Between the Lines
If you look at a map of Israel and the West Bank, next to Jerusalem you’ll see an oblong outline, like a heart shape left out too long in the sun, etched into the West Bank. That’s the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the stone and glass dollop on a hill where I spent nearly seven months of college.
Nobody can quite agree on where the true lines are in Israel—where you think you are seems to depend more on political compass points than on actual compass points—but some lines stand out more than others.
I crossed one such line, the infamous Green Line demarcating Israeli and West Bank land, every day when I walked to class. Campus sat inside that wilted outline of agreed-upon Israeli territory, but my apartment in the Students’ Village did not. The East Jerusalem neighborhood, known as French Hill, was and is, technically, a settlement in the West Bank, albeit one of the less controversial ones. It was built up through the 1960’s and 1970’s, and many have simply accepted that it is here to stay. Others deny that it is a settlement at all.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem from the West Bank in 1967, and considers it Israeli territory, even if the international community does not. As such, unlike other sections of the Green Line, there was no wall, fence, or checkpoint to go through as I went to and from campus—when you believe you own both sides of a line, there’s no need to set up a physical barrier.
The Green Line may have been invisible on the sloping sidewalk I walked on each day, but it was branded into my thoughts as I crossed the street undisturbed. A division at once distinct and selectively permeable, it kept the concept of division running through my brain as I tried to concentrate through lectures on Hebrew grammar and on Chaucer. Divisions were everywhere, from the maps that kept the country arguing to the local students in my classes whose Arabic and fast-paced Hebrew were walls I couldn’t climb, no matter how many verb tenses I studied.
Growing up as a Jewish American, I’d always been presented with a glossy, all-welcoming version of Israel—a homeland away from home that would be a part of me even if I never set foot there. Studying abroad in Israel had seemed like an efficient way to check off the bureaucratic boxes for my International Studies major and while also exploring my roots. I knew about the simmering violence and rifts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, but knowing is different than feeling. The semester ticked by, and the fractured feeling of that fractured land made me increasingly uneasy. If Israel was a part of me, I wanted to know more than just a part of Israel. I wanted to cross those divisions and understand as much of it as possible.
I talked to my friend Ahmed, a Palestinian student in another department of the university, about my difficulty with these divisions, about how walled off I felt culturally even when I could commute over lines on the map. In a land of walls, those conversations became a door—Ahmed offered to take me and another friend to see Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine and seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
We made our way to Ramallah on one of the Arab buses, disembarking at the Qalandiya checkpoint and walking through to the Palestinian side, a process that took about two minutes. Daytime traffic was low—many people were conserving energy as part of their Ramadan fast—and security let us pass through without comment. We took a taxi through the Qalandiya village and Qalandiya refugee camp, and then we were there.
These Ramadan decorations were set up near the city center.
Ahmed led us around the streets of Ramallah, under the Palestinian flags and the Ramadan lights, which would shine all around the city once the sun went down. Ramallah is not the sort of city that often gets to make its own first impression, especially to people whose faces look like mine. I cannot express how grateful I am to Ahmed for letting us at least get a second impression of the city.
Guided along by Ahmed, I saw that Ramallah is more than its streets and buildings, more than its tumultuous history and its tumultuous future. It’s the home of the best pistachio ice cream I ever had; ask a local where they get theirs—Rukab Ice Cream or Baladna Ice Cream. It’s where blondes staff a store called Brunettes and where Nikes are sold where tanks were once parked. It’s a city full of stories, most of which aren’t being told or listened to outside of the Palestinian sphere.
These four lions, a well-known landmark, represent four major families of Ramallah.
Cultural exchange—it’s delicious.
I was excited to get back and tell my family, friends, and classmates about what I’d seen. I felt like I’d crossed a fundamental threshold, like I’d peeled back a layer of Israel to see more fruit whose sweetness I hadn’t tasted before. We caught a taxi and headed back through the twilight, back the way we came.
We got to the Qalandiya checkpoint, and that sweetness faded away. The checkpoint and parking lot around it were swollen with people. This time, crossing would take more than two minutes. Ahmed took one look at the line at told us that we might be there for two hours.
The checkpoint had several lanes, each comprised of a narrow cage with a controlled turnstile at the end, which might or might not allow a set number of people through at a given time. All but two of these lanes were closed. Thirty or forty exhausted-looking men stood at the entrance of the two cages, waiting to go through.
The tired crowd waits to enter the cages at the Qalandiya checkpoint.
After some time, we reached the cage openings and were herded in with the rest of the crowd. The spindly metal bars loomed up close to our shoulders on either side, making me wonder how heavier individuals could manage to pass through. Metal caging held down by a large rock formed the top, through which rain could freely fall on those of us waiting between the bars. Several frustrated men ahead turned back, forcing us to press up against the metal to make room.
We waited. We made jokes to pass the time, but eventually even those fell flat. This crossing was nothing like my crossing of the Green Line. Packed in amongst those tired bodies, I could feel how a compulsory and degrading daily experience like this could build up deep resentment over time. We were not treated like people. We were treated like cattle.
Close quarters: the view from inside a cage at the Qalandiya checkpoint.
The soldiers beyond the turnstile glanced at my American passport for barely a second before waving me through the metal detector and out the other side. I was lucky. I am lucky. I can’t say the same for those men in line with me. Because of politics and where on the map they happened to be born, they were and continue to be forced through that undignified process every day—enduring the wait and the harsh treatment without knowing if they will be allowed to cross through at the end.
This was the view over my shoulder after I cleared the turnstile at the Qalandiya checkpoint.
We left the checkpoint and boarded the Arab bus, back to the wilted map outline that I called home. I was furious. Furious at the soldiers, furious at my easy passport, furious at my comfortable seat on the bus, and furious at the warm bed that I knew was waiting for me in my Jerusalem while men still stood in the cages.
Most of all, I was angry with the nothingness I found within myself when I tried to put together how such a holy place could also be so unholy, how a world of darkness could fit within a world of light and how lines on the map could matter so little and so much. I thought hard as towns slid past the bus windows, and I came up with nothing. It made no sense to me. It still doesn’t.
I’m thousands of miles and an ocean away from that country and that night in Ramallah, now, living in another apartment across the salty sea—but I haven’t forgotten. I want to pour myself into confronting that nothingness and the gaps between what I thought I knew, what I’d hoped I’d know by now, and what’s here in front of me. I’ll be here, tracing the solid and dashed lines on my map, trying to know that unknowable place and how I do and do not want to fit in it—knowing that it won’t be enough but that at least it will be a start.
Sarah Richman is a writer and public affairs professional based in Washington, D.C., where she is working on her first novel. She graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota with cum laude degrees in Creative Writing and International Studies. Her fiction and poetry are published in The Ogilvie, Chanter Literary Magazine, and Thistle Literary Magazine. You can read more about Sarah and her work at sarahrichmanwriter.com.