Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
"Why are you coming to Israel?" "Where are you staying?" "How long will you be here?" "Are you going to the West Bank?" "Do you have any weapons?" I wanted to laugh - did I have any weapons? - but the serious tone of the Arab world was intensified by the shouting and the guns, so I kept a straight face and answered the questions.
I was in the desert lands, detained at the Israeli border crossing. I’d gone to visit my friend Eliza in Jordan, and while I was there we decided to take a short trip to Jerusalem. But before we got to Jerusalem, I had to get past security.
To get to the Israeli border in the first place, Eliza and I drove to the Jordanian border check, where our bags were scanned for weapons, our passports were checked and stamped, and we boarded a bus where our passports were collected, inspected again, and returned once we reached the Israeli border. At the Israeli border, teenagers in khaki pants and polo shirts held massive guns over their shoulders, talking to each other and texting on their phones. When our bus pulled up they watched us, hands on their guns, as we unloaded our luggage and got into lines. The bags were taken to another scanner, and we stood in line. Everyone was shouting - English, Hebrew, and Arabic - and finally Eliza and I reached the first passport check. It was like a movie ticket window, an Israeli in each booth behind thick glass with a hole for speaking. Our passports were checked and we were asked questions:
We were directed inside to a small room with two walk-thru metal detectors and another scanner for bags. Stepping into this room was stepping into a news story, or a history book documenting life before any basic freedoms, courtesies, or civil behavior had been established. What I remember most is the shouting. Even if you didn't know what to be afraid of, the shouting assured you there was much to fear.
Eliza and I stood in the back of the line on the right. To our left, the people were clustered into more of a mass than a line. Almost all of the people were Arabs, and most of them were very traditional, the women wearing black abayasand white lace-trimmed Hijab headscarves that fell loose around their shoulders. After a few days in the Middle East I was already used to seeing women in headscarves and burqas, and had seen a variety of styles: some women wore beautifully embroidered and beaded scarves with Western dress, others wore the conservative coats that fell to the floor and a solid color scarf, and few were completely veiled except for a pair of dark eyes. The women at the border, however, were extremely traditional - so traditional, actually, that to me they didn't seem specifically Muslim - they reminded me of any culture that has an Old World style: Italian, Spanish, French, Jewish. All of these cultures reveal images of women in black (usually for mourning or to signify they are widows), and almost all have a history of some head covering, out of respect for the presence of God.
What made the group to the left so cluttered was the collection of water jugs on the ground. Each couple or family had at least two jugs of water with the family's name written in Arabic on the side. Eliza explained that these were Hajj pilgrims returning from Mecca, and had brought back with them jugs of holy water from Zam-Zam, where Ishmael's mother is said to have received water from an angel. This belief in sacred material, similar to Catholic mysticism, was powerful. Watching people profoundly connect to and believe in the scriptures they deem as holy never ceases to move me. As a born, raised, and still-practicing Protestant, religious mysticism has never been part of my spiritual experience. No objects are sacred, no images are praised, no place is holier than another. What makes Protestant Christianity so accessible to most of the world must make it somewhat bland to the rest of it - God is anywhere and everywhere, and you don't need a priest, a crucifix, or a pilgrimage to get to Him. Just faith.
It was precisely these water jugs - these symbols of a religious and deeply spiritual journey - that captivated me and irritated the Israeli guards. None of these holy objects or humble scarves or valid passports mattered to the guards: what mattered is that they had a whole crowd of Arabs to deal with. I was thankful that I didn't understand Arabic for once, because the angry tone of the shouting was enough for me as the guards pushed, directed, and argued with the Arabs (many of them old women) trying to follow the line through the metal detectors, the whole while navigating their bags from the pilgrimage and the endless jugs of water. To deal with this, the guards grabbed the jugs away from the families and pushed them all together in a corner of the room - a holy reservoir - and as each Arab came through the detectors they had to search through the collection to find the family's water.
Eliza and I were told to advance to the front of the line at the left. My heart sank - not because of the cafeteria rule of "no cuts," but because I knew exactly how this looked: a bunch of old, tired, holy water-laden Arabs was more threatening than two young American women, who would now be treated as royalty simply because our hair was in plain view.
This is not how it happened.
We went to the front of the line (I had to step over one of the jugs of holy water which made me want to apologize and explain to the women next to me that I meant no disrespect, that I am quite devoted to my faith as well, and that I was afraid of what the Israeli guards would do to me if I didn't obey. But of course, not knowing Arabic, I said nothing). One of the women we cut in line had a bag with a tacky logo that said "21st Century." This was all I had to remind me that yes, sigh, this is all still happening in 2009. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired Eliza breezed through security, her passport stamped. I approached the teenage girl, handed her my passport, and walked through the metal detector. I looked up to get my passport back, but she looked at my face, tucked the passport into a cubby on her shelf, and said, "Sit over there. A manager will come to see you."
Why? Why on earth? I have a passport that is by no means impressive, and certainly not incriminating (do these Israelis know how many Americans have multiple passports so that they can travel freely to countries who do not have a peace agreement with Israel?). A stamp from Paris, a visa from Italy, and a border entry in Chicago. For this I was being detained?
No. For my dark skin. For my dark eyes. For my long dark hair. In jeans, a sweater, and Converse All-Stars, I was not an American tourist, but a Palestinian. And I would have to wait.
We sat in a row of chairs and waited with the other detainees, none of them Americans. They were mostly men, and mostly in traditional dress and sandals. However, two monks came through the line, and one was sent to a corner room with a curtain in front of it, like a fitting room in the mall. The monk was told to disrobe behind the curtain for further screening. I think the monk was the only one who seemed more harmless than I; when I saw him go into the room and pull the curtain I was, for the first time in my trip to the Middle East, truly afraid. Would they make me take off my clothes? What would they do to me? How had this happened? What had I done?
Eliza tried to keep us both calm. She assured me that we'd only have to wait for a few minutes, that someone would ask me the same questions about where I was going and why I was here. We reviewed the address of our hostel near the Damascus Gate in the Old City, we discussed again our reasons to be there, and then we made a friend.
She was beautiful. I didn't know her ethnicity, but I assumed she was held for the same reason I was. She was young, wearing modern Western clothes, and shared her gummy bears with us. She also had a Palestinian prayer scarf tied to her backpack, and explained that she was born in the United States, lived in Jordan, and had citizenship in both Palestine and the United States. Her sister lived in Jerusalem and had gotten through security with no trouble, but because the Israelis didn't trust them, they were made to sit on different sides of the room.
"Like we're in kindergarten," she said.
She would have gotten through just fine, except that the teenage guard started asking her why she didn't live in the United States if she had an American passport, why was she coming to Israel, why wouldn't she just stay in America. Our friend got through the questioning fine, though.
"So what happened?" I didn't understand why she was still here.
"I called her a bitch."
She smiled, knowing that we knew that she knew she shouldn't have said that, but she was furious. Because of her Palestinian citizenship, she was constantly going through this treatment. Conflict or no conflict, the people in the room that day weren't there to cause trouble - we were tourists, and the pilgrims were on their way home. A senior guard came over and began shouting in Arabic. Eliza perked up, understanding some of it, and the guard noticed.
"Do they speak Arabic?" he asked.
"No," our friend defended us. "They're Americans."
He proceeded to shout at her, demanding to know if she was aware of what would happen to her if she called a woman a bitch in Jordan, and did she want to be arrested, and should he bring out handcuffs? She held her own. I don't know what she said, but her sister looked worried. Against the kindergarten rule, she came over to us to sit with her sister.
After a few rounds of the senior guard coming over, and our friend telling her sister to just go ahead without her, and a frantic phone call to her husband telling him what had happened, the verdict was reached: she would have to apologize. She rolled her eyes again.
"They get so mad about calling a person a bitch - a dog - and they're treating us worse than dogs! This is a crazy place," she said. "You have no idea."
We didn't say much to her. Now we were associated, and who knew what was going to happen to me? She was still upset. Her sister refused to go without her. Finally three guards came, escorted her outside, and a few minutes later she was back. She smiled at us and left with her sister.
After over an hour, still no word about me. There were lots of armed teenage guards around, but none of them wanted to work. It was a show, I realized, to make the detainees know that we were on their time, and they would get to the dogs when they were good and ready. I couldn't help but think of Night, which I had recently re-read; Elie Wiesel had picked up on this tactic of waiting even as a 15-year-old. Go over there, wait. Stand here, wait. Nothing else was happening: it was the statement that we were powerless to make anything happen. Their power, their time.
Finally - almost two hours later - a teenage boy with a gun who had been frequently staring at me walked over to the booth, leaned casually, and picked up a passport. He looked at me again. In the Middle East I had been practicing averting my eyes when men looked at me, but this time I gave a full-on American stare that I hoped said, "Let me go, you arrogant child."
He handed it to a young girl (probably a teenager, but no taller than 5'), who called out a garbled version of my name. "I know," I wanted to say to her, "It's difficult to pronounce because it's not Palestinian - it's Italian." But I kept quiet and followed her to the corner, where she told me to sit in a chair facing the room with the curtain. I looked back at Eliza, panicked. Was I really going in there?
I was. She smiled sweetly (smiled up at me, eight inches taller), and motioned for me to go in the room. She followed me in, pulled the curtain shut, and I saw a man's feet on the other side, guarding our room. I almost burst into tears. She told me to take off my shoes and my belt, and then I was told to spread my arms and legs. She waved a metal detector wand across my arms and legs, then put it down and inspected my passport. When she was satisfied with that, she frisked me with her hands, up and down my legs, my back, my sides, my chest. I thought I might throw up, or at least cry, but I was too angry to do either.
She smiled again and asked, "Do you have any weapons?"
"No," I managed to say.
"Ok, you can go."
I picked up my shoes and belt to follow her out of the room, but she turned and said, "Oh, you can put your things on in here. Take your time. It's your privacy."
My privacy. I collected my privacy, my belt, my shoes, my passport, and my emotions, and left the room. Eliza and I hurried to the next passport check, where I assured her I was ok, and that nothing major had happened. I realized that "nothing major" only meant that I hadn't been harmed. But I had been profiled. I had been humiliated. I had been shocked at how this had been allowed to happen. At the teenagers with guns, at the disrespect for anyone with a dark face and dark hair, at the mistreatment of people based on the mistreatment of other people.
Nothing major happened. Oh, but it did.