Seeing my family in Gaza is a priceless experience, but the journey there has always been a nightmare from hell. It isn't possible for Palestinians to enter either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank through the Israeli airport, and the only functioning airport in the Palestinian territories closed after the Israelis razed it in 2001. Now, the only way for Palestinians to access the Gaza Strip is through Egypt, and people entering the West Bank must go through Jordan. I was a bit uncertain about going through Egypt -- I'm writing this at a time when the word "Palestinian" has become an insult in Egypt, thanks to the shot first, ask questions later Egyptian media. However, the experience wasn't as painfully difficult as it used to be under the former regime.
The new Egyptian government seems to want to change the old ways. In the past, when someone like me, with a Palestinian passport, arrived at the airport, we were treated with suspicion that we came to do Egypt harm. The Egyptian Office of Intelligence has full control over who is allowed into Egypt. They maintain a list with the names of all Palestinians who are welcome into Egypt, and another list for the unwelcome guests. Those who are on neither list would pray hard for the officer to be having a good day. The only way to get on the welcome list is if you know someone locally in Gaza who has connections with the Egyptian Office of Intelligence. It isn't easy to get on the list -- most people on it tend to be either members of the Fatah party or business people. I refuse to pay bribes and will not give in to political games or fishy schemes, so I have not been able to get on it.
In the past, there was a local airport we were able to use that was only 40 minutes away from my home inside Gaza. For more than 10 years now we have had to fly into another country's airport and travel by car for seven hours to get home. Most Palestinians who come to Egypt are living abroad and only come because it's the sole access point to the Gaza Strip. The other Palestinians and I would get locked in a room at the airport with armed police officers who would hold our passports. Once there was a large group of us, then they would send us on a government-commissioned bus to Rafah through the Sinai desert. For the full duration of the trip, we would not be allowed to hold onto our passports, and we would only make one stop at a cafeteria to take a bathroom break, grab a snack, and pray. The bus driver would drive slowly on purpose to make the trip last longer, and would refuse to speed up until we greased the wheels.
Prior to the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution, the security officers at Egyptian borders and airports are mean and often shout at us for no reason. One time in 2005, I was held in a dark hallway next to a charming Sudanese man who also wanted to get through Egypt to Sudan. The man suggested that I give the officer some money, but I did not take his advice because I was too scared and I knew that those officers are not the kind that would take bribes. They tend to treat residents of Gaza as a liability. I once was sent back to the United States on the same plane I came on because the security at the Cairo airport told me the Rafah borders were shut down. It was arbitrary and cruel. On my way to be deported, the security officer asked me if I was a journalist. When I said no, he told me to go home! To make matters worse, I blew up in the face of the police officer who escorted me back to the airplane when he asked me for something. Thankfully, he understood my frustration. It felt so terrible having the Spanish airplane crew feel confused by my return and offer me their sincere sympathy. The slim flight attendants did not understand why I wasn't let into Egypt. But that was in 2009 and I have gotten over it. And since then a lot has changed in Egypt.
This time, I landed in the Cairo airport and it was a lot slower than I remembered it. I filled in the information cards they handed out on the plane and approached the border officer. After what I had been reading about the unrest, violence and demonstrations in Egypt, I thought I was going into a war zone and would see the army and protesters even at the airport, but I was wrong. From what I saw, things were just fine. The immigration agent saw my passport and kindly told me to take a seat, saying, "You will have your passport shortly." I was happy to hear a friendly tone. Keep in mind the airport was empty and not too many passengers were going through at that moment. Three minutes later, a tall man came to me, and asked gently if I was going to Gaza. "Right away," I said. He smiled and told me, "Come with me, I will give you your passport." He asked me where I was coming from, and I told him the States. Two minutes later, he handed my passport back to the lady at immigration control and they stamped it for 72 hours passage to Rafah. In less than 20 minutes, I was out of the airport. It was record time for me.
The new Egyptian government has made good travel criteria that make sense and are well-known. Men aged 45 and older and all women are welcome to come into Egypt and are granted a seven-day entry pass. Males who are between ages 16 and 45 must have strong documentation in writing and good reasons to want to visit Egypt, like school, work, medical attention, family, etc. For Palestinians passing through like me, you have to show a valid visa or residency card to the country you want to travel to and a flight ticket for the next destination. Once you produce those they may ask other questions. In my case, they wanted to know why I did not have any U.S. stamps in my passport -- it was a new passport. The moment I told them my wife and I were going on this trip, he asked if my wife was with me and I had to show him her passport. After that, I was allowed into Egypt through Cairo International Airport. Unfortunately, there are other Palestinians who are still persona non grata in Egypt. If these individuals want to travel out of the airport, they are escorted from the airport in a special bus.
I raced to get my bags and find a cab to take me to the border with Gaza in Rafah. The moment I walked over, dozens of cab drivers fought over who got to take me. I felt like a celebrity, but I also felt bad for the under-employed young drivers who would have been very busy in a different time. I agreed on a fee with the cab driver, and when we collected the bags and were about to leave the airport, a security officer asked to see my passport and asked what was in my luggage. I told him perfumes, lotions and lots of shoes. He then welcomed me to Egypt and thanked me for coming.
I remember telling myself, "That was easy!" In the past, they customs officials would go through our bags and hassle us about any item they did not understand. I am sure they have their own criteria on luggage checks, but I felt this was something you would see in the States. Nevertheless, I was happy to be on the road to see my family in Gaza after three and a half years of being apart from them. Unfortunately, we first we had to go through the Sinai desert -- a topic for another post.