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Lines in the Sand

One tile makes it from Nova Scotia to Gaza.

by Miles Howe

One Tile to Gaza Photo: Miles Howe
One Tile to Gaza Photo: Miles Howe

The most straightforward road route to the border town of Rafah, from Cairo, heads almost due east. You will pass through the inhospitable expanse of the Sinai desert before arriving at the Mediterranean coastal town of El-Arish. From El-Arish, you will have to find a taxi or a small bus to Rafah.

El-Arish has of late been marred by some violence. A gas pipeline that connects Egyptian gas to Israeli demand runs near Arish, and has been bombed a few times. Some suspect the bombing was carried out by Hamas in order to break down relations, economic and otherwise, between the two countries. Security around El-Arish is very much increased. Checkpoints abound, complete with machine gun nests and armed troop transports on standby.

In light of this, and other sinister news, I opt to circumvent Arish and attempt a much more circuitous route to Rafah from Cairo. I grab a late-night bus, filled with vacationing Egyptian families, to Taba. Taba is a gateway town to the famed Sinai peninsula, well known for its snorkeling, diving, and laid-back atmosphere. Taba also straddles the Israeli border with Eilat, Israel's southernmost city.

From Cairo, Taba is a seven hour bus trip to the south east. Once there, it is about 300 kilometres straight north of Rafah, and the two towns connects via a rarely used desert road. The road does appear on maps, but I cannot ascertain from sources in Cairo whether the road is indeed open, if so whether to foreigners, and if so whether I can find someone in the early morning Taba sunrise to take me north to Rafah. My gut says “go with it”, and if this last-ditch plan falls apart, I can always fall back on crossing into Israel, and paying a call on an old friend in Tel Aviv.

The bus ride to Taba is uneventful, save for one midnight military check with a K9 unit. Seven hours of broken sleep later, I disembark in the smattering of functional, and not so functional, beach-hutted surreality known as Taba.

It is difficult to say whether things have recently gone economically wrong with Taba, or if it is the result of too many big dreamers with only enough capital to half-finance a hotel venture. In any case, concrete and re-bar skeletons of unfinished projects far outweigh actual places to stay. Beach garb, maybe for sale, maybe disintegrating in the blowing sands, hangs ominously from otherwise empty and hollow storefronts. There is no bus station, only a parking lot with several soldier-esque looking types in various stages of waking up.

The tired and groggy sun-seeker set, who are my bus companions, stumble with hesitant steps off the bus, and are either shepherded towards the Israeli border, or towards the Taba casino, whose slot machines lurk somewhere nearby. I noncommittally allow myself to be ushered towards Israel, and meander back and forth, as though tired and disoriented, looking for a hook-up who may or may not materialize. A taxi driver steps out of a mini-van, and offers “Israel?”

“I want to go to Rafah.” I say, out of earshot. “Can you do it?”

The cab driver, who I come to know as Ismail, nods in the affirmative. We negotiate a price, and I am made to understand that if I “sleep, sleep.”, under a pile of old blankets in one of the mini-van's back-row seats, the ride will go much more smoothly. I'm not really tired. But that's not really the point. We're going on a road where foreigners aren't to be seen, and where lone Ismail driving an empty mini-van won't attract attention. Irrational thoughts of being sold off at a Bedouin desert camp dance momentarily through my head, but I bury myself under the blankets, stretch out as best I can, and disappear in a cocoon of tattered wool.

The road, from what I can feel through my jarred spine, is littered with baseball-sized rocks. We bounce, crawl, speed up, hard brake. More than once I slip off the bench. Every now and then I poke my head up, view an unending sprawl of pale desert, and am quickly, but gently, chastised by Ismail with a “Sleep. Sleep.”

Somehow, three hours later, we are there, at Rafah. I sit up to see various Egyptian army checkpoints looming up ahead, along with a tall blue arch that says “Goodbye. See You Soon.” It is very much the end of the road. Ismail is pleased with himself, and we are both all smiles. He makes it clear that I am to disembark here, and motions that if all things fail, somewhere in the line-up of ancient Mercedes station-waggons that sit under a broken awning to the side of the road, there is bound to be a ride back to Cairo.

At Rafah, people are everywhere, arguing, shouting, lugging large suitcases and shopping bags, honking horns, and driving donkey carts. The women move silently, cloaked under layers of black fabric. The men are gesticulations and theatrics. Conversations turn to arguments, turn to mock skirmishes, and, once crested, revert to laughter, back slaps, and hugs.

The hubbub momentarily ceases as I, definitely the most out of place person I can see in the vicinity, step out of the mini-van. There is some scrutiny, broken by laughter, as it seems to be generally understood that while the staring mass can't quite place my intentions, I appear more comic than dangerous. I've been sitting and lying in motorized vehicles for the past twelve hours, so I do my best good-natured and over-exaggerated stretch and yawn pantomime, as though I often wake up in Rafah stumbling out of a mini-van, naturally. Needless to say, my first steps at Rafah are shaky.

I can see the border, a sand-coloured compound with a black iron fence. On this side, Egypt. On the other, Gaza. With a porter who refuses to take no for an answer in tow, I make leisurely but assuredly for the gate. The first checkpoint of teenage Egyptian soldiers with machine guns lets me pass with little more than an interested look at me and my passport. I figure things are going to go smoothly.

At the gate, however, the white-clad Egyptian border guards are having nothing of it. I hand them a press pass. Nothing. I sit on a railing and wait for a lull in the human traffic streaming through both sides of the gate, and hand it to them again. Nothing. I try to give them a bribe, a hefty bribe even. Nothing.

Eventually, after half an hour of sitting, sighing, and looking dejected but hopeful, one of the guards tells me “to go sit over there.” Over there is the coffee shop at the end of the road. Dejected, I dust the sand off a plastic chair, plunk myself down, and order a coffee.

I take out the last of the Nova Scotia honey, the preserves, and the soaps, from my satchel. I've been carrying these goods halfway around the world, for almost a month, and I can't do it any longer. In the beating sun, the logic of it all escapes me. What is this trade mission?

I offer honey bears to the family sitting beside me, but they've never seen honey in a plastic bear, and don't know what I'm on about. I manage to squeeze honey onto the finger of one man and encourage him to lick it. I pantomime scrubbing myself in the shower while humming a tune, and manage to give away a bar of soap.

A group of four travelers in desert khakis sits down at the table next to me. Patches emblazoned on their backs say “Music For Peace.” They are Italian, but we can all speak the language of love, French. They tell me that they have been waiting for four days, with their flatbeds of medical supplies, for permission to cross. We smoke cigarettes, and I tell them about the Flotilla, and the trade mission.

They suggest I go back to Cairo, and try to get a waiver from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry office, and then come back and try again. But I'm done, especially with paper chases that proceed at bureaucratic leisure. The Canadian embassy in Cairo won't return my calls. My effort to go as an observer with the Red Crescent was understandably rebuffed. The Palestinian Embassy in Cairo may or may not even exist, and certainly does not answer its phone. I beg the Music For Peace people to take me with them, but it is impossible.

There is a motion from the fence, two men begin make the universally-understood motions of "Let's go!", and the Music for Peace flatbeds rumble to life. The khaki-clad foursome extinguish their cigarettes, and move towards the trucks. In desperation I try to force honey and cherry tomato salsa on them, but they tell me it is very difficult, and refuse.

“Please,” I say, “Just take this.”

I grab a small glazed tile, which fits in the palm of your hand, given to me by Scott Barber, of Coracle Pottery, in Nova Scotia. On the back of the tile it says “To Gaza With Love. Scott Barber, Nova Scotia, Canada.”

Victoria, one of the Music for Peace-niks, grabs the tile and pockets it. I make a note to email her later. And then they are gone. And I am alone in Rafah at the coffee shop at the end of the road. The coffee shop boss comes over.

“Gift?” he says,  pointing at the honey bears lined up in a row on the table.

“Sure. Gift.” I say, and wander towards the taxi stand.

Two men approach me, and ask me if I'd like an introduction to Hamas, and that in five minutes I can be in Gaza through the elaborate tunnel system that exists between Egypt and Gaza. Earlier, when the idea was hatching in my mind, I thought I might accept this opportunity if it presented itself.

In my mind, then, I was fearless. Now faced with the possibility, my bravado crumbles. Without a certainty of who could be waiting for me on the other side, there are too many wild-cards in the idea of the tunnels. Could be Hamas. Could be IDF. Could be that if I do make it in and make it back, John Baird and his minions will brand me unsavory and I'll never fly anywhere again. I tell them I am scared, and decline.

What happens next is simply that I wait two hours for seven people to come over the Rafah border who want to go to Cairo in a beat up Mercedes waggon. The taxi won't leave until it is packed full. So I sit, and drink tea, and wait. Finally, the cab full, everyone decides that the Canadian guy should sit in the far back, where the armed teens at the myriad checkpoints will have to glance way in to see me. We cram ourselves in, and go bumping along the road, back to El-Arish, back through the desert, and finally, by sundown, back to Cairo. Tired, sandy, and now with a knotted back, I am cashed out.

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1846 words


To Gaza With Love

Someone will know we care and how you tried to visit brother. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Hallelujah! Peace be with you my friend...

Music for Peace, and Pottery too.

Thank you Valentina! It's special to myself, and to Miles I'm sure, that you are with "Music for Peace". That's something both Miles and I can relate to... Peace be with you and your companions, and with Palestine and Israel too.

You took a world with you

I am so proud to have met you.



beautiful story

Beautiful story, Miles. I can taste the dust and the honey. Thank you!

Rafah Crossing

You were very wise not to accept the offer from Hamas for a tunnel crossing. The odds are you would now be a hostage held for ransom or worse, dead. All those smiling friendly and sympathetic faces you see are the surface veneer; the powers that be in Gaza are not quite so nice or understanding. A Westerner to them is cash on the dash. Very easy to be labled a CIA spy or worse, a Mossad agent. Yes, you might have made it in to Gaza but far more likely you would have ended up in some basement, in cuffs, blindfolded, a pawn in the political and money games that go on.

I do do research and know for a fact that huge amounts of food and medicine cross into Gaza every week from Israel, after being screened for weaponry. If delivery of these items are the prime mission of the convoys, why not just deliver them to an Israeli port and then trans-shipped into Gaza after being screened for contraband?

Of equal confusion, why is the Rafah Gate, controlled by Egypt, so difficult to cross to and from Gaza? Are the Egyptians as concerned about Hamas as the Israelis? Do the Eqyptians see Hamas as a threat to their own country? I mean, if they really believed that the people in Gaza were starving to death, would they not open those gates wide open and let people and goods cross freely?

As all things political, there is far far more to this story than the big, bad Israelis blocking the border to starve the poor Palestinians a la Warsaw Ghetto.

Your political convictions are rightly yours and you write beautifully in support of these beliefs, but every story usually has two sides and trying to gain a balanced perspective and present the rational for the Israeli and Egyptian stance would serve your readers well.





Thanks for the concern.

Yes, its true. Or chances are I could have been murdered by IDF agents too, let's not forget those that prowl the streets of Gaza as well. Two sides to every story, no?

In terms of getting the aid through appropriate channels, I do believe that it was made very clear from the outset by all those involved in the Flotilla that we did not perceive asking the oppressor if we might deliver aid to the oppressed as being an appropriate channel. So, does the Flotilla have a political agenda? Yes, and yes. Why is this held up as a reason to discount the Flotilla? No idea.

Is politics simply to be the realm of politicians? Or can't I be political and at the same time be on board a boat with tens of thousands of dollars of medical aid I'd like to directly hand over to a people, and in that sense declare that they should be free to receive, and give? I can't understand the logic behind why the Flotilla is berated every time the notion that this was also a politically-motivated undertaking is brought up. This was never a secret.

Perhaps you could explain.

Hamas makes 250 million dollars a year smugling at Rafah

Getting rich off the siege against Gaza


Uploaded by AlJazeera English on Jul 5, 2011

It’s been five years since Israel imposed a total blockade on Gaza – a siege that was aimed at weakening Hamas, which controls the Strip.

But an underground world of smuggling tunnels, and the subsequent taxes imposed by Hamas, has actually helped strengthen the group.

While Israel’s blockade has generally hurt the economy in Gaza, the tunnels have made their owners and Hamas a lot of money.


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