What is it like to cross into the West Bank from Jordan?
Amman is a hot, dry and dusty city. Dense urban sprawl sits in tight clusters across the undulating hills of bone coloured sand and rock. When you look out across the vast valley, it is almost as if you could run your fingers through the arid landscape and reform it in different shapes.
The taxi driver speeds out of the city centre, winding around the hilly landscape, edging slowly downwards. Our path swirls like water draining down a sink; we spiral below sea level, towards the Dead Sea, where Jordan shares a border with the West Bank. An hour later we arrive at our destination: the King Hussein Bridge (‘Allenby’ to Israelis) into Palestine.
The actual bridge is barely that, more a road. Technically it crosses the River Jordan, but blink and you’d miss it. Once the grand site of Jesus’ baptism, where God proclaimed him as his son, the siphoning off of water by Israel, Jordan and Syria has meant the flow is reduced by up to 90 per cent. It is now little more than a brown creek. The bridge is surrounded by gravel and barbed wire.
For Palestinians living in the West Bank, it is often the only way to travel. That is, many are not permitted to travel to Tel Aviv to use the airport, the airport at Jerusalem is permanently closed, so international travel is only possible via the bridge and then Queen Alia Airport in Amman.
I arrive and run my luggage through an x-ray scanner. The Jordanian officials take my passport. I knew this would happen but it still makes me nervous. There is no queue, there appears to be no system. I wait in a bus stop with a couple of dozen other travellers for a bus to take us somewhere.
After another hour, we board the bus – a painstaking process of individual identification of passports takes place, and then a laborious system of pricing and payment for tickets for at least half an hour, before, finally, the bus sets off.
We are all ceremoniously turfed off less than ten minutes later.
Here begins the scramble. Our luggage is dumped in a big pile. In front of us is a set of four windows, behind which sit what I presume are officials of some description. Between us and the windows is a huge pile of luggage and a variety of detritus such as cardboard boxes and sheets of discarded plastic. It is not clear who this belongs to – there is no one else here apart from people who have arrived on our bus. I figure that I need to give my luggage to an official behind the window (people tend to be helpful towards single female travellers). A kindly man does it for me as I physically cannot get over the pile of abandoned suitcases to do so myself. The man prints a ticket which my friend attaches to my suitcase and it is put on a conveyer belt, sent off to some mysterious location.
Meanwhile, behind me a very long single file line has formed. It is stationary. I join it. It is becoming increasingly hot. I realise, through my tactile sense, that there is melted chocolate somewhere in my bag. It is all over my hands, passport, phone and wallet. I have no idea where it came from but it compounds my growing irritation.
By this time, another bus has dumped its cargo – people who scramble and queue like me. An enormous industrial fan is blowing a breeze across the unmoving line of people. It has an attachment which means that it blows out water mist also, presumably as a cooling agent. I feel like an animal being sprayed with an insecticide.
We wait. I inch further forward. After forty minutes, I am at the front of the line.
An attractive young woman takes my passport and holds it up, comparing my face to my photo. ‘What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?’ It is hard to hear her through the thick plastic window. Her eyes are open very wide, a broad smile on her face.
‘I’m visiting some friends and travelling around with them,’ I reply. ‘I’m also singing in some music concerts.’
She appears not to be listening. She exchanges a comment and a laugh with her companion, a man. ‘Is something the matter?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she laughs, ‘he was just saying how much he likes Ireland.’ I am travelling on my Irish passport.
‘Oh,’ I reply. ‘Well we can swap if he likes and he can go live there. It’s not an easy place to live.’
‘No? How come?’ he asks. ‘I have always like Ireland.’
‘Almost everyone my age who I shared a house with was struggling to get work.’
The woman frowns. ‘That’s no good.’ I shrug. ‘Okay, you can go through.’
I am shocked it was this easy and quick. The queuing was tedious, I think, but nowhere near as bad as I was told it would be.
I pass through the plastic strips hanging across the doorway into a large open shed. I am in the first section of the shed. I realise that was not the only queue. I join another queue. It snakes back and forth almost out the door that I came in, I estimate there are forty people queuing. I can’t really work out where they came from. There is a cheery mural on the wall which looks to be making out various scenarios of people reuniting over the border, families hugging and people doing business. It all feels quite improbable.
I realise there are many Palestinians around me who probably have to contend with this experience on a regular basis. Undoubtedly, they have greater reason than me to sense the hard edge of this procedural mechanics, to feel the threat of denial, exclusion or worse. Thankfully I am spared this vulnerability, but am left to simply boggle at the frustrating tedium of it all, to suffer the smallness of bureaucratic power dynamics in languor.
At least another forty minutes of my life leaks away. I appear to be waiting to put my belongings through an x-ray machine and pass through a metal detector. When I eventually carry out these tasks, I find the scattered debris of my preceding passengers – discarded papers, forgotten watches. I shuffle on into the main part of the hall.
In front of me is another set of queues, maybe fifteen or so, each presided over by another set of officials behind another set of windows. I join another queue. Again it appears not to be moving.
Up closer, behind maybe five other travellers, I see that the officials in the windows in my field of vision all appear to be attractive women in their late twenties, with long, dark brown hair. No doubt a coincidence, it is still a bit unsettling. I realise that none of them are actually processing anyone.
It looks as if they are changing shifts. In the booths I can see, women are hugging and kissing each other in full display of the people waiting patiently in the queue. It goes on and on, as though there is no one actually standing in front of them, waiting for them to do their job. It is so incredible, so impolite, I begin think to myself: surely there is some mistake and they are waiting for something to load on the computer system, or they haven’t noticed us or something. Or it’s not their job to process us and we are waiting for the right people. No one would brazenly ignore people waiting on them like this.
The shed is hot. We stand like cattle. It is a full half an hour before my queue begins to move, albeit at a glacial pace.
Finally, I get to the front of the line. A man has replaced the woman at my window earlier; he again asks, ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?’ I repeat my earlier reply. He asks about where I am staying. I explain.
I know I have gotten off easy. I had seen another man told to wait as they took his passport away. I’ve heard of people waiting for eight or more hours, asked endless questions about nothing topics. (A friend of mine who comes an hour later will be eventually turned back.)
After maybe ten or so minutes at the window, he hands me back my passport with a small slip inside. The visa has my passport photo and a barcode on it. I gleefully pass through the barrier into the back part of the shed, thrilled I passed through so quickly, relieved this is not a regular part of my life.
In front of me is another queue in front of another window. Around me are piles of discarded personal effects, things that look as though they must have been abandoned. Piles of clothes, piles of bags. There is something sad and profoundly undignified about these mounds.
After another twenty minutes, I am in front of another official. She takes my passport and the visa and tears out the barcode and hands it back to me. I have no idea what this means. I presume it is what is supposed to happen.
Now, I am in a large space scattered with suitcases and trolleys. I clamber over stacks of suitcases and boxes, looking for my bag. I find it wedged behind some others and drag it towards the door. I am stopped by another official and am made to put my bag through another x-ray machine.
I have passed through the mindless torpor of processing and queuing, grateful that all the hoops were cleared without issue. I am sharply aware of the vulnerability of my fellow travellers to these bureaucratic machinations: those who are not so lucky to be in possession of a non-threatening, Western passport.
Finally, I am in the West Bank.
Lizzie travelled with the Choir of London to sing in the Palestine Choral Festival, involving a number of local and international choirs in over 30 public events over ten days across the region.