Read Full Report Asalaamu Alaikum!
My thoughts are all over the place right now. I’m going to do my best to write out what I have been thinking about for the last week and a half. A week after her comment is here Ramadan and sa réponse Eid-ul-Fitr, I took a flight to a place that I have dreamt of visiting since I turned twelve in the summer of 2000. I had the blessing and opportunity to finally visit the land that holds my heritage and heart.
My entire trip was only thirty-nine days – what felt like the shortest thirty-nine days of my life. I have been back for fifteen days and still haven’t been able to wrap my head around the fact that I actually visited Palestine and family that I have only spoken to on the phone. The last time I visited was the summer I turned twelve. It had always been a dream of mine to go back. At twelve, I took the entire trip as all fun and games. I didn’t understand how much my heart would ache until I got the chance to return.
Ever since I returned back to San Diego, it’s been difficult getting myself back on track with school, my work, and even family. Part of me is in denial that it all even happened. I have the pictures and videos as proof; yet, it all feels like a dream. When I got back, my cousin told me that it was good that I finally got it out of my system … I haven’t. No matter how many times I go, I know that I will always yearn for more the moment I head to the airport to leave Palestine.
As cliché as it sounds:
My trip to Palestine = LIFE CHANGING.
Everything from the adventures I took, culture I experienced, sights that surrounded me, family I got to know, food I devoured to the stories I heard have taught me about my heritage and a land so rich with culture and religion. As equally important, I learned more about myself in those thirty-nine days than I have in the last twenty-four years of my existence. If there’s anything that I learned about myself, it’s that after entering and exiting the country through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, I can handle ANYTHING. My patience and sanity had never been tested like it was during those days.
After arriving in Palestine and when I came back to the United States, the first questions I received were not about my experiences there, but instead about my flight and time at Ben Gurion.
“What was it like in Tel Aviv? I heard that they caused so much trouble for you!”
“ source imp AlhamduliAllah. Aside from the hours of interrogation and baggage checks, I can now officially say I have been strip searched.”
“What?! That’s horrible! I would never fly into Tel Aviv! It’s not worth it.”
I always told them the following:
To see my homeland. To see my family. I would go through the same obstacles and challenges again and again. It’s worth it every single time. There’s no one to fear but Allah swt.
The reality is that what Israel does to travelers, especially Muslims and those with Palestinian backgrounds, is put fear in them so that they choose to never come back again. Some will read this blog post and decide just that – they would never take on this challenge. What Israel doesn’t seem to understand is that there are individuals like me who come back ready to educate others about my time in Palestine. My intention is simple. I would advise anyone and everyone who travels to Palestine (of course only those who don’t have a Palestinian passport – those who do aren’t allowed to exit and return from Tel Aviv) to travel through Tel Aviv. I won’t lie. In those hours that I was held for interrogation, baggage check, and during my strip search, it felt like I was in there forever. After it was over, I realized that the hours spent were a very small price to pay to visit a beloved land and loved ones. To visit my father’s birthplace and parents’ homeland.
Next time I post InshaAllah (God-willing) will be about my adventures throughout Palestine. Right now, here is how I began my adventure and how it ended. The following is taken from an unedited draft of a piece I wrote for school and myself. This was the most therapeutic thing I have ever written for myself. I felt that I just needed to get it all out on paper, metaphorically speaking. It is indeed long. You can always skip straight to the end of this post and read my concluding thoughts, but I do hope you at least skim through… Enjoy.
Sunday, August 26, 2012.
The only flight that allowed two bags on an international flight was Turkish Airlines. Turkish Airlines doesn’t fly out from San Diego. After praying, I said goodbye to my brother and got in the car with the rest of my family to drive to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for my flight. AlhamduliAllah (Thank God), despite the insane traffic, we arrived within four hours, around 3 PM. My flight was at 6:20 PM, but I needed to check in three hours early and go through security. I checked in and attempted to eat an early dinner with my family. My mom had packed 2iras bi sabanikh – which are basically delicious triangle shaped dough stuffed with spinach and spices, spinach pies. I don’t remember if I swallowed one or two. My stomach was in knots. I wrapped the last one in a napkin and put it into my backpack for the flight. Along with my laptop, DSLR camera, external hard drive, journal, a book, and a folder with a copy of my novel in progress, I also took chocolate, a small Ziploc bag of watermelon seeds, and Eid ma3moul (cookies) to keep me alert during the trip.
Being in the airport was surreal. The last time I was on a plane was a trip up to San Jose about three years ago. My last international flight was over twelve years ago. I had traveled with my mom and siblings from the United States, through Europe, and into Jordan, where we took a bus across the border into Palestine. This was my first time traveling alone to the other side of the world and through Tel Aviv. The trip felt heavy even before it began because of all the information I heard about the challenges I was going to face at Tel Aviv, solely because of my background.
It was finally time.
I said goodbye to my parents and sisters, while holding back tears. I knew that time would fly and I would be home within a blink of an eye. From experience, I was worried that airport security would take long, per my usual experience. Surprisingly, it all took about five minutes. After my backpack was checked and I walked through the metal detector, I was pulled aside and a female checked my hijab (head covering). Only two more hours until I boarded my thirteen hours flight from Los Angeles to Istanbul, Turkey. My passport was checked at the gate and I was finally on my way. Overall, I travelled for two days all during the night because of the time change. Both Turkey and Palestine were ten hours ahead of California.
The moment my plane departed, I knew Allah swt loved me. I was used to dealing with irritated travelers or travelers who made it clear that they didn’t want to sit next to the hijabi. This time, I had gotten my choice of window seat and there was no one between me and the man sitting in the aisle seat. My flight consisted of no sleep, lots of water and chocolate, random movies and shows on the personal screen in front of me, writing in my journal, no bathroom breaks because the respectful Turkish man in my aisle slept the entire time, an overflowing amount of dua’ (supplication), and listening to Quran to calm my nerves. I wanted to save my sanity for Tel Aviv.
My transit in Istanbul was over nine hours long. It should have been less than eight hours. It was my first experience exiting a plane through stairs and into shuttles. The shuttles took us to the airport, where everyone in transit had to go through a passport check and airport security all over again. The airport was HUGE! After rushing to the bathroom and inhaling a large cup of coffee, I couldn’t sit still. While others might have tried to go out and explore the city, I knew I couldn’t. Aside from airport security, my nerves were on edge. I was one short plane ride away from my destination and there was no guarantee Israeli security would let me into the country. I spent the entire time people-watching and walking around the airport with my heavy backpack. I needed to stay awake. I ended up finding a cute little café to buy water, a small veggie sandwich and took some time to write a little more in my journal. It was finally time to board my flight to Tel Aviv.
Of course boarding a plane to Israel wasn’t going to be easy. We were not allowed to board until special Israeli security arrived to check our passports. In the meantime I got to know a couple and a family living in prior 1948 Israel. When it was time to get on the plane, everyone’s passports passed the check except mine and another man travelling from the United Kingdom. While everyone else boarded, we were asked to step aside and wait.
I handed my United Stated Passport to the agent.
“Where are you traveling to?”
“How long is your stay?”
“I leave on October 3rd.”
“Show me your trip.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You wont get on that plane until you show me your trip.”
“You want my itinerary? Seriously?”
He didn’t respond. I sighed loudly.
“Okay. Let me find it.”
I pulled out the folder from my backpack, found my itinerary, and handed it to him.
“How long will you be staying?”
I turned over the paper and pointed to the date.
He looked up at me, clearly annoyed. He took my boarding pass stub and stamped it. He handed back my passport and itinerary. My passport was checked again at the gate and again at the plane doors.
I was the last person onto the plane.
As I settled into another window seat, I felt my chest tighten. Exactly two hours and fifteen minutes until arrival in Tel Aviv. I remembered what my family and friends told me before my flight. The moment I exited the United States my rights were stripped away. The passport just served as a couple pieces of paper with my information to allow me to move across borders. I shouldn’t expect respect just because I was an American citizen. I knew I should expect obstacles the moment I arrived in Israel.
I had spent the summer preparing myself by reading all the news articles about Palestinian-Americans turned away at the Israeli border, but not before being interrogated for hours and having all their devices and bags checked. I had friends and family members who were denied entrance. I also had friends who were allowed to enter, but then denied the ability to move freely through the country, even with an American passport. I was already aware that my family living in the West Bank was barred from moving freely in their own country, but I didn’t know that could be taken away from me too. I had to be ready for any scenario, the worst being that I wasn’t allowed to enter the country at all. I spent months clearing out my phone, computer, email, you name it. I even went out of my way to contact current students at my university alma mater, UCSD, to ask them to remove me from any mailing lists or mention of me online tying me to my activism. I wasn’t changing who I was and what I stood for, I just had one goal, to get through Israel and into Palestine safely.
I spent the entire two-hour flight listening to Quran and making dua’. I prepared myself for the worst and told myself that I just needed to take it easy and stay patient. I put my tawakul (trust) in Allah swt.
The moment the pilot announced that we had entered Tel Aviv borders, I looked down at the lights below, glowing in the dark. It was 3 AM. I could feel my heartbeat sprinting. I was home. I was glad the man and woman in my aisle were still asleep. I started to cry. Whatever happened next was in the hands of Allah swt.
My plane landed at exactly 3:27 AM on Tuesday, August 28, 2012.
As I exited the plane, my passport was checked again. I walked down a long hall into a large room with lanes leading to a column of booths. An imaginary line down the middle of the room separated the booths between Israeli Passports and Foreign Passports. I found the shortest line. Every time I reached the front of the line, the agent in the booth would spot my the passport in my hand and slam down her window. After the fourth time, I laughed out loud. I knew the fun was just beginning. I stopped walking up to the window. I put my hands on my hips and waited for one of them to call me forward. While in line, I noticed that no one walked up with a United States Passport.
The woman in the booth in front me finally opened her window. She looked up at the ceiling, gave the loudest sigh she could manage, and waved me forward. Not one person went up to the booths with a smile. Knowing their fun with me was just beginning, I decided to take a different route. I walked up to the booth and with all the energy I had left, smiled. I turned on my American SoCal bubbly charm.
The agent jumped. I handed her my passport and itinerary.
“Hi, how are you?” I asked.
She looked up at me with both eyebrows raised.
I figured that was enough cheer. I still needed energy and patience for the interrogation I knew was coming, followed by the baggage check. I was told that their goal would be to scare and exhaust me from ever coming back again. I was officially here. Nothing was going to throw me off my goal to enter. I was prepared.
She flipped through my passport. It was empty. She looked up at me and back to my picture. It was six years old, but it still had four more years until it expired.
“Where are you going?”
“To visit family.”
“How long is your stay?”
“I leave on October 3rd.”
“Is this your first time in Tel Aviv.”
She checked the computer. As expected, my name was not in the system. She handed back my itinerary and held up my passport between her left thumb and forefinger.
“We’ll give this back to you later. Go sit in that room.”
I looked to where her finger was pointing, but didn’t see anything.
“Over THERE!” She barked at me.
Unfazed, I enunciated, “I. Don’t. See. A. Room.”
“Behind those security guards.”
I walked back through the empty room and headed towards a room in the back, hidden from view. I felt naked without my passport. I had it on me the entire trip.
Three male security personnel stood at the doorless entrance and one was hovering inside. The room had seats lining the wall. A coffee vending machine stood next to the entrance. A large flat screen television was hanging on the wall above the vending machine. I noticed that there were only young men, around my age, in the room. They all looked to be of Middle Eastern or Arab decent. One of them was asleep. I took a seat directly across from the television. I put down my backpack, slouched into the seat, dropped one leg over the other, crossed my arms and got settled into watching the screen. A Good Morning America look alike program was playing in Hebrew with Hebrew subtitles.
(I will note that during my stay, an Italian female was held for an hour. She was angry because she couldn’t understand why she was being interrogated– and a Somali female wearing hijab was held for fifteen minutes.)
The man with the UK passport walked into the room. He scanned the seats until his eyes locked onto mine. With a wide grin, he pointed at me and said, “We’re going to be here until the sun sets! Get comfortable.” He took the seat directly in front of me. I held back laughter, but couldn’t hold back a smile. I knew immediately he was Palestinian.
I looked down at my watch and realized that it was after 4 AM. The sun would rise in less than an hour. I tried calling my cousin who was waiting outside or texting my dad. No service. I realized everyone was trying to get service in the room. Somehow, one text succeeded in getting through to my dad. I let him know that I was safe, but would be there for a couple hours.
I spent three hours in that room. Men came and went. The man from the UK and I continued to take turns staring at each other and the television.
Within the first thirty minutes, someone came to check on the guy who was sleeping. They would call his name, see him asleep, and then leave. Within the first hour, I was interrogated once.
The first agent who interrogated me was stiff and wanted straight forward but detailed answers. I didn’t feel like making a friend out of her. My goal was to stay patient and attempt to put a clamp on my sarcasm, which rises strong when I’m exhausted. I hadn’t slept in days.
I made myself comfortable in the cold seat. I draped one leg over the other, placed my right elbow onto my knee and put my right fist under my chin. I waited for boredom to follow.
“Is this your first time here?”
“In Tel Aviv? Yes.”
“When was the last time you were here.”
“I visited twelve years ago.”
“Wow, twelve years? Why are you here?”
“To visit family.”
“To get to know them.”
“Twelve years is a long time. Why didn’t you come back earlier?”
“Travel is expensive.”
“If family is important then you would have tried.”
“Do you have a couple thousand dollars I can borrow for my next trip?”
She paused for what felt like a full minute then leaned forward onto the desk between us.
“You have had a long flight. Are you tired?”
“Of course not.” I laughed.
She raised an eyebrow at me. She wasn’t amused.
“What are you?”
“No, you are…” She paused.
“American. I believe that’s my passport sitting in front of you.”
She blew air out of her nose and turned to the computer screen. She began typing furiously.
“Where are you staying?”
“I want an address.”
“No idea. I haven’t been here in twelve years.”
I had the exact address written on my phone and on a paper in my backpack, but I had not memorized it. Frankly, I was worried about opening either. I didn’t want an excuse for her to seaech them. I had heard about how thorough these searched were. The idea of having a warrant wasn’t an option. As her voice began to rise with frustration, my patience was thinning.
“With who are you staying?”
She asked for his full name.
“Your last name is the same as his?”
“Thank God. Your family is well known and easy to find.”
I laughed. I was well aware.
“I need it.”
“I wouldn’t bother sending me an email. I don’t reply to strangers.”
She searched her computer and came up with my Gmail. She asked for confirmation. She pointed to my cell phone.
“What’s your mobile number and home phone number?”
“Wow, my phone numbers too. I feel special.”
I knew she had access to the information. I could also see part of her screen. She just needed confirmation.
“How do you not know the address?”
“I told you. I was twelve the last time I was here.”
“You can’t remember anything?
“I think there was a masjid near it.”
I smiled. She glared.
“You need the address. How will get there?”
“My cousin is picking me up.”
I gave her my cousin’s name. I knew he was in the system. Unlike the majority of my family, he had a Jerusalem Passport, which allowed him to move between what is known as Israel and the West Bank. She proceeded to tell me information about him and my aunt who were both waiting outside for me. Truthfully, I didn’t remember what he looked like at all. In fact, I wasn’t lying when I told her I couldn’t remember anything. She showed me his picture on the screen with all his information written in Hebrew.
“Is this him?”
“I don’t know. I was too young last time.”
“That’s impossible. How will you know who he is with everyone standing outside?”
“He’s going to be holding a poster with my name on it.”
I had forgotten that my dad told me before I boarded the plane in Istanbul that my aunt would be standing outside with him.
For the next 15 minutes, she questioned me on my dad’s brothers who still lived in Palestine. She showed me pictures and asked if the information was correct. I don’t know why, but I didn’t think it was necessary to let her know that I couldn’t read the Hebrew on the screen. I just assumed she knew.
My refusal to give any answers besides “yes”, “no”, “I don’t remember”, and “I don’t know” frustrated her. I never lied. I just didn’t share extra details. Soon enough, her anger rose.
“How old is your uncle?”
That was the question that punctured my patience. I did my best to keep my tone steady.
She gave me an icy stare.
“In my culture, it’s disrespectful to ask me about my uncle’s age.”
I glared back at her.
“Give me an answer!”
“How am I supposed to know!”
I was no longer worried that they would send me back on a plane. The airport was beginning to empty out. There were no planes exiting or leaving anytime soon. If they were sending me back, they would need to put me in a cell and wait for the next day. I just prayed really hard that they’d get tired of me and finally let me go. I was suddenly very sleepy.
I grabbed my backpack and walked back out to the holding room. The men in the room had changed. The uncle from the UK was still there. I took the seat in front of him again. He looked to see if the security guard was watching and mouthed to me, “Are you okay?” I smiled and nodded. I returned my gaze to the television. I began to notice that every hour, a soldier would stand on the level above the room and stare directly at me. I would stare back until he walked away.
I was called back into interrogation after an hour. It was another woman. She had softer features and greeted me with a smile.
“Hi! I’m sure you’re very tired. I know it’s been a long trip. We’re going to do this as quick as possible. Okay?”
Great. They were pulling the bad cop, good cop routine. Yay.
I showed no emotion.
She proceeded to ask the same questions, but this time added questions about my dad, all of his siblings, and their children. She wanted nothing about me personally. I tried to steer the conversation, but she would just redirect me. I answered the same way as I did before. The “good” cop became frustrated and sent me to sit outside again.
I returned to the room. The only two people left was the man from the UK and I. Even the security guard had gotten bored and left us. I noticed that the airport was empty, except for those working there.
The uncle leaned forward.
I stared back, but said nothing.
“Do you speak Arabic?”
“Yes, but I would rather not in here.”
He nodded his head. We understood eachother. We knew to stick to English.
“Are you okay?”
“AlhamduliAllah, just exhausted.”
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
“No.” I was confused at his question.
“Do you read it?”
“Do you understand it at all?”
“No.” I laughed. “Why are you asking?”
He starts laughing, then catches himself.
“Your attention has been captured by that.” He pointed to the television and then to the group of security guards standing outside. “They have been worried because they think you understand them.” Aha, so he understood a little Hebrew. I was too tired to notice before, but he had stayed pretty calm the entire time and joked around when he could. But, he was never taken into interrogation once. This wasn’t a good sign. They were letting him sit and simmer.
I thought about it. The agents showing me the computer screens filled with Hebrew, asking me if the information was correct. I also knew my cousin outside was probably very angry by now. He was fluent in Hebrew and was known to stand for his rights, very loudly. I was so tired that I couldn’t help but laugh. One of the security guards returned.
I was called in again by the second interrogation officer.
She handed me a long piece of paper filled with all the information they had gathered on me. I couldn’t help myself. Laughter escaped me.
“Is there something wrong?”
I smiled at her and shook my head. I didn’t want anything to delay me further or stop me from finally meeting family.
“Look over this. Make sure all the information is correct. Sign on the bottom.”
I took my time reading as she drummed her fingers on the table, waiting for me to sign. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed nothing in the document was going to be used against me, but then I thought, this may be the only time I’ll be blessed to visit Palestine. Just sign it and walk out.
“Do you think you will come back here and will you choose to enter through Tel Aviv?”
My head snapped up, interupting my thoughts. I slowly smiled.
“Of course. Every time.”
After signing, she asked me to return outside again.
The uncle greeted me with a smile.
“They really like you.”
“I’m just very interesting.”
Thirty minutes later, the officer emerged with one hand behind her back. She sat down next to me and turned to face me. A couple security guards walked in to watch her speak to me. This was it. The moment of truth.
“I know you’re tired.” She began.
“Not at all.”
“Uh, well, I just need to know one last thing.”
“Yes?” What they possibly have not asked about yet?
“What year did your father last visit?”
That took me by surprise, because I honestly couldn’t remember.
“I don’t remember. When?”
I knew they had the answer.
“Try to remember.”
“Look, I seriously don’t remember. I know it was back when I was still at the university. That’s all.”
“It was in 2007.”
“What’s your point?”
“Is your father allowed to travel through Tel Aviv or does he have to come through Jordan?”
I smiled. I knew that when I was a toddler, my father had tried to come through Tel Aviv with his United States Passport. He was excited, thinking just maybe that being an American citizen would finally allow him to visit his birthplace freely. He was held for hours in interrogation because they found out that he was born in Palestine and had a Palestinian Passport too. He had left the Palestinian Passport at home in the states because he didn’t know that he needed it. Having a Palestinian Passport restricts you from entering any part of Israel. You are only allowed to enter through Jordan and must stay within the West Bank, and have be constricted to Palestinian roads only with dangerous Israeli checkpoints that sit between Palestinian cities. I knew what she was trying to do. To remind me that my own father, who was born and raised in this country, was not allowed to enter through this airport.
“Jordan.” My face was flushed with anger.
She pulled her hand out from behind her and revealed my passport.
“Here’s your passport. You may leave now. Have a great trip.”
I picked up my backpack and waited until she and the guards left the room to look at the man from the UK. I spoke to him in Arabic.
“May Allah swt give you rest and patience. I hope you meet your family in the best state. Asalaamu Alaikum.”
He smiled back, “WaAlaikum Asalaam.”
Something in my heat made me realize that we both knew he wasn’t getting through. I feared, he was being held just to be sent back.
I walked back through the room with the booths. The airport was empty. My passport was checked again before I reached the room with the luggage. There was nothing left except for men taking bags to the lost and found.
I had kept my patience long enough.
“Hell no.” I spoke tloudly to myself. “My luggage better be here. BismilAllah Al Rahman Al Raheem (In the name of God the most merciful the most compassionate).”
I walked up to the only woman dressed in a suit, holding a walkie-talkie.
“Excuse me,” I called out to her and when she ignored me, I tried again.
“What are you still doing here?” Her voice rang loud in the empty room.
“Me? What am I doing here? I’ve been in interrogation for the past – ” I looked at my watch. It was past 7 AM. “OVER THREE HOURS! Clearly I’m looking for my bags.”
She seemed stunned by my response. I seem stunned by my response. I was typically very careful with airport security, out of fear for my own safety. But, this entire experience – from the moment I landed until now – was unlike any other.
“Give me your passport.” She put out her hand.
“Oh my God. You have got to be kidding me.”
“What airline did you come in with.”
“Turkish Airlines from Istanbul.”
She walked over to a group of girls in uniform, lounging on chairs. She walked back over to me.
“Turkish? But that was the first airline to arrive this morning.”
“Great.” I pointed to the area I had just left. “Well, I’ve been in there for three hours.”
“All the luggage is gone now.”
“Look, I don’t care how it happens. I want my bags.”
“Okay, go ask lost and found and then come to the back. We still have to search your bags.” I had had prayed they’d forget the bag search. I rememebered that process from mu childhood and part of the process included all my belongings being thrown haphazardly out of the luggage.
“You better hope I can find my bags and then search them however you want.” She wasn’t really listening as I walked away from her.
I asked at the lost and found and all the workers picking up the left over bags. Everyone told me that the only bags left from Turkish Airlines were sitting at a far corner.
After 15 minutes of searching, the woman walked over to me.
“Have you found them?”
“Okay, go over there.” She pointed to the only corner I hadn’t searched yet. “Find your bags and get out of here.” She handed back my passport. Finally, they’d gotten too tired to deal with me.
Sure enough, my bags were in the corner. I still don’t know how I had the energy, but without removing my backpack, I carried both bags onto a luggage cart standing near me. If you’re Arab, you know how large these bags must have been, filled with presents for family. As I rolled them out of the room, I was met with two guards. I realized that they were going to check if I had the stamps to prove my bags were checked. I pretended I didn’t see them and just power walked past them. They jumped back and let me go.
Two doors slid open and revealed an exhausted looking man and woman sitting on the floor. The room was absolutely empty except for balloons that had floated up to the ceiling, probably meant to be part of bouquets to great arrivals.
Everything was a blur. Exhaustion settled into my limbs.
Our three voices and wide grins clashed all at once.
Me: Asalaamu Alaikum! I’m so sorry you had to wait so long!
Mahmoud: AlhamduliAllah 3ala il salaamey (Thank God for your safety)! Don’t be ridiculous! Give me your bags.
My aunt: Habibti (my dear)! (Followed by a rush of dua’.) Nonsense! AlhamduliAllah, you’re here and safe! Your parents have been so worried. Mahmoud, call them.
“Wait. Why were you two seated on the floor?”
“There are no seats. We were not allowed to sit.”
I was confused. The walls were lined with empty chairs. I saw the guards standing nearby and understood.
My aunt hugged me again. Mahmoud balanced rolling out my bags and pulling out his phone. He turned to me.
“Hey, did you see the guard who kept checking in on you? I kept telling them off from the moment your dad called and said they took your passport. They aren’t allowed to keep you more than three hours. At least, the law says they can’t here, but we knew that they could try to keep you longer… Or worse. We were worried when we became the last two standing in the waiting room. I made them show me live video of you sitting in the room…”
Their voiced faded the moment I stepped outside. The sun hit my face. The morning was just beginning.
As Mahmoud walked ahead and my aunt held my hand all the way to the car, I could feel my body begin to release its tension. I was at peace. I was home. My journey in Palestine was only beginning.
Thirty-six days later, the dream was ending.
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012.
My flight was at 4:50 AM on October 3rd, 2012.
What should take only half an hour to get to the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, takes Palestinians almost two hours. I had to also account for a search at the border of the city of Tel Aviv and the search and security check inside the airport.
Writing about this moment causes my heart to beat faster and tears to graze my eyes. I was in Jericho, where my uncles live. Saying goodbye to my family had never been as difficult as those moments from the house to the car. The moment my cousin took my bags to the car and I turned to look at my family forming a circle around me, I began to cry. I don’t ever remember crying as hard as I did then. Everyone around me began to cry too. A line was formed from the door of the building my uncles shared to the car door – my cousins began the line and it ended with my three uncles standing next to the car. My aunt and another cousin and his wife – all with Jerusalem Passports – accompanied me to the airport.
[When I returned to San Diego, my grandmother said that the goodbye sounded like a wedding zaffe – a cultural practice done for a bride when she leaves her father’s house. My uncles and aunts had treated me like a princess the entire time I was in Palestine. It was difficult for them to see me go because of how much they loved my father. He was the only one who lived far from them, in The United States. I was the first one to visit in years and only Allah swt only knows when another one us will visit again.]
During the drive to Tel Aviv, everyone in the car tried to cheer me up by asking me to recount stories. They had also brought along sweets, juice, and water. I couldn’t eat or drink.
Our first stop was Abu Dees, my parents’ hometown and where my entire family originates, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem was a quick car ride away, I could actually see the Dome of the Rock from my aunt’s family’s apartment upstairs, those living in Abu Dees (just like the rest of the West Bank) were not allowed through to visit. Those given visas and special permission to enter were required to to go through a checkpoint with Palestinian only roads that sometimes took hours. I remembered these experiences while saying goodbye to more family. Suddenly, I heard bombs go off in the background and noticed snippers at the Apartheid wall that surrounded this part of the city. I learned then that the Israeli government was starting to cut off electricity throughout the West Bank. It had already been cut off in Abu Dees. My family told me not to worry because soon I would be away from all these troubles. That made my heart ache.
We got back on the road. Once we entered Tel Aviv, thirty minutes from the airport, we were stopped at a checkpoint. My aunt told me that she had to go through this process with my other cousin when they picked me up at my arrival.
My cousin who was taking me tonight was also fluent in Hebrew. The soldier asked for all our passports and asked my cousin to point me out. We were directed to drive into an empty parking lot. We waited for ten minutes before another soldier approached us. He instructed us to get out of the car and leave it running. All our doors needed to be opened as well as the trunk. My cousin was required to take all my bags out. They asked if I was carrying electronics and I handed over my backpack. They then asked for all of our cell phones. Two security guards, a male and female approached us. We were taken to stand in line in front of a closed door of a building. The female entered the room, while the male stood outside with us. One by one, we were taken alone into the room. I was the last one.
Outside, I watched as cars were stopped at the checkpoint, but left to continue to the airport. When I was the last one left, the guard turned his attention to me.
“Do you speak English?”
He sighed and smiled.
“Oh, good. Are you the only one traveling?”
“The United States.”
“I’m going home to my family.”
“Who packed your bags?”
“Have you accepted anything since you packed them?”
The door opened. The female guard motioned me in and the male guard followed me. Inside were a metal detector, a conveyer belt to check luggage, and a high white table.
“Do you have any metal?”
I took off my belt and handed it to her.
She made me walk through two times. The first time I was fine. The second time I rang.
“Any more metal?”
I looked down at my shirt and realized I had made a mistake. In the morning I had chosen to wear a new shirt. I literally took off the tags that morning. The top of the shirt was embroidered with small coins. I didn’t realize they were metal.
“I think it’s these.”
“Are they metal?”
“I guess so.”
She turned to the male guard and spoke to him in Hebrew. He told me to go through again. I didn’t ring.
She gave me back my belt. He asked me to walk outside with him and told me to roll in my largest bag.
In the room, I was asked to carry it onto the white table. I heaved it up, with all my strength.
She put on white gloves and pulled out a long plastic bar. At the tip was a shiny piece of white paper. She walked into the next room, where I could see her through a glass wall. She walked up to a computer. Attached to the side was half a metal globe flowing with electricity. She rubbed the white tip of the wand on it and came back. She wiped the white tip over every single part of my bag – outside, inside, the sides, the corners, between all my clothing, and any gap she could stick the wand into.
She placed orange stickers with the same number on every side of the bag.
Outside, my aunt and cousins were waiting. They told me that they had done the same thing to the bags sitting outside. They only put stickers on the bag that was with me. Ten minutes later, our phones and passports were returned. Orange stickers with the same number as the ones on my bag were on each one of our passports. We were allowed to take our bags back to the car and get in. The items inside the car were moved around. They had done a full and thorough search. My cousin adjusted his seat and mirrors and we headed to the airport.
My cousin dropped me off along with his wife and my aunt. He helped me load my bags onto cart, rolled it inside, and then went in search of a parking spot. Inside, we quickly discovered that there were two flights to Istanbul, Turkey and only one with Turkish Airlines. The entrance for my baggage check area would not open for another three hours. My family refused to leave me alone. They promised to watch over me as I got my baggage searched and checked in. They had no idea what I was in store for.
We found seats and I finally got a good look at the area between the baggage check and where we were seated. I had never seen an airport like this. There were machines and tables everywhere. I was in for a very long night. After almost two hours, I saw people lining up. It was for the first flight to Istanbul. I snuck into the line past the first guard. From that moment on, a thick rope separated me from my family. They would be able to watch me from afar. They would spend the next few hours standing by the rope, keeping an eye on me.
I was directed into one of the three lanes. I took out my passport and itinerary. I had arrived with two bags and I was leaving with a third one, slight larger than a carry-on.
After a few moments, I noticed a group of young girls dressed in security personnel uniforms asking each one of us to hold up our passports. They all looked like they were still in high school. When one of the girls got to me, I handed over my passport. She took turns looking at the passport, at me, then back at the passport. She glanced down at my bags and then called over another girl. The second girl walked over and yanked the passport from the first girl.
“Who packed your bags?”
Both girls looked at each other. They tried to hide their faces behind my passport but spoke softly in English.
“What else do we ask her?”
They called over three more girls.
“Okay, I know.”
They turned back to me and the first girl spoke.
“We are afraid someone put a bomb in your bag.”
I laughed loudly.
“Which one?” I held her stare, firmly.
“If there was a bomb,” I pointed to my bags, “The security at the border would have caught it.”
They spotted the orange stickers on my bag and passport. They huddled again.
I heard my name being called from across the ropes. My aunt called out to me in Arabic.
“What’s going on?”
I yelled back in Arabic.
“They think I’m carrying a bomb!”
Every single head turned to my direction. I had momentarily forgotten that this airport would be filled with people who spoke or at least understood Arabic. At any other airport, I had been conditioned to never speak Arabic in public for my own safety. I hadn’t slept the night before and it was starting to weigh on me.
“Hasbun Allah wa ni3man wakeel! Allahu Akbar (Allah (alone) is sufficient for us! Allah is greater)!” She and my cousins reacted.
I could have sworn that the entire airport quieted down just then. A couple more dua’s later, I was grinning.
“Allah is all powerful,” I smiled to let them know I was okay. “InshaAllah kheir, this will pass.”
“Put your tawakul (trust) in Allah. Have faith. May Allah give you patience.”
My passport was handed back and the girls moved on, as if they hadn’t just accused me of carrying a bomb. It was a game to them.
When I reached the end of my lane, I was met with a conveyer belt that would check every item I had on me. As I heaved each bag onto the belt, I made dua’ that I would not be searched. I waited on the other end of the machine and saw that my family had moved. They kept moving along the rope so that I was always in their line of vision. When my bags came out, I put them onto the cart and the security personnel told me to get in line behind the white counters standing in the middle. I was going to be searched. I realized in that moment that every single person was getting their bags searched. No one escaped this step, even those who seemed to be good friends with the security personnel.
I was called up to the counters farthest away from where my family was standing. They quickly moved to a better spot. The counters formed a closed off rectangle. Behind the counter stood security personnel and computers like the one at the border check. A male security guard greeted me with a smile.
When I first entered Tel Aviv in August, I was full of energy for the trip ahead. In that moment, knowing what I was leaving behind, I had no more “charm” left.
My goal was to keep emotions off my face and get through the check as quickly as possible.
“Hi.” I greeted him.
“Hi. Okay we’re going to check your bags.”
He ripped open a new pack of white gloves. As he was putting them on, he was approached by a female security guard. She nodded at my bags and told him that she would bring someone to help him. He told her that he could handle it. He turned back to me.
“Have you been through this before?”
When I was twelve, we had left through Tel Aviv. I could remember the horror my mom and her sisters went through with baggage check, but I also knew the process had changed.
“Okay, so we both want to get through this quickly. I’m going to do this as fast as I can.”
“That sounds great.”
He instructed me to place my backpack onto the counter and open it.
Another male security guard approached us. He told the security checking me that he was sent over to help. He looked me up and down then glared. He then looked at my bags and snickered. The first guy told him that he had a handle on it. I was suddenly relieved with the guy that I got. The second guy decided to stand back and watch us. Clearly, with an airport full of bags needing to be searched, he had nothing better to do. I matched his icy glare then smiled slowly.
There’s a saying in Arabic that goes, “Il 5ouf bi2ate3 roukab.” Roughly translated it means, “Fear can cut up the knees.” There’s nothing worse than having fear in your heart of people and this materialistic world.
“Take everything out.” He instructed.
He meant “everything” in every literal sense of that word. Absolutely everything was taken out of my backpack – large items, paper, paper clips, pens, sticky notes, literally everything. The items were spread out into several bins. All coins and anything made of metal were put in separate areas so that they didn’t cover other items when they were run under the machine. He then turned my backpack upside down and shook it out. It too was put into its own bin. He went to work checking everything in the machine on the computer screen with another security guard. Anything they thought could possibly hold metal was held under the light. They used the metal detector wand on every item.
All of a sudden I saw the guy’s eyes widen. He calls over four more security guards. A female took the item out of his hand and held it above all their heads, into the light.
My eyes widened as well. I smiled. It was a bookmark my friend had given me at my first MFA residency. They were trying to read what was written on it, “Dreams are necessary to life. – Anaïs Nin”. The bookmark was no more than three inches long and two centimeters wide.
I scanned the area behind the rope and found that my three family members were waving to me. My aunt waved her cell phone and called me.
“What’s going on?”
“I have never seen fear in this form. And, people say our security back in the US is bad.”
“What are they doing?”
“They’re searching every little aspect of my backpack. My bookmark seems to terrify them, for some reason. They haven’t even gotten to my luggage yet.”
“Stay calm, patient, and we’re making dua’ for you.”
“We’ll stay in touch. InshaAllah kheir (If God wills goodness).”
The first guy came over to me with the bookmark in his hand.
“What is this?
“You know, that thing you put between a pages of a book to hold your place.”
“Oh!” He laughed then gave me a serious look. “But it’s very sharp.”
“Umm, are you serious?” I wasn’t sure if he was.
“Do you want it?”
“but, it’s not safe.”
“It’s a bookmark. And, it was a gift. Put it into my luggage.”
“Okay, if you really want it.”
“Yes, I want it.” Was every item going to be checked like this? I’d lose my mind.
He then pulled out a jar from one of the bins. One of my cousins had given me a last minute present that didn’t have space in my bags, so I placed it into my carry-on backpack. It was one of those small jars filled with sand art.
“This is sand.”
“Sand is like liquid.”
“Uh, no it isn’t.”
“Yes, sand is like water.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Well, it’s not allowed onto the plane.” I was starting to understand the game. It wasn’t supposed to make sense, just confuse or piss me off.
My aunt had warned me that they would question everything they could. I was incredibly careful in packing my bags and even left items behind. I refused to have anything taken from me.
“Well, I want it. I’ll put it into my luggage.”
Without returning my backpack items, he moved on to my luggage.
“Put it on the counter and open it.”
He proceeded to do the same thing as the border patrol. However, he had to keep rubbing the wand over the metal bulb as if he was recharging it. Instead of just wiping everything with it, he began to take out item by item and place it onto the table until the entire bag was empty. The counter was a mess of my, what once was perfectly packed, bag.
I still had two more bags they needed to search.
The second guy decided to step in. Without asking the first guy, he walked up, put on a fresh pair of gloves and commanded, “Open a bag.”
I held my patience with the first guy, but this guy had it coming.
All the tears I had cried earlier in the night drained me and left behind anger. This guy was acting like it was my fault they were taking forever to search me – as if I was having the time of my life in the hour that had passed.
“You should be more specific.” My anger rose.
He stepped back and waited for me to put my second bag onto the counter. He had chosen the smallest bag, but the one that was overflowing the most. I unzipped the bag and he quickly threw back the top, spilling everything onto the table. If it was even possible, this guy was even more thorough.
The first one turned his attention back to me.
“If it’s okay, I’m going to take your last bag and check it on my own over there.”
He pointed to the counter behind him. I wouldn’t be allowed to see everything happening to the bag.
“Sure. Whatever.” I didn’t exactly have a choice.
He took the largest bag. It was the least full out of the three and held only my clothing. No presents.
I flipped out internally when I realized he was going to leave me with the angry security guard. The second guard decided to go back to the first bag that was already checked. My backpack and items were finally given back to me. I started to put everything back in its place.
The guard pulled out a gift wrapped item.
“It’s a Quran with a wooden pedestal.”
He knocked on it.
“The Quran has a wooden cover.”
“It’s just a Quran.”
“You need to open it.”
I tore the wrapping half way, enough for him to check out what was inside.
“You need to take it out.”
“You can see inside.”
“You need to open it all the way.”
I pulled off the rest of the wrapping. He opened the Quran and began flipping through the pages.
“The only thing it can do is educate and guide you.”
I smiled, looking him straight in the eyes. He put down the Quran.
I wrapped the wood with what was left of the paper. I didn’t want the wood to rip though my clothing.
“You need to move it to this bag.”
He pointed to the overflowing bag with its items all over the table.
“Why because?” I knew why. The next step should be to weigh my bags. I had weighed them over and over at my uncle’s house.
“That’s not possible. There’s no space.”
He looked at me for a moment then picked up the present and stuffed it right back where he had pulled it out from.
In the next fifteen minutes that followed, both guys put my heaviest items in a pile. They would pick up each item and state, “Either I open it or I move it to another bag.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the bag that it’s in?”
“Nothing. We just have to move it.”
“We have to. Now, make your decision.”
My aunt called me again.
“Habibti, how far have they gotten?” I heard the concern in her voice.
“They’re moving my heaviest items around. Changing up my bags.”
“Oh no.” We both understood what this meant.
“I should have seen this coming. They’re changing the weight of my bags. I can already see two of them becoming overweight.”
I had spent two days repacking and weighing my bags. I found out at LAX how strict Turkish Airlines was with the weight of the bags. After twenty-three kilograms, I would have to pay eighty dollars. After thirty-two kilograms, the bag would not be allowed onto the plane. I was already planning to pay extra for the small third bag.
“You’re going to be okay. InshaAllah every single bag will be fine and they will arrive in America with you. Stay strong.”
“InshaAllah kheir.” I hung up.
The last item in my bags was pulled out. It was a tuber ware.
“What is in here?”
I grinned at him. “Sand.”
Before I left California, I asked my dad what he wanted from Palestine. In a serious tone, he asked for dua’ and sarcastically, he added that he wanted me to bring back Palestinian soil. He missed his land. The second time I visited the Dome of the Rock and Masjid AlAqsa in Jerusalem, I took a walk through the olive groves. I chose an olive tree and filled a bag with the soil and rocks surrounding it. When I got back to my uncle’s house and my cousins heard of what I had done, they were very amused.
“So, you’re going to walk into the airport with rocks? That sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Palestinian walks into an Israeli airport with a bag full of rocks.” I laughed, but explained how I would take the risk with the sand for my baba.
“Sand?” He was confused. This must have been a new one for security.
“Open the box.”
He took out the bag and examined it. I offered to untie the bag to put his mind at ease and quicken the process. He refused. He sent it under the metal detector machine. He then continued to squeeze the bag until small holes all over the bottom caused sand to escape. Luckily, it spilled into the tuber ware. He finally returned it.
“Put everything away.”
I jumped to work on the two bags in front of me. The largest bag was zipped up by the other guard and returned. While I worked on shoving everything back, the first guy returned and the second stepped back to watch me.
“I know you’re tired and this took a long time.”
I checked the time. Three hours to be exact.
“So, I’ve decided since this is your first time, we’re going to search you quickly so you don’t have to go through the rest of the security checks.”
I couldn’t imagine what he meant by the rest of the checks, but I knew exactly what was coming next. It was the only part of this whole process I had secretly feared. I wouldn’t let them see that.
I zipped up my bags and noticed my aunt waving at me. I could see her trying to ask what was next. I tugged at my shirt and jeans. I then waved my right hand over my body. Her hand shot up to her mouth. I knew she understood me.
I was going to be strip searched.
I looked up and slowed down my breathing.
“Sabrni ya rab (Give me patience, oh lord).”
It took fifteen minutes for them to find someone to search me. I stood making dua’ the entire time. Every five minutes, the first guy would come over and apologize for the delay and tell me it would only be a few more minutes.
A young girl in a different security personnel uniform finally showed up. She seemed nervous and spoke softly.
“Hi.” She greeted me.
“Uh, you can take anything you feel is valuable with you.”
“Like money or –”
“I don’t understand. Everything I have is valuable to me. Do I need anything specific?”
“No, just what’s important.”
I was genuinely confused. The guy walked over to me.
“Don’t worry. Your bags will be safe here. They’ll stay near me.”
He moved my bags to a pile and placed my backpack behind the counter.
“Thanks.” I turned back to the girl. “I’m just going to take my phone and passport.”
She walked away, turning back every few seconds to make sure I was following her.
I had always been very skilled at keeping emotions off my face. I asked Allah to help me keep it up wherever they were taking me. At that point, I only had Allah and the patience He gave me to put my mind at ease and allow me to think logically.
As I walked behind her to the locked door she was leading me to, I caught my aunt’s attention. I put my right hand up to my heart and smiled. I wanted to her to know I would be okay. I was less angry at the fact that I was about to be strip searched and more angry at being strip searched after all the security I had just passed.
She used a key to lead me into a large, grey carpeted room. On one side were conveyer belts with the x-ray metal detector machines and computers. One corner of the room was sectioned off with thin grey curtains. She pulled aside the curtains and motioned me inside.
I let the curtain slide through my hands and tugged at it. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t see-through. I walked behind the curtains and searched the ceiling. The corner had nothing but a small white counter and a stiff plastic chair.
“Is there absolutely any way anyone can see me here?” I asked.
“No, no. Don’t worry.”
Her answer didn’t ease my mind, but I tried to stay calm. I put my hands on my hips.
“Alright, if it’s possible, let’s do this quickly.” I waited for her instructions.
She was quiet.
“Look, we both don’t want to be here.” I said. I couldn’t understand what she was waiting for, but I questioned if maybe this was her first time conducting a search like this. She was so young.
“Um, okay, first I need you to take off your scarf.”
“Let’s begin with why I’m being searched. Do you have a reason?” I asked.
“I’m sorry. I have to.” She fidgeted.
“I’m not asking about your job. Why am I being searched?” Aside from trying to delay the inevitable, there was no reason to search me after all the security I went through.
“I’m sorry. I just have to.” She kept fidgeted
I was the one about to take off my clothing and I realized she was more uncomfortable than I was. I decided against arguing. I still had my entire flight ahead of me. I put my phone and passport onto the white counter and placed my hijab next to them.
“Your sweater and shirt.”
As I took those off, she excused herself to go put on white gloves and came back. Underneath my thin sweater and knee length, sleeveless shirt I was wearing a white long sleeved shirt so thin that you would have thought I was naked from the waist up.
“This isn’t coming off.” I pointed to my see-thru shirt.
She pointed to my chest. I had hidden a gold necklace under my shirt.
“It’s just gold. Like this.”
I showed her my gold bracelet and rings. She didn’t ask me to take off my wrist watch either.
She circled me twice, trying to decide where she should begin.
“Okay, I’m going to check you hair. Take it out.”
I took out my scrunchie and let my braid fall down my back. She took my scrunchie and added it to the pile of clothing.
“I’ll be back. This will take a few moments.”
She gathered up the pile, along with my phone and left. I snuck a peak through the curtain. Each item was put into a separate bin and slide under the machines. She came back after five minutes with only my phone.
“Take out your hair.”
“No. Not. Happening.” If you know me and know my hair type, taking it out of the braid was a disaster waiting to happen.
“You have to.”
“Listen, my hair is still soaking wet from my shower. I’m not taking it out.”
“You have to. How am I supposed to search it?”
“Uhh, normally. Just stick your fingers in.”
She began massaging my head.
“I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” She seemed genuinely uncomfortable. After a few moment, she began to giggle.
“This is too difficult! This is weird! I can’t.” Just like the girls who tried to claim I was hiding a bomb in my bag, this girl must have been too young for this position.
“Unless you plan on braiding my hair for me, it’s not coming out.”
“I can’t. You have to.” She stepped back to wait for me.
“Wow. Here, like this.” My patience was on thin ice. I started poking my fingers into my braid. “See. Easy.” A part of me was trying to be nice to the this girl attempting to strip search me, and I had no idea why.
She poked her fingers through.
I stepped back into the middle and she circled me again.
“Um, hold on.”
She left and came back with my clothing and a hand held metal detector.
“Raise your arms up. I know this uncomfortable. I’m really sorry.”
She started with my bra. She dug her fingers under the lining and snapped them.
She snapped the back strap.
She snapped the shoulder straps.
I kept my eyes on hers.
“If you’re so sorry, then don’t search me.”
“I’m sorry. I have to do this.”
She moved on to my pants.
She grabbed the belt area and searched every inch of it, all the way around, twice. Then she retrieved the hand held metal detector and stuck it inside the top of my pants and slid it around. She patted down my legs, pulled up the hem and searched underneath, slide the metal detector over my legs and then across my butt. During this time, my phone rang twice but I didn’t try to answer it.
“You can answer in a bit.”
She stood directly in front of me and waved the metal detector across the front of my pants.
It didn’t ring.
She waved it over her metal badge and then over my pants again.
It didn’t ring.
Frustrated, she waved it over her metal badge again and then over my pants a third time.
“Okay, you need to take off your pants.”
“No.” I stepped away from her.
“But you have to.”
“My zipper rang.”
“Yes, it rang.”
“Of course it did.”
“You have to take off your pants.”
I grasped at any reason I could. “Look, in my religion, unless you’re my husband, I won’t uncover anything from my navel to my knee. Is that clear?”
“But, we’re girls.”
“I can see that, but we don’t have that kind of relationship.”
“Yea, well, I’ll bring in my supervisor.”
“Great. I’ll wait. I’m going to put my clothes back on now.”
She moved over to stop me but decided against it. She stuck her head out the curtain and called to someone in Hebrew.
“My supervisor is coming.”
I took my time slowly putting on my shirt, my sweater, and then finally fixed on my hijab trying to making sure I didn’t have any hair peeking through. I remembered my cousin telling me how another cousin of hers was forced to take off her pants. Security gave her pants to wear while they checked hers. I needed to figure out something because my pants weren’t coming off. I sat down and began making dua’. The girl stood to my side watching me.
My phone rang.
“You can’t answer.”
I guess I had triggered her breaking point.
My phone beeped. She got closer to the phone to stop me from checking it.
It beeped again.
I jumped up and grabbed it.
“I don’t know if you understand this, but my family is worried.”
I called back my aunt.
“Asalaamu Alaikum. Are you okay? What are they doing? You’ve been in there for an hour and 10 minutes already.”
“AlhamduliAllah, I’m okay. InshaAllah I’ll be out soon. They’re just trying to get on my last nerve.”
“You’re not the only one. So far, they have taken every woman wearing hijab to be searched too.”
“Aww, so I’m not special, huh?” I tried to joke, but my aunt and cousins were too worried.
“May Allah swt protect you habibti.”
“Ameen. You know, fear can tear a person apart.” I tried to put her mind at ease. “I only fear Allah swt.”
The girl tried to grab my phone. “That’s enough. You’re taking long.” She couldn’t have been too happy that my conversation was in Arabic.
“I need to go.” I told my aunt. “Keep me in your dua’ and inshaAllah I will be out soon. Asalaamu Alaikum.”
“Allah is with you.”
I hung up and put the phone down.
The girl fidgeted.
“She’s on her way.” Her supervisor.
“So, what do you do.”
I sighed. She was going to try to have a civil conversation with me. Once again, I didn’t feel like making friends. I tried to see things her way. She seemed like she could be a nice person… When she wasn’t in the business of dehumanizing people. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get myself to show or feel any emotion. It was better that way.
“What do you do?” She asked again.
“I’m a student.”
“Wow, you’re so young though.”
“Sure.” I looked at my passport. She had checked it. She knew how old I was.
“What do you study?”
“No, stories. Young adult. Children.”
“That’s interesting. So weird.”
“Well, because you write.”
“You know. Girls like us. Girls from our religions. Our background. It’s not common, right?”
I understood what she meant.
“Not necessarily. Anyways, that shouldn’t stop us. If you wanted, you could do anything. Be anything.”
A voice called out in Hebrew from behind the curtain. She stuck her head out and answered. Two women in pants suits walked in. The girl looked to the one holding a phone and walkie-talkie. She said something to her in Hebrew. The woman straightened her back and stood directly in front of me. I immediately spotted the guns.
I had become accustomed to heavily armed soldiers with military weapons and some even pointed in my direction at checkpoints throughout my trip. And, I knew that Jewish settlers carried military weapons or rifles too. But, I was never alone with any, in a secluded room, like this.
“You have two choices!” She yelled, her voice vibrating off the walls of the small room. “You pull your pants down past your knees or take off your pants and we give you another pair. We’ll take your pants to be searched. This will take a lot of time.”
I stood up, straightened my back, and placed my hands on my hips.
“I don’t want your pants. I’m not taking off my pants. Here’s what I’m going to do. I will unzip and you can search for what you think I’m hiding in my pants. But I wont pull up my shirt. It stays at my knees. You will not see my skin.”
All three ladies stepped back and looked at each other. The head supervisor looked surprised at my forceful response. I wondered how many girls, how many women broke at this point. I had never been strip searched completely in the US, but I couldn’t imagine it being like this.
The moment I unzipped my pants, they started to slide off. These pants were tight when I came into Palestine. I didn’t expect to have lost enough weight for them to slide so easily. All three women rushed forward. I wasn’t allowed to lower my arms or even touch my clothing. I opened my legs wide enough to stop the pants. The head supervisor grabbed the metal detector from the girl and slid it over my stomach. She tried to stick it in between my thighs but it wouldn’t go through. I let my pants slide a bit father, enough for them to let the metal detector through. I wasn’t going to give them a reason to make me take off my pants or pull up my shirt. She waved the metal detector, but nothing rang.
“I told you there was nothing in there.”
She glared at me and then stood up. She turned to the girl and spoke to her in Hebrew. Both supervisors left. I pulled up my pants, put on my belt, and fixed myself.
“Okay, see you’re all finished.” The girl said.
“Yea, that only took us two hours.” My entire body was buzzing with anger and exhaustion.
She used her key to exit the room and led me back to my bags. “Okay, now you don’t have to worry about any more searches.”
“What more could there be?” I couldn’t even look at her.
I put my backpack on. She retrieved a luggage cart and helped me put two on. She grabbed the third one and began walking.
“Woah, hey, what are you doing?” I rushed after her.
“You take those and I will take this.” She started walking again.
“Why?” I called after her.
“To check in your bags.”
“I’ll take care of it.” I didn’t trust her.
“Seriously. Thank you, but I got it.” I tried to take the cart from her.
“I can’t.” She walked over to the Turkish Airlines baggage check. I groaned and followed her.
I spotted my aunt again. The rope barrier was close to the check in counters. My cousin and aunt both called out to me.
“What’s going on now?”
“Why is she still with you?”
“Are you finished?”
I yelled back. “I have no idea. She says she’s saving me from more searches. She said she has to help me check in.”
The girl led me to an empty line where the second guy who searched my bags was waiting. He pointed to my bag and spoke to her in Hebrew. She turned to me.
“Are you afraid that they are overweight?”
“No.” I was terrified that they were going to be overweight. I looked over to my family.
“They’re going to weight my bags and this idiot is telling her that they’re overweight. Make dua’!” I explained to my family.
“No, inshaAllah you will be fine. Just stay calm. You’re almost finished.” I could see the worry on all three of their faces.
It was time to check in. The woman behind the counter and I greeted each other.
“Okay, please place your first bag.”
The girl helped me pick up the middle sized one. It was very overweight. As the woman was checking my flight information, I slide the bag off. The girl looked confused. I looked over at my family. The look on my face said it all. The four of us started to make dua’.
“Okay, put your bags on.” She instructed again.
One by one, I put the bags back on the conveyer belt. I don’t know how it happened, but each bag came up as much less than the cutoff weight before I had to pay. I tried to keep the shock off my face and sent smiles to my family.
I took my boarding passes and turned to the girl. “Is that it?”
“Now we go inside.”
It was time to say goodbye to my family. I started to shake, knowing more tears were coming, as I walked over.
“Are you finished?” My aunt asked.
“She’s going to walk me to the gate.”
“They’ve given you so much trouble.” Tears garzed her eyes.
“No, for Palestine and my loved ones, it’s all worth it.”
“Habibti, take care of yourself and call during your trip. Your father kept calling and we told him you were okay. Your parents have been worried sick.”
“Jazakum Allah kheir (may Allah grant you goodness) for everything. You have done so much –”
I started to cry and so did my family.
“No! Don’t say that. I told you that you are like my daughter. We would never have left without making sure you were safe.”
I hugged my aunt and cousin’s wife and thanked the three of them.
“InshaAllah, Allah swt will bring us together in Palestine once again and soon.” I forced myself to step away.
“InshaAllah! Please take care of yourself!”
I hugged my aunt one last time.
“Asalaamu Alaikum.” My last words to them.
“Allah is with you.”
The three of them waved. I walked through the hall with the girl and at the last spot I knew they would be able to see me, I turned around and blew them a kiss. They waved and my aunt blew one back.
“Is she your mom?”
“No, my aunt and cousins.”
“Of course. I’m leaving the people I love.”
“Will you try to come back again and will you choose Tel Aviv?”
I stopped abruptly and faced her. I smiled slowly. It was always the same question.
“I WILL be back. You will see me here again. Palestine is my parents’ homeland. I will be coming back, God-willing.”
I couldn’t tell if she was surprised by my answer. My attention was thrown off by the room we had just entered. My jaw dropped as I followed her in. The room held two more security checks for carry-on luggage, metal detectors to walk through, and passport check. This is what they meant by more security checks. My head was spinning.
She motioned for me to walk in front of her. Every time we reached a security check, she would say something in Hebrew to the guard, slide her badge through a slot and signal me through. We finally arrived at the airport mall. She meant it when she said no more checks.
“Okay, your gate is going to be that way. You still have a lot of time left. Have a safe trip.”
Exhaustion suddenly settled in and I realized I was dying of thirst. I took a walk around the entire mall and realized I didn’t want to deal with anyone behind the counters. I tried every single vending machine I walked past. Every single one was out of water. I found my gate and found a water fountain. Ice cold water. I took three gulps at a time. I could swear that I must have swallowed a gallon of water.
I took a seat facing the glass window, where our plane was parked. I was one of the first passengers there. Half an hour later, others began to show up.
Around another half hour, a women wearing hijab approached me and spoke to me in Arabic.
“Asalaamu Alaikum.” I greeted her.
“WaAlaikum Asalaam. How long have you been sitting here?”
“A while now.” I smiled.
“They gave me so much trouble with my bags! And the search!” She looked very tired.
“Haha, yea, you don’t have to tell me.”
“There was a young man who helped me out there, but I don’t know where he went. He’s on this flight.”
“I’m sure he’ll show up. Hey, were you searched?” I asked her.
“The baggage security was worse. Where are you from?”
“Jerusalem.” I smiled at the memory of my first visit.
“Yes. I’m going back home to the states. What about you.”
“I’m from Ramallah, but I’m also going back home. Brazil.”
“Wow, mashaAllah.” Her answer both excited me and took me by surprise.
“They gave me trouble because I don’t speak good English and I can’t understand Hebrew.”
“Kheir, inshaAllah. AlhamduliAllah, now you’re on your way home.”
“Oh, there he is. I’m going to leave my stuff here.” She motioned to her bags.
“Sure, no problem.”
A few moments later, another woman wearing hijab approached me and also spoke to me in Arabic. She had a different accent. I could tell she wasn’t Palestinian.
“Asalaamu Alaikum my dear.” She greeted me.
“Is the seat next to you taken?”
The other woman had taken a seat next to the young man. She was explaining to him the trouble they caused her during the searching process.
“Take a seat, khaltu (auntie). Rest.”
“Long night?” I could see she wanted someone to talk to.
“The usual. I should call my husband now. You know, every time I travel, I find the need to shop while I’m at the airport. There are just too many hours to sit and do nothing!”
She fixed a pile of bags on the floor in front of her.
“Are you traveling far?” I asked.
“Ah, I see. I was going to guess from the accent, but wasn’t sure.”
“You traveling alone?” She looked around me.
“Back to the states.”
“May Allah make your travels easy and take you back to your family in safety.”
“Ameen. You as well khaltu.”
“InshaAllah they didn’t cause you too much trouble out there.”
“Just baggage check and strip search.”
“Yea, this is my fourteenth time through Tel Aviv and I get strip searched every time. Before I began wearing the hijab, it was much easier. Now, it’s the whole package.”
I looked at what she was wearing. Everything she had on was made of cloth. No metal. She had on a grey hijab, simple black abaya (long dress), and simple black dress pants underneath.
“You had to take everything off?”
“SubhanaAllah. I refused to remove my pants.”
“MashaAllah! Good for you! Honestly, the first time, I was angry and then I realized you walk away and it’s all over. They want you to be angry. They want you to choose to never come back through here. I put my trust in Allah. Listen, take it from me. Take things easy. Continue to come back every chance you get. Come back through Tel Aviv. Who cares about the search. It will all end faster than you think.”
“To get into Palestine, khaltu. To see my family and the people I love. It’s worth it.”
“May Allah swt protect you.”
“Ameen. And may Allah swt give you a safe trip.”
It was time to board the plane. I tried calling my dad and he tried calling me back, but the call kept cutting off. I asked the auntie to watch my stuff as I prayed Fajr. I silently made dua‘ for her. She had truly given my heart a calm feeling and strength for the rest of my journey. The first woman came back to retrieve her things. I helped the Moroccan auntie carry her things past passport check and onto the plane. She thanked me and we parted ways. I called my aunt and told her to tell my dad that I was safe and would call him from Istanbul.
After the plane departed, I watched the sun rise over Jaffa and Haifa. I wasn’t able to travel to these cities during my trip because of all the economic and transportation problems that erupted while I was in Palestine. Haifa was the last city I saw before the plane headed into the clouds. I felt my muscles release stress as my chest tightened. I welcomed the tears that came. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Palestine. I wanted to believe that I would be back one day, but only Allah swt knew when or if I would once again.
I made dua’ and thanked Allah swt for giving me the blessing and opportunity to take this trip.
Two hours and thirty minutes later, I was in Istanbul, Turkey, walking through the hall that led to passport checks and airport security that all transit passengers were required to go through. Anyone with a United States Passport and heading back to the United States was asked to go through three passport checks and asked to answer a set of questions before they were allowed to go through airport security and finally where the mall, food court, and gates were. During this time, I could tell that a lot of the American passengers were angry.
I overheard an older couple complaining as they stood behind me in line.
“This is ridiculous!” The woman told her husband.
“I know. All these security checks just to get back to our country.” He rubbed her back.
“We’re Americans and going back to America. This is just unbelievable.”
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. Clearly, they weren’t used to tough airport security. I turned around to face them.
“The United States just loves us. This is how it shows affection.”
Part of me wanted it to come out sarcastically, but the other part of me didn’t. I could understand being asked questions and getting my bags checked at airport security or before I entered a plane. One or two passport checks seemed reasonable. But the amount of times my passport was checked at the airport, you would think I was carrying around magic that enabled me to change my identity and passport.
“I just think this is all too much! All these passport checks aren’t going to change anything.” They both spoke up.
“It’s okay. We’re almost home.” I smiled at them.
I looked down at my own passport. The back cover was full of stickers, each one representing a security check and search. Inside, I had two stamps – the one that allowed me to enter through Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and one that allowed me to exit. I even had security check stamps on my boarding pass stubs. Everything was marked up.
My transit this time was five hours. I called my parents to let them know I was in Istanbul and promised I would call before I got onto the next plane. I spent three hours drinking coffee, eating chocolate, munching on a handful of watermelon seeds, people watching, and walking aimlessly around the airport mall. An hour before I was supposed to board, I checked the departures screen and saw that the passengers for my flight were being called to the gate area. I thought it was too early, but I went in search of my gate. I followed the signs which led to an escalator. I took it down and was met with a long line of people and ropes that barred me from entering the waiting area. A security guard tried to speak to me in Turkish and I quickly found that he didn’t speak English. A woman in line stopped him and turned to me.
“Sweetie, he’s telling you that you must get in line. You aren’t allowed to leave now that you’re in this area.”
“Oh, thank you. Can you just tell him I’m going to go make a quick phone call and I’ll be back? Thank you!”
I smiled at both of them and took the escalator up to find a phone. I notified my dad that the next time I would speak to him was from Los Angeles. I went back down and joined the line.
I felt like I was standing in a line for a ride at Disneyland. Behind me, people lined up all the way up the escalator and in front of me the line was maze-like. At the end stood two podiums with security personnel. Five feet behind them were two more podiums with security personnel. Five more feet behind them were six more security personnel. I wondered what the American couple thought about this. The most elaborate passport check.
A good fifteen minutes later, I made it to the podium.
“Hi.” I was greeted.
I handed over my passport.
“Ma’am, where are you traveling from?”
“Where is your destination?”
“When was the last time you saw your bags?”
“In Tel Aviv.”
“Where will you see your bags again?”
“Who packed them?”
“Has anyone given you anything since then?”
“Alright ma’am, here you go.”
I got in line for the second podium. I handed over my passport.
“Hi.” I greeted them.
“Where are you traveling from?”
“Where is your destination?”
“When was the last time you saw your bags?”
“In Tel Aviv.”
“Who packed them?”
“Has anyone given you anything since then?”
He handed back my passport and I stood in line for the group of security guards. I handed my passport to one of the females. She checked it and waved me into the waiting area. After an hour, we began to board. Our passports were checked again at the door.
Fourteen hour flight.
The moment I found my window seat and sat down, I felt my back crumble. I was in so much pain. I was blessed to have been seated in an aisle with two respectful passengers – next to me sat a man who was coming home from Iran and in the aisle seat sat a young woman returning from India.
I spent the fourteen hours in dua’, writing in my journal, and watching random movies. My body was aching, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Every time I dozed off, I would begin to dream about Palestine before I was jolted awake again. During the ride, we were given a double-sided paper for homeland security. We need to fill out our information, passport number, where we traveled, our reason for traveling, how much money we spent there, what we spent money on, and if we were carrying any food. We were required to sign the bottom.
October 3rd, 2012 at 4:30 PM.
The moment the plane landed in LAX, I couldn’t stop grinning. I turned on my phone and returned it to the correct settings before my trip. The uncle next to me asked to use it to call his daughter. I let him use it first. I couldn’t wait until the plane parked.
I called my dad.
“Asalaamu Alaikum!” His voice rang with excitement.
“Asalaamu Alaikum, baba!
“AlhamduliAllah 3ala il salaamey!”
The passengers around me laughed.
“I’m still in the plane, but I wanted to put your mind at ease. Don’t stay standing. I still have passport check and I need to wait for my bags.”
“Don’t worry about me. Listen, your mom keeps calling to check if you have arrived.”
“Okay, I’ll call her now.”
I called my mom.
“Asalaamu Alaikum, mama!
“AlhamduliAllah 3ala il salaamey!”
“Are you in line for passport check?”
“Not yet. I’m still in the plane.”
“Did you call baba?
“Yea, I already did.”
“Your grandmother just called.”
“Okay, I’ll call her now.”
I called my grandmother.
“Asalaamu Alaikum?” She answered.
“Asalaamu Alaikum, sitti!”
“Haneen! You’re home! I just called your mom! AlhamduliAllah 3ala il salaamey!”
“Allah yisalmek, sitti. I’m actually still on the plane, but I wanted to let you know I arrived safely.”
“Alhamduliallah! AlhamduliAllah! Okay, go and call me after.”
I rushed out of the plane and started power walking. I entered into a large room. It was divided into two sections – one side for foreign passports and one for United States citizens. The maze-like lines led to high counters where our passports would be checked before heading over to find our bags. All around us were signs welcoming us to the United States. Signs on the actual counters caught my attention. They were a set of pledges – to welcome us into the country, to greet us with smiles, to treat us with respect, and so on. They made me smile.
It was good to be home.
The line was taking long to move. I set my backpack down and used my foot to slide it forward. I suddenly felt a stinging sensation on my shoulders. I peeked at my bare shoulder under my shirt. My bra straps had cut into my shoulders and I was bleeding. I had no idea how I hadn’t felt the pain earlier. It was finally my turn. I picked up the backpack and approached the woman behind one of the counters.
“Hi!” I greeted them with excitement.
No response. I handed over my passport and form for homeland security.
She began to enter information onto the computer.
“Where are you traveling from?”
“How long was your trip?”
“What was the purpose of your trip?”
“To visit family.”
“When was the last time you saw your bags?”
“In Tel Aviv.”
“Do they contain food?”
“No, they don’t.”
She stamped the form and handed it back to me with my passport. I looked her in the eye.
“Have a good evening, ma’am.” She didn’t answer.
I went in search of my bags.
It took a while for mine to finally come out. When they did, I quickly discovered that I had absolutely no strength to carry them. Luckily, a young man standing behind me noticed. He helped me carry all my bags off the revolving belt and organized them onto the luggage cart. I began rolling them to what I assumed was the hallway between my dad and I. I was stopped by security.
“Are you carrying any food ma’am?”
She pointed to my backpack.
“Any type of seeds?”
“Are you carrying any type of seeds in your carry-on?”
They knew us Arabs too well. I considered lying, but clearly my brain was very tired because my mouth beat me.
“Okay, just step into that line.”
She pointed to a line of people in front of baggage check. And, I sighed.
I stood in line behind a family. They were greeted by the security guard.
“Welcome! Welcome to America folks! Please just put your bags onto the belt. Just a quick x-ray.”
He turned to me.
“Where’s the food?” His voice was suddenly angrier than before.
“Just seeds in my backpack.”
He pointed to the conveyer belt.”
“All of them?” I asked.
“LET’S GO! Put your bags on!” He yelled, grabbing the attention of everyone around us.
Something inside me snapped. Home sweet home. I had rights again in the US. I least I should.
“WOAH! CALM DOWN!” I snapped. “Dang! A moment ago you were all cheerful!” I pointed to the white family in front of me who he greeted so kindly.
He jumped back and signaled to another, older security guard. I could quickly tell he had called over a Middle Eastern man. I groaned. The man came over and spoke to me in Arabic.
“Are you carrying bizir (seeds)?”
I responded in English.
“Okay 3amo (uncle), first of all, I speak English. Second, yes, I’m carrying watermelon seeds. Third, are you seriously going to make me carry all my bags onto the belt?”
The first guy looked over the uncle’s shoulder.
“La hawla wa quawata illa biAllah! BismiAllah Al Rahman Al Raheem (There is no power or strength except with Allah! In the name of God the most gracious the most compassionate).”
The line behind me instantly went quiet. If thewy hadn’t been paying attention to what was happening, they were now.
I put in my backpack first. Every bag I carried shot pain through my back. My arms were incredibly sore. I walked over to the other side to retrieve them. The uncle followed me from behind the counter.
“Wait, where are the seeds?”
“You have GOT to be kidding me! I told you there’s nothing in the rest!”
“Allahu Akbar.” I muttered under my breath, asking God to ease my pain.
The guy behind me watched as I struggled to pick up my bags again. Somehow, I managed.
The uncle opened my backpack and pulled out the small Ziplock bag of watermelon seeds.
“This is it?”
“All of it.”
“Where are you traveling from?”
“Where’s your passport?”
I handed it to him. He called over a female security guard and showed her the bag. They whispered something to each other. They walked over to the computer and searched for my information. The woman took the bag and turned to me.
“Hmm, see the thing is, there’s no way Israel would have allowed this through. Half of it, maybe. Not all of it.” She smirkled.
I laughed out loud. “Ma’am, Israel wasn’t the first country to let me pass. Ours did. This bag, minus a handful, left the U.S. with me and came back.”
“Well, we have no proof of this.”
“You’re absolutely right. Go ahead and take the bag. They’re just seeds.”
She handed the bag to the uncle and left. He picked up my form.
“You marked that you have no food with you.”
In America, there was no American charm. Each of us thrived from our individual charm.
I turned on my Arab charm, hoping to ease the situation. I smiled warmly at the uncle and used the best soothing tone I could manage during that moment.
“3amo, uncle, I misunderstood the form. This is my first time travelling alone. I thought it referred to my luggage and not my carry-on because it passed all security checks. It was a mistake that I will not repeat. Please, just take the seeds. Enjoy them. Do whatever you want with them. Just let me go home.”
“Take the seeds and let me go.” I pleaded.
“Take the seeds and let me go.” Now, I insisted.
“Take them. Let me go.”
“You need –”
“Please! Take the seeds and let me go.”
“Okay! Look, next time, this is what you need to do. This question right here –”
“3amo, with all due respect, I can read English. Promise.”
“Mark that you have food.”
“Yes sir. I have learned my lesson for next time. I won’t repeat this mistake again.”
He signed my form and handed it back.
“Welcome home.” The irony.
“Ah! Thank you! Have a wonderful evening!”
I walked over to the last security check and handed over my form. I shoved my luggage cart up through the hallway. The moment I saw my dad’s smile, I grinned. In that moment, it was if Allah had served me with a heavy dose of energy. I push the cart with one hand and waved with the other until I got to the top.
“AlhamduliAllah 3ala il salaamey!”
“Allah yisalmek, baba!”
I was embraced with the best hug I had gotten in the last thirty-nine days. My dad handed me a bouquet of red roses.
“Aww! Shoukran (thank you)!”
“You took long.”
“They took my bizir.” I huffed.
My dad started laughing.
“Hey! I managed to bring everything back with me. In the last twenty minutes, I lost my bizir and the rest of my patience.”
He laughed even harder as he took the luggage cart from me. I started laughing too.
“Forget the bizir. Your mom and siblings are on edge waiting for you at home. Let’s go home.”
“Yes! Let’s go home.”
If you actually just read my entire story, YOU. ARE. AWESOME!
This took me three full days and a lot of listening to dabke to write. I almost lost all of my sanity through the process. It was definitely the most therapeutic thing I have ever written. Writing can do that to you. It opens up a whole new world to expressing emotions.
While going through all those levels of interrogation and airport security, I wasn’t as angry as I was exhausted and frustrated. I wasn’t nervous either. Writing my experience out during these past three days was absolutely emotionally draining. My emotions were all over the place. At one point, while I was seated at my public library, writing about the strip search, anger fueled inside of me causing my hands to shake and my heart to skip rapidly.
I was surprised at myself.
When you’re going through a difficult obstacle, you’re forced to take it one second at a time. The strain of those moments don’t fully register until it’s all over and you’re looking back at your actions and how you handled them. At least that’s what happened to me.
I still can’t believe that I was able to remember the details and dialogue so vividly. What I could not remember, I left out.
The first night I slept in my bed, I dreamt of Palestine. When I woke up the next morning, I had a panic attack. I couldn’t recognize my surroundings. I thought that I was still in Palestine, dreaming about being home. The house was empty. Everyone was either at school or work. It took me a few minutes to gather myself and realize that I was actually home. I instantly wondered if I had dreamt the entire trip to Palestine…
Looking back, I will be very honest – I am very proud of myself. I feel like a child for feeling this way, but this was the first time that I had ever taken a trip like this.
Would I do it again?
I want my next challenging and life changing trip to be Ummrah and Hajj inshaAllah!
InshAllah, the next time I post will be about my breathtaking experience within Palestine – complete with pictures and possibly videos!
For now, I have three months of work to complete within the next six weeks before my term ends. I have one more term and two more residencies before I graduate from my MFA program! Keep me in your dua’ please!
With salaam and until return,