Go through the tunnels under the border to Gaza or give up and come back another time. That was the decision I was faced with last night. The Egyptian authorities had announced that the border crossing to Gaza was going to be closed today as there were some ongoing skirmishes and bombings. Neither option was ideal. As I sat to decide, though, I was spared the choice by a call from my friends in Gaza. The latest late news was that the border was going to be opened, but for a day only. And so, at 1:30am, I checked out of my hotel in Cairo, lugged two very heavy suitcases downstairs, and hopped into a car with 2 Palestinian Centre for Human Rights staff for the 7 hour drive to the border with Gaza.

The usual proclivity of driving in Egypt meant that the ride was not dull. For the mathematicians amongst you, the rule is to drive in (n+1) lanes, where n = number of marked lanes. The desert once over the Suez canal was littered at random intervals with collections of buildings, mostly unfinished, housing fairly impoverished communities. Abandoned inhabited buildings.

Abandoned in feel, inhabited in reality. And electric pylons that carries wire literally across the entire desert. Arriving at the Rafah crossing in Egypt at 7am.

We planned to get there early so we could be one of the first in the queue, the crossing having been closed for 5 days and big crowds anticipated. Not to disappoint, even at 7 the queue was long. As we nestled into the back of it, we slowly realised that this was the kind of queue that gets thicker, not longer. And so we began to join the jostle just as the Egyptians opened the first gate to let us through to the bigger gates, through which they would peer at us melting and scrummaging while they sipped their coffees. 9:05am.

The crush was the worst I’ve seen. Groups of lads with 2 or 3 big holdalls each fighting to get to the front. Several lone mothers with over 4 or 6 children and 10 suitcases (no exaggeration – I counted). Families with a dozen cases. Pushy porters with carts that just got in the way. And an armoured vehicle trying to drive through it all to just add pointless stress, with Egyptian soldiers posing on top of the tank like midget Hoffs. 10:08am.

It took us until well past 11am to get through the very small gate openings that were the only respite from crushed faces on iron grills. Every, and I mean every, child was bawling and screaming by the time they got close to the epicentre of the throng at the open gates. The only time I lost my temper was when an over-eager man behind me complained violently with big shoves as I cleared the way with one of the PCHR volunteers for a family with 3 kids no older than 5. He had wanted me to run them over so that he could get through the gates.

Actually, I lie. I lost my temper very soon afterwards as well. An Egyptian border guard, assuming I was English, sympathised with my sweat, opened shirt, near-lost suitcases and squashing by saying that the Palestinians are all like that. I let rip a foray at him about how a simple queuing system should not be beyond the wit of rats, though admittedly Egyptian border guards seemed to have rat as an aspiration in terms of intelligence (the last bit I think I may have said to myself).

11:34am.

And into the hall for passport control, and another display of Egyptian mastery of border organisation. 4 hours waiting for passports to appear in a hallway full of people waiting for the same. The passport holder’s name would be yelled out, then the passport tossed like a morsel of food to baying dogs, or Tom Jones’s pants to adoring fans. With a further 3 steps we had managed to clear the Egyptian section of the border in a mere 8 hours. And people were still flooding in as we moved on. I vowed leaving it that I would gift them a present of rope to create a row for people to queue and speakers so they could call passport holders when they were done. I don’t think it would take much more than that to reduce wait times to normality and make it less stressful. A part of me hoped that they would use the rope to tie all the border guards together, while the speakers blared out at them the best hits of the Nolan sisters sung by the chipmunks for 8 hours.

The Palestinian border was a breeze. Actually, better than that, I was treated like near royalty. The tunnels had clearly done their work in provisioning supplies for the border building to be shiny, clean, efficient and with enough chairs for people to sit during their miniscule waiting times. Out the other side, and into Palestine for the second time in my life. I rubbed my hands in the sand, instinctively tasted some, got somewhat teary-eyed, and hopped into a taxi with the same PCHR people to head into Gaza.

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So I am now in Gaza, with 50kg of children’s educational books for the Samouni family in the north of Gaza, and about to meet a legend of a man who works wonders here so instinctively as to humble my most thought through efforts at support.

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