Legally equal? A P-name and a P-identity card send you to the Other line
Journey to Watunna, part I
By Sarah Ziyad, Mondoweiss
As I prepare to write this, I feel a sense of unease. I am afraid that my words may upset some, and they will likely be misconstrued. But all I can do is write from my heart and offer these words for what they are: the reflections of an inexperienced but sincere young woman trying to learn how to balance compassion, justice, friendship, and righteous anger.
So, my roommates and I had planned to visit Palestine this past week, but as the date drew near it began to dawn on us what a unique and uniquely difficult weekend we had chosen for our trip. Not only has there been much international controversy over the recent plan for a “freedom flotilla” to Gaza, but our date of departure would coincide exactly with the beginning of a week of international activism in Tel Aviv and the Occupied Territories.
The week would commence with hundreds of activists taking commercial flights in to Tel Aviv, where they would announce their intention to visit PALESTINE—this symbolic gesture would signal their support of the Palestinian identity, which is repeatedly denied/obscured by Israeli policy and rhetoric.
Tensions were running high as the date drew near, and through the activist “grapevine” we began receiving disturbing news: passengers denied entry to their flights in Europe, arrests, detentions, and threats of deport[ation] and banishment for anyone “failing to meet undisclosed criteria.”
My roommates, for different reasons, decided against trying to pass in to Palestine on our chosen date. It was understandable; the risk was high, and all of us had reason to believe we would be targeted at the border. Late on the evening before our planned departure, the majority of our group (very regretfully) voted to call the trip off.
I can’t describe the disgust, rage, and deep sadness that this cast upon me. To be prevented from going somewhere—the land of my father—simply because of the “stigma” of my Palestinian name… Knowing that choosing to “risk it” could cost me so much… and, what’s so much worse, knowing that these hysterical measures were being utilized to protect a regime so untenable that it found the slogan “Welcome to Palestine” so horrifically unacceptable…this represented much more than thwarted weekend plans. This was not merely an issue of tightened border security; I think that was the moment I truly inherited my identity as a Palestinian. Since 1967, when my six-year-old father was put in the back of a pick up truck and shuttled out of Gaza after his mother was forced to sign away their land, this story has been coming toward me.
I didn’t run. I braced as this cold truth broke over me, spilling out in hot tears of helpless frustration.
I called my father as I paced with burning eyes and heart, lips spilling my revelation—the terrible gravity and shock—that must have read like the back of his hand.
He answered, “I know, daughter. I know. This is the story of your grandmother, of your dad, your uncles…It’s not fair, habibti, and I know the hardest thing in the world for you is to see injustice. But listen to me. You cannot lose hope. Listen. You are my world now. I have given my life to make sure you and your brother and sisters have the best world possible…every family is like a little sun, my girl, and my hope is that if we continue to shine as bright as we can, and if many others do the same, eventually we can overwhelm the darkness. Don’t let this turn into hatred. We have to always remember, Jews have been through lots of injustice in history, too, and in the end we trust God to be the judge. We’re all people, even though we sometimes treat each other like we’re less than that. I’m glad you’re feeling this pain, but you can’t let it crush you.
“I want you to take this experience, and write.”
In the end, after a sleepless night in Amman, I decided to embark on my own, and the experiences and people I encountered this weekend were deeply powerful… but more about that later. For now, I thank God for the tears I cried, and for the father who helped me gather them into this pen.
I passed the few remaining hours of Thursday night in a state of deep, unsettled heartache. I lay down at about 3:30 am and stared into the darkness, weighing the worst-case scenarios of going to the border. I would be questioned, detained, searched; this I knew. I also realize that there was a very good chance my passport would get stamped, even though I’d request the Israeli officials to refrain from doing so. If they chose to ignore me, as they had done to many of my friends who made the same request, I’d be in big trouble—an Israeli stamp in an American passport is one of the worst things you can carry in this part of the world, and I’d legally be banned from several Arab countries right off the bat—including my second home, Saudi Arabia.
As I lay there, I knew I would face more serious risks than a simple stamp. Yet, with each passing hour, the sinking feeling in my stomach made me ever more certain that I needed to try to go—something inside me withered at the thought of letting such injustice halt me; indeed, something deep within me whispered that it was essential that I make this personal journey, facing real risks and humiliation, in order to complete this fiery baptism into my Palestinian identity.
Before dawn I had made peace with my decision. I would go. I rolled out of bed, washed my face and made a last-ditch effort to contact a classmate (a friend of a friend, actually) who I had heard would potentially be trying the border the same day.
I got hold of her after a few tries and explained my situation: “Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m Livvy’s roommate…I’m heading to the border alone with no plan or place to stay, but what bus are you taking to the King Hussein Crossing and would you like to share a cab to Jerusalem?” We ended up sharing a service taxi together to the King Hussein Bridge Crossing and arrived before 10 in the morning.
The small immigration office on the Jordanian side was crammed with internationals, many of whom had been denied entrance to their flights in Europe due to their suspected intentions to protest the occupation. It was a little chaotic, but altogether the atmosphere was positive—we joked with the Jordanian officials and chatted in broken English with the pack of Greek activists ahead of us in line.
We were soon loaded into a bus but remained in the stalled, hot vehicle for nearly an hour before pulling out of the station. While waiting, I chatted with an elderly Jordanian lady, Sayeeda, whose smile and kind words were like a cool glass of water on that itchy, stuffy morning.
The ride to the Israeli border lasts less than ten minutes. As our bus was rolling through “no man’s land,” I received a final text from my Dad, “Love you so much. Proud of you. Contact me ASAP from the other side. If you’re not comfortable, just GO BACK.”
When we pulled into the parking lot in front of the Israeli office, everyone groaned in dismay: the front lot was swarming with people clamoring to get inside, and the scene promised a long, hot wait. We tumbled out of the bus and into the blazing, cloudless morning, trying to identify the end of the queue as machine-gun-toting officers began barking directions in Hebrew and broken Arabic. Babies whined,
sweaty children limped between suitcases, and it seemed that, somehow, the “line” was actually regressing.
Soldiers began randomly asking people for their passports, then disappearing—this made me nervous, so I moved to another part of the “line.” Soon I noticed that they had opened a separate queue for “foreigners” (i.e., non-Arabs) at the far end of the terminal, but by that point I was jammed deep within the crowd, separated from my new American acquaintance and walled in by shabby luggage. Soon, however, the Palestinians and Jordanians around me began encouraging me to wriggle my way out of “their” line and into the “right” line for me, a privileged, blonde-haired bearer of a US passport. I wouldn’t have agreed, except I knew that the border was closing early and I’d be forced back to Jordan if I didn’t get inside in time.
With the help and encouragement of my shockingly cheerful Arab compatriots, I squeezed between luggage carts through the steamy sea of bodies until I made it to a barricade, blocking my way to the foreigners’ line. From behind, one young Palestinian mother squeezed my arm and told me “you can climb over this, yalla.” As she juggled her infant, she half-lifted me over the blockade and freed me from the gridlock. I turned back to thank her as she and several other witnesses cheered and laughed; how they managed to have such a beautiful attitude in that situation, I don’t know, but it was lovely.
I made my way over to the “white people’s” line, and in a few minutes I was handing over my passport to a young Israeli officer. He merely opened it to the first page, read my name, and asked me to pronounce it. I did so, as nonchalantly as possible, but I understood what he was getting at—my name is distinctively Palestinian, and he knew it. He asked me nothing else but, “Do you have any other passports?” and then placed a fateful sticker bearing several circled Hebrew letters on the back of my passport. (He looked at no other pages—didn’t see my visas for Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, or the others…my name was enough).“You have to wait.” “I’m sorry?” “Wait over there. Someone will come to you.”
I nodded and proceeded in the direction of his loose-wristed wave; I found a cluster of other detainees, all of whom looked utterly un-threatening to me. In the next several hours I learned their stories as I waited, stripped of my passport, for my name to be called.
Raya, a five-foot, sixty year old woman sitting near me, told me she was a Canadian citizen of Palestinian descent who had been waiting waiting for nearly 2 hours. “It’s just unfortunate,” she said in perfect English, “That even though I’m Canadian, I have a Palestinian identity card and I have to show it when I come here. They evaluate me based on that, not my Canadian citizenship or the fact that I’m a mother, a teacher, a pacifist, or anything.” “I’m in the same boat,” agreed the man to my left. A UK citizen, Sami also faced hours of delays and questioning at the border because of the slim, green Palestinian ID card he was forced to carry.
I was shocked. Such a precise and stigmatizing system, forcing people with certain blood or birth origins to be treated separately from everyone else, and to be put through such degrading and exhausting ordeals, sounded horribly reminiscent of so many genocidal regimes I’d read in history. Is this really how it’s done? I wondered, my naïveté giving way to anger.
The morning passed in agonizing slowness, and after several hours of waiting and multiple interrogations, I felt worn out, degraded, and nervous. After a three-on-one session, my passport was taken once more, and I was left again to wait. By now the border had officially closed, but there were many of us remaining in visa-limbo there, clustered in a corner swapping stories and wry looks. One Croatian teenager asked me if I’d ever experienced this before, and did I think he’d be able to make it to his grandparents in Jericho? A group of Canadian Muslim girls in their early twenties touched up their makeup as they awaited for another round of interrogation. In one corner sat a small, elderly man in a tattered kaffiyeh. His dark eyes were framed with delicate wrinkles and glazed over with melancholy resignation. As I watched him, and the half-dozen olive-skinned children who milled dazedly about the waiting room, my eyes filled with tears of frustration; so many borders, so many barriers. The world owes these souls an apology, and so much more.
The most heart-wrenching moment of my first detention came as I witnessed the questioning of elderly man from the West Bank, who, after being called up for the third time for humiliating inquiries, began to shout at his teenage interrogator: “I told you everything! I am from Bethlehem! My sister is dead, I am going to bury her! I live in Panama, I have a job. I am from Bethlehem, but congratulations, I WILL NEVER COME BACK. Are you happy? You have your wish. You are making me hate my own homeland.”
The man’s words buzzed in my head, filling my heart with a fresh wave of disgust, and I glanced up to see the Israeli boy’s own face flush—perhaps the man’s words had pierced him, too. It can’t be easy, being the oppressor, when your victim makes you stare his humanity in the face, I thought, and I blinked back tears as the terrible gravity of the collective tragedy weighed on my spirit. This is all ludicrous. I’m sure they’ve all seen that, even only for an instant.
I was questioned a total of four times. I don’t want to go into a line-by-line description of the experience, mostly because it would be horribly repetitive.
It always came back to that P-word and the inevitable question of my family origins. When asked, “Does your father hold a Palestinian identity card?” I replied, “I don’t know,” because I had personally never seen it. My answer was incorrect, apparently, as my interrogator informed me in a chillingly triumphant tone. “We have records on every Palestinian. Even the ones from before 1948. So YES, he DOES have a Palestinian Identity Card, and he’s in our system.”
My cheeks flushed, but not with shame.
Sarah Ziyad is a American-born Palestinian, university student, and free-lance writer and photographer with a focus on art, activism, and the Middle East.