Lying to get out. Report 9, July 2005.
Rashid Khalidi described it beautifully in the introduction to his book on Palestinian identity – that any Palestinian’s identity is at once questioned, traumatic, and reinforced at a political border. So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me when I was ambivalent, scared, nervous, confused when in line at the Tel Aviv airport, wondering whose advice I should heed… Some told me to flat out lie and deny having been to the Palestinian Territories. “Don’t even mention that you were in Jerusalem,” they said. “Jerusalem is too close to the Arabs. Just say you visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, not cities where there are Arabs.” My Palestinian friends who live within Israel (those whose families did not flee in 1948) told me to use them as my contact info. As one told me: “my record is clean. Just tell them you stayed with me.” Some suggested I go four hours early, others suggested going late so as to minimize the time getting questioned and searched. My Israeli friend… I was too shy to ask to use his name as a contact person.
When I walked in to the airport, by myself, with no remnants of anything Arab or Palestinian on me except what was in my heart, I still hadn’t figured out what my story would be… would I lie? To what extent? Would I stand proud of being who and what I am, no matter the humiliation or risk? I had bought a magnet for a friend that said “Israel.” I packed it so that it was the first colorful item in my bag. I had a few papers with official American government insignia; I left them visible on purpose. I had spent all my money fed-exing all of my valuable information: video tapes, newspaper clippings, cd-roms of files and documents, pictures, notes, books, magazines. I wanted to make sure that my materials would make it out of Israel safely, but also not in my possession when at the airport. I had heard horror stories from diasporic Palestinians and Westerners alike (local Palestinians are not allowed to travel from the airport, they must exist through the bridge that connects Israel to Jordan or through the Gaza-Egypt border). Confiscated materials, ruined films, over-night stay in the airport prison, banned from ever entering Israel again.
In front of me was a group of six Norwegian teenagers accompanied by two of their Israeli counterparts. They were all wearing “seeds of peace” t-shirts. I couldn’t help but think that their Palestinian “seedlers” were probably forbidden from coming to the airport. Behind me a Swedish couple carefully carrying their dried-up Eastern Palm branch – Easter was a few months ago, I thought to myself, these people have been here since then? No one else seems to be traveling solo around me, except for an old Jewish lady who gets wheelchair treatment and gets to skip the long, slow line. A few security officials are making their way through the line; all of them young women in their twenties. One finally approaches me, I am still unsure what I’m going to say. She takes my passport and ticket. She says my name perfectly. Not giving me time to react, she notices out loud that I was born in an Arab country. I’ve been caught. But I expected this. Now… “Where were you staying in Israel?” Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus… “Tel Aviv,” I say. I wonder if she notices my hesitation, “with a friend.” Shit… What if they decide to call him? Will he cover for me? “Why were you in Israel?”… To get depressed, frustrated, feel my powerlessness, be a shoulder for everyone who just wants to dish out his or her problems. I make-up some story about tourism, beaches, museums, ruins, seeing friends… She pulls out the stack of stickers from her pocket, blue, green, purple, white, yellow and red. The Norwegians got purple ones. The Swedes behind me got green and blue ones. Why do I not feel surprised when she whips out a whole page of red stickers and generously sprinkles them all over my belongings? My bag, my carry-on, my passport, boarding pass, ticket. She may as well have put one on my forehead, or wrapped me in a big red bow so that all the travelers can be aware (or beware?) of a suspicious person in their midst. Once she’s finished decorating, she leaves. I stand there, remembering and rehearsing what I told her, because now I have to get my facts straight for the next round of questioning. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, museums, beaches, friends…
I see her standing with what must be her supervisor. They’re in a heated discussion. The line is inching along at a slo-motion pace. Over three hours to go until departure time and I wonder if I’ll make it to the gate on time. Her supervisor comes to me, in her company. He takes my passport and with a coy smile apologizes for having to ask me personal questions. “When was the last time you were in Kuwait?” I wasn’t even one years old when I left, so the question takes me a bit by surprise. “Did you go to Jordan or Egypt on this trip?” Well wouldn’t there be a stamp in my passport to suggest whether I went or not, I think to myself. “Did you go to the Palestinian Authority?” Since when is the PA a location? I simply kept saying no, smiling back. I’ve always been a bad liar. But I’m even worse at being aggressive with people. It’s a weakness of mine to be too nice and friendly. Half way through my second interrogation I realize that none of the tactics recommended by my friends were going to work. I decided I was going to adopt the friendly and accommodating route (and lie), in a country where everyone is rude, antagonistic, and belligerent – among hardliners I thought I’d be a pacifier.
I eventually reached the front of the line and placed my belonging on the conveyer belt, my stuff sucked into a huge x-ray machine. I realized suddenly that there were tags on my bags that I hadn’t noticed before: tags made up of bar codes. Did the red-sticker lady put them on there without my noticing? I pick up my bags, and unlike most people who at this point can go to the ticket counter, I am walked over to a bag searching area. An island of security workers in some no-man’s land in the middle of the terminal: not quite past the security check area, not quite ready to get a boarding pass. In a political limbo, much like the Palestinians in general.
A young woman scans the bar codes on my bags. A three-dimensional image of my bags shows up on her computer screen. She presses a button on her keyboard and the images rotate. I’ve never seen anything like this; it’s the stuff of science fiction movies! With such precision, I’m surprised that she now wants to scan every item in my bag with even more scrutiny. Not a sock unturned, not a paper not folded over, not a zipper unswiped with her tnt-sniffing wand. My bottled soap doesn’t pass the test: I have to leave it behind. An American man, clearly having come home to Israel for religious and sun-tanning purposes, glances over at the young woman and says “make sure you do a good job. We’re on this plane!” I want to smack him. Instead I fall back to my friendly strategy and smile at the young woman and make some remark about how the American security system has lots to learn from the Israeli one. In the U.S. if a security officer decides to wand your stuff, he may do so once. This woman used eight separate pieces of cloth to make sure every item in my bag and on my body was scanned. Eight times, I counted! After almost an hour of this, I again assumed I was done. But now it was time to scan me.
I realized at this point that I must have been seen as some serious threat. It was as if I was the apprentice of the “engineer” (the nickname given to a Palestinian explosives expert responsible for some suicide attacks and who was eventually killed by Israel). I found it absurd that I was treated as such. Here I was worried about what kinds of questions they were going to ask me, but they were much more concerned with my Nivea soap containing some weird chemical or my shoes being dusty. I wondered if they’d find anything on me, by mistake. Like whatever was in the soap… maybe if they searched long enough, they’d find some bizarre chemical in my hair and that would somehow be reason to throw me in jail? I kept smiling and being friendly. “Please come with me.” I had to leave my bags behind and follow her to some back room. I had heard about these before, I wondered how it would be. I suddenly panicked at the thought that my bags had been tagged upon arrival and the whole time I was in the country, I was being tracked. The security officer upon entrance to Israel had also taken me to a back-room and had disappeared with my suitcase. What if this whole time they knew I was in the West Bank and I’ve been saying Tel Aviv?!
It wasn’t really a room so much as it was a closet of sorts. In order to get in, I had to pass through an x-ray machine. She followed me in, the machine making unbearable levels of noise. She spent another twenty minutes wanding me, patting me down, asking me to lift my arms, open my legs, lift up my feet, take off my shoes, take off my belt… She stopped and poked her head out of the room and said something in Hebrew to someone I couldn’t see. We had to wait. Seven minutes. “I have a problem with this area,” she explains to me as she points to my stomach. I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. A few minutes later another security guard walks in and introduces herself as the head of security. She seemed rather young to be head of security. “You need to take off your pants.” I stared at her. “Please,” she said, not very politely. Okay, I was still going to be cooperative. She explained that this was for safety reasons. “Better safe than not,” I said. As I stood there with my pants around my ankles and the first young woman wanding me, the head security guard corrected my idiom: “better safe than sorry.” Sorry wouldn’t be enough to describe the state of the airplane if I really were carrying a bomb on me, I thought, but I let it go. I was allowed to put my pants back on, but then I had to remove my bra. Maidenform doesn’t advertise that underwire bras can be a security threat to the State of Israel. When my undressing session was over, I realized that I hadn’t once thought about my belongings, back in no-man’s island. As we walked back, I figured they were safe. I can’t imagine that any of these security officers would take kindly to an unattended item.
My cooperative, friendly and smiling tactic had worked I thought. Two and half hours of screening and I was done, the only thing I had to leave behind was my soap. The young woman escorted me to the check-in counter, making me feel as if she were my friend hanging out with me until the last possible moment. We picked up my luggage and went through some service elevator at the back of the airport to the departure level. She escorted me through the next security and x-ray area, and I felt elated that I didn’t have to wait in line again. She walked me to my gate and wished me a happy journey. She recommended the restaurant in front of McDonald’s by the C-gates. Most likely she had heard my stomach growling while she was patting me down.
I had made it. My lies and my friendly demeanor worked, I thought. But why then was I tagged with red stickers, made to undress, escorted until my gate, and screened for upwards of two hours? And why was I feeling like this was ok, like I had made it through easily? Why is it that I have to be scared to admit the truth, to stand proud and prove the stereotypes wrong? Why is it that at every border, whether Israeli or other, I am held in a condition of suspense – by myself: not sure what to admit or deny; and by others: suspect by definition. As I finally walk onto the plane I realize that I have failed. I shouldn’t be friendly, cooperative and smiling. I should be angry, in a rage. I shouldn’t lie about an innocent truth. I shouldn’t be made to feel like my identity is unfortunate.
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