Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Blog

By Sijal Nasralla
Palestinian-American Social Worker and Musician from North Carolina.

I was traveling to visit my family living in the West Bank village of Azarea. I was with my two older cousins, who held Palestinian Authority Identity Cards. Although we were there as a group, my cousins thought it would be best to pretend they didn’t know me at the border so as to not attract suspicion to themselves, or to my intention to visit my family in the Zone C village of the West Bank.

Before leaving to cross, my family in Jordan had been baffled by the idea that an American would be treated more harshly than an Arab living within the Occupied Territories. I told them about my previous experiences, like being held for eight hours in a blistering hot corridor at the border near Aqaba, filled with flies and overflowing trash cans. I told them how the border officials made me confirm or deny information regarding my email and social media accounts. I told my family that I had never felt so inhuman, so sick to my stomach, but they snickered and assured me my citizenship was worth more than "a thousands special forces security guards." But I knew better – that privilege only goes so far.

I entered the gates casually, as any American would. I walked past the bag checks, initial passport screenings, and teenagers with assault rifles dangling from their crotches. The only unusual thing about me was that, among many Arabs, I was the only person adhering to what could charitably be called a "line."

At one window, I received a sticker on my passport and was told to stand next to a wall, to await instructions. I remember smiling grimly to myself thinking, "It has begun." I was shown to a small, changing room-size space with a curtain by a young and jovial Israeli woman. Her own nervousness was almost endearing, and gave me the courage to speak leisurely about what my "intentions" on this visit were. She asked questions regarding where I would be staying, what I was doing there, how long my stay would be, and phone numbers of every contact I had within Israel and Palestine. I smiled and gave her the facts, I had nothing to hide. 

After our chit-chat, I was waived along to the next gate. I arrived at a window where yet another darling teen was grimacing uncomfortably, either at me or the nature of her national duty. The same questions were repeated: "Where were you born?" "Where are you staying?" “What is their number?" "I've never heard of 'Azarea,"; and "When will you leave?" Once again I had nothing to hide. I straightened my back and spoke more clearly so as not to be misinterpreted. I was handed a white paper and told to go sit in a seating area off to the right. Many families were already waiting there.  

Over an hour passed before someone came out from around the corner to talk to me. She was tall, smiling, had long brown hair, wearing a low-cut top, deep red lipstick, and no mark on her clothing denoting any rank or authority. I showed her my passport, and she snatched it and retreated behind her steel door. I had let my guard down. Later, I saw my cousins in the corridor and I thought to talk to them, despite our briefing beforehand. Before even getting through a minute of conversation the door burst open and out came the same woman. Immediately she interrupted, her face taking on a new intensity, "I thought you came by yourself!" I said, "I am by myself, but I know these people." Before, I could finish she scoffed and headed towards the door. I yelled for my passport, but she was already gone.

By this point, two hours passed while I sat in the waiting area, constantly looking for the woman I now understood to be “my officer” to return. By now my cousins had passed through all gates and were waiting on the outside with a taxi prepared to take us to the area around Jericho, but still no sign of the woman. And the waiting continued…

After another hour, the feelings of longing subsided and I was once again reunited with the guard who, in this state of desperation, I was now thinking of as "my friend." She quickly pointed me to a table across the long corridor where a young boy and girl were standing as if we had just interrupted their game of footsie. She directed me to put my bag on the table and vanished yet again. Giggling to each other in Hebrew, the young teens filed through my personal belongings. Notebooks, q-tips, loose socks and underwear, the works. They zipped up the bag, turned and waved me away, and I was back waiting again. 

By now, an older Palestinian woman and I were the only two remaining in the large space; most of the personnel appeared to have gone home. The sun began to set as the buzz of silence and the heat of the lights illuminated us. With the light so bright in my face, I couldn’t help but start thinking that I might be guilty. To maintain integrity, I began analyzing my space: dissecting the lines of blue tile from the gray, I squinted through the windows I had previously passed and the mesh in my seating. I became fascinated with the leveling of gates, inspired by the bureaucracy of this scrutiny and its many thresholds. I started to pace the evenness and the seeming neutrality of the hall. I wondered where I’d be when the lights go out. I asked the Hajja how long she’d been waiting. Just as she said, "I don't know, but my husband is in there," and pointed to the steel door. it opened and I was summoned in.

The door led directly into a corner. To my left was an unreasonably tight hall lined with Arab men sitting, waiting. My "friend" and I stepped over their feet to a clearing where we stood staring at one another. 

"What are you carrying?" She asked.

"Nothing, my backpack."

Eyeing me, she said, "No knives, blunt objects, weapons?"

"...No."

She called over a large soldier who passed through and quickly patted me down. After we went deeper into that office I had spent so much time preemptively imagining, I was made to sit down at the opposite end of a desk with my constant companion, just staring. Then, the same questions repeated: “Where are you going;" "with whom;" "why;" "how long is your stay;" "what is their number." A little more choked up this time I gave the same answers. Almost immediately she said, "YOU ARE LYING," and suddenly my friend and I were no longer on good terms. The questions started running deeper now. "What did you study?" "In which school?" "Were you part of any activist groups?" "Do you use Facebook?" "Where did you work?" I answered as plainly as I could, my answers bearing no resemblance to anything that could remotely be considered a threatening statement: "I went to a hippie liberal arts college." "Sociology." "The Transition Movement." Once again, "YOU ARE LYING," and the questions are more forcefully repeated.

She asked to see the notebook where I’d written the information about the family members I am visiting. She browsed  through my personal journal as if she were killing time at a bookstore. I noticed she stopped on a page displaying an alien-like doodle that has the words, "BUTTER FINGER," written beside it. She slams it shut, sighs and leaves me in the office. Sitting there I thought, Would anyone who truly considers another a "threat" leave them sitting alone in her office, with her open computer and desk unattended?

She returns only to ask me to leave. Six hours had passed I was back in the corridor. It’s just me, an old Hajj sleeping along the far wall, and a decorated soldier pacing between the office and where I was seated. My cousins hesitantly waved at me from beyond the building. I shrugged and wave them away as if to tell them they could leave if they had to. They remained, mostly to the annoyance of their taxi driver who appeared more agitated than I was.

Another hour passed, and now I was getting really uncomfortable. It became more difficult to sit still, to shake the fear of detention or deportation. I consider my father, a refugee from 1948, who was denied to visit the land (Ein Suba) that was his families livelihood for centuries, now an Israeli Kibbutz (Ein Tzuba). I thought about his stubborn nature all these years since he received his American citizenship to return. "I could not handle the harassment," he would say. "I have too much pride." His words resonating, I was considering my returning to Amman. I decided that next time I saw that soldier, I would ask him for my passport. I quickly catch him between phases, but he doesn't stop to chat. I yelled, "excuse me sir, I need my passport back," purposefully inserting the most proper sounding American accent and delivery ever known to that border. Still walking away, he asked who had it. I described the woman, my former friend and he carelessly marched away.

Later he returned and I approached him for conversation. 

"I need my passport, I am returning to Jordan." I said

"Really, why?" he asked, as if we were getting to know one another.

"This is ridiculous, I’ve been here for over seven hours and have been made to feel this big," I said, showing him the tip of my pinky finger.

"Where are you from?"

"North Carolina."

"Where?"

"Charlotte."

"Thats nice, we have a house in New York." As if we were two people meeting each other at a friend’s party.

"Thats good, but-" he cut me off.

"They do worse to you in America you know, this isn't that bad," he suggested.

"Depends on who you are," I replied, the words barely falling from my tongue. 

As our conversation abruptly ends he left. In another half-hour he returned with my passport, entry visa to Israel stamped for all to see. I moved quickly to the passport check and out to the taxi. I needed no closure or justice, simply an exit, any exit. 

comments powered by Disqus