Last summer, my father and I arrived at the Jordanian-Israeli border. The environment was hostile, but we could tolerate it. After all, we would be on our way to Palestine very soon! Or so we thought…
When we first got to the Israeli passport patrol agency, we were escorted to the VIP room. Don’t be duped – this room was reserved specifically for “VIP” travelers, but by no reckoning was it fancy enough for its name.
It was a small, ordinary space, with a few plastic chairs alongside the edges, a medium-sized television affixed to the blandly painted walls, and a counter at the far right, behind which no one stood. Its friendliest feature was a coffee machine. tweet
The room was cordoned off, but we still had an open view of the rest of the building. My father paid the few extra bucks because he thought, too optimistically, that VIP status would expedite the process for us.
We found one other gentleman in the room, who happened to be in a situation analogous to mine — a Palestinian-American en route to visit family in the homeland. He would only be in Palestine for a week; it was all he could manage with the robust commitments of college football. Despite having been told a number of times over three hours that he would be free to cross the border soon, he was still sitting there, quiet and patient.
As we both chatted, a man wearing casual business clothing appeared. I was confused. The rest of the patrol officers at the border wore uniforms that, while not quite IDF uniforms, were suggestive of authority with their militaristic flare.
These uniforms projected a clear message: You had better comply, or else. tweet
Then, it made sense: this friendly-looking gentleman, two years my junior, was just a representative of the VIP company of which we were supposedly beneficiaries. Phew.
For the next hour, my father and I just sat there, waiting for someone to help us, or just acknowledge we were there. No one did. My father politely asked when we could expect to be helped. “Soon,” an officer responded tersely, clearly annoyed by the question.
Another hour passed. It was early afternoon when we first arrived, and now it was mid-afternoon, traffic time. People, mostly Palestinian, milled about the place, trying to hurriedly arrange themselves into the appropriate lines so as to make the process run efficiently. The next hour brought more people, and more frustration.
Meanwhile, the Israeli patrol officers seemed to be blissfully unaffected by the state of events. They exhibited not even an iota of urgency. I went to the restroom, and, upon my return just a few minutes later, there seemed to be no officers around, just long lines of sweaty, worn-out Palestinians.
I was baffled. Where had they all gone? A half hour later, they returned with empty teacups in their hands, snickering at how foolish we looked. They actually had the gall to have teatime! I was stunned. The nonchalance in their footsteps, which proceeded at a jog trot, exasperated me.
Still some hours later, amid waiting, my eyes met with a woman’s. She was visibly shaken, so I approached her to give her solace. Turns out, she was a Brazilian-Palestinian traveling with her parents and a friend. A few officers had just harangued her with the arbitrarily generated assumption that she was withholding pertinent information from them.
This young woman, who felt violated by the accusations and the roughness with which the officers regarded her, had nothing to conceal, I managed to understand in between her sobs.
I nodded empathically in solidarity and told her they were dumb. In retrospect, my response seems so vapid it’s almost laughable. But I had nothing else to say. We talked for another half hour before she was called back to the room where she was summoned earlier.
As she exited the room, I knew from her countenance that she had no good news to share — she and her family were turned away, and without good reason. We were indignant but helpless against the frustrations of the situation. Before she parted, I gave her a hug. It took so much resolve to keep myself from crying.
By this point, my frustration was reaching unprecedented levels. I approached a patrol officer and asked, only half as politely as my father had earlier, when we would be helped.
“I cannot tell you for sure, but what I can tell you is that you will be out of here at some point because we are tired and need our sleep.” tweet
No shit, I thought. So do we. Newsflash: we’re people, too! Of course I did not actually say these words aloud, but I almost did. As much as I wanted to respond with a quip that would send him reeling, I knew I would only be fooling myself if I did.
He could spew all the demeaning words he wanted, because he and the others of his ilk were beyond reproach. But if I dared to reflect his insolence back at him, then surely we would be sent back home.
It was my consideration for my father that kept me contained. He had not been home to visit his family in almost a decade, and his dear mother had just died two weeks before. It would be selfish of me to jeopardize his entry by submitting to my anger. We were at their mercy, so we were forced, with everyone else, to bear the brunt of their rubbish with self-restraint.
What happened next almost sent fumes out of my ears. Babies were wailing, and harried mothers tried comforting them. Most of the cries eventually subsided, but one cry continued, and even got louder. I felt sorry for the mother, who tried a myriad of alternatives to quiet her baby, to no avail.
He could spew all the demeaning words he wanted, because he and the others of his ilk were beyond reproach. But if I dared to reflect his insolence back at him, then surely we would be sent back home. tweet
Next, I caught sight of an officer walking directly towards her, and with rapidity in his step. My stomach did a somersault — I was so frightened. When he approached the mother, who was almost in tears herself, he raised his foot as if to say, “If your baby doesn’t stop crying right now, I will kick you.”
I nearly lost it, but it was almost as if a transcendent peace kept curbing my increasing anger so as to keep my father and me out of trouble.
At last, my name was called. A man ushered me with his fingers to come over to him. I didn’t know his official title, but his gait demanded compliance.
First, I had to fill out a form with basic information, like my name and birthday. I thought, naively, that I would be free to go upon completion of the form. Little did I know, the form was only the tip of the iceberg. This man, let’s conveniently give him the name Jerk, then resumed to question me.
Where are you attending University?
What are you studying?
Oh, Neuroscience, really?
What do you plan to do with a degree in Neuroscience?
That’s quite ambitious of you, wouldn’t you agree?
Now tell me about the rest of your family.
Who are you visiting here?
Spell out their names.
Give me their addresses.
What do you know about this uncle, and your aunt Samar?
You did just say Samar was her name, right?
Trying to hurriedly keep up with my only-characteristic-when-hellishly-frustrated quick talking pace, he scrawled my answers in a notepad as he continued. His questions were unrelenting, and they got progressively more intrusive and annoying as he went on.
I started to hear the same questions parroted at me over and over again. Perhaps the days of long travel and concomitant sleep-deprivation were just taking a toll, I thought to myself.
Not before long, I realized that it wasn’t me. Jerk was indeed repeating questions, presumably to catch me in an inextricable lie on my way down a rabbit hole. When I didn’t know the answer to a question, Jerk told me he bet I did.
At once, I could no longer maintain my quiet submission. I cannot remember exactly what I told Jerk, but I said something along the lines of,
“I am not stupid. You are repeating questions. My answers, because they are true, will not change. Don’t you see how many people are here? Stop wasting my time and the time of everyone else here.” tweet
He looked at me incredulously, in disbelief of my insubordination. He left, without muttering another word to me.
Immediately afterwards, I knew I messed up. My father, who heard part of what I said, was now sure that it was just a matter of getting the official word of our rejection.
The VIP company representative, an Israeli himself, was apologetic for the nasty work of the officers. He reassured me that they treated all Palestinians disparagingly, in whispers so as to not be heard. His assurance, couched in the best of intentions, just made me more upset.
Knowing they treat all Palestinians this way doesn’t make me feel any better. tweet
Nonetheless, I thanked him for his kindness.
By this point it was almost 11 P.M. My anxiety made it impossible for me to sit still. While nervously pacing the building, I made the acquaintance of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Texan, whose husband was Palestinian. She had been waiting for hours, and her toddler son was becoming increasingly irritable. He was probably hungry, she conjectured, as he had not eaten in six hours. Despite all the reasons this woman could have been disgruntled, she was inspiringly patient.
Now, it was past midnight. There were only a handful of people remaining, and, unsurprisingly, my father and I were among them.
I caught sight of two sisters, from Jordan, who had their hands clasped in prayer. They wanted so badly to visit al-Aqsa mosque, and at that moment they were praying that they would not be turned away. The Texan was also in our company, as was the college football player. We all stood in nervous silence, awaiting our fate.
At last, we were all given permission to go. I breathed a very long sigh of relief, as did my father. We exited the building and were met by the stark night.
The Texan with the awe-inspiring patience was so frustrated that as we mounted the bus that would take us to the West Bank, she shared a cheeky thought:
“If God decides to put me in Heaven, I only hope that He places me in a room with a window so that I could watch those officers burn in Hell.” tweet
I lacked the energy to elicit the giggle that her joke, considering the pitiable circumstances, warranted. But upon further reflection, I became saddened by it. This woman, whose patience seemed to be everlasting, had had enough.
The officers, unabashedly breaking all basic norms of common courtesy, had caused her to lose it. They pushed us far outside our usual boundaries, essentially forcing us, with them, to compromise our integrity. I was sad that we had given them the power to do that.
As soon as I became a citizen of Palestine, my body became one to be regulated by Israeli hegemony.
Now I can only enter Palestine through Jordan, and, when I am in Palestine, I cannot leave the West Bank, excepting special permission from Israeli authorities. (I recognize my own privilege here. My cri de coeur seems like a mere quibble when matched against the ceaseless burdens that Palestinian residents must endure on an everyday basis.)
For people of Palestinian ancestry, who, by way of their parents, can opt to get a passport, these restrictions and inconveniences are supposed to act as deterrence.
It seems like such a lose-lose situation. tweet
I consider my Palestinian passport an emblem of resistance, and pride.
But my first experience at the Jordanian-Israeli border made me wonder for a really long second, Is it worth it? Was I the brunt of my own joke?
It seems like such a lose-lose situation. Fall for their underhanded tactics and choose not to get a Palestinian passport, and they are victorious in their subterfuge. Try to outwit them and affirm your Palestinian identity with a passport, and they win like the pig in the proverb that enjoys getting down and dirty in the mud.
Contributed by Hanan Rimawi