Peering Through the Fence

Holding their green passports in their hands, people were hustling there and back while, making weird gestures on their faces, others were nervously shouting over their phones. From afar, a baby was crying out load as his mother, lulling him, patted him on the back so as to hush him. She restlessly trotted to an officer in a blue uniform seated on a chair at the gate. The wretched mother talked to the officer who politely replied to her making signs which I construed as I-can-not-help-you. She pleaded with him, and he repeated the same gestures. The officer was a good man, and it seemed he really couldn’t help her. On the right side of the road leading to the gateway, two cafes crowded with customers who were none other than the very passengers who had gathered in one of these two cafés so as to protect themselves from the burning sun of July in this morning. The customers, or the passengers, were having breakfast. Some were drinking coffee and puffing at their cigarettes. Others were clutching their hookah hoses as they waited for their names to be called out. There was no space left to me inside the café, and I had to wait outside, just behind the fence.

I wasn’t a passenger, however. And I didn’t wait for my name to be called out. I waited for my brother who had been away from home for three years and a half and would be home in a little while. My brother studies medicine at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. He decided to pay his family in Gaza a short visit, one month at the utmost; for, as he said, he couldn’t tolerate staying away from home anymore.

However, it was immensely distressing just to think of visiting the Rafah Crossing at that time: at a time when those who were strictly stifled for four long years were eventually granted a tiny vent hole by their neighboring merciful Egyptian authorities to take a short breath before they are stifled again. Every one wanted to breathe, and for that reason, the two cafes on the right side of the gateway were packed with passengers for the first time in ages unknowingly stifling each other with their breath and smoking. In all cases, it wasn’t my choice, and it was just improper to be enjoying a good sleep at the very moment my brother would be going through all sorts of humiliating suffering since he would be crossing into Gaza with an expired passport, not to mention an expired residency card. What one can do? He couldn’t tolerate it anymore…

An hour elapsed, and I was still waiting behind the fence, wiping off my sweat, watching as few passengers left through the gate to the other side while others desperately left the gate towards their homes only to be replaced by a bunch of new passengers who just arrived at the gate, most likely having expected what hard moments those which would come to pass. It was just sweltering outside the café and stifling inside it, and I’d rather be sun-baked and comfortably draw my breath than turn myself into a constant victim to be stifled by all sorts foul smells. I kept waiting right behind the fence, therefore.

But my brother would not show up….

I thought I could get some help from the same officer at the gate who turned his back on the poor woman earlier, but I hesitated and gave up the whole idea at once. I peered through the fence. I peered in the distance and looked for any sign of a bus coming from the Egyptian side of the borders. For a moment, the entire hubbub around me just vanished, and the earth looked peaceful as I focused my attention on the vacancy that lied ahead of me, holding my breath, and narrowing my eyes, my heart drumming as though rapping through my chest, and my head pounding as though tearing through my skull, strenuously concentrating and…Nothing showed up.

In a desperate attempt to release myself from the alarming thoughts which started to hunt me by now trying to explain why it had taken my brother this long to arrive.

“He told me he would hit the road at 3:00 am, and it would take him 6 hours to arrive at Al-Arish which means he had been staying at the terminal for 2 hours! There must be something wrong…”

I decided to get away from the fence and headed towards the café. I didn’t stay there for long, however. I bought myself a cup of coffee and got away from the café as well. I distributed my looks here and there searching for some place to have my coffee in when I spotted a little shady space behind a parked car, next to an old man who looked as a typically Jordanian sheikh of a Bedouin clan with his red-and-white streaked headscarf and his white gown which was as white as his short beard, sitting on a chair, crossed-legged and making endless calls, apparently coordinating the entry of his brother who had been living in Jordan since the 1948 Nakba and who had no Palestinian ID. Squatting next to the old man, sipping my coffee and pretending to have no interest in the old man’s conversation, I could hear him speak of ‘crossing from below’ and ‘non-officiality’ among other things which grouped together caused me no pain to make sense of. It immediately occurred to me the old man was planning to have his brother cross into Gaza by crawling-through-the-tunnels.

Not a big deal.

I pulled myself together and was sunk again under the upsetting burden of waiting. I took my coffee and neared the fence, slowly. Holding my cup in one hand, I clasped my fingers in the fence and peered through it. I peered in the distance. I hoped for any sign of a moving bus to emerge. I peered closely…But nothing came out.

As I turned my face back, I could see a tall man in ragged jeans come up to me in long strides. He wore a broad smile on his face and scrabbled his unkempt hair while I kept my eyes fixed on him but could never recognise who he was.

“Hello, what’s up?” friendly, he greeted me.

“Good…”

“Do you have any relatives coming now?”

Haven’t yet recognised who was addressing me, I kept my replies as short as possible, “Yes. My brother.”

“Good,” he said, probably noticing the coldness of my short answers, “do you need a car?” he resumed.

It was only then I came to recognise the man before me as a driver, and I was truly in need for a car in case my brother arrived any time now. So I replied, inquiring, “how much?”

The driver grinned at me foolishly before, trying out my senses, he declared “70 Shekels, good?”

“No, too much!” came my immediate reply.

“How many passengers?”

“Only one.”

“Luggage?”

“Two handbags.”

I could tell I was winning over the driver and that he would give me a better offer this time. The driver cleared his throat; and, looking me in the eye, he firmly laid down his new offer, “50 Shekels but errr…I’ll get other passengers besides you.”

“Thirty.” I replied to his not-really-bad offer.

“OH NO,” he murmured a negative. “fifty is good.”He insisted.
“Nah,” I refused as well.

“Fine, forty!” he fixed his eyes on me unblinkingly, waiting for my reply.

To be honest, I was aware enough that thirty shekels was not a firm offer for a driver who had to cross a distance of more than seventy kilometers back and forth though I knew I could get to a price lower than fifty, so I had but to agree on his last offer.

But my brother hadn’t arrived yet…

Lowering my head to the ground, I wandered along the fence clasping my hands behind my back until I found myself face to face with the officer at the gate. I was on my way to greet him before I could hear several discordant revs as though they had erupted in my ears. It immediately crossed my mind that the first bus had finally arrived. I rushed to my former position and, clasping my fingers in the fence, peered through it.

The bus closed in the fence as numerous people started to gather on either side of me, all doing the same, all peering through the fence. Every one looked for a relative or a friend to alight from the bus. The bus came to a halt. And the passengers started to exit. I peered closely and scrutinized every passenger stepping off the bus from tip to toe. I kept watching when all of a sudden the man next to me jumped waving his hands and yelling at the top of his voice. I looked at the him and turned my face back to look for my brother, but the bus was empty. It was unloaded and stated to move away.

My brother didn’t show up in the first bus, and I had to wait for the next one…

I was disappointed. It never occurred to me he might not be one of the passengers in the first bus. I had to cope with this fact and that it might take him beyond the second and the third and perhaps the forth buses to arrive. It was a great relief to me when I was told that now it wouldn’t take more than half an hour for each bus to arrive.

I retreated to a little shady place next to the café; and, trying to overcome my disappointment, I scribbled a few lines on the sands. I was soon joined by the driver, who, drawing a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, sat next to me and friendly offered me a cigarette which I accepted without thinking twice. We talked for a while about so many things before we were told the second bus had just arrived. I rushed to the fence and peered through it from a distance. I fixed my eyes on the passengers inside the bus before they even started to step off it. I soon abandoned hope in finding my brother among the passengers in this bus. And I was right.

My brother didn’t show up in the second bus…

I always hated to wait, and this time it extremely grieved me. I thought for once that my brother might have really arrived and due to an oversight I didn’t notice him. Sometimes I thought the quite long period he’d been away from home might have caused me to forget how my brother looked like, but I was fast to ward off these thoughts.

The third bus came along, and there was nothing new to be reported. My brother didn’t show up in the third bus…

Another half-an-hour elapsed in the company of the sociable driver, who joined me in looking for my brother among the passengers in the past two times. And as we were told the forth bus was on its way to arrive, I rushed as heartily as I rushed the first time, and I did what I had been doing since the early morning. I approached the fence and peered through its gaps.

I didn’t find my brother…

As I carried on scrutinizing the passengers’ faces inside the bus; and in no time, I found some body waving from his own seat in the bus. My heart leapt up. It was my brother. Yes, it was him. I waved back, jumped, hailed him; and, not paying the least attention to the stupid driver, who was all this time moving beside me asking whether I found my brother, I rushed all the way to the officer seated at the gate and ran past him as he yelled at me to come back. I didn’t think for twice: I ignored him and crossed to the other side of the fence.

My brother did show up in the forth bus…

On the other side of the fence, I walked along side my brother, tightly holding the two handbags and closely peering through the fence. I spotted my cup of coffee, right behind the fence. I was soon walking past the officer at the gate, looking him straight in the eye; and through the gate, my brother and I both exited, followed by the taxi-driver.

Mohammed Rabah Suliman
July 31

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16 responses to “Peering Through the Fence

  1. Yousef M. Aljamal

    It’s the most beautiful story I read along my life. Waiting kills, but it has a special taste in your brother’s case. It’s too hard to think of forgetting how does a brother or a friend looks like due to being far away for a very long time. The picture of you ( our comrade) waiting his brother and gazing at the fence to see anything related to his brother is the picture of every single person in Palestine. We all do wait and wait. I wish that all people who are waiting to meet their relatives make it soon and I wish they smile as you did when you saw your beloved brother.

    • Thank you, comrade. Can I be ever happier than to hear such a compliment? You’re absolutely correct; there is nothing in this world as distressing as waiting for something that will never show up. In Gaza, we’re bound to wait, though.

  2. very nice, i liked your description of, approximately, every single item in the story: the people, place, weather, car, buses. cigarettes, coffee, cafes, etc.

    btw, our tomorrow’s lesson for the creative writing course is “description”, so i, unintentionally, focused more about this issue and you did a great job in this regard.

    and yeah, WAITING became a part of our life in Gaza since the siege, i guess.
    we wait for electricity to come again, for our relatives who will come to pay us a visit, for our results in any stage “academic thing”, for a new baby to be born, and finally for the siege to be left :)

    this is exactly what happens in Gaza.

    Welcome back to your brother in Gaza, wish him the best of the best in his life, and the same for your family.

    keep it up,
    thank you

    • Thank you for your comment. Waiting is part of the life of every human being. To be more precise, and though I don’t like to relate every thing to the political situation, I would say waiting has been intensified by the siege. Waiting is never judged by its conclusion; we never know how much we’d love to be waiting if we could know what is waiting us on the other side.

  3. the siege to be lifted*

  4. It is only by waiting that you were overwhelmed by thoughts and possibilities which made such a wonderful piece. You, therefore, should be thankful to the Egyptian brothers, who stifling your brother amongst the many others, have made you live such an experience.

    I didn’t think for twice: I ignored him and crossed to the other side of the fence.

    A brilliant end!

    • Yes, indeed. I’m thankful for every benevolent contributor to the misery of the Palestinians. They made our lives different and special in the full sense of the world. Nothing is true, and nothing is false; nothing is beautiful, and nothing is ugly: nothing is certain. I could never expect that my waiting would have such ‘a brilliant end’ though it wouldn’t have cost me more than logically balancing my situation. My brother would come to pass; there is nothing to stop him…

      Thank you, anyways.

  5. nermeen sabbah

    .it is really nice story . as everyone , we should wait and wait but the most important that your brother came back.

  6. Oh, i’m sweating! the whole thing makes the reader feels so tired at the very end likewise how the narrator felt,then.

    I do like details, and you showed how marvelous this piece full of well-done detailed description; makes the one live the moment. it’s really awful the maniacal possibilities that the narrtor went through due to the too much waiting. The piece is so Gazan!

    welcome back for your bro. Belal!

    My best,brother.

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  9. I liked it alot. The story is realistic and by reading you actually live the events .Waiting for hours has become sth normal in Gaza since the siege and even before it. Also, the description of the people , especially the driver, is amazing, and the poor lady who didnt get any help from the officer.

    I remember once that Mr. Refaat told us” you can take Mohammed as a model for your writing “, Now i understand what he meant.

    Thanks for ur creativity and keep up.

  10. Thank you for reading the story and welcome to the blog, Asmaa. I think I said earlier I haven’t yet become a model to be imitated. All that I do is that I keep trying in the hope I can weave my own style. You can just do the same and start writing and writing again. Besides other things, this is what will make a good writer of you.

  11. amaaazing! i like it, but i don’t like the waiting i felt to know weather ur bro. has shown up or not.

    “It was just sweltering outside the café and stifling inside it, and I’d rather be sun-baked and comfortably draw my breath than turn myself into a constant victim to be stifled by all sorts foul smells.” some thing related to freedom.this is how i felt.

    “My brother did show up in the forth bus…”
    at last, i thought he would never.

    keep it up.

    • Hey, Walaa. Yes, indeed, it is not pleasant to spend hours desperately waiting for something to show up. But, it is the end that counts. Thanks for the comment, anyways.

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