All of the traffic was turning off of the main road. Our taxi followed suit, and we headed with the rest of Ramallah’s rush hour travellers through a residential neighborhood and its narrow dirt lanes. People got out of their cars to help each other, particularly when an eighteen wheeler attempted to make its way through, squeezing between houses on one side and oncoming traffic on the other. Yesterday’s mud had dried, making this route possible. But when our lane didn’t move for twenty minutes, the air filled with impatience. Horns blared. Everyone in our taxi (including the driver) ignored the conspicuous “No Smoking” signs, hoping a little nicotine would relieve the stress. It didn’t. One hour later, feeling angry and claustrophobic, we could see our destination. We re-entered the main road again, one hundred yards south of where we had left it.
Why the pointless detour? To skirt the Israeli blockade of the road. The soldiers are aware of what is happening – that we are all driving around the checkpoint and re-entering the road. These unofficial detours riddle the land throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Soldiers usually do nothing to stop it, and some even tell drivers what the alternate routes are. The reason given is “security.” But no potential threats are eliminated by this measure – for the most part, cars like ours experience big delays but still travel on the same roads they would anyway. The purpose, it seems, is to add to an already arduous commute, and to remind the people here who is in charge. The only thing we can do is swallow it, as we swallow the dust and car exhaust.
But how much of this daily humiliation can people swallow? In America, the talk is of “road rage”, the boiling over of the pressures, irritations, and alienation of modern living. Here, the daily humiliation, frustration, and hopelessness of the occupation build up and often have similarly violent and tragic results. We are constantly amazed that severe outbursts are not more common. No one here is surprised that such things are happening with increased frequency – the violence and humiliation of the past will be vented one way or another, and the claustrophobia of life here tends to make the end result that much more explosive. Even the United States has urged the Israelis to ease the strictures – like these road blocks – fearing that continuing them will lead the road to peace into a dead-end. The recent increase in attacks may be showing that it is too late, as hope fades into the recesses of memory.
It is this lack of hope that drives desperation. But we must hope. In these days, though it is difficult work, we must remind ourselves of the presence and abundance of grace – grace that, these days, must be a constant companion. And it is a well-traveled grace. It was there on the road to Emmaus, as two disciples recounting the horror of the previous days were encountered by the miracle of the risen Christ. It intervened when violence laid siege to life on the road to Jericho. It even appeared on Saul’s road to Damascus, opening his eyes to his own sin and guilt.
As we arrived safely to our destination that night, we gave thanks for the grace that was there on the road from Ramallah.