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December 1989, 25 years ago:
ARKADELPHIA – As I watched the television coverage of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall [on November 9, 1989] and noted the joyous looks on the children’s faces, I celebrated with the East Germans. As a Palestinian child, I, too, lived behind a wall.
In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war the armistice line divided the city of Jerusalem into two sectors. East Jerusalem fell to Jordan, and West Jerusalem fell to Israel. The only point of access between Jordan and Israel was through what was then known as the Mendelbum Gate.
Unlike the classical Greek-styled Doric Columns of Brandenburg Gate, Mendelbum Gate was merely a former family residence that was located on the armistice line. The back of the house was the official checkpoint for the Israeli side; what used to be the front yard was a paved no man’s land area that led to the Jordanian checkpoint some 40 yards away.
The first memory I have of Mendelbum Gate dates back to Christmas of 1949, one of the coldest Christmases Jerusalem had experienced. [Stranded in Mendelbum Gate’s no man’s land for several hours, the gate would become a symbol of oppression and apartheid for me and for millions of Palestinians.]
Since Mendelbum gate was the only corridor between Israel and Jordan, it served as an access point for the United Nations forces and the international diplomatic missions and their dependents. Once a year, however, the small number of Christian Palestinian families throughout Israel, were allowed to cross through Mendelbum Gate to spend either 24 or 36 hours (depending on the military governor’s whim) with their relatives in East Jerusalem.
Requests were to be made well in advance of Christmas, and the issuance of permits was not a guaranteed matter. Frequently people did not know whether their requests had been approved until the day of departure, and frequently approved requests were denied at the point of crossing. Even so, the few thousand who crossed the border looked with anticipation to this once-a-year special occasion when grandparents and their offspring – fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins met for a few precious hours to celebrate, to laugh, to cry, to catch up on a year’s worth of news, to [worship at the Jerusalem holy shrines and especially Bethlehem’s church of the Nativity], and especially to hope that maybe the following year the families would be united.
Because of the humiliating and demeaning experiences at the checkpoints, I remember these brief Christmas pilgrimages with more horror than joy. Very early on the 24th day of December we would line up at Mendelbum Gate. Israeli soldiers with Uzi machine guns at my eye level would walk by and hurl profanities or indignities. Aged men and women talked humbly to 20-year-old soldiers. Standing in these lines I learned the true meaning of servility, fear, and hatred.
Once the gate was opened, the long process of producing documents, answering numerous questions and being subjected to body searches began – often there were humiliating strip searches and cavity checks. One moved ever so slowly through an endless maze of barbed wire, rooms, partitions, desks, counters, soldiers, customs and numerous officials. Once processed, we were moved in groups to another maze of barbed wire in the no man’s land area whereupon Jordanian soldiers took over and carried on in the same manner. On the average it took some five hours to walk the short distance.
The let-down and the physical and emotional stress made the return trip equally horrifying. Only this time one had to make sure that gifts and other purchased items were not confiscated. I distinctly remember the following incident. A small battery-operated red plastic Morris-Minor car I had received as a Christmas present was taken by an Israeli customs agent to some back room “to have it checked for explosives.” I never saw that car again.
In 1955 my sister, two older brothers and my uncle and aunt moved permanently to East Jerusalem. Our only means of communication with them was through the good graces of the Belgian Consul General to Israel and a few UN officers. They would secretly carry letters back and forth. These letters were picked up at various points: a convent, the YMCA, the back door of the embassy compound [whereupon we’d pretend to be servants delivering laundry or goods], churches – never the same place or the same time.
“So near yet so far away” really meant something then. For even though we lived about two miles from each other, we could not see the family except once a year. I distinctly remember the times when my mother would look across no man’s land [at the Orthodox cemetery just outside Jerusalem’s historic southwestern city walls] to point out the cemetery in which my father was buried. Although a few hundred yards in the distance, we were never able to lay flowers or offer the Kadish (prayers for the dead).
I am thankful this Christmas, as I have been for the previous 11 Christmases, that my mother, my siblings, my uncle and aunt and numerous relatives are able to celebrate this most joyous of all occasions of the year in the United States. The family gatherings, centered around a new generation of American-born Palestinian children, are celebrations of love, happiness, joyful utterings and, above all, celebrations of freedom.
[In 1988) my native American-born wife and I traveled to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the National Coalition for Middle East Dialogue. Upon entering Israel [at the infamous Allenby Bridge crossing], my wife, another American-born citizen of Palestinian background, and I were pulled out of the group for a 3 1/2 –hour interrogation-search session. Not only was I strip-searched, but an Israeli soldier attempted to confiscate, “for security reasons,” my wife’s hair drier and curling iron. Remembering my plastic red car, I snatched the items out of the soldier’s hands and defied him. Yes, I could do that; I am an American citizen now.
In 1967 Jerusalem was unified and Mendelbum Gate was dismantled. Even though [except for a small plaque] there are no markers to identify the location, the memory of that wall will forever linger in the minds and hearts of millions of Palestinians. [Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago] Palestinian children have been crying out to the world that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” that wants it down. I hope the world hears their cries so that Jerusalem, the city of Peace, will once again become a light unto the world.
(Palestinians Recall Another Wall that Fell was first published on December 27, 1989, 25 years ago this month. Used with permission, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, copyright 1989.)
While Mendelbum Gate and the ugly symbol for which it stood have disappeared, an infinitely more sinister and vile symbol of oppression has sprouted across Palestine in the form of an abominably loathsome 25 ft. high concrete Wall of Separation.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a peace activist, a sculptor, a photographer, a writer, and an avid gardener. email@example.com