Tochi Onyebuchi, CLS ’15, received a summer grant from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Internship Program and spent ten weeks, during the summer of 2013, in the West Bank. He worked with a prisoners’ rights organization based out of Ramallah as efforts to revive peace talks had reached their highest pitch.
This is part 3 in a series of essays he wrote about his time there.
I have a few phones here.
There’s the small brick I purchased in Amman, fitted with its Zain sim card. That served me well across the Allenby Bridge and at the border with Israel, but when I arrived in Jerusalem, the network switched to Jawwal, and as my calls to my immediate host did not go through, I sought out and purchased an Israeli phone, with a Jawwal sim card. A few more calls, then I dialed my host’s other number, his Jerusalem number, and got through. The call was much cheaper than it would have been if I’d stuck with the Zain phone. But when a contact list was emailed to all of us Law Fellows, I was one of the few who had two numbers listed below my info. A Palestine number and an Israel number. (A small flurry of pride as I felt this to be a badge of honor. Made me worldly.)
Even though it’s mostly uphill, I much prefer the morning commute to work. Once I figured out how to get to the damned place (cabbies here are catastrophically unhelpful; street names mean bupkis to them, and if you don’t know how to say things like ‘Yasser Arafat’s Tomb’ in Arabic, you’re doomed to an overcharged, wandering odyssey into the ever-curling entrails of the city), it turned into a nice walk. Certainly a satisfying cardio workout.
For one, the morning commute is blessedly cool. The heat here during the summer strikes early (as early as 7.45am) and mercilessly. A breeze meant to bring heavenly relief from the overwhelming calefaction only serves to blow hot air right into your face. So it behooves one to arrive at an office riddled (armed is more like it) with fans and air conditioning and windows that open as early as possible.
One gets the impression during that near-silent walk before the taxis and flatbeds clog the streets and before pedestrians and their children clog the sidewalks that this is all just one city. People living next each other. Resources shared, or at least, yet to be.
Otherwise, the place begins to resemble that city in China Miéville’s The City & the City, a crosshatched metropolis where people of two different races, identities, ethnicities occupy the same geographic space without paying each other heed, without noticing each other, without thinking the other exists.
You see it a lot in al-Quds (also known by its more popular Judeo-Christian name, Jerusalem) where Arabs and Israelis have different color license plates and the Arabs, in a terrific show of road rage, scream loudly at other Arabs and gesticulate and honk, while the Israelis are strangely absent from the audience. You see the Jewish schoolgirls in their uniforms, coming home from school in pairs or small groups; the older ones are ignored by the otherwise virile and aggressive and lovelorn Arab Jerusalemites shebab.
I thought of returning home and walking around with only one phone, no longer looking like some poor man’s arms dealer, sharing a day, a kind look, a sidewalk with someone back home I’d begun to miss terribly.