“Are you a doctor?” A frown creeps across my forehead. Not a question I’ve ever been asked before. 

“No, a lawyer”. Although I don’t think of myself as one. Is it just the ease with which the words fit into the same sentence? What are you going to be when you leave school, a doctor or a lawyer? The ‘noble professions’. 

“Usually people going to Ramallah are doctors.” Ah, right. By “people”, I assume the Immigration official at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, means foreigners heading for Palestine. Can I provide him with proof that I am going to Ramallah to do training for an international organisation, as I claim? Not asked in a demanding way, but clear that my say so is insufficient. I slip my international consultancy contract from its plastic sleeve and slide it under the glass that separates me from the big, bearded man. He picks up the phone. The guttural, sandpapery Hebrew fills his booth, his thumbs and forefingers flick backwards and forwards through my passport. “Ken, ken.” Approval is given, the tiny blue visa card printed. “Don’t lose it” he says, and smiles. 

I’m through, leaving the slow queue and questions snaking behind me. Onward to Ramallah, where I will not be a doctor or a lawyer, and where I won’t need my passport and the visa card, but which I will need, should I move ever so slightly beyond it.

Checkpoints, barriers, walls, separation. The daily bread of Palestine. Bread that was not daily for me, but which is for so many. A bitter bread, sourdough, that would sit on my tongue and in my stomach, if it was part of my daily diet. In my case, a few mouthfuls: the grizzly, grey concrete, razor wire, and bright lights of the first checkpoint I encounter, about 30 kms from the airport, on my way to Ramallah; the ‘industrial size’ Qalandia checkpoint with its multiple lanes and turnstiles that I travelled through on my off day outing to Jerusalem; the close scrutiny of my passport and my person at a security stop en route to the airport for my return home. How I bristled at this scrutiny, at the question of what I was doing. “I’m leaving”, audible. “For heaven’s sake”, inaudible on the breath of my sigh. Don’t roll your eyes, dearly beloved’s words in my head. But the question was not what was I doing in this moment, but what was I doing here, what had I been doing for the past ten days? A fuller explanation of the training I had been conducting. Further inspection of my passport and visa. A barely perceptible nod. “Okay, go.”

Maybe cumulative bristling and not just in that moment. Vicarious bristling. How many stories had I heard since being here, about hours spent at checkpoints? Cars stopped for indeterminate periods, for indeterminate reasons. Cars stopped just because, because they can be. Stories by and large, told not in words and tones of anger and bitterness, but in the acceptance of what is. Resignation? Or part of a deeper resilience? Ironically, or perhaps not, the strongest waves of bitterness that soaked me to the skin, were those of a Palestinian man who holds a position of privilege – Bashar, the country director of an international organisation – a position that enables him to travel on different roads, roads with different security requirements. One such road, the smooth flowing double lane highway between Ramallah and Jerusalem, still fresh in my mind, as I handed my passport to the airport approach road security official. The remembering of a road with no checkpoints or ‘security stops’; a wide road bounded each side by a high wall and an abundance of seeing eyes. Mechanical, ever watchful. Walls, and a highway, that separated two seemingly identical geographies. Separated communities. A remembering, that subtly adds to my bristle of the pre-airport inspection. 

The phone’s piercing ring interrupts the quiet of my early afternoon hotel room, and the hurried assembly of my belongings into my suitcase. A snap decision to spend my last night in Jerusalem, rather than in Ramallah. Not so much for a change of scenery, after nine nights in Ramallah, but local wisdom said, better not to have to deal with the uncertainty of a checkpoint on the way to the airport for an early morning flight. 

“Sharon”, it’s Asem, one of the translators I have become friends with over the past week of our working together. A man of competence, kindness, and a smile of a great many teeth. Grounded by his practice of Tai chi. “I can still take you now to Jerusalem, no problem, but Bashar is also going to Jerusalem, and as a United Nations official, he can use a shorter road.” What Asem doesn’t say, and doesn’t need to say, is that as an ‘ordinary’ Palestinian he cannot use the same road. His road will be a different one, a longer one, both for the road itself, and for the Qalandia checkpoint, and the unpredictability this brings. I would much rather travel with Asem, to be in the ease of his company and conversation, rather than in the intensity of Bashar’s passion, politics, and stories. Stories so generously shared, so undoubtably torchlights of insight and meaning, but which also have been exhausting in their unrelenting emotional demands.

“Okay Asem, I will go with Bashar.” Not because I want a shorter route or less hassle, but to spare Asem any additional time or distance that may be required in delivering me to my hotel in Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem. How many hundreds of millions of people from all over the world, have visited Jerusalem? How many millions of Palestinians have not? Have not visited their capital city. 

Nadida, my local resource person, and resident of Ramallah, makes it more real. Her 14-year-old twins have never visited Jerusalem. Special permission is required for Palestinians who do not live in Jerusalem, to visit the city. Nadida’s twins do not qualify. Nadida herself is only permitted because she works for an international organisation. But for this, she too would not have qualified. A year ago, when they were aged thirteen, she organised a permit for her twins to visit the sea. Thirteen years in the coming, to travel one hour from Ramallah, to see and be at the sea. How overwhelmed they were by the sea, how incredulous that it was so close to their West Bank home. A great weight of sadness presses on my shoulders, and even more heavily, on my chest. Not just for Nadida’s twins, but for the ‘ordinary’ Palestinians, for their daily bread of denied access, permits, and passes, separation, and stop points. 

Access. Movement. Probably not listed as fundamental human rights in terms of a constitution, but fundamental to whole-being, to well-being, to land and lineage, past and present, to hope and opportunity. A deeply personal connection, a denial or compromise of which cannot but be, political. 

Palestine’s present. South Africa’s not so distant past. 

The 1952 Pass law. A legislative pillar of the Apartheid state. An instrument of separation, segregation, justification. A ‘passbook’ that had to be carried by black people, a paper that granted permission to be in a so-called white area. The ‘dompas’, literally the ‘dumb pass’. 

A pass, that my six-year-old head did not understand, but that instilled terror in my heart. The terror of the ‘what if’ – what if our beautiful Precious Mashego was not carrying her pass when she made the long Sunday evening journey from her weekend off in Gugulethu, back to suburban Fish Hoek? A deeply personal terror, my terror of what this would mean for me. Not an anger or indignation, or a comprehension of what it all meant for her, of how it felt in her blood and bones. Yet, forty-four years later, in a country which is not the ‘Country of my Skull’, a country in which I am occasionally called upon to show my paper, and others are constantly being called upon to show theirs, a question comes, and comes with an anger and force that twists my stomach into an acidic knot: just who did we think we were? Who did white South Africa think it was? Limiting, denying, separating, dehumanising. The question races around my nervous system with the intensity of time-lapse photography.  A question lapsed in time, and that I am now living, a question asked by a country at once occupied, and that is so fully occupying my heart. 

I cannot, for a single second, claim to understand the layer upon layer of complexity that is Palestine and Israel. Neither can I speak for anyone else, for their experience, understanding, or meaning-making. I can only feel what I have felt, feel into what I have experienced and shared with friends and strangers; feel into the words and the stories I have been told. Feel the depth of humanity, and the fierceness and the kindness of the Palestinian heart. An ordinary heart, in the sense of it being no different from any other Christian, Jewish or spiritual heart, yet entirely extraordinary in what and how it holds, while being held by the occupation. 

How vastly, richly blessed I have been by Palestine: for the love in which she immersed me, for the learning she offered – personal, political, powerful learning about life and living, past and present, both here, and in my own beloved motherland. 

Shukran jazilaan. Inshallah, I will return.  

(All names have been changed to respect privacy.)