Deserts, delays and Christmas cheer
Our arrival into Jordan was marred by an inexplicable delay, which left most of the convoy sitting for six hours at the border. Football gave way to irritation and a chorus of hornblowing, before we were finally allowed to pass, but not until officials had taken the passports of every vehicle’s driver.
Not surprisingly, this made volunteers feel rather nervous, but we did get them back again that evening, amid rumours that this may actually be standard procedure with commercial vehicles in Jordan. Standard or not, the information from various officials was neither consistent nor clear!
Our passage to Amman was further impeded by the apparent determination of police to divert us straight to the port of Aqaba. Knowing that we had a reception and press conferences waiting for us in Amman, however, we eventually resolved the situation via a little bit of (polite) direct action. The convoy pulled out from the inside lane, blocking the entire carriageway, including the hard shoulder, and created a rolling roadblock. Despite the inconvenience we were causing, local traffic caught up in the convoy was extremely supportive! The police, finding themselves sidelined, gave up their attempts at redirection, and moved to the side to wave us on.
Once more, kind hosts among the Palestinian community in Amman provided food and hotel accommodation for us, as well as a full programme of rallies and press conferences. Many of our hosts invited volunteers to their houses, where they enjoyed home-cooked food and convivial company.
By now, the convoy had become a major news story (in some cases the lead story) across the Middle East. The Turkish president even appeared on Syrian TV asking Egypt to facilitate its smooth passage.
Sadly, however, this appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Despite Viva Palestina’s organisers spending months trying to coordinate and cooperate with the Egyptian authorities regarding the convoy’s passage from the Red Sea to Rafah (only half a day’s drive), at the last minute, the Egyptian consulate in Aqaba announced that all aid for Gaza must either be handed over to UNWRA, travel through Israel, or be approved by Israel (!) before coming to Rafah, and that therefore we would not be allowed to land at Nuweiba.
In a meeting with the convoy volunteers on Christmas morning, George Galloway pointed out that if we thought UNWRA was up to the job, we could have simply written them a cheque months ago! He also reiterated that we had no intention of asking Israel for its permission to deliver aid to a sovereign people via a third, also sovereign, country. He begged the Egypian authorities to change their minds, emphasising that on Sunday 27 December, the anniversary of the bombardment of Gaza, the world’s attention should be on Israel and its war crimes, not on Egypt, a fellow Arab nation.
So now, on Christmas Day, nearly 500 volunteers are waiting in Aqaba while negotiations with Egypt continue. At this time of year, it is especially poignant to know that 150-odd vehicles, carrying medicines, paper and pencils, toys, maternity and baby supplies should be sitting less than a day’s journey away from their destination, while Gaza’s children continue to suffer under the criminal blockade.
We know that the people of the Middle East are with us. I have no doubt that that goes for most Egyptian people, too. Meanwhile, the convoy volunteers are determined to complete their mission, and prepared to be patient.
We are asking all friends and supporters of the convoy and of Palestine to please contact the Egyptian consulate in London and the Egyptian goverment in Cairo asking them politely to reconsider their disastrous decision. Contact your MP and the foreign office and request that they take action. Phone and email the media, asking them to report on the story, which ought to be big news at Christmastime. And forward info to all your friends asking them to do the same.
The Egyptian goverment, the British goverment and the British media all need to know that British people care about this issue, and will not stand by and let the convoy be turned away so close to its final destination.
Yet more things we have learned:
1. Contrary to expectation, it is very hard to find loose cotton tops in Amman. Jordanian women appear to favour strangely ugly fitted jumpers made from synthetic fibres.
2. There may be some connection between clothing-induced discomfort and a general lack of cheer amongst the ladies of Amman.
3. Punjabi men are disproportionately excited by the sight of a woman in Punjabi-style clothes.
4. The words ‘flaunting’ and ‘modesty’ are not compatible with a civilised debate about the nature of equality between the sexes.
5. The Jordanian desert is very beautiful.
6. It is hard to be enthusiastic about beautiful things when driving on an unpredictable road with vacuous CB chatter ringing in your ears.
7. It is perfectly acceptable to be irrascible when big bouncy people arrive FRESH onto the convoy, full of well-meant but misplaced enthusiasm and flaunting obscenely high energy levels. Especially when they have the cheek to start pointing out beautiful things to you.
8. People who join the convoy late, and have therefore had the benefit of two and a half weeks’ worth of extra sleep, should be seen and not heard. It is not polite to walk around looking clean and healthy and to compound the offence by making jokes/generally pleasant conversation when everyone else has gone a tired/bedraggled shade of grey and can barely string a coherent sentence together.
9. Ditto with flaunting efficiency and brain power when everyone around you is getting increasingly random as the days go by. Keep your cleverness to yourself.
10. There is no limit to the number of mattresses that can be squeezed onto the floor of an apparently small room. As each mattress is brought in, a space for it will appear on the floor. This is known as the accommodation tardis law.
11. There is no way to leave a room full of sleeping women without treading on at least three of them.
12. The person who snores will fall asleep first, and thereafter sleep soundest and longest. This person will also be strategically positioned so as to disturb the most people, while simultaneously being strangely hard to identify.
12. Computers suck your life away. This explains why the people who blog the most have the least to say. Sometimes you actually have to stop writing about the world and go and be in it.
13. If you want to sap the morale of an unwanted convoy, a beautiful seaside resort is not the place to dump them.
14. Christmas night on a beach you never expected to see, with drinks provided by the beer fairy and at least one boy with a guitar, should be experienced once by everyone.
15. Unexpected presents are the nicest.
16. The rumours and counter-rumours circulating during the first part of the trip were actually an ingenious curiosity-reduction programme devised by the Viva Palestina leadership. Misinformation spread by those who wish to discourage the convoy has thus been rendered ineffectual, since most volunteers have stopped trying to figure out what might happen next.
17. Never mind meditation; a state of zen acceptance can be reached when you learn to give up all attempts at control or understanding and simply await further instructions.
18. If this is how soldiers are trained, then we are building an army for Palestine.
19. If any doubt was left about the bias and imperialist agenda of the British media, it has surely been dispelled now. The stranded convoy has been the lead news story all across the Middle East for two days, yet most outlets in Britain have been going with the doddery Pope and the weather.
20. Despite this, the solidarity from supporters in Britain has been truly heartening. Every donation and message we receive is proof that the media blackout is not as successful as it might appear.
21. It is heartbreaking to meet refugees living within an hour’s journey of their former family homes, who can see across to occupied Palestine every day, yet who have never been inside the country.
22. Despite this daily reminder of their tragedy, Palestinians in Jordan still manage to be exceptionally positive, optimistic and friendly people. Their hospitality towards the stranded convoy has been phenomenal.
23. With such an example in front of us, it will take more than a few days in a lovely town and some idle rumours to discourage the convoy.
24. Beroch, beit dam, nafdiki ya Gaza! (With our blood and with our soul, we’ll save you Gaza.)