The excitement is bubbling. This morning very few choose to sleep, unable to cope with the rising anticipation. I do the same, but it is for more practical reasons, like trying against hope to get my freshly washed clothes to dry in a near impossible time so that I can pack up.
The morning of departure arrives, and participants assemble in the lobby of the hotel in all their glory. Shining in their bright yellow Africa 1 T Shirts, they embrace one another, snap away for the memories and spontaneously break out into Athkaar. On the outside of the hotel, I witness another picture. Buses idling-all surrounded by an intimidating array of security personnel, from police to the army and what could quite possibly be intelligence personnel as well. But there is no reason to fear. They are all here to facilitate smooth passage for the Convoy, the impressive result of many lenghthy negotiations. There are yet more negotiations this morning, wild number counts and then, the wheels begin to roll.
Traditional prayers for travelling kickstart the trip and it only gets more vibey as the journey continues. What is supposed to be a tiresome drive of upto 8 hours morphs into an enjoyable roadtrip peppered by many moments of laughter and joy. The great singing talent that the bus can showcase, plays a central role in all of this. Sheikh Adam Philander, the nightingale of Macassar wows the passengers with his passionate Athkaar. Rivalling him are a young group of Bahraini youth with the most beautiful and sublime voices. They expose the crew to a whole new genre’ of Anasheed with a unique Bahraini flair. One after the other, they keep the momentum going, every member making a contribution to the vocal revolution. It is an exchange of cultures that is most appreciated, but the Bahrainis really struggle to contain themselves when Capetonian Boeta Rashaad assumes heirship of th microphone. He launches into a fullblown Qadiriyya Zikr-body movements and all. The Bahrainis certainly haven’t seen any of this before and break out into laughter and giggles, all the while making sure they do not fail to capture any moment.
In testimony to the vibrant spirit, even the elderly Sheikh Abdul Gamiet Gabier graces us with his angelic voice.
Such a spirit manages to shed off the weariness of the journey and I notice how rapidly the landscape around us is changing. From an urban setting, we rapidly move on to more sub-desert settings and then onward to lush greenery and farmland coupled with narrower roads. It all changes dramatically when we cross the collossal Suez Canal bridge into the Sinai. Here we enter into the harsh terrain of the Sinai desert bordered by the Meditteranean Sea. When we stop at the first army checkpoint, the Convoy undergoes an expansion resulting from the medical vehicles that had been awaiting the Convoy at this point.
We snake through the isolated desert pathways, with the idyllic Meditteranean appearing as a mirage. We reflect on the route and some of its famous wayfarers. These include the Prophet Moosa AS and the Children of Israel. Just to make sure, Moulana Igsaan reminds us that they did not have the luxury of travelling in airconditioned coaches.
As we steadily approach our destination, so does the momentum of Moulana’s encouragement pick-up. In vivid detail does he recount every step Umar bin al Khattab RA took in heading towards his conquest of the Holy Land. To assume that any other initiative towards liberating the Holy Land would be successful without proceeding in the same spirit, he says, would simply be foolhardy.
Mobile coverage is excellent throughout, even in this arid desert. Army escorts change regularly and soon we are in resort town of al Arish. Here the Convoy grows even longer, this time owing to trucks laden with medical supplies that join up at this point. The Rafah Border post is now almost a stones throw away, but a rumour that we may have to wait at this point for upto 4 hours for outstanding supplies almost quashes everyones spirits.
The Rafah border arrives and with it comes much trepidation. Outside, there is much chaos. Children swarm around us, begging and selling their wares. Taxi drivers are shouting out loudly trying to outdo their peers, and the Convoy’s many amateur photographers are all lining up to capture the iconic sight of the entire Convoy in formation.
With little fuss, we enter into the Rafah terminal. All cargo proceeds ahead of us unhindered, as it has been pre-approved. Passengers alight their buses and are greeted warmly by awaiting immigration officials who quickly usher them through X-Ray machines. Whilst we scramble for luggage and try to locate missing passports, a new sense of urgency arises. The border will be closing in just 30 minutes for the 3-day long Eid holiday and we urgently need to obtain clearance before that. Which comes to pass. Back onto buses it is, or for some of us the medical vehicles that are part of the convoy. With a Palestinian and South African flag waving on either side of the vehicle, it is a most harmonious sight. And it is most gratifying too, to contrast our uneventful stay at the border, with the many hiccups, extended delays and acrimonies that Convoy’s of times gone by experienced at the very same point, earning this place a particular notoriety. Most vivid in my memory still is the image of an Egyptian tank leading the Convoy right until the border and the many Egyptian soldiers along the route who not only waved but smiled as the Convoy rode past. Perhaps the day is coming, when they will muster the courage to proceed even beyond these artficial borders.
The transition between Egyptian Rafah and Gazan Rafah is quick and dramatic. A tall apartheid wall-looking structure is the first thing I notice. Next, there are microphones jutting though our open windows as awaiting journalists eagerly try to snap up a memorable soundbite. Inside the walls of the Gaza immigration compound, the first words that I hear are those of the Azaan. I also notice groves of palm trees silohetted against the Gazan dusk. And I am sure this is foreboding of a most Blessed experience.
It is on the stroke of Maghrib on what could be the last day of Ramdan 1432. Immigration officials are waiting for us not behind their counters, but at the entrance to the building. They hug and embrace us and then take our passports. Totally unconventional, but charming.
Milk and dates are on the menu for Iftaar, not too far off from the biblical description of this land being one of milk and honey. More interviews and more photo opportunities, but rightfully at this stage we have not much to articulate but our limitless excitement. The warmth of the welcome however, totally blows us of our feet. Previously reserved individuals immediately find their tongues and express their emotions to me most passionately.
It does not take long to engage with the Gaza experience. The first reality that strikes is just how dark this territory is. So far, there are hardly any street lights and many houses in these initial areas appear to be running on generators. Our guide explains: Gaza’s electricity supply is highly unstable and districts could be without electricity for upto 6 hours at a time. It is Iftaar time and the streets are quite deserted. I do notice a group of children playing outside one of the shanties with candles in their hands. Every now and then too, young children run out of their homes waving and singing at the passing bus.
Then comes the news from our guide that Eid will be tomorrow. Could be ask for any better start. The situation develops fast. Next, we are informed that we are headed straight to the mosque of the Prime Minister, where he is eagerly awaiting to meet us. It is a most special honour.
The mosque is teeming with observers and security personnel outside and inside. They carry heavy ammunition but also have no qualms about shaking and embracing their bretheren. We walk straight into the welcoming reception. We all file past the Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and shake his hand. There are no formalities, nor burly security guards whisking you aside. The Prime Minister sits humbly on a chair in the crowded mosque. He is a remnant from the books of our glorious history-a true man of the people. Whilst we are waiting for the program to begin, even young children run up to him and he gladly smiles and offers them his hand.
I sit at his feet now and listen to him speak. Every now and then he glances down at me and my microphone and smiles gently. His soft eyes move slowly across the crowd. Moulana Igsaan Hendriks addresses the crowd too, whereupon the microphone is credited to Sheikh Adam Philander who lights up the Masjid with the Eid Takbeer. By special request, he also recites the Zikr of Ya Latheef, a formula taught to Dr Essam Abu Yusuf by his grandmother, to protect them from the harm of their enemies.
The Prime Minister also dedicates some time to adressing the females of the Convoy as well. We undertake to shake the hands of as many of these gifted people as possible. Some choose to even carry the little children who have come out to meet us on their shoulders. Tall and muscular, former policeman, Junaid van de Plank is one of these. Little is he prepared for it, when the young ones, by collective effort reciprocate and manage to lift his burly frame into the air!
The chorus of Takbeer at this Masjid tonight has been the most powerful I’ve heard thus far. We embark onto our buses and head to the transport ministry where we park of the medical vehicles that will be distributed to various charities over the coming days.
We call in at the well maintained Gaza International Hotel. Incidentally, as can be directly attributed to the siege, our group members are the only occupants. The room is fully functional with a clean bathroom, fully functional airconditioner and satellite television. Only the water is a bit salty. But I can live with that. All that matters is that I am in Gaza.