• The Ministry of Suffering: A Morning
    in Jerusalem

    Raja Shehadeh on Endless Bureaucracy and Self-Determination

    Not far from the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, opposite the St. Stephen’s Basilica of Jerusalem, where the École Biblique is situated, on 98 Nablus Road stood the office of the dreaded Israeli Interior Ministry. Its nondescript building was close to no man’s land dividing the eastern from the western sectors of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967.

    After the 1967 occupation of eastern Jerusalem by Israel and its annexation a few weeks later, personal status applications for the Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem began to be processed there. Five days a week, from early in the morning, on the sidewalk or in the street, under the rain in winter or in the hot sun in summer, without any protection from the elements, stood anxious applicants waiting for the office to open. When it did scores of applicants would surge in to submit applications to be handled by too few officials working there who couldn’t possibly provide the necessary services and weren’t particularly interested in doing so. Israelis living on the western side of the city had their own office better equipped and staffed. It was however off limits to the Palestinian residents of the city.

    Even before the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017, the city was out of bounds for Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank. This is the story of Sami Murad (not his real name), a self-employed chartered accountant, whose family have been residents of Jerusalem for countless centuries, who wished to live in Jerusalem with his spouse, Nadia. She comes from  nearby Bethlehem and holds a West Bank identity card. Israeli law does not allow them to live together in Jerusalem unless she is granted family reunification. His ordeal is typical of hundreds of other Palestinians living in Jerusalem who seek to be united with their spouses.

    With the annexation of eastern Jerusalem to Israel that took place on June 28, 1967 all the residents there were issued an identity card different from that of the residents of the West Bank which rendered them Israeli residents. They became the only Palestinians allowed to reside in Jerusalem. Rather than fall in love with a Jerusalem girl and make life easier for himself, in 1991 Sami fell for and married Nadia from the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Such is love!

    Sami’s marriage coincided with the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PLO. So Sami decided to defer the application for a family reunion for his wife. Expectations were high that the birth of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital was in the offing.

    For years the eastern part of the city where the Palestinians live was neglected by the Israeli Municipality. Many streets were without sidewalks and piles of festering garbage remained uncollected for weeks. Few new buildings were allowed to be constructed there while all around the eastern sector the municipality was carrying out massive construction projects intended to surround the Arab side of the city with Israeli settlements that were connected to the western part through roads that cut through the Palestinian areas of the city. With the signing of the Declaration of Principles of the Oslo Accords in 1993  it became clear that Israel would be keeping the whole of Jerusalem under its jurisdiction. It was then, as Sami told me, that he decided to go ahead with the family reunification application for his wife.

    Initially Sami thought he could submit his wife’s application that would enable them to live together in their Jerusalem apartment, at the interior ministry office in western Jerusalem where applicants were given numbers and could wait inside the office sitting on chairs. But he was promptly sent off and told he could only submit the application at the infamous office on 98 Nablus Road.

    A year had already passed. Sami and Nadia continued to live with Nadia’s family in Bethlehem just six miles away  in one of the attractive old Bethlehem houses in the noisy old section of the city where there was not enough room for them. Though he got along well with his in-laws, he yearned to live alone with his wife in Jerusalem where they had a beautifully furnished apartment in a quiet neighborhood. So with a heavy heart Sami now began his long visits to that dreaded office near Damascus Gate.

    Every day starting early in the morning as he stood in the mutinous line on the sidewalk outside the Interior Ministry office, Sami distracted himself by watching that new brand of young Palestinian men who had lost no time in learning the occupier’s language. Most were pencil thin, wiry, with quick movements and reactions, smoking heavily and always watchful as the police might come any minutes and order them to remove their small tables (which they called their office) with their antiquated manual typewriters. There for five shekels they proceeded to type in Hebrew the information required to fill out the forms of the ministry’s application forms with impressive speed while standing up using one finger.

    Nine months after he submitted his application and after numerous follow up visits to provide all the information required by the official at the Ministry processing his application, Sami thought the end of his ordeal was approaching.  With every visit the crowds waiting at the door seemed only to swell. This last week when he was expecting to hear the good news, he spent days standing in the queue outside the ministry trying without success to make it upstairs to the office.

    Sami found himself musing about civil authority and this local attempt at self-organization. Can we trust it? he wondered.

    It was now July, the hottest month of the year in Jerusalem, so he began arriving as early as six in the morning. By eight the burning sun ascending from behind the wall of the École Biblique and over the cypresses would begin striking at his head making him feel drowsy and dehydrated. He yearned for shade and a cold drink. Yet he persisted enduring it all until the ministry closed without being able to enter.

    To improve both the likelihood of making it and reduce the suffering from standing in the sun, Sami decided he must get there by four in the morning. He set his alarm clock at 3:30, got up, washed and rushed to his post. It was still dark when he arrived but already there were some 35 people in the line. His heart fell when he saw them standing silently against the wall. Their shadows from the yellow street light looking like the comfortable sleepers they should have been.

    Sami soon found out that for many of the people in the line this was their third early morning arrival. Yesterday when he had been unable to come seemed to have been a particularly bad day—he felt fortunate to have been spared that. The person standing next to him said he had been where they were now standing yet still failed to make it because of people jumping the queue. Another said she was just a few people away from the door when it was coming to closing time but instead of letting her in, they pulled in three others who were known collaborators. Sami was also told that it had been so chaotic and violent that the border police had to be called and they pushed everyone back.

    But then the Hajjat [women in traditional Muslim dress] phenomenon began to upset Sami. They seemed to be united in some kind of conspiratorial solidarity that allowed any one of them to just walk over and join the scarfed women already standing in the queue. Soon there were forty five people ahead of him. Sami tried shaming them, asking, “Don’t you see how unfair it is to take my place when I’ve been waiting here since 4 in the morning? »  They just shrugged their shoulders. Sami realized that those whom society doesn’t treat fairly can be deaf to the unfairness they inflict on others.

    He comforted himself that morning by remembering that these people have no rights. Then it dawned on him that he and all the others in the line, as all Palestinian residents in eastern Jerusalem, also don’t expect to be respected, to be treated with justice and fairness. That is why we all push and shove trying to fend for ourselves and do not feel ashamed if we’re reminded that we’re taking the place of another. We are all basically, Sami concluded, like these Hajjat.

    Resigned, Sami muttered to himself, “I have been here since four,” (meaning, dont you feel ashamed to take my place, you who have come only at six?). This was the last thing he said. After that he didn’t speak to anyone.

    “Hey shoteir, what are you doing to prevent disorder? Look how many are jumping the queue. Three of you and you can do nothing. Do something about it.”

    At seven more people began coming and trying to jump the queue. Serious fights were beginning to break out.

    A short time later an official-looking man, slight with a handbag like a train conductor’s, asked, “Who is first in line?” and then began handing everyone a number.

    All the people in the line began to raise their hands anxious to get one.

    “But what for are these numbers,” people began to ask. The official-looking man didn’t answer.

    Those in the queue whom the man refused to issue numbers for because others complained they had jumped the line, began to challenge his right to distribute these small pieces of paper on which a number was written. “Who are you anyway?  Who gave you the authority? This is my place and it is where I’ll stay whether you like it or not. It’s none of your business.”

    “I’m like you,” the man said softly. “I was here yesterday from early in the morning and could not go in because of the chaos. I want to get us organized today.”

    “And you want to give numbers so that you will have the first number so you’ll be able to go in first.”

    “Here look: my number is 49. You will all go in before me. I am doing this to make it possible for everyone to get in. I try to organize you and you fight me?”

    The condemnation continued as the man went up and down the line distributing the numbers.

    Sami found himself musing about civil authority and this local attempt at self-organization. Can we trust it? he wondered. And what of the other authority, the all-powerful Israeli one? Will it recognize our people’s self-help? From the behavior of the crowd he could tell that no one was certain of this. Yet how he wished it were so. His number was 29 and if they respected the numbers he was sure to get in.

    Sometime after seven the Israeli border guards began to come. One black border guard with a green beret, another a policeman with a clear complexion and a peaceful rather kind air about him, and a third with a mean look. It was this last man who pushed a few of the Hajjat roughly aside and none except a young man, hardly sixteen, complained or tried to stop him. The rest of the crowd held such a grudge against these women who were constantly trying to jump the queue that none were  inclined to lift a finger to protect them.

    Many now were pronouncing that all this confusion and disorder was “our own fault.” “Arabs and order do not go together,” was a repeated refrain.

    Soon another three Israeli policemen mounted on horseback appeared. Their sturdy black stallions with long well brushed tails looked formidable. The policemen began trotting back and forth in a show of force but were ineffective in keeping order.

    “Hey shoteir [Hebrew for policeman], what are you doing to prevent disorder? Look how many are jumping the queue. Three of you and you can do nothing. Do something about it,” one man shouted in Hebrew with a Hebronite accent.

    His accent amused the young man close to Sami and he mimicked the way he said shotaair, extending the vowels, and repeating Shotaair Shotaair with the Hebronite accent.

    Sami now noticed stone chips falling on his head. He looked up and saw workers hanging from the window on the second floor chipping the stone of the façade of the building close to the roof: “Hey can’t you be more careful?” He shouted to them. But they continued to work.

    At 7:30 a prosperous man clad in a black suit with a well-ironed white shirt, meticulously groomed and carrying a briefcase, came by and surveyed the scene. The pashas come at this late hour, Sami thought, while the rest of us have been on our feet from before sunrise. And if they find the line too long they call their Israeli contact for help. This was exactly what this man seems to have decided to do as he walked away.

    To distract himself, Sami now concentrated on listening to the discussion that was taking place among those waiting in line. One person had the opinion that the Israeli officials will not respect  the Palestinian numbering system. This was the strongly held opinion of the short muscular and strangely shaped young man near where Sami stood. He was sure that the police will say this is our work. They might also investigate who did this and they might even threaten to imprison him if he repeated this practice. Others agreed: “Of course they will not look at these numbers. They will let in whoever they choose. Never will they recognize any number given by a Palestinian.”

    Then some began writing their own numbers and placing themselves a few spots forward in the line. “My number is 14,” they would say challengingly. Another piped, “I should be number three, all the way there in front.”

    “You want numbers. I have a number and it even has the stamp,” one aggressive young man said after he went into the grocery shop nearby borrowed paper and pen and wrote with no less than a felt pen an impressively drawn number on a large piece of paper.

    On the street in the morning there was a peddler selling sesame seed cakes but he had been determined to stay hungry, thinking he’s meaner when he is.

    As the clock struck eight, the time when the door of the building leading to the office was supposed to open, the pushing got more intense. Sami was shoved behind a railing.

    “All of you from here to the back, go back, back,” the policeman shouted pushing them like a pile of sand away and placing the barrier in front of them.

    Sami was now despairing. “If I don’t make it today,” he promised himself, “I will come again at two-thirty tomorrow morning and be sure to be the very first one in the line. I will have to make it, one way or another.”

    At ten Sami and a number of others succeeded in squeezing in. Those in the back pulled the man in front of him by his shirt and tried to take his place to stop him from going in. The policeman at the door screamed at the man who did this, “You will not go in.”

    “But I’m number 4,” the man said.

    “Numbers mean nothing to us,” the police said. “You go in,” the policeman told the man behind Sami.

    “What about me?” Sami pleaded.

    “You can come,” the policeman said.

    Sami felt triumphant. He knew that there were many more hours of waiting inside but at least he was in. He had thought that once inside the building he could sit on the stairs leading up to the office on the second floor. But he found men and women sitting at every step all the way up to the door of the office.

    It was another four hours before he made it to the office which was full to the brim, with hardly standing room. But he said to himself, “At least I got in.”

    It was 2:30 in the afternoon when he finally made it out, his successful application in hand. He had a headache and had had nothing to eat or drink since 3:30 am. On the street in the morning there was a peddler selling sesame seed cakes but he had been determined to stay hungry, thinking he’s meaner when he is. Now he could celebrate. The bigger celebration was reserved for when he got to Nadia and told her, “today I succeeded.”

    Sami and Nadia couldn’t have known then how fortunate they were to have succeeded in getting permission from Israel to live together in their own apartment in Jerusalem. Soon after that the policy for obtaining family reunifications for Palestinian applicants came almost to a complete stop leaving couples separated or taking the risk of getting arrested for living together in Jerusalem.  The suffering of many couples was tremendous.

    Had Sami failed, Nadia would not have been allowed to move to Jerusalem to live with him. The separation would have put a strain on their marriage as had happened to so many other couples when the Israeli policy changed and it became virtually impossible to obtain family reunifications

    This remains the case today, a quarter of a century after the signing of the Oslo “peace” Accords.

    Raja Shehadeh
    Raja Shehadeh
    Raja Shehadeh is the author of, among other books, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, which won the Orwell Prize in 2008. His latest book is Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation.

    More Story
    You Try Being Harry Truman We Have Ways of Making You Talk is a weekly show exploring the war in close up, hosted by comedian Al Murray and historian...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.