I was sure I’d have a second blog published before now, but things haven’t gone as smoothly as hoped. No surprise to anyone who has travelled in the Middle East.
The trip from Toronto to Frankfurt and on to Cairo was fine. I arrived about 9 in Cairo and was met by Walid, (“Egypt welcomes Mrs. Catherine”) from the tour company that was to drive me across the Sinai the next day. He got me settled in my hotel and we agreed to a 4:30 start the next day.
The drive across the Sinai was quite beautiful – the moon was going down on the left side of the car as the sun was very gradually rising on the right. A large man named Ali was the driver and drive he did – at top speed all the way. Luckily for all of us he was highly skilled and, next to John van, had the best reflexes I’ve ever seen – which drivers in Egypt must develop at a very young age to survive. Walid the tour guide was supposed to be pointing out interesting sights and answering my many questions, but he fell into the deep sleep that a new parent can only dream of and woke up only when we stopped for coffee three and a half hours into the trip. However the desert always offers something new to see despite its surface sameness and I was happy watching the land come to life as we sped by.
One odd sight was the long lines of cars at gas pumps. They told me there are gas shortages in many parts of the Middle East and waiting several hours to get gas is quite common.
After five hours, we arrived at the town of Rafah and then the Rafah Gate. The entry to Gaza, the place I’ve thought about for the past year. I put on my bright orange backpack – a first for me – and wheeled my suitcase along the road leading to the border post and took my place in the surprisingly short line up. When it was my turn I handed my passport, with my Egyptian Visa and my Gaza Entry Permit letter. The guard looked at them carefully then walked over to the main office and gave my papers to the head border guy and told me to wait. Why are these people always so miserable looking?
Within five minutes he came back and told me entry was refused. No reason offered, no explanation. Sorry. He suggested I go back to Cairo and ask for an explanation from the “Egyptian Embassy”. Try to picture this: I am already in Egypt. I am trying to go through an Egyptian border post that is 100 yards away from the Gaza border. Yet they say I can’t go through that specific Egyptian border and on to the Gaza border, even though I have a letter of invitation from the Gaza government. Huh?
The rest of the day was spent in phoning people trying to get help and asking for an explanation of the refusal. Gaza Mental Health phoned and tried help but couldn’t. David Heap, leader of the two Canadian Boat to Gaza trips (he was jailed in Israel the second time) happened to be in Gaza and he got busy, thank God, and got a colleague working on my problem on the Gaza side of things. I was all set to go across via the tunnels but that would have meant that GCMHP wouldn’t have been able to work with me as an “illegal”. and might have meant getting out was a problem if the tunnels were closed down.
Since last Wednesday (today is Saturday) I have been staying in the town of El Arish and Google may say it’s a vacation paradise but check with me before you go. However, despite the fact that I am covered in bed bug bites, I have really enjoyed interacting with the people who live here a lot. Friendly, full of pride about Egypt, lots of questions about Canada and open to my questions about their faith and customs. Most of the woman here wear the nigab and are happy to explain their feelings around wearing it. The young girls are beautiful and graceful. I have made friends with a dear young man who is at the desk of my hotel. He has helped in so many ways, basically a very kind guy. He invited me to his family home last evening for dinner. They are Palestinians originally from Gaza – expelled in the mid 40’s by the British along with so many thousands of others. What a privilege to share a meal and the evening with people like this – very conservative Muslims, living their faith on a daily basis, and such a mystery to the rest of us.
Tomorrow, if everything is in place, I try another way across. I’ll fill you in later, i hope next time from Gaza.