“What’s your religion?” and other fun questions en route to Nablus.

Weeks before I left my boyfriend got a job teaching English at a school in Nablus. Of course, I was super excited because this meant I would be 110 kilometers (68 miles) away from him all semester. Of course, what would be an hour drive down I-25, turned into a 9 hour trip, leading me to wonder if it would have been possible to put a more difficult 70 miles between us.

I left to go visit him after my class ended at 4 on Thursday. It was the day before Yom Kippur would begin, so I had been extremely careful in planning my travels so I could make it into the West Bank before the checkpoints would be closed, and would be able to leave and get back for my classes on Monday. My program helped me arrange a taxi to the Sheik Hussein border (known as the Jordan River border in Israel). The taxi passed through Irbid, and some beautiful hilly valleys before it approached the crossing. Once dropped off at the gate, I entered Jordan’s side of the border. I smiled at the man behind the counter, kindly asked if he would put my stamp on a separate paper. He happily accommodated my request, and sent me on my way. From there I got on a bus that would take me over to the building that I would come to know a little too well.

I must stop myself for a second and let you know about the plans I had made before hand. First, I had not brought my Libyan passport after this was strongly suggested by several people in my program. I had also could not tell the IDF my boyfriend is teaching in the West Bank, so I created a slightly not so true alternative to why I am entering Palestine.

There are two sections of the Israeli side of the Sheik Hussein Border crossing. The first is security and the second passport control. It is my understanding that security is not operated by the IDF. The security guards did not wear the uniform, and one man told me operated separate from the Passport control. So, I get in the security line, which should be as simple as showing your passport and scanning your bags. No other people were asked questions or anything. As soon as the security guard saw my name, she asked, the first in what would be hours of stupid questions,

“Do you have another passport?” DAMN! They are good. Fitouri doesn’t even look Arab when written in English, at least not to me. Perhaps she is taught to question all foreign names? I don’t know.

“No”

“What is your reason of travel into Israel?”

“Tourism”

With that she let me continue through to the tigers at Passport control.

Tiger is not a fair assessment at all, really. Passport control is run almost entirely by 18-22 year old girls. With made up faces and flowing hair, they are quite possibly some of the most beautiful girls I have seen. Perhaps they are more like poisonous frogs, like the ones you see at the zoo that are bright colored yet deadly. I handed my passport to the girl at the window. All was going well for about a minute and a half. She asked several procedural questions and accepted my responses without hesitation. I thought I would try my luck,

“Do you mind, I’m a student and I still have a bit of traveling to do. Would you stamp my passport on a separate piece of paper?”

She acknowledged my request and continued with the questions. And then came the bombshell…

“What is your father’s name?”

Ok, so it is easy to lie about your travel plans, you’re major, etc. But at this point I was faced with a dilemma, deny my Arab heritage and have an easier time passing through, or tell the truth, and risk a long delay or possibly being turned back. I couldn’t lie on this one, because in the back of my mind I kept thinking, I shouldn’t have to lie.

“Ezzedin”

Pause.

“What is your Grandfather’s name?”

Shit. Already chose to say the truth, right?

“Mohammed”

The young girls face looked as if I had screamed curse words at her. She said something to one of the girls at the other window, and then sent me down to her.

That is when the real interrogation began. This time, my answers were not accepted and each time I answered, the truth or not, it only lead to deeper questions.

“Where are you traveling in Israel?”

“I’m meeting my boyfriend, tonight in Nablus, and tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem?”

“What are you going to do in Nablus?”

“See the holy sites”

“Where are you staying?, Who are you staying with?, How long will you be there?, What are their names? Why were you in Jordan? Where was your father born? Where were you born? What state? What city?

The questions went in circles, finally she passed me a paper and told me to write down my name and phone number. I put my US home number and my Jordanian cell.

She continued the questions in the sweetest voice you have ever heard, which made me want to vomit.

“Why do you have a cell phone in Jordan” (Didn’t you know, statistics show that 7 out of 10 “terrorists” possess Jordanian cellphones.)

“Because my program provided me with one”

“What program?”

I could already see where this was going. Arabic

“AMIDEAST”

“What are you studying in Jordan?”

What do you think, woman?

“Jordanian Culture, Politics, and Arabic.”

“Oh, you speak Arabic?”

“Very little, I just started studying it.”

And by just started I mean I went to a Muslim Sunday school where I learned the letters, have spent months in Libya (which you don’t know about because you won’t get to see my Libyan passport), have taken 2 full years at my University, and helped create the Arabic Club at my school.

After what seemed like an hour of this badgering I was told to sit down and wait. I sat down next to two American girls. After talking I learned that they went to Berkley and in their hippy ways had failed to make any concrete plans about their trip, during which they planned to spend 2 months couch surfing throughout Israel. When I sat down they had already been there for 6 hours.

Over the next several hours I sat waiting. Every now and then one of the girls would peak their head out the door and ask me another question, usually one that they had already asked. I arrived at the border at 5:30 Israel time. At about 8:30 I began to panic. I had been warned that the checkpoints into the West Bank would be closing, and no one was sure what time exactly. A call from my boyfriend sent me to tears when he suggested I turned back because I probably wouldn’t make it into the West Bank. By this time the Border was almost completely empty. The IDF soldiers were sitting around laughing and playing with each other while drinking coffee and pop, and I was sitting alone in tears. One of the girls, who I am very indebted to came over and started talking to me.

“You are a young pretty girl, you are supposed to be happy, not sad”

I explained to her my situation, and she assured me that people were often held for several hours, but they were always let in. She also seemed shocked when I said that the checkpoints would be closing because of Yom Kippur.

“But the Arabs do not fast on Yom Kippur and they need to get out, so why would it be closed?”

Because your country has oppressed the Palestinians to the point where they have resorted to acts of desperation that makes your government concerned for security reasons.

She began to mobilize making phone calls and talking to the other guards to find out about the checkpoints. She did discover that the checkpoint I had planned to pass through was closed, but there was another check point that was going to be open all night that was a little ways away. One of the soldiers escorted me so I could go to the place to exchange money. Another wrote out directions for a cab driver in both Hebrew and English. Then the final run of questioning hit.

This scrawny little girl, who had been the meanest so far, yelled to me where I sat from 15 or 20 feet away.

“Why does your boyfriend have a cell phone here?”

Reassured that I would be let through by the other soldier, and by the fact they had been helping me, my answers became bolder.

“Because in American currency it was dirt cheap and he wanted to be able to call me for cheaper.”

That’s what happens when your economy is entirely dependent on mine.

“What is your religion?”

The room got quiet. All the girls who had been helping me stared at their comrade. One girl said something in Hebrew that sounded like a protest to the question.

“I don’t have a religion.”

“You know, Christian, or Muslim….”

Yes, because there are only 2 religions in this world.

“My father is Muslim, and my mother was raised Christian if that answers your question.”

“What is your boyfriend’s religion?”

I get at this point that she doesn’t give a fuck what we actually believe, but wants to know how we were raised.

“He comes from a Christian family.”

In the Middle East not having a religion isn’t really an option.

She retracted back into the office, and within a half an hour of the border crossing I was presented with my passport and a stamp on a separate paper allowing me to enter the Zionist country, and the occupied Arab lands. My posse of new found friends had at this point arranged for me a taxi that would take me all the way to Nablus for the steep price of 600 Shekels ($162.00). I negotiated this down to 550 Shekels ($148.00), but the cab driver refused to go lower because it was after 10:30 at this point and it was risky to cross into the West Bank. This taxi driver was Israeli, and because of this was not permitted to take me into Palestine. He passed me off to a Palestinian driver who took me the rest of the way into Nablus. I arrived in Nablus at 12:00 am, approximately 9 hours after my journey had begun.

Reflecting over this trip I found 2 specific points very interesting.

1-      Because in general, Israelis cannot enter the West Bank and Palestinians cannot travel out of the West Bank easily, information does not travel between the two populations. This allowed the Israeli population to have access to the actual hours of the checkpoints, while everyone in the West Bank had been told and believed that all the checkpoints would be closed.

2-      I found it interesting that while the Israeli Government/ IDF were keeping me from entering the country; it was IDF soldiers that were reassuring me and helping me make plans and arranging taxis for me. This was a reminder that in any country where military service is mandatory, there are going to be soldiers who aren’t dedicated to the actions of their government.

Once in Nablus the trip was really enjoyable. The city is very depressing. I learned that Nablus had been destroyed during the second intifada and up until recently still experienced nightly raids. The population had been forced to live their lives in fear. The physical structures had clearly been through war, and writings and drawings on almost every wall were a reminder of the pain this city had been through, or rather, is going through. I have spent years researching the facts, attending and even running protests, arguing with friends, but no matter how much you think you know the conflict, it is impossible to feel the conflict. What I felt when walking down the streets of the old city and seeing pictures of martyrs on the walls was only a taste of the feeling that is occupation. A feeling that every kid on the street was born into and lives with everyday. I repeat the mantra echoed through the Zionist organizations prior to the creation of the state of Israel. Visit Palestine. If you are in the region, visit. If you aren’t, go someday. Because there is nothing you can read, research, hear, that will teach you how it feels to be in the occupied lands.

I departed from Palestine Sunday morning. I took a service to Jenin, and then do to a miscommunication that I still can’t figure out, I ended up on a second Service that took me to the Malik Hussein (Allenby Bridge) border crossing. This meant going from Jenin, back through Nablus to Jericho to the Border. Woops! This apparent curse, turned out to be a blessing. Foreigners are only supposed to travel through the Sheik Hussein border because that is where they issue Visas. My visa, still good for 3 more days, allowed me to cross through the Malik Hussein border, an experience few foreigners have. This Border is used almost exclusively by Palestinians, and the condition was reflective of the degree Israel respects its neighbors.  I quickly passed through the Palestinian Authorities side of the border. The next stop was the Israeli point. We were herded onto large busses with about 50 people. The bus drove up to a gait and parked behind a line of five identical busses. Lucky to be sitting next to a Palestinian woman who had been born in the United States, she explained that the IDF only let through one bus every 15 minutes, or at least it was supposed to be 15 minutes. In reality it was much more inconsistent than that. It was about 2 hours before our bus was let through. At that point there were 8 busses lined up behind us. The bus was hot, crowded and had no air-conditioning. Who knows how long the people in the last bus waited for? That bus took me to another building that was dirty and full of booths to check passports. The IDF agents were unhelpful and stern. Then one told me to go to another desk because I had an American passport. That desk took me to a different room for foreigners. This one was clean and empty. After paying a ridiculous exit fee of 167 Shekels ($45.00), I was let through with no problem. I waited about 1 hour for a bus, which took me to the Jordan entrance.  Entering Jordan was Hassle free, and I shared a taxi back to Amman with three other people making the cost only 8 JD ($11.00).

                It was more than worth it to go to Palestine, but the shit they make you go through to get there is, well, Shit. I have never felt more devalued and humiliated than I did entering the country, and all they did was ask me a bunch of questions and made me sit in a room for several hours. The occupation has destroyed the lives of MILLIONS of Palestinians. Whether it is by forcing them to leave their homelands and seek refuge in surrounding cities such as Amman, or by depriving them of fundamental rights and destroying their towns.

I have included a lot in this post, but if there is anything else you want to know, or would like me to elaborate on something, please post a comment and I will be happy to respond.

 ألحرية لفلسطين

 Freedom To Palestine

Sara

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One response to ““What’s your religion?” and other fun questions en route to Nablus.

  1. Sara,

    Fabulously crafted narrative! I really enjoyed reading it, and thought you did a remarkable job explaining everything really clearly. I don’t know why my comments sound like the antics of a lame high school English teacher, but I’m just saying it was nicely done.

    Your experience in Palestine fascinates and frustrates me at the same time. My experience with what it means to live in the Israeli Apartheid state is limited to films, articles, political novels and conversations with you.

    Although I’m only living vicariously through this experience now, too, I’m glad that I was able to expand my understanding of what it really means to live in a country that’s denied any legitimacy or access to basic human rights whatsoever.

    miss and love you,

    Chris