intimate imaginings. This is Gaza, a young girl yet to learn the art of elegance, a young girl who has not yet developed her own scent and is still, willingly or not, perfumed by all around her.’ I dream of adding to this sense of identity, that Gaza is still developing, even if I only manage to add a single letter to that identity, it would be a contribution.
Rawan: Do you think Israel intended to prevent you from travelling in order to hinder the publicity of the book? Do you think Palestinian writers and academics are targeted by Israel and not allowed to travel specifically?
Nayrouz: I think the whole Palestinian population is targeted by these policies and the bureaucracy that stems from them. It’s a tactic, a deliberate strategy that aims to create a certain opinion within the Palestinian electorate, an opinion that is confused, divided, extremist and satisfied with itself all at the same time. It makes you, as a Palestinian, reject your own authority which cannot find you solutions – either political solutions, granting you freedom, or basic administrative solutions, allowing you to live your life as a normal citizen. It makes you realise that all sovereignty is held in one hand, the hand of Israel. This public opinion that Israel tries to foster, indirectly, among Palestinians, creates a political reality that will serve as a target (and a justification) for future Israeli attacks; a reality that is extremely exhausting for some social, political, and economic groups in Palestine, and very comfortable for other groups here.
In addition, this ‘public opinion’ is leading to a reality where Israeli colonies are present, and growing in numbers, inside the Palestinian territories, which in turn leads to further slicing up of Palestine into different, isolated parts, separating and isolating the Palestinian people even further. Division is Israel’s modus operandi: political division, geographic division, bureaucratic division, intellectual division, and so on. And far too many Palestinians themselves buy into this; if we’re divided then they can move in, and settle in those divisions – or they can use the extremists at one end of the division, as an excuse to annihilate all of us. The security required to protect these settlers means that the only negotiations being sought are ones designed to reach a ‘security solution’, rather than a ‘political solution’. This overrides the political, human rights of the Palestinians at every turn. All of this is happening under the pretext of what is called ‘the policy of reality’.
As for the freedom of movement for writers and academics you asked about, there lies in this a number contradictions. On the one hand, Israel presents itself as a democratic, civilised country that protects the rights of minorities and human rights of all, and claims to deal with neighbouring countries justly. But on the other hand, it does exactly what it chooses to serve itself. It uses violence to terrorise Palestinians, and shows off its military might against the frail bodies of ordinary Palestinians, including the youngest of children, to respond to political parties in Gaza that it dislikes and breakaway militias that are a joke compared to its own US- and UK-backed military machine. There is no way Gaza’s militias – even if they were all combined – could ever equal the power of Israel. Maybe these brigades claim to be responding to Israeli injustice, but I assure you that our cause with Israel is first a moral cause, not a military one, one that should be respected in any international cause, one that should be defended and fought for in those courts. Until it is fought in those courts, Israel will continue to get away with appearing to be just. For instance, Israel treats our patients in its hospitals, claiming that it is responding to a ‘humanitarian situation’, with these contradictory conscessions, Israel just keeps on getting away with it.
Dear Rawan, I would be lying if I tell you that no Palestinian writers passed through Beit Hanoun checkpoint into the West Bank with an official Palestinian permit. But I am not close enough to the Palestinian politicians for them to care about me as a writer, so I failed. Be in no doubt; Israel has many ways of manipulating us, our ambitions, our thoughts, and everything around us, that are not always obvious. Of course, I don’t know Israel’s stand on me, personally, as a writer, or if it has one at all, I’m just a writer who speaks her own point of view like any other writer. I am a Palestinian refugee who came to Gaza after the Oslo accords. I was born in Syria and I do not belong to any political movement and I am proud of my own independent point of view. It’s funny that even now, five months, after I was supposed to fly to the UK, and seven months after I applied, I still haven’t heard back either from the Palestinian side or the Israeli side about whether my application has been approved or rejected. It’s academic of course, the festivals I was supposed to read at in Liverpool and Bradford, have long passed. All I know, from speaking to employees of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, is that it will be difficult for me to obtain a permit because I am a Palestinian woman under the age of 35 applying for the first time for a permit after losing my Palestinian ID for more than fifteen years since I moved to Gaza as I couldn’t obtain a Palestinian ID like any normal citizen. All of this requires a long security check that can take the Israeli authorities ‘at least 20 days’.
It’s a battle for existence. I do not believe that a people can live off the killing of another people. The existence of both of states – under the wider definitions of humanity – is the only thing that will ensure the continued existence of both of our peoples, not a continuation of the current situation. We both fear the other’s military capabilities, we both fear the other will prevent us from living the life that is owed to us. What international policy-makers in Egypt, in Britain, in the States, are doing right now is simply creating more and more blind hatred. This is what I fear may be nesting in the minds of a lot of the world’s youth, when they should be searching for human interaction; only interaction will lay the path towards re-development, towards the elevation of the human experience, the renewal of a civilised way of thinking, and the preservation (rather than the manipulation) of our own, endless culture.
Nayrouz eloquently summarizes the experience of trying to travel out of Gaza. A lot of people have been waiting for more than a year to travel because of Israel’s and Egypt’s tight grip over the borders. I can feel my own frustration in Nayrouz’s words and I can imagine it feels the same for everyone in this situation. It no doubt feels even worse for students, who’ve missed an entire year at their universities abroad, and even worse for patients needing medicine or treatment abroad. There is a story for each of them.
Rawan Yaghi won a scholarship to study at Oxford University in 2013, as a 19 year old student at the Islamic University of Gaza. She has been present at and stood in for authors who have been unable to attend our Book of Gaza events.
Nayrouz Qarmout is a contributor to Comma’s Book of Gaza, and is a Palestinian writer and activist.
See translator Sarah Irving’s Blog Post on the Comma blog- Translation as Solidarity.