I watched a movie today about 22 year old Susannah Cahalan who was stricken with a rare autoimmune illness called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Watching the depiction of this young woman suffering the nightmare of being stolen away by this illness brought back painful memories for me. I did not have the same form of encephalitis that she had, but in 2010, I did suffer from a nasty bout of encephalitis, although the doctors were not able to decisively determine which kind of the illness I had. One big difference between Susannah’s experience and mine is that, while she suffered a slower, steady encroachment of this illness while doctors struggled to figure out what was attacking her, my pre-hospitalization period was brief but also traumatic, and happened while I was in the Gaza Strip.
I had gone to Gaza for the third time in August 2010. I wanted to be there for a few reasons; I had met online in 2001 and then married in 2009 (in Gaza) a man who I believed to be who he portrayed himself to be; I was deeply interested in knowing and understanding more about the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbours in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; I loved to learn about and experience other cultures and this was my chance to really do so; and I wanted to make a difference for the children there so I organized a child-focused delegation of people who also wanted to go.
When I was purchasing my airplane tickets, the travel agent asked me if I wanted to purchase medical insurance. I laughed and explained that travel insurance very specifically states that it will not cover any injuries due to war or to terrorist actions. Because of my destination, and my current state of good health, I really believed that my only risk was from activities that the insurance wouldn’t cover anyways, so I declined coverage.
I landed in Cairo, excited and eager to continue with the next leg of my journey, but first I had to get our groups’ paperwork in order. This meant finding a translator to translate all of our letters from English to Arabic, taking everything to the appropriate government office to confirm the approval that I had been given weeks earlier by phone, and then getting everyone onto a bus that would take us from Cairo, through the Sinai to the small border town of Al Arish, Egypt and from there, to the Rafah border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, by taxi.
I had made this trip twice before but had never been the organizer. I had observed the process on my prior trip so felt comfortable enough with the steps to proceed on my own. Everything was in order. Or so I thought.
When we got to the Rafah border, the border guard started telling me we had to go back to Cairo because of some problem with our paperwork. My translator, Ayman, was nervous about arguing with the border guard but I pressed him to explain that our paperwork was, indeed, in order and that the border guard needed to confirm that without sending us all the way back to Cairo, which is approximately a 6 hour trip back through the Sinai. That would delay our entry to Gaza by at least a few days, days that we were not willing to waste on unnecessary red tape. I knew I had everything that was required and I also knew that it was common for Egyptian officials to interrupt people attempting to travel to the Gaza Strip.
My translator reluctantly relayed my replies until the border guard called his office in the border terminal and we were finally granted entry.
(to be continued)