Thursday, August 25, 2011

Palestine's Rollercoasters

They're big, they're loud, and they're orange. They travel at the speed of light and are known to be suicide friendly vehicles. They strike fear in the hearts of first time drivers and are at the receiving end of a barrage of heavy verbal abuse.

They are...fords.

No Palestinian experience is complete without a life-threatening ride in one of those babies. The semantic history of the designated name is unknown, since they definitely do not bear semblance to any Ford model. Nevertheless, they are the great white sharks on the street, and if you thought that was a bad enough analogy get this: If Hitler was a car he'd be some clunky pick-up truck on a farm next to these venomous Bugattis.

Unless you're bequeathed your own personal car and laugh in the face of the perilous winding roads to Birzeit University, the fords are the only means of transportation. Since I live on the main street, I don't have to go to downtown Ramallah to the ford depot. Rather, I stick my finger out and wait for one to stop. On windy days, as my scarf flutters and my whiteness is laid out for all the world to see, I have no problem in flagging down a ford. For three years I have feared for my life twice a day going to and coming back from the university. They know no other language other than speed. The drivers have no qualms in driving on the wrong side of the road in a bid to reach their destination in the quickest time possible. They especially relish the challenge of facing off with a car coming up on its rightful side of the road, usually winning the challenge by making the other car veer off the road at the last second.

Last time that happened my friend screamed at the driver, "You have ten other people in the backseats whose lives you're responsible for- SLOW DOWN!!"

The reply was offhand and cool: "Don't worry, I have fifteen years of experience."

Some drivers act as if you're not there. Others steal covert looks at you in the mirror before inquiring about personal life, whether you're married or engaged or looking to settle down. Still others tell you their whole life story. One driver kept up a pleasant conversation with me and gave me a stack of business cards to pass out for his niece's new salon. Another driver began to tell me about his village and offered me a bunch of miskawi apricots. I was touched by his kindess, so I accepted politely. He then gave me half the bag to eat. When I went home that day, I relayed to my mother the driver's generosity.
"Inshallah you accepted the apricots?"
"Of course."
"Did...did you eat them?"
"Yes Ma, isn't that the next step to take after being offered food?"
"You ATE them?! Did I raise a fool? Are you out of your mind? Does your smartness only show itself in your studying? What if the apricots were sprayed with something? What if they weren't apricots at all? What if they were laced with drugs? That's it, I'm calling your father."

The drivers come in all shapes and sizes. Kids barely out of their teens, men with wizened faces, most of them smoking addicts. Some are oblivious to their passengers, viewing them simply as money generators, while others give you a sympathetic look as the floozy in front of you shuts the window on a sweltering day so that the breeze won't mess up her hair.

One time the ford I was in stopped to pick up an old man. He looked like a Bedouin, with his abaya and heavy accent. The old man lit up a cigarette and the ashes flew back right at me, getting in my clothes and bag. I sighed waspishly, and the driver caught my eye. He turned to the old man next to him.
"Uncle, you have to put put your cigarette. I'm sorry but that's the law."
"What law is this? I'm going to keep smoking."
"It's a new law, Uncle. We get fined if the police catch anyone smoking in the fords."
"Screw the laws. We don't even have a country and we're putting laws. Who the hell do we think we are?"
"All the same, please put out your cigarette.'
"No. You have your own opinions, I have mine. Who do you think you are telling me to throw my cigarette away? I just put it in my mouth, I'm not throwing it."
"You seem like a wise man, and I'm treating you like a father. Why won't you listen?"
"Stop the ford. I'm getting out here. At least no one will stop me on the street to tell me not to smoke."
"Good riddance," I piped.

The drivers will run over a bunch of people in order to be the first to reach a potential passenger. Another friend of mine climbed into one ford a few weeks ago. The driver in the ford in front of them got out and began arguing with the driver that my friend should have went into his ford. They bickered for a few more minutes, before the driver of the ford my friend went into turned the key in the ignition and started to drive off. The other driver held on to the window, refusing to let go, still arguing passionately, his feet dragging on the asphalt for a good two hundred meters before he finally gave up and let go. Fords cost around two hundred thousand shekels, it makes sense that customers must be rounded up by whatever means.

Almost two years ago, a new all important law was finally passed. Drivers and passengers alike had to wear their seatbelts. Naturally, this law at the beginning was largely ignored, but after hefty fines were imposed it was taken more seriously. The ford drivers only wear their seatbelts whenever a police car is on the road. As soon as they pass by the police, the drivers fling back their seatbelts as if they were straight-jackets. In some remote villages, little kids are taken for rides in the fords. There, without the protection of seatbelts and with the abundance of rocky unpaved roads, the kids have the time of their lives hitting their heads on the roof of the ford, getting thrown to one side, raising their arms screaming with delight as the ford whizzes down a hill. Who needs Six Flag's Superman when we have our very own fords?


  1. This is hilarious, in a horrible memory inducing way. Referring to them as 'the fords' is somehow quite funny, as if they're a breed of some type of animal. During my time in the West Bank, I lived for about 4 months in Birzeit but moved to Ramallah for 2 reasons really: closer to the Jerusalem buses where I needed to go daily and the drive in these fords to and from Birzeit/Ramallah. Literally I feared for my life so many times, especially in the rain and fog, and in those 4 months, I managed to twice be in one of these beasts when it got into an accident with another one due to the terrifying tactics of the drivers!

  2. lool , this cracked me up , still sad though

  3. twice a day, everyday! Birzeit fords are the worst of all.