This is the only word I remember from the movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” the cheesiest I’ve seen since “Titanic.”
I am not sure why “Attraversiamo,” Italian for “Let us cross over,” stuck to mind, but definitely not due to how touched I was by the scene in which Julia Roberts tells Javier Bardem that she has finally agreed to take that boat ride with him across the lake nor because I was so impressed by the “symbolism” that was meant to give an illusory depth to a chick flick you would only not mind seeing if you are in the couch potato mood and have nothing better to do. I guess I have always been fascinated by the idea of crossing over, maybe since the first time I looked at a world map and asked my mom why there are dotted lines between countries and who drew them and whether they can be changed. She looked really confused, not because I was asking about things older than my age—the “where did I come from?” kind of questions—but because she herself did not have the answer. I remember how she shrugged her shoulders and said to me with a rather resigned tone, “I guess that’s how things are.”
A couple of years later, I studied the Sykes-Picot Agreement in school and it made things much more complicated for me, first because it proved that those lines are not God-sent and that like they were “drawn,” they can be “withdrawn,” and second because it baffled me a great deal as to who decides to draw and why. I went back to my mom, and I could see she realized that the previous answer would no longer be satisfactory, so she tried to explain to me that in the world of politics it is always the stronger party that decides. When I said that this is unfair, she shrugged her shoulders again—I have to admit this got on my nerves—and said, “Life is not fair, so imagine what politics is like.” She didn’t realize that at the time I had not known what the word “politics” means, yet I grew up considering it the most malignant of practices on earth because it gives people with power the ability to confine those with less or no power to lines that look so suffocating and crippling. We later studied the difference between natural and political borders and that confirmed my idea. If the border is a mountain, a lake, or a forest, then this is “natural,” yet if it is a line on a map translated into a checkpoint, barbed wire, or a miles-long fence, it is apparently the most “unnatural” way ever to determine the relationship between human beings.
The restrictions those borders place on human interaction were much clearer to me when I first knew that to leave my country, I need a permission from the country to which I am heading and that granting this permission depends on whether your destination is willing to receive you or not. Coming from the Middle East, I need a visa to go almost anywhere on the face of earth. I used to joke with my foreign friends when they asked if, for example, I needed a visa to Honduras or the Comoros Islands and I would reply, “I guess I need a visa to go to Alexandria.” When freedom of entry was granted to citizens of the EU members states, I couldn’t help but admire the concept of falling barriers—I felt that same sensation that overtook me when the Berlin Wall was pulled down—and with more countries joining, my admiration for the continent grew stronger. True reservations were voiced by conservatives over the unemployed of the impoverished East flocking to the prosperous West and, through offering cheap labor, competing with the natives of those countries which are themselves not devoid of economic problems. Their argument is not totally invalid, but they could have chosen to look at it from a different perspective and in a more far sighted manner: Yes, some serious issues might arise from the removal of travel restrictions between countries that do not share a similar social, financial, or political makeup, yet dissolving the barriers is the only way toward seeing these dissimilarities gradually fade and reaching the point of making no distinction between what is still categorized as East Europe and West Europe.
I am not going to go babbling about how unfortunate it is that not a sign of a similar system to be applied in the Arab world is visible because this—with all the implications it carries—is not what is preoccupying me at the moment. I would rather talk about how I felt when the border with Gaza was finally opened and the siege on the 1.5 million inhabitants of the strip was at last lifted. First, I have to say that I had so many mixed feelings upon hearing the news. I wasn’t sure who exactly I should be happy for, the Palestinians or the Egyptians, and I wasn’t even sure whether I should be happy in the first place.
Having been always haunted by the idea of barriers, the Separation Wall that Israel built in the West Bank felt like a thorny collar around my neck, and every time I read about it or saw it I was overwhelmed by those claustrophobic fits that made me feel the breath I was taking at that moment was my last. But after all, it was Israel tightening the noose around Palestinians—quite understandable, though utterly unjustifiable. Yet when it is Egypt doing the exact same thing on the other side, this will never be understandable and is, it goes without saying, absolutely unjustifiable. The Egyptian regime’s compliance with the Israeli manual was for me a flagrant violation of the natural order—something along the lines of incest—and the degree with which Egypt had throughout the years contributed to the suffering of Gazans was nothing less abominable than fratricide. I don’t think I need to describe how it felt when reports came out that the Egyptian government did in one way or another condone the 2008 war on Gaza or how fed up all Egyptians were becoming whenever they heard the sickening official statements about arms smuggling and Hamas rocket attacks and the destabilization of national security.
Of course, I felt happy for the Palestinians who, for a change, will no longer feel stranded in that 360-square-kilometer prison in which they and their offspring seemed to have been doomed to a life sentence, sometimes the capital punishment. Nevertheless, my happiness for Egypt is… I wouldn’t say greater, but rather more overpowering. For years, I had tried to come to terms with the shame of having my country give up on the only people who really deserved our material and moral support—no, rather for whom providing support is our national and ethical duty—and of seeing Egypt praised in Israel for its role in safeguarding the Jewish state’s interests. I remember how bitter I felt when several non-Egyptians, including Arabs, I met would scoff at my pro-Palestinian proclamations and retort with phrases like, “It is indeed very obvious how Egypt supports Palestine!” or “How about the white-and-blue flag that flutters over the Nile in Cairo?” Even when I explained that the regime does not represent the people, some would say, “And what are the people doing to prove otherwise?” I wanted to disappear.
Well, now I don’t. On the contrary, I want so much to appear and lift my head up high and say that my homeland is no longer letting me down and that this revolution was not only for the people who live within that space on the map that occupies the northeastern part of Africa, but was an embracement of all the values of freedom and humanity and altruism—ones whose meanings we were on the verge of deleting from our disgraced memory. Let me also add sovereignty.
I am happy for myself, for Egyptians, and for the revolution, but I am not so happy for the painfully long time justice takes to be served. My elation over the restoration of a bond that was unnaturally and brutally severed is unfortunately marred by the agony I still feel for those who were killed, injured, rendered homeless, or will live forever with an irreversible emotional damage as a direct or indirect result of the former regime’s policies. The flood of pride that drenched me head to toe the moment I learnt that both Egyptians and Palestinians have started taking the first little steps toward liberation has not yet enabled me of snatching that Scarlet Letter that is almost now engraved in my flesh. My sadness over the fact that we—apparently in such situations no one makes a distinction between regime and people—had been a major source of misery for Palestinians turned out to be too chronic to heal with the first tablet of pain killer. For now, I am grateful that the first signs of recovery are starting to show and that gives me the courage to display more perseverance during the coming phases of the seemingly long convalescence.
I don’t think that the opening of the Rafah crossing and the heartbreaking spectacle of the cheering Gazans who are finally able to make it to long overdue medical appointments, years-late family reunions, or even a one-day supplies’ shopping trip will effect a change to that map I have been staring at since I learnt to use my eyes. But as I grew taller and was able to take a closer look at the colored territories, I realized that maps are not static and that two Germanys became one and one Soviet Union became 15, and thousands of years ago there might have been a continent called Atlantis.
Like Palestine, a map is not a jigsaw puzzle that only has one way to assemble … nor is it some cake made to the taste of a bunch of hungry stomachs… it is a creature as throbbing with life as the zillions of cultures, races, and languages it houses and as open-armed as the oceans that embrace it. I will go back to my map and with my eyes scan all its territories and as I do so will erase all those lines that had bothered me for all those years. I will think of the globe as Atlas bore it on his shoulders. Then I will bring a magnifying glass and bring it closer until I see “the promised land” opening up like a heart-warming geyser. At that moment, I will extend my hand and call in a softest, yet the most forceful, whisper, “Attraversiamo!”