Dingy shades on bus number five

Dreary shades of green.
You sit beneath dingy shades,
Unseen.
Reflections of your memories
On the window of a bus
Holding dreams you have not yet dreamed.

I spent about a week and a half in the Gaza Strip. It was far too short of a return home but the exhilaration of feeling Gaza’s warm embrace was well worth it, even if it meant spending hours with Egyptian soldiers who cared very little about letting travelers like myself through.

On the night before my departure, I could not find in me a single Z. It would’ve done no good to sleep away my final hours in a place that is normally so forbidden to me and millions like me.

The apartment I stayed in was on the seventh floor — a true curse when the electricity was cut and the elevator was dead. But it did have a large balcony that showcased Gaza City in all of its glory. To the left was the press tower, one of Gaza’s tallest. Below was Kazem, the popular ice cream and barrad joint. Straight ahead, the setting sun framed itself between the sky and the sea.

I spent my final night on that balcony. A lit fanous, or lantern, hung from a wire crossing over a nearby street. There it swayed back and forth to the beat of the breeze. A man’s shadow stretched and shrunk as he walked by the only illuminated storefront down below. There was absolute quiet. It was easy to imagine the sounds of waves collapsing on Gaza’s shores less than a mile away.

On this balcony I stood for three hours. In many ways, this was my real farewell.

At exactly 6 a.m. the bags were tied to the roof of the car that would deliver my family and I to the Rafah border. A handful of relatives gathered to wish us safe travels for the final time. Hugs were given and tears were shed. Prayers were shared but the rush of physical emotion made them almost unintelligible.

To me, goodbyes are absolute and as long as the future remains uncertain, there can be no real goodbye. That’s why I avoid them at all costs. But when the uncertainty works against you, when you’re uncertain if and when you’ll be able to cross the border in the future, when you’re uncertain whether or not your family will survive the next wave of Israeli air strikes, when you’re uncertain if your uncle’s medicine will reach him in time because it didn’t for your grandma, goodbyes are inevitably final.

Forty-five minutes later we reached the Rafah border crossing and joined dozens of families already camped out. The anticipation of who will be chosen to cross into Egypt created a very tense atmosphere. We were lucky to get out of it after only a few hours of waiting, however. Our names were called and we were directed to the bus that would take us through to the Egyptian side of the border. We were bus number five.

I was among one of the first to board the bus which meant I still had a chance to choose a relatively good seat. I picked a window seat in the middle of the bus. As I sat there fidgeting with a window that just wouldn’t open, three different groups or families had gathered underneath my window for their own goodbyes. I watched, pulling away the window’s dusty green shades.

One young woman said goodbye to what appeared to be her father. His face was bright red and he could barely hold back his tears. Every few seconds he would tell her something, perhaps a reminder to keep in touch, to do this, or to remember that, and she would acknowledge with a frantic nod and another hug. She climbed the steps of the bus and behind her came the man who made a distressed request that we look after her. He was sobbing by now. Her sobs were silent.

One young man was surrounded by three others, each of whom gave the man a strong hug and a series of pats on the back. He was setting off to bigger and better things, it seemed, but his excitement at being selected to bus number five quickly faded into heartache. In moments’ time, he would be gone, no longer able to share his infectious smile with the men torn by his departure. A silent round of hugs passed, this time without the pats, and the young man quickly found a seat on the bus. The three men outside stood in place.

A third group went through similar motions. I couldn’t catch who exactly was leaving but to everyone watching through the bus windows, it was a stirring reminder of the value of our relations, whether they be family or friends, and the sheer panic that courses through one’s veins the moment one realizes that this is it, that this might be the last time.

Tears are rarely shed this way. They begin, unknowingly of course, to accumulate throughout the tense weeks of planning and registering necessary to secure a chance at crossing the border. They continue to accumulate during the dreadful wait under the hot sun as the guards on the border call out a short list of names every half hour or so. Half of you secretly wishes your name won’t be called just yet. It’ll prolong the time spent with your loved ones or the time spent with your feet on solid Palestinian ground. But the other half of you knows that if the opportunity is missed the first time, a second opportunity isn’t guaranteed. You move your luggage closer to you in anticipation of the frenzied sprint you’ll eventually have to make to the bus.

When everyone was seated, counted, and ID-ed, bus number five lurched forward and away. Those of us who were watching discretely rubbed our eyes and wiped our cheeks. It was a scene we all wish, I’m sure, we were better prepared for. But pure emotion cannot be contained, even when confined to a territory locked and besieged in all directions.

As for those that do make it out, the world and its unknowns await.

Dreary shades of green.
You sit beneath dingy shades,
Unseen.
Reflections of your memories
On the window of a bus
Holding dreams you have not yet dreamed.

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