I wake up at 5 a.m. in order to drive 3 hours to Jerusalem to attend a workshop. During the first coffee break I see that my friend has arrived from Jenin. I am surprised and happy to see her; happy because I love her dearly, and surprised because I did not know she was planning to attend the conference, and therefore we did not arrange to get her permission to enter Israel. There was simultaneous translation into Arabic and I make sure she gets her headphones. She takes a drink and finds a seat. We are excited. During the lunch break I am approached by several different members of the group who ask me if I can take my friend back with me up north on my way home. I don’t give it a second thought and say yes. I am not sure exactly where the border crossing is located, but I figure that my friend knows and will guide me. It was a long day with a lot of sitting and listening, and at about 4 p.m. I decide that it is time to go. I have a long trip home ahead of me and want to try and beat some of the traffic. I find her and we go to the car. The two of us are alone in the car and I begin to realize that something out of the ordinary is about to happen. I look over at her sitting next to me, with her body covered from head to toe, with her beautiful smiling face peeking through her dark grey clothes, and I appreciate the fact that we are a extraordinary couple.
Driving through the streets of the Israeli half of Jerusalem with my friend, many thoughts start racing through my mind: she has never been here, she has never seen the ‘other side’ of Jerusalem, she is in my car traveling with me illegally, I have no idea how she managed to get into Israel without permission and here I am taking her home. Questions started pouring in: What does it feel like for her? How does the city look to her? Is she surprised? Jealous? Angry? I look over at her and she smiles back at me. She looks happy and reaches out her hand to pat my shoulder and thanks me again for taking her home.
She doesn’t speak a lot of English and speaks almost no Hebrew. I do not speak Arabic. We both understand a bit of all three languages. We keep trying to communicate with our bits and pieces, each one speaking her language, hoping to somehow be understood. I try to communicate to her that I am curious about how she feels, driving through West (Israeli) Jerusalem. I do not succeed in making myself understood. We continue to drive. The streets seem so clean and orderly, almost sterile. There are very few people walking, shopping, riding bicycles or sitting on benches. The city seems bizarrely empty.
We find our way to the highway, guided by the voice of the electronic lady from the Waze application. She is the only one who is speaking. I put the radio on because the silence makes me feel uncomfortable. I would love to be able to chat with my friend. I would ask her about her children, her husband, her work, her life. I would take advantage of this opportunity to get to know her better, to allow her to get to know me better. But we have no common tongue. So we listen to music.
As we leave Jerusalem my head starts to spin with thoughts, worries and fears. I realize that I am driving in my car with a Palestinian woman who is in Israel illegally. She is my friend and I am taking her home. It is so simple and so complicated at the same time. We are travelling on a highway that cuts through the West Bank, close to the wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian Authority. The wall is huge, and seems even more massive with my friend in the car with me. I wonder how she feels about the wall, which is too enormous be ignored. If I could speak her language I would ask her.
We are getting closer to a checkpoint. At the checkpoint there will be soldiers peering into the cars; they will be looking for people who look suspicious. Do we look suspicious? I would say so. We are an odd couple- an American-Israeli woman and her Palestinian friend. We can barely even communicate with one another. What are we doing in the car together? I rehearse over and over in my head what I will say to the soldiers when they ask me for an explanation. I speak with my husband on the phone every five minutes and ask his advice. Is this going to be OK? What should I say? How do I explain her presence in my car in Israel without permission? Am I doing something illegal?
I can hear my heart thumping in my chest and my hands are sweating. She can see that I am stressed. I try to explain to her that there is a checkpoint ahead. That she understands; the word ‘checkpoint’ requires no translation. A thought comes into my head (that I am embarrassed to even write down). Iconsider asking her to remove her head covering as we get closer to the checkpoint so as to raise less suspicion. I dismiss the thought as racially and religiously prejudiced and I am shocked at myself.
As we approach the checkpoint, I turn off the radio and we both hold our breath. The soldiers are chatting among themselves. They don’t even look inside the car. We drive on through the checkpoint and on into Israel. What a relief. We celebrate by listening to a disc (loudly).
My thoughts go back to my friend and what she is thinking as we drive down the highway. It is three lanes wide, smoothly paved, colorfully landscaped, super-modern, an automated toll road. The sun is beginning to set over Tel Aviv which we can see in the distance. I point out the Tel Aviv skyline to her. She is excited and says that she would like to see Tel Aviv. I would love to show it to her. I fantasize about the possibility as we drive on.
We near the rest stop. We both need the toilet and are ready for a cup of coffee. I park the car and my friend refuses to leave the car. She is afraid and cannot explain to me why. I respect her refusal and go inside, use the toilet and buy two cups of coffee and some cookies. We have a little picnic in the parked car. She seems happy but it is hard to know for sure. She wants to go home. She speaks with her husband on the phone many times.It is about six o’clock. We are still about 45 minutes from our destination, the border, at a place called Salem.
The sun continues to set. Somehow the communication between us opens us. We begin to understand each other better. I don’t want this to end. I invite her to sleep over at my house. I promise to take her to the border in the morning. She refuses. She wants to go home to her family. It has been a long day. There is not a lot of traffic on the road and we get closer and closer to Salem surprisingly quickly. We are off the highway and driving through Wadi Ara, an area filled with Arab villages and towns. Again I wonder how she sees through her eyes what I see through mine. I am getting used to wondering and not getting any answers.
We get to Megiddo Intersection, turn right and drive another 10 minutes to Salem. I slow the car down and drive around looking for the border crossing. There is an army base, but there is no border crossing. We are both confused. We drive in the direction of the nearest village and scout out a man walking alone by the side of the road. Hal’a asks him in Arabic about the border crossing. The problem is that there is no border crossing here. There is a border, but no way to cross it. He explains to me in Hebrew how to get to the crossing at Sandale, which is about a half hour away. It is now 18:45. He tells her that there is another problem. The border crossing at Sandale closes at 19:00. There is no way we can get there in time.
It is getting dark. We head out in the direction of Sandale. I am driving as fast as I can. The emotions in the car are mixed. We feel like we are in an adventure together. Her husband calls every 15 minutes and is updated. I update my husband too. I invite her to sleep over at my house again. Again she refuses. We try to get to Sandale before 19:00 but it is just too far away.
We pull into the border crossing at 19:15. The gate is locked. Two men are standing on the side of the road. From the dust on their pants they look like construction workers. They explain to her that they got here at 19:02, the gate was locked and they were not allowed to go through. One is angry, the other is apathetic; both look very tired. They have been awake since 4:30 when their day began. All they want is to go home, have some dinner, see their families and go to bed. They are waiting.
A soldier approaches the car. I guess that he is probably 18 or 19 years old. He asks for our identity cards and asks to hear our story. I talk with him in Hebrew and explain that my friend just wants to go home. He takes our identity cards. Mine has a blue plastic cover, is clean and new; hers has a green cover, is rubbed out and ragged. I wonder how many times she has handed her identity card over to an 18 year old soldier. Hundreds? Thousands? This is my first time. He promises to try and take care of things as quickly as possible. He is sweet. We sit in the car together and wait. I turn off the engine. It is dark.
We wait. And wait. We don’t know exactly what we are waiting for, but we wait together. We both talk on the phone with our husbands who are both getting worried. I turn on the light inside the car. We eat some more cookies. I show her pictures on my smart phone of my son’s wedding. She shows me pictures of her daughter’s high school graduation. I show her a video of my 3 year old granddaughter dancing in my living room. She shows me a photo of her extended family, telling me a bit about each family member. Somehow language is not longer a problem. She is speaking English and even a bit of Hebrew. The time goes by and we are OK.
The sweet soldier returns and reports that our identity cards have been processed and that there will be no problems. We just need to wait for the soldiers with the keys to come open the gate. More than another hour goes by and we are still sitting and waiting in my car. The time is 20:30. The batteries on our phones are running low. I am losing my patience; Hal’a is worried. We start telling each other birth stories. The language barrier has completely disappeared.
I go looking for the sweet soldier to ask him what is going on. I approach the guard house and peer inside the window. I see one female and two male soldiers devouring a pizza. The female soldier turns to me and asks: “What is your story with this woman anyway? Why don’t you just go home?” I am stunned, both by the raw brutality of the question and by the simplicity, spontaneity and honesty of my answer: “Because she is my friend”. I am told that the soldiers with the key are on the way and I am ordered to move away from the window. I am shocked by the way I am being spoken to, but I move away. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize her chance to go home. I feel like I could literally explode from the irritation, frustration and anger that are building up inside of me. I cannot begin to imagine what Hal’a is feeling. For me, it is the first time. For her it is impossible to count the number of times that she has encountered this treatment, this waiting, this frustration.
I am back in the car. I tell her that it will be soon. I try to convince myself that what I say is true. Optimism has always been one of my stronger traits.
At 21:00 four soldiers in full combat gear arrive in a command car with the key. They take all the identity cards again and make a long phone call.
At 21:15 the gate is opened and we hug each other goodbye. She thanks me over and over again for waiting with her. I would have it no other way.
I wait and watch her cross over the border together with the two construction workers on her way home to her family. I get back into the car and drove back home to mine. I get home after 22:00.
It turned out to be quite a long and memorable day. It was the day the language barrier disappeared. It was the day in which I peeked into my friends world and she peeked into mine. It was the day when I declared that she truly is my friend.
(names removed to protect the identities of these two amazing women)