Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crossing the Chocolate Seas over Sinai on a Bulldozer …

Sitting in a relaxed coffee shop in Cairo sipping a latte over light Tango music one can hardly imagine being in Gaza the day before. I arrived in Cairo well past midnight after 11 hours traveling from Gaza City, with a mix of exhaustion and relief, but a part of me wanted to stay back indefinitely…

In the morning, before I barely had time to pack for my trip I took my video camera along for a WHO press conference at the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. The event brought together physicians and medical practitioners, providing their testimonies of the struggles to bring medical aid and equipment into Gaza during the crippling blockade by Israel and Egypt. A Palestinian woman spoke about her relative, a 17-year old girl, who thrice applied for a permit to seek treatment for cancer abroad – but was denied until the day AFTER she died. In any other country this would be headline news, but in Gaza dozens of such cases occur each month, with the huge backlog of patients seeking advanced treatment outside. While Gaza does have some excellent medical staff working under difficult circumstances, most hospitals are unable to acquire advanced equipment, training or supplies easily, having to wait many months for Israeli authorities to permit such essentials for “security” reasons.

An article in the Guardian gives more details:

As the press conference ended, I captured some individual interviews and dashed back to my hotel to catch a taxi for the hour-long ride along the sea to the Rafah Crossing in the south, when it was supposed to staffed by 2pm. I kept getting conflicting accounts from folks that the crossing maybe shut today due to the floods in Sinai, but I decided to try anyhow. There I met Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawahin, who directs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program; we had met the day before for a long discussion about the psychosocial situation and the tremendous work they do in Gaza. It was pure coincidence that he was leaving for a trip to Switzerland the same day. Apparently, we were the only two individuals granted special permission to leave, as the border is still officially closed by the Egyptians for general transit. Until the last minute the Palestinian guards kept telling us the Egyptian staff would not arrive; as I spoke with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on the phone, we suddenly got word that we may be let through.

I went through the barbed wire transit center with Dr. Tawahin, taking him along even though his entry was not officially confirmed yet. The entire crossing center was deserted – a surreal experience having been there during the rush on my way in the last time the crossing was open on January 5th. We were treated cordially and asked to wait nearly 3 hours before our passports and security clearance was confirmed by the Egyptians. I was told a few times that my case was all set and that I could go through sooner, but I insisted on waiting till Dr. Tawahin got his clearance too, knowing all too well how Palestinians are treated when attempting to leave Gaza. The Egyptians warned us that the floods in the Sinai would make it impossible to cross this evening, and suggested we stay back another night. I did not realize the extent of the situation (over 15 people were killed due to the massive flooding) and insisted on leaving to go to Cairo to make my appointment for dinner with the Indian consulate that evening.

I found a taxi willing to take us, dropping Dr. Tawahin in Al-Arish while going on towards Cairo across the Sinai. Now it was nearly 7pm and the taxi driver stopped short of the flooded areas near the town and helped me walk with my bags in the dark (with cell phones lighting our way) across a long dirt road along the flooded valley, with several bulldozers working to create mud reinforcements. Through the narrow streets of the village we arrived at the beach with the roaring waves of the "chocolate seas", and slowly crossed our way through the wet sand. With my khaki pants folded up and the wheels of my luggage covered in mud, we finally noticed another bulldozer full of people waiting to cross the massive channel of rushing muddy waters. The locals helped me up the forklift of the bulldozer with my bags, as I marveled at the ingenuity of the Egyptians in dealing with the floods. I photographed some of the workers carrying loads on their back from the muddy water, only later in Cairo to realize one of their t-shirts said "Boston" to my utter surprise, as if predicting my way home!

As the bulldozer roared its engine and began moving, I held on tight to the forklift along with several others, one holding a baby in his arms. We soon started to make our way across the muddy river at a slow gentle pace, the waters lit only by the high beams of the bulldozer. I could hardly believe what was happening as we crossed the river without sinking into the mud, and the euphoric mood of everyone clamoring on top of the bulldozer. It took no more than 20 minutes (now imagined only in slow-motion) to make our way to the shore, where a welcoming party of taxis and locals awaited passengers going to towns on the other side. By now my khaki pants and bags were partially covered in a mix of grease and mud, all of which seemed minor compared to the miracle on the chocolate sea we just encountered.

As I finally stepped off the bulldozer, a woman in burkha offered to help me with my bags; I politely declined the kind gesture, insisting on carrying everything on my own. As I found another taxi to take me on the long trip to Cairo, the same woman asked for my phone number! Geez, that’s never happened before. I was confused and didn’t have time to understand why, but smiled bidding goodbye to everyone behind as I continued my journey onwards.

The taxi weaved through the Sinai desert drenched in a cold foggy breeze, speeding through towards the “Mubarak peace bridge” over the Suez Canal. We were stopped by Egyptian security on the only major checkpoint along the way; the army officer cordially asked about my background and seeing my Indian passport said “Welcome to Egypt” with a big smile. The return journey from Gaza was much less tense for some reason, with the tensions of the past few weeks having subsided. Crossing the massive span of the bridge past 10pm all I could see was dim lit villages along the coast and a few ships making there way through. We soon arrived at a road-side restaurant for a quick meal, realizing I was not going to make it to Cairo in time for dinner. The warm cooked meal was one of the best I've had while traveling, as my taxi got a free car wash while we ate; Egyptian roadside hospitality? Back in Cairo past midnight it took nearly 45 minutes to find my hotel criss-crossing the busy one-way streets of downtown.

At the Australian Hotel I found Roger, the filmmaker whose video camera I had borrowed during my time in Gaza. He was delighted to see me after over two weeks, as he planned to leave for New York the next morning. I gave Roger all 18 video tapes I shot in Gaza, hoping we’ll have a chance to edit them into a feature-length piece in the next two months. Perhaps we’ll call it the “Fragmented Colors of Gaza”, capturing the many contrasting realities and voices of everyday people and places I encountered on this memorable trip.

On my last night here in Cairo I think I could use a Shisha al Bahreni (apple-flavored water pipe) and maybe even some belly-dancing :-)

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