Terence and I both had appointments in Ramallah today and the kids were off from school so we brought them along. The day itself was great, though hot and tiring. We paid a final visit to my sister-in-law’s apartment and enjoyed fish and chips near Manara Square, followed by amazing Rukab ice cream. The kids have made many trips to Ramallah by now and I still believe what I felt on our first family visit: we want to show the West Bank as a place where regular people try to lead regular lives.
Yet Hannah and Margaret are becoming more aware of the politics. “Is that Israel?” Margaret asked today, pointing at a yard that was fenced off from the road. When she sees barbed wire now, she thinks borders. Our first several trips to Ramallah were to visit a friend with a car; she always drove us home, thus bypassing the infamous Qalandia checkpoint. Then she moved away and we started taking Bus 18. On the way to Ramallah, the bus goes straight through Qalandia but on the way back to Israel, it disgorges at the checkpoint. If you have the right paperwork (I’m not sure what this entails, but as Americans we obviously have it) you can pay to take a van that takes a longer route through a different checkpoint. We usually don’t do this because we’re thrifty and because waiting for the van to fill can take ages. So today, as usual, we walked through Qalandia.
The web is full of detailed descriptions of crossing Qalandia. I recommend Matthew Teller’s. On my own, I find the journey upsetting and spooky: the narrow metal chutes, just wide enough for single file. The turnstiles that allow perhaps three people through at a time, then freeze. The disembodied voices of the guards coming through loudspeakers. I always emerge angry. Every Israeli should have this experience, and then tell me how they feel about the Occupation, I’ll think to myself.
But with kids in tow, Qalandia is even trickier. Today was hot: 91 degrees at 6 p.m. There is no air conditioning in the terminal and the wall-mounted fans were switched off. We had had a busy day; Hannah and Margaret were already dragging. The line wasn’t moving and things weren’t clear. Hannah started to whine and ask (perfectly logical) questions: why does the turnstile keep stopping? Why don’t they open another lane? I’m hot! I want to go home! When regular admonishments didn’t work, I tried to appeal to her wannabe maturity: Hannah. Focus. Look around. We’ll talk about all of this when we get home. Bad call, Hilary. Why? What am I supposed to see? Why can’t we talk about it now? Who knows if she was actually bothering anyone (Palestinians are lovely to children, even in long lines at Qalandia) but Terence and I were mortified. We yanked the girls out of line, pulled Hannah to the side and whispered intensely: Look at this place, how people are being treated like animals. How hot and dirty it is, how long the lines. When do you come here? Once in a while, when we go visit Anne. Do you know that Palestinian kids have to do this twice every day to go to school? People in this line are exhausted. You are very very lucky because you happened to be born in America. So be quiet, be respectful, and think about how lucky you are.
To Hannah’s credit, she did just that and we eventually made it through the checkpoint (though not before the guard carefully looked up all four of us on the computer. No, my three and six year olds are not security threats). I gave lots of hugs for the rest of the afternoon, while replaying the scene in my mind. Did we handle that right? Was that too intense a situation to put kids through? Should we have forked over the cash for the Hizmeh van, or left the kids at home? Did I inappropriately impose my beliefs on my kid?
Kids are resilient and Hannah has probably forgotten all about Qalandia by now, but I’m still turning it over in my mind. Our job as parents is to protect and expose, protect and expose. I wanted to show my kids a wider world, to burst them from their faculty brat bubbles, and no doubt we have done that. It’s OK for them to realize they are truly lucky by an accident of birth. But it’s also sad to see them confronting systematic oppression on a scale we saw today. Qalandia is no place for kids, but Palestinian kids have no choice.