Mai Abdo is Vice Principal at the Jabel Mukaber Elementary School, a K-through-9th-grade institution that enrolls 1,800 boys and girls. Ms. Abdo also teaches English to 7th- and 8th-grade students. A professional woman holding a Bachelors degree from Al Quds University and a Masters degree from Bir Zeit University, her personal story opens a window onto the daily complications created by one small checkpoint. The checkpoint in this story is located on the southern perimeter of Israeli-declared "Greater Jerusalem" and separates the Sheikh Sa'ad area (where Ms. Abdo lives) of the Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood Jabel Mukaber from the remainder of the community, where Ms. Abdo works. On March 15, the Israeli High Court overturned a lower court ruling, and decided that the route of the Separation Barrier, excising Sheikh Sa'ad from the remainder of the neighborhood, is legal.
BY MAI ABDO--A visit to Jabel Mukaber will show a small checkpoint with two narrow passages for the Palestinians to walk through, and two wide unused passages for the cars that are not allowed to cross. The small booth that stands at the beginning of the two pedestrian passages is usually manned by one or two soldiers. But first one has to cross a magnet gate, and it is very important that the gate does not beep. In order to achieve that one has to put aside all the things he or she is carrying and if one is wearing a belt he should take it off. Only if you succeed in not beeping can you pass to the last gate and then to the soldiers' booth. There, you stand in front of a soldier shielded by glass, and you hold out your I.D. Of course, as you hand it to the soldier, you look anxiously at his facial expressions and wait to see the nod that means you can cross.
I live in the small neighborhood of Sheik Sad, which is separated by the checkpoint from the rest of Jabel Mukaber. Living there forces me to cross the checkpoint on a daily basis and to go through many unpleasant scenes. Although the soldiers standing there have come to know us by heart--they even know my name--their behavior is something you can never guess. Sometime they are deliberately slow, other times they are impatient and insulting.
I work in a nearby school in Jabel Mukaber, and I have to be there early to receive the students as they arrive. Going from home to work should take no more than ten minutes, but with the checkpoint it takes me forty minutes and sometimes more. The other day I was carrying my English books and my students' graded papers in a thin bag when the soldier ordered me to put the bag on the table. "But the table is soaking wet, I don't want my stuff to be wet". "I don't care," screamed the soldier. "You have to put it on the table, cross the magnet gate without it, then go back for it." Naturally, I refused and we argued until one kid volunteered to carry the bag for me as I crossed through the sacred gate. Thus came the victory of the English teacher to keep her students' papers dry.
In another incident I was treated like a criminal for carrying my laptop. Apparently, electric appliances cannot be passed through the checkpoint and my poor computer was considered an electric appliance. It was only after a whole hour and the interference of the Machsom Watch women, an Israeli group that monitors checkpoints, that I was able to cross with my laptop. In another incident the soldier found it strange that I was carrying two bags. I told her that one was for my books and the other for my personal stuff, and I opened wide both bags for her to see, but she insisted that I take everything out of the bags. That took great concentration on my part, as I had to make sure not to lose anything from both bags, not to mention the embarrassment I endured for causing the people behind me to be late.
Bad as my experiences are, the men have it worse. Several teachers from our boys' school live in Sheikh Sa'ad and they are usually held up longer. If I happen to be behind them on the waiting line when the soldiers are especially slow, they sometime let me go ahead of them, so as not to hold me up.
When I leave the house in the early morning I don't know what awaits me, but I know for sure that I have to adjust my life to suit the checkpoint. Because cars are not allowed to go through the checkpoint, I keep my car on the Jabel Mukaber side of the barrier, and I walk in any weather from home to the checkpoint and from there to where my car is parked. At the end of the day, I park the car and take the 10-minute walk to the checkpoint, then walk back from the checkpoint to my home in Sheikh Sa'ad. In between, I cannot just go home to change clothes for the gym, so I keep clothes in my car and change over at my sister's home in Jabel Mukaber. I cannot stay out late because once it gets dark it becomes scary to walk home from the checkpoint. If I want to go to a wedding or a party I cannot get dressed for the occasion in my home because it would mean listening to stupid remarks from people in the neighborhood watching me walk to the checkpoint in my finest clothes. Even if I take a ride to the checkpoint, I will still have to stand in line to wait for my turn to be checked. In short, my patience gets tested every day and each day carries a new weird story depending on the soldier standing in the small booth.