Surrealistic situation: Newlyweds Kwather and Shadi Salman, with family members who may never see each other again. (Photo: Miki Kratsman)
One last look, one more, one more teary hug, and the bride and groom will begin to walk in the direction of the border. Ayeda and Ayub Hassan, she in a bridal gown, he in a wedding suit, are crossing the border. This morning she left her Syrian village, 80 kilometers from here; she may never see her parents, her sisters and her brothers again. She can not hold back her tears, the heavy makeup is running down her cheeks.
Police officer Azran gave the bride half an hour to take leave of her family on the road between Syria and Israel, in the demilitarized zone controlled by UN soldiers. There stood the representatives of the two families, five from each side, who were allowed to enter. The rest of the bride's family are waving from the hill on the Syrian side, the groom's family, from the hill controlled by Israel - a chorus which could be cries of gladness or of anguish, until Azran hurries them along with his bullhorn, and it's time for the last good-bye.
A short time beforehand, Nagid Farhat sat on the road, his crutches at his side. He can hardly stand; he also finds it very hard to speak, because of his illness. For five years, he hasn't seen his son, Ata, the pride and joy of the family, a journalism student at Damascus University. Now he is waiting for him here, at the entrance to the border crossing at Kuneitra.
Farhat, a resident of Bukata in the Golan, was tense. His son was late, but when he finally arrived and crossed the Israeli border checkpoint - consisting of two clerks from the Interior Ministry on white plastic chairs - Farhat suddenly jumped to his feet, raised his crutches, forgetting all his ailments for the moment. Ata, a tall, handsome young man, dressed in a dark suit, with fashionable stubble on his chin, wiped his tears. Then the two men, the father and his son the journalism student, hugged each other for a long time, although the father was about to collapse.
Far from the land of the Intifada, between the apple orchards and the killing fields, in a hilly region with the sign "Land of the Golan, Our Ancestral Heritage," welcoming visitors, Israel carries out its most enlightened occupation. Maybe there will be a war here yet, meanwhile there are no roadblocks and no roadside bombs.
Nevertheless, even this "soft" occupation creates quite a few tragedies. About 150 Syrian brides have been separated from their families for years; students who want to study in Syria need permission from the Israeli Shin Bet security services. On a hot summer day last week, at this border crossing between the land of the enemy and the land of the occupation, 80 students and two brides crossed the border from Syria into Israel. The students came for their summer vacations, the brides for the rest of their lives.
A UN officer from Canada, serving as an impromptu wedding photographer, captured the moment, while a Japanese soldier loaded the suitcases, an Estonian soldier lifted the barrier, and a soldier from Poland checked the bottoms of the cars. Officer Azran raised his voice: "Negative, we're not waiting."
Height of fashion
As at Ben-Gurion Airport, a large sign in English on the basalt rocks, "Welcome to Israel," greets those who are entering, and gives the appearance of a normal border crossing. In the early morning, the families of the students are already standing on the dirt hill, a few hundred meters away, waiting for their loved ones. They woke up this morning in Damascus, dressed themselves in their best, the height of Syrian fashion, and arrived at this strange border crossing, which is open only to students, UN personnel, clerics and brides.
Is there another such place in the world, with an open-air wedding hall on the road in the demilitarized zone, between two roadblocks? The pictures could be taken from a fantasy film, an allegory about a bleeding region during the pause between wars, "Made in Israel." A surrealistic Israeli film screened this week at the International Film Festival in Jerusalem, whose plot takes place in the Golan, seems less of an illusion than the real pictures at this border crossing.
One woman on the hill is standing under an umbrella, seeking shelter from the sun; an old woman presses her eyes to binoculars, trying to see if her daughter has already arrived. This is how we stood on the terrace of the Lod airport terminal, when Ben-Gurion was still only the name of a prime minister, and we waited to see the people debarking from the plane that had arrived from the distant outside world.
There is a Heineken beer sign in the heart of the camp of the Polish UN regiment. A Canadian soldier, protected from head to foot from noise and dust, is weeding the grounds at the nearby base. Soldiers from all over the world are here to promote peace, or at least a cease-fire, between one wedding and the next.
First came the ladies, the female students: One after the other, they crossed the border, passing the last part of the road between the crossing and the family hill running and crying. Kana, a young blue-eyed student, pretty, and dressed in black like a hip Tel Avivian, came first. She is studying psychology in Damascus. Judging by the clothing of those who pass here, which is Western and trendy, Damascus is not what you thought. Judging by the wool scarf on one of the students, it was cool this morning in Assad's home town.
"With the next booby-trapped car, we're all in Gaza," enthusiastically hisses the reserve soldier, who at 2 P.M. will complete a month in the Golan, and who is ready for the next assignment.
"I'm in Amsterdam in September," says the young soldier about to finish his army service.
"At 1 P.M. in Katzrin," says the Druze officer from Jath, between his country and his occupied people.
"Why are they looking for grooms in Syria? I have a lot of friends to introduce to them in Tel Aviv," says the reserve soldier.
Maybe because most of them are Druze, maybe because some of them are dressed like Israelis, maybe because "the nation is with the Golan," maybe because it was annexed - the attitude here is different than the soldiers' attitude toward the Palestinians; their way of talking and body language are not patronizing and rude.
The stream of weepy female students is thinning, and the male students are starting to arrive. They are also dressed in the height of Damascus fashion, some were obviously at the hair salon only yesterday, in order to look their best for the festive homecoming.
"Those are all graduates of terrorism courses, terrorism and espionage," says the reserve soldier knowingly. "Jerusalem" is written on the suitcase of one of the returnees. In the territories he might not have gotten away with it, but here in the Golan, the occupation is more laid back. Chocolate milk and rolls for Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
From Mt. Avital above us, on a clear day, the "eyes of the country" can see as far as Damascus. This is the conversation between the fighters:
"The new force has arrived? As soon as they receive instructions, let them start to man the outposts, it's a shame to waste time."
"About 400 officers, and they all do everything slowly."
"They're late, they're late. The main thing is that they replace us today."
"Do me a favor, don't mess up the patrol road, walk around it."
"Don't worry, I have civilian shoes."
"Tell me, is that female operations officer stupid?"
"If she weren't stupid, she wouldn't be an operations officer."
"This is the boss speaking, how are you?"
"Fine, thank God, over."
Every border has its own peculiarities. The military jeeps bear red license plates - as though they were police - because of the separation of forces agreements.
"Don't photograph me, my wife thinks I'm abroad," says a reserve officer, in a different take on the request of an unfaithful husband.
A woman in a straw hat, who looks like one of the "aunties" of the soldiers' welfare association, wanders around holding a plastic bag of the International Red Cross. Speaking French-accented Hebrew, she is responsible on behalf of her organization for the passage of the brides at this "breathing roadblock."
The relatives are already very near, getting carried away, and officer Shimon Azran of the Israel Police threatens to prohibit the crossing if they don't move back immediately. He's a tough guy, this Azran. His attitude is different from that of the other representatives of the country and the security services here, who treat the border crossers with a certain politeness. He won't wait for the groom's family, he won't let the students' suitcases be checked in the presence of journalists, so that no state secrets can seep out, and he'll close the border if the families don't return to their places at once. Maybe he was transferred here from the Judea and Samaria region.
"The father will be here in three minutes," tries a family member. "If it's three minutes, then okay, but not one minute more," Azran finally softens.
Orders are orders
The family of the first bridegroom approaches. A groom from the Golan and a Syrian bride who marry in Damascus are not allowed to cross; only those who get engaged there and come to get married here. The laws of this strange border. Last time four brides crossed, today there will be only two.
A Pole, an Estonian and an Austrian leaf through a soldier's soft porno pamphlet. Major Larry, an Israel communications officer with an American passport and accent, announces that the brides are ready on the other side. Lieutenant Colonel Yoav Margalit, the deputy brigade commander, a pleasant, mustachioed officer from Kibbutz Ein Zivan, says that in another two minutes, the Syrians are coming.
Bridegroom Ayub Hasan and five members of his family make an impressive sight as they approach the Israeli blockade. The groom's hair shines. He bought his wedding outfit - a white shirt, a vest, black pants and brown shoes - in south Tel Aviv. He is a construction worker from Majdal Shams who met his beloved, Ayeda, on the first day of the millennium in Amman. She is his cousin; the blind date was arranged for the purpose of marriage.
The groom: "It's very exciting. It happens once in a lifetime, and if you're on the border, it's even more exciting. I've been waiting a year and a half to see my bride. The wedding will be on Sunday, and I'm arranging everything. I sent her a video clip of my house. She has a color catalog, and we planned the house together over the phone. Her name, Ayeda, means `the returnee.' Her mother gave her that name, thinking that maybe she would return one day. Now, after 24 years, she is returning. We spent 90 days together in Amman. We traveled there seven times."
The five happy family members who have permission are about to cross over into Israel. They are holding gilded trays with assorted sweets for their in-laws, their old-new family, 1967 refugees, with whom they will meet for only half an hour.
"Food and drink do not go in," orders officer Azran, consistently tough even with the excited groom. Orders are orders.
"Guys, there's cola for everyone," Ayub tries to include the police and the soldiers in his celebration. "What I think is significant is that there is no border crossing like this anywhere else in the world, where a bride from one country can't go back. Even the Palestinians from Nablus are allowed to return to Jordan. And thank God they let us cross once. I hope that these things will end, as in Berlin.
"Because of the situation, you see, she will never be able to go back there, and I was never there. Maybe she won't see her parents again. I fell in love with her. Okay. But you have to think about all these things, if she leaves everything there. It's a very great responsibility for me. That's why I left it for a year. After seeing that I can't live without her, I decided.
"And I pay about $1,000 a month in phone bills. There are months like that. Especially to Syria, where one minute costs NIS 5. To America, which is so far away, one minute costs NIS .50. I tell everyone not to do what I did. It's very nerve-racking. It's not good not to see your bride, and for her not to see her parents. One more thing: I ask all the ministries to find a way for me, and for the 150 brides in the Golan, to meet with the families [in Syria].
"I would like a honeymoon in France. My dream is to go to France. It's most beautiful there and in Spain. But she can't leave for five years. We'll have a one-day honeymoon in a bed-and-breakfast in Ramot, and then one day in Tel Aviv, in the Sheraton, and then the King Solomon Hotel in Eilat. It hurts when you don't have the passport of your country."
What passport? What country? The groom's father is tense; he's afraid that his son will get tripped up by politics on his wedding day.
Captain Mikasa from Tokyo tells the driver of the white UN truck to load up the bride's suitcases on the Syrian side. The Japanese here are the transport corps. The bride is allowed to take three suitcases. On a good day, four.
He is studying medicine, she is studying pharmacology, and they met on campus in Damascus. Kwather and Shadi, another bride and groom, are about to cross the border, on their way to the groom's village of Rajar, the Muslim village which was almost divided after Israel withdrew from Lebanon.
Dr. Shadi wants to do his residency at the hospital in Safed or in Be'er Sheva, pediatrics or ear, nose and throat. Kwather is his cousin; they share the same family name, Salman. Zaki Salman, the father of the groom, chain smokes, he hasn't seen his son for a year; he left a bachelor, and now is returning as a doctor, in his wedding suit. His bride is the daughter of a family that fled from Rajar during the Six-Day War. Half the village fled then and cannot return. Now they will have a small-scale return.
The Estonian officer, Salek, is checking Israel's request that Salman's in-laws meet in the demilitarized zone at the same time as the Hasans: The clerks from the Israeli Interior Ministry are in a hurry to go home. The Belgian officer says that it is impossible to have so many people on the road. The Austrian officer is called in, and he makes a final decision - in the negative.
The situation on the road is, as we have mentioned, surrealistic: Members of the Salman family, from Syria and from the Golan, for some of whom this is their first and last meeting, start dancing a debka, embracing in a circle under the burning sun, surrounded by UN soldiers, between two barriers, between two countries. A poor man's celebration, one of the strangest I have seen.
"We brought her with God's help," the Western branch of the family sang a short time later, dancing around the new bride, throwing rice on her.
Soon Kwather the Syrian girl will come to Rajar, her new village, which may be Syrian, or Lebanese, or Israeli, and from her bedroom window, on the banks of the Hatzbani River, she will see a yellow flag waving in the wind, the flag of Hezbollah.