Last week, I arrived at the same terminal in Cairo International Airport. This time, I wasn’t being deported to Gaza like all Palestinians travelling in and out of the besieged Strip. I had been travelling on a short business trip, only a couple of days in the big city.
But it was all the same, the chair I sat on almost ten years ago, the same benches, the same immigration desk that I walked towards reluctantly knowing that I was going to be sent to an underground dungeon in preparation for my deportation to Gaza; the same moustached officer asking the same stupid questions. But this time, I was armed with a British passport rather than my usual Palestinian documents which were often useless anywhere in the Arab World.
Before I went through last week, I glanced at the benches once more to see other fellow Palestinians waiting there. I recognised them by the look on their faces, the agony of knowing that they were going to spend an unspecified period of time in an underground room at Cairo Airport until the Rafah Border opened again, suddenly and an announced. I recognised that expression of a father looking at his little one with the expression of “I am so sorry to put you through this, but I have no choice”.
My passport was stamped and I went through to pick up my bags and then onto the busy streets of Cairo to get to my hotel by the majestic Nile. I felt like a different person as I checked in with my work colleagues. I was excited to be free of course and to escape the fate of deportation.
As I got to my room and closed the door behind me, I almost broke down, knowing how close I was to my parents and siblings in Gaza, knowing that I was only a few hours taxi ride to get to them yet it felt like a few light years away. I had hoped that I would be able to continue my journey onto the Sinai and through to Gaza. But the ten-year-old siege on Gaza meant that I was just fantasising.
I had also applied for permission to go to Gaza through the Erez Crossing with Gaza, hoping that after my work was done I was going to fly to Amman and cross onto the West Bank, through Israel then into Gaza to be reunited with my family – another fantasy that I’m still entertaining.
Gaza has sixteen crossing points with Israel and one with Egypt and they are all closed. Ten years of complete siege from both sides left the Strip on the brink of collapsing into the unknown. Everything is failing, from the health sector to water and electricity supplies. Yet two million people, like me, are living in a void, separated from each other, isolated from the world outside them. So allow me to explain this as simply as possible: for a Palestinian from Gaza, it is impossible to go anywhere. Egypt doesn’t allow us to cross over to their country except for humanitarian cases and others every now and again. Israel doesn’t allow us to fly into Tel Aviv, or cross over through the Allenby Bridge with Jordan. And it doesn’t matter whether I have a British passport or not, this apartheid system means that my ethnicity and Gaza residency ID card trump every other document I may have. Last year I tried to cross over the Bridge to take part in the Palestinian Festival of Literature along with dozen other European, American and other writers, including Nobel Prize Winner JM Coetzee. They were all waved through except me because I was from Gaza.
My family in Gaza are under siege and as I returned to London from Cairo I felt that I was out of the siege. Yet that very same siege is killing both of us slowly. I often wonder why people cry over those who face sudden death, isn’t more merciful than watching your loved ones fading away in a prison and you are powerless to do anything?