It is a long-standing grievance of mine that I have been to more funerals than weddings in my life. Over the past few years several of my childhood and university friends in England have got married (it seems to be the fashion) and I haven’t been able to attend a single one of the weddings, even though there are fewer things I like better than the opportunity to wear one of those formal hats that teeter on the brink between the stupendous and the stupid.
A few days ago I received another invitation, this one electronic. It looks like this:
Because no borders can stand against the will of friendship, we would like to invite you to share with us the happy moments of our wedding day.
Date: 3 September 2013.
Place: Gaza Port, Gaza, Palestine.
Your presence, real or virtual, is going to bring us so much happiness.
Ayman and Sameeha
Regular readers of my blog will know Sameeha. Our friendship began over Twitter in the small hours of the morning, when I was up with period pain and she was up with fighter planes. I didn’t know if or when I would see her in real life, but then she was awarded one of a handful of Master’s scholarships issued each year by the Durham-Palestine Educational Trust. She made her first journey outside of Gaza at the age of twenty-three, and I saw her for the first time in the crisp Durham autumn. We’ve been close ever since.
I started looking for ways to get to Gaza as soon as I knew that she was engaged. It didn’t work out. To stand a good chance of getting across the Egyptian border, I would need a press pass or credentials from a Gaza-based aid organisation that I do not have. Getting that stamp in my passport would also jeopardise my chances of being permitted to return to Bethlehem. I couldn’t take that chance. I resigned myself to being one of the virtual guests at her wedding day.
And then, last week, she wrote to me. She told me that there was to be a conference in Ramallah at the end of August, relevant to her work with the women’s rights unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. She had applied for a permit to go.
“I’m not getting my hopes up.”
“Same here. I’ll wait until we hear whether you’ve got a permit or not.”
“I don’t want to get too excited in case I don’t get it.”
“This should be a week prior to my wedding. You’d better throw me a henna party. And you’d better take me clubbing.”
I snorted. Sameeha’s attempts to get me into a nightclub have failed every time. “You want me of all clumsy articles applying your henna?”
“I want you to throw me a henna party, you and Wala’.”
“We will do it. I can give you your wedding present personally then, and on time.”
“Ah, habibti Vicky, I can’t not get too excited. I miss you and Wala’ like hell.”
Wala’ was another DPET scholarship student, a good friend of us both, who lives just down the road from me in Hebron. The last time she visited, we sat together in a little cafe and gossiped over cake and occasionally caught ourselves glancing at the vacant third chair at our table. “Let’s call her,” Wala’ said at last.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, Sameeha and I talked deep into the uneasy night, for as long as she had electricity. “I don’t want to die until I’ve lit a candle in Bethlehem and been to the beach in Jaffa.” Her voice, thin and frightened for much of that horrible conversation, had some of its normal strength back. “It will happen,” I assured her.
“Do you really think so?”
Don’t get your hopes up, I’ve been telling myself over this past week, even though said hopes were flying higher than your average Israeli leftist on some New Age shanti kibbutz. Hardly anyone in Gaza gets permission to come out. You know that. The days passed. Yesterday, realising that the conference in Ramallah began in twenty-four hours, I accepted that she wasn’t coming. Then I logged into Facebook and saw that I had a message.
It’s nearly five a.m. here. Soon she will be at the crossing, entering the rest of her own country for the first time in her life. I’m too excited to sleep. When I saw that message – “I got the permit today” – I began to laugh and, inexplicably, to cry a little. I’ve missed her. When we hugged goodbye for the last time in England I didn’t know when I would be seeing her again or having to brave the results of her efforts in the kitchen or being bullied into wearing toenail varnish or receiving her forthright opinions on my personal life. Her final piece advice to me, delivered with an emphatic kiss at Manchester Piccadilly train station, was not to fall in love with idiots. Then, catching sight of the Gregg’s bakery outlet that was just behind my shoulder, she started fretting that once in Gaza she would no longer be able to get hold of a decent cheese and onion pasty.
I doubt she’ll get one in Bethlehem either, but hey, you can’t have everything in life.
I’m going to try and get some sleep. She might be here by the time I wake up.