I am an Arab-American. I have lived my whole life in New York with my Iraqi mother and Irish father. On the 1st November (just 2 weeks ago), I planned to attend the Canaan Fair Trade festival in Jenin, Palestine. I got into contact with the director and was very excited to meet her. I had a hotel reserved for the two nights and had even planned my outfit for the festival! Little did I know what awaited me at the Israeli border.
Here is my story.
I left Amman around 3:30pm heading towards the Jordanian border. On the way, the taxi driver and I did not stop chatting about religion and the struggles of living in the Middle East. I have taken a keen interest in understanding the Arab culture and life in the Arab world. Despite my Iraqi background, I somewhat lost touch with my Arab roots having grown up in New York.
I paid the exit tax at the Jordanian side and then myself and 10 others (most of whom were foreigners) loaded the bus and made our way to the Israeli border. I could literally feel the excitement and anticipation as we neared the border. ‘This was going to be a great trip,’ I told myself. I could just feel it.
We got out of the bus and queued up to have our passports checked. I approached the window of two Israeli soldiers. They looked no older than 18 or 19 years old, the same age as me. I was asked routine questions of why I was visiting, where I was staying and about my parent’s background. When I told them my mother was Iraqi they glanced at one another and questioned me a little more on the subject, before asking me to take a seat on the side. I assumed this was just protocol, a normal security check and today was just not my day.
After waiting patiently on the side and watching the other students go through one by one, an officer approached me.
“So your mother is an Arab?”
“No,” I responded. “My mother is Chaldean.”
“But she speaks Arabic?”
“No, my mother speaks Chaldean.”
“But you are Arabs from Iraq.”
And then she began to laugh. My immediate reaction of course was to laugh back, confused and nervous at her tone of voice and the absurdity of the situation. Suddenly she stopped laughing and glared at me.
“I did not say you could laugh. Why are you laughing?”
I bit my lip and put my head down.
Once she had finished, I was cleared for security and carried my suitcase to the baggage check. I took a big sigh of relief once she was out of sight. As I watched my suitcase go through the security machine, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw her standing over me again. She said me she had further questions for me. I took a deep breath.
She repeated the same questions she had asked me previously, about my parent’s background, my Arab roots and my interest in going to Palestine. I showed her proof of my hotel reservation and after a third round of questioning she left and let me move on to the next window.
No more than 10 minutes later and I was approached by another Israeli soldier who commenced to ask me the same questions again. This time, once she had finished she gave me a form to fill out and told me to take a seat in the waiting area.
‘Had I done something wrong?’ I asked myself. ‘No, they probably just do this to everyone.’
I walked over to the waiting area and seat near an old man and his wife. I quickly learned that they were Palestinians living in the West Bank and had been waiting there for two hours already. I looked around and watched as the waiting room seats quickly filled up with more people who were all Arabs.
Two more hours passed and my impatience grew. Why was no one telling me what was going on?
I reminded myself it was not a good idea to complain, considering the soldiers hostility towards me. I did not want to get on their bad side. I also reminded myself that the Palestinian man and his wife sitting next to me had now been waiting 4 hours. Who was I to complain after just 2 hours of waiting, right?
An Israeli soldier approached us and handed the old man and his wife their green Palestinian ID cards and told them they could go through. At that point I knew I was going to get out soon.
Two more hours passed and I noticed the waiting room seats were becoming empty. Most of the people who had arrived after me had received their visas and gone through. I figured the Israelis were suspicious of my Arab roots and that’s why I was being held back. Nevertheless, I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had a valid reason to be going and had given them proof of where I was staying. I was also an American citizen, I kept reminding myself.
It was now 10pm and I was still sitting in the waiting room. All I kept thinking was, ‘Just be patient. It’s only another two hours before the bridge closes and they’ll have to let you through by then.’
So I waited. I waited and I waited and I waited.
After my third cup of coffee, I asked one of the soldiers for an update on my passport. She looked at me and asked, “What is your name?” so I told her.
She went into her office, returned 20 minutes later and told me that my search was now complete and that they were just waiting for a call to confirm everything. I nodded, frustrated that I had to wait even longer but thankful that I was finally getting through.
It was pitch black outside and I had now been waiting 6 hours. I became increasingly agitated and nervous. I had given the Israelis all the information they asked for. What more did they want from me?
It was now 11:00pm, with only one hour left until the border closed for the night. An Israeli soldier approached me and ordered me to follow her. We sat in a quiet area away from the waiting room and she began to question me some more. She repeated the same questions all again.
Was she serious?
I could not believe she was asking me the same questions again. Couldn’t she have just asked the other four soldiers who had interrogated me? I had practically memorized the answers to these questions.
“Ok, now let’s go through your phone.”
I took out my phone and typed in the passcode wondering what she wanted to look at.
“Go to your contacts and type 972.”
The names of all of my Palestinian friends popped up (as 972 is the start of the code for all Palestinian local numbers). She ordered me to open each name and wrote down each of their numbers on a piece of paper. She thanked me and walked away without any explanation.
I am one of 9 people still waiting and it is 11:45pm. I look to my left and see the same soldier walking towards me holding my passport. I can feel a huge sense of relief overcome me as I think this agony will all be over soon enough. I stand up and her eyes match mine.
She smiles and says, “You are not allowed to go into Israel today.”
I could not believe what she was saying. I stopped and looked at her confused and said, “What do you mean?”
“You cannot cross today. We are doing a security check on you and there is not enough time to finish the investigation.”
I couldn’t even think properly anymore. What about the festival? What am I supposed to do now? Why did everyone else go through except me?
My heart literally dropped into my stomach and I could feel my eyes welling with tears. It was midnight and I was alone at the border. My phone was running out of battery and I had nowhere to go. My host family in Amman would be asleep and my family in New York were not answering.
With tears in my eyes, I begged the woman to speak to someone, a manager, a supervisor, anyone. She laughed, handed my passport back to me and said, “No, I already told you that you can’t.”
On my way back to Amman in the taxi, I began sobbing and asked myself ‘Why me?’ I was being denied entry with no valid reason at all. Why was I being treated like a suspect?
I am an Arab-American. I was born and raised in New York. My Arab heritage is only something that has recently become present in my life after my experiences in the Middle East. Is this why the Israelis were punishing me? Because my mother is an Arab? Because I have Palestinian friends?
When I look back and remember what happened to me, I remember the old man and his wife in the waiting room. These Palestinians have to experience this humiliation every time they cross the border. This frustration is a daily struggle for them and they are discriminated against because of their background. It is racism at its finest.
That day at the checkpoint, I had a taste of what it really means to feel helpless and at the hands of another. I felt what it is like to live under occupation and to be a second-class citizen; I felt what it is like to be denied your rights just because of who you are and because of your background.
I finally understood what it meant to be a Palestinian.