My latest blog post for Electronic Intifada
I stared at the dull curtain in front of me. Moments later, a female Israeli security guard pulled the curtain back and entered the cubicle, drawing it to a close again. She had on plastic gloves and began patting me down, tapping my knees to stand more widely. She slipped her fingers through the top of the inside of my jeans, lest I should have anthrax rolled up in plastic baggies Velcroed there. She told me to take my shirt off. I stared at her, bewildered. She snapped her fingers impatiently. I slowly pulled off my sweater. Being winter, and despising heavy jackets, back then I was a firm believer in layers. I had another long-sleeved shirt on beneath.
“I’m not taking my shoes off.” And it’s ishlahi you frosty robot, I silently added.
Her eyes bore into mine. “You’ll stay here forever if you don’t.”
I kicked off my Chucks, cursing Theodor Herzl and his ruinous ideology.
She folded her arms and resumed her cold staring game with me.
“There’s nothing underneath my hijab, just my hair!” Which, thanks to whatever pollutants your government puts in the water allocated to Palestinians, is reducing it to a couple of strands. I pictured myself with only two strands on my head, like Homer Simpson, and giggled. Sighing, I unwrapped my hijab, thinking of this absolute unnecessary situation, and glared at the security agent. In less than half a second, she was out of the cubicle, taking my sweater, shoes, and whatever hidden security threats they so masterfully concealed. I wrapped my hijab back on without a mirror, quite a feat considering that every angle and crease had to be equal and smooth. After ten minutes of staring at my socks and picturing the day the state of Israel gets slapped with karma, the security agent came back in, handed me my stuff and vanished for a coffee break.
Gaza has the Rafah crossing, and the West Bank has the jisir. Our gateways to the indifferent world beyond. Two years ago the Israelis discovered that my father has a Gaza ID which meant that he cannot come back to the West Bank. For now he’s staying in Amman, and whenever we can, my family in Ramallah crosses borders (the Allenby bridge on the Israeli side, the King Hussein bridge on the Jordanian one) so we can indulge in a couple of weeks of family normalcy. Needless to say, I’ve crossed the border way too many times for my liking.
Back in the days when my family were united and living in Ramallah on visas, we would cross the Allenby Bridge as foreigners, taking a whole different route—straight from our house to the Israeli side of the crossing. Everything operated faster and smoother. The buses were immaculate and air-conditioned.
The brown Palestinian version is a lot longer and entails a good deal of patience, something I am not equipped with. The taxi can take you on two courses: Around Qalandiya checkpoint and a relatively level ride, or the mu’arrajat way, a perilous back roads journey along extremely narrow twisting roads just before you reach Jericho. Your survival depends on the driver’s skills and calmness. Had I been the one driving I would have shot the car Thelma-Louise style over the valley of caves and mountains, the setting of the world’s lowest point. Maybe that’s why I still don’t have my license…
Once you reach Jericho, you arrive at the Palestinian side of the border crossing. This merely serves as a prelude to the Israeli side, since they are the ones who actually control the border. If there are a lot of people, you wait in the resting/lounge room which has some of the filthiest seats I’ve ever seen. Most of the products behind the snack stall are Israeli. Two large framed posters of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, each striking a similar pose, smile deprecatingly at the travelers. The Palestinian officials behind the counter stamp your passport and you’re traveling without a matriarch, strike up a conversation. You get on the bus and wait for it to fill. It won’t move even if there’s only one seat empty. The bus then rumbles on to Jericho’s border, and waits for express permission from the Israeli side for the electric gate to open. Depending on the Israelis’ mood, it’s either a few minute wait or a couple of hours of twiddling your thumbs.
Once the gate finally opens, the bus is allowed to progress a few hundred meters before being stopped again. This time, the passengers get off the bus and line up pell-mell under a corrugated tin roof to pass through a security detector. It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s all done for the sake of Israel’s own well-being. The passengers board a different bus and providing that there aren’t any glitches, arrive at the Israeli side. Outside the building, you must pass through yet another security detector in the presence of an armed soldier wearing the coolest shades. Just inside the doorway, you must pass through yet again through another sensitive security detector, with purses, hand bags, shoes etc going through the x-ray machine. Once, the security officials opened a plastic black bag and found toy guns in there. They laughed gleefully to themselves, “Islakh! Islakh!” i.e. islah, weapons in Arabic. Afterwards, you line up in front of six counters, and wait until they return your stamped passport.
Time to get on the bus that will take you to the Jordanian side. Sometimes, the bus is not there and you have to wait. And wait some more. Once aboard, you finally cross the bridge over a spit of water that used to be the Jordan River. You get dropped off where the luggage is, and have to find your own bag, pay the fare, and get on another bus. Usually after that it’s smooth sailing. The Jordanians take the white form which you must fill out on the last bus ride, the green visiting card special to Palestinians, and your passport. Quick stamps here and there, and off you go, temporarily relieved from the many pictures of King Abdullah II’s face in various traditional and western clothes.
On the way back, a lot of waiting is done on the Jordanian side. The fly-infested lounge full of people isn’t so bad compared to the hours and hours of waiting on the bus for Israel to give us the go-ahead to cross over to its side. Once I waited for seven hours. Seven hours on a bus with absolutely nothing to do except envisioning the amount of pain I would have liked to wreaked upon the incompetent Palestinian parent behind me, whose five little monkeys were continuously kicking the back of my seat over and over again. Just before we cross the little bridge, we must once again get out and go through a security detector while an Israeli soldier walks up and down the aisle on the bus to check for anything remotely suspicious. Sometimes they have a dog with them. When you reach the Israeli side, you get your bags from the bus compartments and push your way to the front, where your luggage and passport will be taken from you. Once your passport is given back, you stand in land at another counter and get a sticker with four Hebrew letters on the back of your passport. Most people have the first Hebrew letter circled. Once I got the third letter circled, which I found out was code for “Random Person Search”, which is how I came to be staring at the dull curtain.
It’s not fun crossing the border. I feel like I age ten years every time which makes me nearly as old as Jesus. One of my worst memories was crossing the bridge last August in Ramadan on the hottest day of the year, complete with a broken down air conditioning system and people drenched in putrid sweat. It’s a bitter combination of being subjected to the immense failure of this generation’s Palestinian parenting and having to deal directly with the occupier, in a way that makes you feel like they’re doing you a huge favor by rendering their service to you and allowing you to pass through.
I treat the Israeli officials there like how I was once treated when I visited Yafa. I completely ignore them, answer monosyllabically, and think of them as invisible robots. Even when the Ethiopian Israeli there welcomes me with a cheery “Assalamu aleikoo!” I continue on my way forward without a second glance. It grated me that time when two middle-aged Palestinian women were genuinely laughing heartily with a security agent. The only time I had to actually talk to them is when my British passport was renewed. I already had my West Bank ID out by that time so of course the passport was useless in that I couldn’t get a visa, but I didn’t want them to stamp it thus officially declaring me to be allowed only in the Occupied Territories.
“Do you have another passport?”
I wondered why they bothered to ask, since the fact that I did was clearly in block letters blinking on their computer screens.
Stamp stamp stamp. There goes my chance of seeing Akka again. You never know with the soldiers at Qalandiya checkpoint, which ones scrutinize your foreign passport for the Israeli approved visa, or the ones who jovially try to guess the nationality of the passport before waving you through.
“Do you have another passport?” The second time I was asked that on a different occasion, I lied and said it was in my suitcase where they were in fact in my purse. Unfortunately for me, the Israeli official was a meanie.
“Give them to me,” she ordered.
“They’re in the other bag, let me pass and I’ll bring them to you.”
“YOU WILL NOT PASS UNLESS YOU HAND THEM OVER TO ME.”
My brother angrily stepped forward. “We don’t have them on us, you don’t need them anyway.”
The Israeli official stood up and brought her face close to the glass separating us.
“You stand back!” she barked. She called her supervisor, security agent, another official—God knows who, and they began conversing in Hebrew shooting us dark looks.
I pulled the passports from my bag and threw them under the glass. I wanted to go home and take a long hot shower and sleep. I wasn’t in the mood for petty confrontations. She accepted them with a knowing look, and after stamping them threw them back at me. It was cemented, multiple emblems decreeing our imprisonment in the riddled West Bank. My mother is smarter; she always tells them not to stamp her British passport in case she wants to visit a country that won’t accept Israeli markings.
“You know, like Syria for example.”
“Or Iran,” I muttered.
It shouldn’t be called the Israeli/Jordanian crossing. It should be called the Israeli crossing, period. They have all the control over who gets in and out, and coordinate with the Jordanian side accordingly. They have the power to shut down the crossing whenever they want purely based on a whim, as I discovered last summer after a failed attempt to get back to Ramallah. As with the rest of the checkpoints scattered throughout the Occupied Territories, humiliation is a requirement at the border crossing, with the Israelis never missing the chance to remind Palestinians just who exactly controls every aspect of their lives.