You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
Last year, I arrived on a British passport tarnished by my Arabic name. The plane landed at 8.15pm after a six-hour transit in Istanbul. I knew the passport was useless because the woman at passport check took one look at it and told me to go and sit in a waiting room in the far corner of the hall. If I’d known they would keep me until 2.30am, passing me around from one official to another, each one asking the same questions, I wouldn’t have finished my book on the plane. What do you do? What’s your father’s name? What’s your grandfather’s name? Where were you born? Where were they born? Where do they live? What’s your religion? What’s their religion? Where are you staying? Who do you know? Why are you here? No, why are you really here? Okay. Now go back and sit in the waiting room. Nobody looked at me. Their eyes were fixed on the computer screen. An hour later, these questions were repeated by someone else. This one accused me of lying. He made me write down my email address and password before ordering me back to the waiting room. An hour later, I was accused of lying again. I said, truthfully, that I’d been invited to a Holocaust memorial event in Jerusalem on Sunday. He asked why the Holocaust means anything to me. ‘Because I’m a human being,’ I said. ‘But you’re a Muslim,’ he said and sent me back to the waiting room. Just after midnight, I’d had enough. I had never felt this alone before. ‘Please,’ I thought. ‘Just send me back.’ It was then I started to feel thirsty, so I approached one of the staff and asked her for some water. Without even looking at me, in a perfect California accent, she replied: ‘I don’t speak English.’ As she walked off, I realised that being sent back home was not an option. In the end, they gave me the full three-month visa.
This year, my British passport has a cleaner aesthetic. My new name has stripped it of extra baggage. It makes airport officials smile. It calms and reassures them. For example, they can pronounce my name which makes them think they know me. I approach passport check. The woman opens my passport.
— What’s the purpose of your trip?
— Are you travelling alone?
— Oh… But don’t you get bored? Being all alone, I mean?
— No. It’s the best thing. You get to do what you like.
— Don’t you ever travel alone?
— No. I always need someone to talk to.
— You should try to enjoy your own company.
She’s quiet for a moment, contemplative perhaps, before handing back my passport. She smiles. Shows her teeth. Thanks me for my advice.
— Have a nice time in Israel.
— Thank you. Good bye.
Her niceness, meant for the man she considers so familiar, makes me hate her.
Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
One morning, I find myself sitting outside a café on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street. They make the best iced coffee I’ve ever tasted. The 20-minute walk in the blazing heat is worth it. Tarek, the Palestinian guy I’m with, is rabbiting on about his law exams. He wants to become a human rights lawyer but needs to pass his IELTS exam before he can continue with any postgraduate study. He lives with his family in Beit Safafa, between the Green Line and the Apartheid Wall. I’m watching the passers-by. In 30 minutes, I hear more languages than I can name. What an amazing country this would be, I think, if the last century did not weigh upon it so heavily. When the bill arrives, we pay and leave.
It’s Tarek who understands them; not me. We’ve been walking for about five minutes along the tram lines towards Mehane Yehuda. Two Jewish women walk past us, speaking to each other in Hebrew. I remark on how pretty they are. Tarek says: ‘They weren’t very nice.’ I must have looked puzzled because he adds: ‘One of them said something horrible about you, and the other one agreed with her.’
At first, he won’t tell me what she said. Was it something about my clothes, I ask. I check to see if there’s a coffee stain on my shirt. Finally, he relents: ‘She said there are too many black people in this country.’ For the rest of the day, I wish I could speak Hebrew. I wish I could apologise for letting my blackness get in the way of her whiteness.
Later, as we walk back towards Damascus Gate, we see a teenage boy wearing a kippah and a blue-and-white keffiyeh. ‘First they steal our country,’ Tarek says about the keffiyeh. ‘Then they steal our culture.’
The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain,
We are a going-on people who will rise again.
15 May 2014. It’s Nakba Day. I’m at Qalandiya, one of the largest and most unsettling of the checkpoints separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. There are Israeli soldiers everywhere. Local youths have been throwing stones and burning tyres. These are scenes that repeat themselves every year: Palestinians attempt to commemorate their losses, to hold onto their memories, while the Israeli state continues to suppress these activities by any means it thinks it can convincingly justify. From where I stand, I can see smoke, boys running, soldiers chasing them. Someone ushers me into a car. Then we hear a bang. As we try to close all the windows as quickly as possible, I feel a new sensation in the back of my throat. I start coughing. Someone tells me to breath slowly. There are tears in everyone’s eyes. Later that day, we hear about Nadim and Muhammad, aged 17 and 16, killed by Israeli snipers outside the Ofer military prison. Two youngsters, not yet men, to be mourned by their families and friends. Two empty chairs at the dinner table and in the classroom. Two caged birds who sang of freedom.
Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
I wish, Maya, you were here too; for Palestine and its people came late to your attention.
Photo Credits: Martin Godwin
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