Egypt to Palestine

I am visiting Palestine for the first time. Coming here is something I’ve wanted to do since reading about the conflict and having Palestinian friends snapped me into some form of political consciousness as a teenager.

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and had thought that I wouldn’t dare to write about something so politically and personally meaningful as the occupation after such a short time. What I didn’t know was that every aspect of life, every significant conversation, work of art, transaction or observation that is lived and felt is somehow tied to occupation. From the fruit you buy to the roads you drive on to where you can meet people.  I’d read this, people had told me, but I hadn’t fully absorbed it until I was able to be here.

Palestinians I meet express surprise that I am Egyptian. Very few Egyptians come here – they are not able to since there is no way to enter the West Bank without crossing the Israeli border, and Arabs are generally not allowed into Israel (by the Israeli government and their own).  Arabs are a noticeably absent demographic at large touristic and religious sites. The only reason I was able to cross the border is because I was accidentally born in the US, and became the only member of my family to acquire that blue passport. I played the role of a blithe, gum-chewing American tourist at the border to help balance my Arab features, and name.

Many people here say that they, or someone they know, have tried to travel to Egypt in the past year or two and were unable to enter. So Egyptians can’t come to Palestine, and Palestinians can’t go to Egypt.

Almost everyone I talk to asks about the situation in Egypt with genuine concern: كيف الأوضاع فى مصر؟    Is the country lost now that the Ikhwan are in power? Is there hope for the struggle against them? Are the Ikhwan able to go out and force their ways on people’s lifestyles?

On one of our first few nights here, a man in a bar asked if we thought that Palestine would be at the heart of the second, real, Arab revolution. This triggered more questions: Do Egyptians think about Palestine, do they connect the occupation of this land with their own struggle against cultural, political, and economic oppression? Isn’t our freedom inherently connected, as people in this region which is dealt with by governments and international brokers as a string of military investments, oil contracts, and power balances?

outside a bar in Ramallah

outside a bar in Ramallah: “we are hungry for freedom”

I’ve spoken to Palestinians who are still dedicated to liberation and whose activism, sometimes at the cost of their health, careers, and passports, cannot be dismissed. But there is a sense of resignation here; people say that nothing is happening, that nobody wants to fight. A shopkeeper in Ramallah (apparently the most depoliticized city in the West Bank) asked me how people in Egypt have the energy to go out and fight all the time, to protest, to deal with instability?

This all makes me aware of the advantages we have in our struggle, in Egypt. We have our mobility. Our security forces are often at odds with the ruling government. We have a population that is large, and that is still angry. Perhaps it’s also simply an issue of timing – the fight in Egypt is young, it is not one we have inherited from our parents or our grandparents. We can still dictate the narratives.  We have a plethora of frontlines, of causes, and while the problems might all share the same roots there is perhaps more traction to be gained from fighting a single cause in Egypt than here, where all roads lead to the dead-end of occupation. Of course this is not to say that there is no value for that kind of activism in Palestine, just that it might be easier in Egypt for issue-based action to have a broader impact or overlap with other initiatives.

So my friend and I speak positively of Egypt here, when we are asked. We tell people that the fight is ongoing, that the Ikhwan won’t last, that things can change and that people have a sense of this. We tell them that the Ikhwan cannot control Egypt the way Hamas tries to control Gaza; we are simply too many.  I thank people when they inevitably tell me they love Egypt. I tell them that we love Palestine, that I feel lucky to be here. And I think that rather than Palestine being at the center of the next widespread Arab struggle, as the man in the bar said, perhaps it is now Egypt’s turn.