My first visa run to Jordan was a trip into the unknown. No one in my family has been to Jordan. Since my family lost their Palestinian IDs, we always came here as tourists to our own homeland. But now that I was living here, it became very difficult to maintain "legal" residency. One way people try to extend their visas is by doing a "visa run" to Jordan, leaving Palestine and reentering on a new visa. Here is how my first experience went, originally written and published in March 2010.
march 15 2010
I put on an extra layer of clothes so my bag would remain light after a quick shower, made sure my passport was with me, and headed down to the taxi who sat honking impatiently outside. My mom handed me a sandwich and 5 tiny snicker bars; the last time she packed me a lunch I was in grade school. My sisters just got home, and they watched the whirlwind I tried to ignore. Would I see them again?
It is very tricky residing here for an extended period. Many of my coworkers told me their tales of crossing the border into Jordan when their visa was to expire. And some sadly never got to come back. My mom's overcompensating smiles told me she was upset. I dragged my duffle onto the platform of stairs and stared at the doorway of my father's home. I tried not to cry but, as much as I hated the fact of leaving Los Angeles and coming to live in Ramallah, I realized how much this place grew on me. That my family was here, a possible future. Dreams.
I shook off the tears and saw my mom descend to the taxi driver waiting at the bottom of the stairs. I did not know she was crying until she turned to me and hugged me, saying to be careful and to take care of myself. She begged the driver to make sure once I reached the crossing that I would ride with a safe taxi driver.
I hugged my sisters, told my mother that I would be back. And I left. The driver listened to his nationalist songs as I looked on at the homeland I desperately advocated for throughout my college years. How easily it can be taken away from you. The traffic at the checkpoint was overwhelming, and the driver told me to be patient as he took us through a shortcut--through the depths of the Qalandia refugee camp. We dipped into potholes, saw children play in trash. I saw a red flower growing from rubble, contrasting vibrantly against the grey bleakness of this world. Something beautiful could come out of displacement.
We weaved out of the refugee camp and onto the highway that took us towards the Dead Sea. How suitable it is to travel towards the oven of Jericho, the salty reality of depleting life. Signs faded as our speed grew. I saw the third world greenhouses and attempt at cultivating fade behind me as I reached the Alenby border crossing. My taxi driver did as my mother told him, and made sure I got in with someone dependable. The car I got into was filled with flies. The two men exchanged a few words, and my taxi driver waved goodbye and wished me luck. The man in this Israeli plated car looked sticky with perspiration. His dark skin and aged wrinkles shone with content. Today my need would get him dinner. I put on my seatbelt as he edged towards the Israeli soldiers at the gate. It was extremely hot, and they stood there like dots in the wide landscape of the border. I handed them my passport from the window once my new driver had inched towards their guns and fatigues, and braked for my attempt.
They asked if I had a Jordanian visa. I knew this was a prerequisite for this crossing, but my haste prevented me from acquiring one. How dumb it is to think luck exists in this land, but that is what my people do. We try. One soldier spoke English, and he told me he would see if he could get me a visa of some sort on the other side. The Hebrew poured from his walkie talkie, and I appreciated that he tried. Maybe it was because we both had American accents, that he thought perhaps I had nothing to do with being Palestinian. He told me to head two hours north to Tiberias. He and the other soldiers resumed their interrogating with others; I was an other.
Of course, my driver capitalized on the situation. I had no idea what to do, if I should return home or try my luck and go on this adventure to the north. A girl in this region alone, stuck with an American passport equated with money, was a gold business opportunity. So he offered to drive me to the center of Jericho for what I paid to get to the border from Ramallah. I scoffed at his absurd offer. Was I really that foreign that I could be played for a fool? I sat in his car for a good hour debating and rejecting his offers. Soon other drivers got involved, one auctioning me off to Tunisian diplomats who had just crossed the border. How dare he offer such a thing when I know he would disallow such danger for his own daughter. They kept insisting I was "their daughter," but their prices really told me I was American.
Finally I decided to try my luck and head two hours north. My cousin would meet me there on the Jordanian border.
I saw the stark difference in Jericho agriculture to Israeli--amounts of land, resources, organization, economy blew me away. And just beyond the paved, melting road were dunes of dirt. Dirt that looked as if a pool of water had died there and left the carved piles of dirt as monuments to its existence. Life had always been here, but you had to be strong and powerful to survive. Orchards of date trees filled the horizon as we drove along the border in Israeli territory. I could see Jordan alive and breathing. As we grew closer to Tiberias we road along ancient mountains filled with caves. Because this land is so old I could only imagine what sort of people had hid in those caves, had picnics in them, daydreamed the way I did about them.
We weaved along the edge. How stupid this was. I had to drive over a 100 km to the north just to cross, and drive south again on the other side of the border. I did not see a thick black line running across the desert. I did not see dates of Jordanian nationalism, or Israeli foundations there in the dirt. I saw earth.
It grew dark, we were getting closer to Israeli suburbs. We reached a checkpoint and I dragged my belongings out of the car. The driver stepped out wearing his taxi license around his neck. He spoke broken Hebrew. They ran my belongings through an X-Ray machine, opened up my duffle bag, and cut into my life. They ran mirrors under the car to make sure nothing suspicious was attached to its mechanics. They examined my paperwork. Because that is who I am.
The finally let passport ID number 6D------ go.
We pressed towards Tiberias and I found myself in what looked like a very quiet Israeli community. I handed my driver the money I owed him--and when I gave him some dollar bills he grew infuriated with me. He claimed I had cheated him, that he had done me the greatest of favors. That good people can never expect a thank you from the selfish. But I knew the dollar signs made him believe he could have gotten more than what I offered. Typically composed, I told him, "What do you expect of me?" If he had the intention of ripping me off, had already set up in his mind that I was American, then I fulfilled his expectations. I slammed the door, grabbed my stuff from the trunk, and asked people where to go to finally cross. Natural instinct was just to walk towards Jordan, but of course, civilization needed its buildings and fences and guns to make sure you walked the right way.
My unknown cousin was waiting on the other side. My mom mediated and called so that she could update him. I hope I would make it and not waste his time. He had drove all the way from Al Akaba, where he works, just to get me. That drive could have taken him to Syria.
I entered the Israeli building. It was empty. The Israeli's did not make a squeak as I exited. I paid 100 shekels to get an exit stamp and continued towards a bus that would transport me to the Jordanian side. I was scared and confused. I had no idea how the border worked. And I knew my appearance screamed innocence. Mostly young men sat on the benches watching me, and I grew uncomfortable.
I talked to my mom fervently asking what I should do. I had to ask for directions, to make sure I would not get ripped off by the bus driver or border control. To make sure the taxi at the end would drop me off at the right stop. Above all I wanted to be sure I met my cousin at the right place. I approached a young man, Waseem, a Palestinian who lived in 1948 territory who studied pharmacy in Canada. He spoke to my mother on the phone and assured her he would help me out. I grew weary of my plight, my dependency, but made sure to maintain proper composure.
When the bus came we got on and officially exited Israel. I could tell this was Jordan just from the bus. I do not know if it was the stone, the architecture, the lack of seriousness. But I was finally in Jordan. I got off the bus, converted some money into dinars, and paid for a Jordanian stamp. Waseem made sure they did not take anything extra from me. I thanked him as we left and walked towards the taxis.
Two women dressed in revealing clothes paraded around the taxis. They looked horrific. I had heard about a lot of the things people in the West Bank fear of when they go to Jordan--robbery, chicanery, whores, hypocrisy, drugs. But the people were normal. It was like any other place. I paid one dinar to take a taxi and exit the crossing. I could not breathe until I was with my cousin, and finally I saw him after three hours at the border. It is amazing meeting family. Because you feel it right at that first encounter, and although I never got to meet his mom, he had the traits of my aunts.
I was dizzy with fatigue but ecstatically climbed into his van. We talked like we knew each other before. We weaved through mountains and I could see all of the border, gleaming and flickering with insecure life. I had been to that other side, and my cousin told me how he lost that right as laws changed and he found himself more Jordanian than Palestinian. The only line I saw between where we drove and where we came from was those same things that made life unpleasant--things that however oppressive or absurd, served as some obscure blessing. Something that reminded me to embrace all that I had.
march 21 2010
I spent a long night with my cousins, joking about how my blood had
become Nescafe from all the nights we stayed up joking about those
inconsistencies in culture and society. It was 4am. I smashed my clothes
into my duffel bag. Made sure my passport and wallet were in my
backpack, and fell asleep on the thin mattress they made on the floor
for me. The dark quickly consumed me, and I submitted myself to what
would become tomorrow.
I awoke and saw the children shyly peeking through the crack of the door. They knew I was leaving and awkwardly tugged at me, saying we had more games to play. This city had grown on me. Staying in Al Zarqa refugee camp in a building where everyone was related, on a street occupied by brothers and sisters, a place claimed by a family that calls it home, made me in turn feel what it is to take care of one's own. This was security for them and a place to resume life. And yet, it was not.
They asked about my grandmother, about our aunts they have not been able to see in ten or more years. They asked how the West Bank was. Where my mother was, how many siblings I had, why I was forced to come to Amman. We were strangers to each other's self narrative, but the best of friends when it came to a shared name, that blood that made our heads all shaped the same way. And somehow think the same way, and joke about the same things. And see each other in that revered light of commonalities. This was a mirror family, a reflection across some imperialistic drawn border. I was looking at myself in the puddle. Or perhaps I came from the puddle.
The children saw my stuff packed away in the corner. They asked where I was going. All they knew was Jordan. They spoke in heavy Jordanian accents, yet their pale skin, blond hair, and crystal eyes came as fruit from a tree rooted in northern Palestine. This place was a mess. I sat on the couch and waited as my cousin and his wife gathered their things and made sure the kids were ready for our long commute to my goodbye.
I drank one last cup of Nescafe. This was it. I needed them.
My cousin swept up his nieces and nephews as I went door to door giving my goodbyes. I had breakfast ten times that day as elders grabbed my arm and offered me tea and bread and final wishes.
Tell her I said hello.
Please give her this candy and tell her it is from me.
Ask him to call me.
I miss them.
I was the messenger. I was a Moses trying to reach the Promised Land. And they were today's Israelites. A confusion of terminology and history and duty flooded my tired identity's mind.
The day was warm, the children took off the coats their mothers had buttoned up to their necks.
They were so young. Their parents only knew the names of the villages their parents came from and probably would never get to visit. They were purebred Palestinians. Like a purebred Arabian stallion racing on American tracks, this place called Jordan would be their life's course.
I climbed into the van, slid the door close. And that was it. Al Zarqa was outside of the vehicle and I could no longer breathe it into my lunges. Its relation to me was passing, with ideas of pulsating human dreams and longings somewhere in the buildings stacked atop one another in the dusty desert. And as we moved further, it became that place in memory. That place beyond the Jordan River visited by Jesus, a river into which many have defecated their sins.
We drove for hours. The King's face was everywhere. Here he was dressed like an army commander. His face was stern and mean. And at the next corner he became a family man. And further down the highway, he was a husband with his beautiful Palestinian wife. And now he was looking at his laptop doing business. And then a portrait of him and his son, an ugly boy who will turn as ugly as dynastic and privileged rule can become. And the King, his mother is white.
Like a a flipbook on billboards I saw the life of a supposedly great man. I saw him claim buildings and streets with his conflicted face of Arab Hashemite blood supposedly linked to the Prophet Muhammad. And I saw the flashes of a British woman carved into his awkwardly shaped head. This is what a population of refugees is led by--confusion hidden behind a perfect smile.
We picked up fresh strawberries and green almonds from the side of the road. The children bled sweet strawberry-red juice all over their clothes and arms. They sipped soda and sat at the edge of their seat, watching the scenery like some television show. And with the heat of the sun, they grew drowsy and one by one collapsed next to me into their dreams.
We were in the mountains now. My cousin drove and glanced out the window, looking at a land he had not seen since his childhood. He looked forward at his path, but constantly looked back to say, "Look, you can see the settlements from here. There they are, living." He quietly watched the settlements as if it was a person, something that had kicked him and told him he lost his right to ever cross back. His face reflected anger.
We began descending down the mountain. The pine trees became shrubs, the boulders became fragments violently spewed on the hillside. The temperature climbed as we reached the bottom and began to drive closer to the valley.
We reached the spaced out villages. Few cars came through, and so the village people had grown accustomed to standing and gathering in the street. We slowed at every gathering, met with the eyes of those strangers, and watched their dark skin shift away as the frame of the window presented new images.
We were in the Jordan Valley now. Jordanian soldiers waved at every checkpoint. They had nothing to check, no future, no suspense. They stood in the heat, smiled, and waved a flag to motion us to pass. What we were passing baffled me. What constituted here and there? It looked the same over there. The same trees and orchards and green houses filled the valley. What was the need for a bridge if all it did was divide?
We had made it to the border. The security fences blared their injustice and crime against earth. The guards held their guns to protect something. It was not I who they wished to protect, nor the children. Not even themselves. It was something just as real as the line everyone saw that divided the Valley. That thing that made nations. That boundary that told you if you were in the right spot. I looked across the Valley. I heard birds, saw giant butterflies flap in the green. I saw soil and sky. As hard as I tried to see it in the land, I could not tell for what people had fought and died. The dashed line everyone saw and sighed at was invisible to me. Where was this god of theirs that presented flags of nationalism and a sense of pride. This people of the Valley must have gone insane since Jesus last walked here. They felt God was absent, and in his place made a new one: Nationalism.
march 28 2010
It was extremely hot. My cousin pulled
over to the side of the road as he spoke to the guards, and we
stretched our legs. My stomach tightened and I sighed as I wondered
whether they would let me through to my homeland. As he sat in the
outpost of the Jordanian soldiers, his wife and I sat in the shade and
watched the children. Her sons looked at the wide Valley. Her nieces sat
on the rocks and bathed themselves in the warmth of sunshine. This was
the closest they would get. They ate their strawberries and asked to
run in the field of growing eggplants and blossoming flowers.
My cousin's wife rested her head on the palm of her hand, her arm bent in compromising thought.
The Jordan Valley was no place for children to play. And yet the entire Holy Land became religions' playground.
My cousin appeared from the shadow of the military post, walking across the street. The border crossing was empty. Occasionally a yellow taxi would appear, taking hopeful internationals to the border crossing. My cousin's van was not permitted. And so he waved down one of these taxis, and told me it was time. I hugged his wife, hugged his children and nieces. I told them to not forget me, and that I would be back again, hopefully, after three months. They looked at me with the innocent, naive look children get.
What did it matter if she was coming or going? We had our fun, and we live in this minute. And so they ran to chase off a flock of birds hiding in the bushes.
My cousin shook my hand, and told me he would wait on this side of the border until he received word that I was safe.
He would wait another ten hours.
I got into the taxi and asked him if anyone had been turned away. He didn't understand my question. I looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror again, and asked, "Has anyone been denied entry into Israel? Have you had to drive anyone back?"
He shook his head and said no. He was of dark complexion, a local. Many of the locals on either side of the border, were dark Arabs. They had traces of African blood, and I wondered how deeply their history was rooted here and elsewhere. When we reached the Jordanian Customs, he urged me to leave my things on the curb. I heard too many stories about people getting robbed. When he assured me nothing would happen, I said goodbye and walked into the building.
I needed to get an exit stamp on my visa. And so the man interrogated me. He asked me my age, what I was studying, if my father was Jordanian. I grew frustrated as the questions grew more personal, and abruptly blurted out, "What the hell does that have to do with anything?!"
He said he had to ask these questions, but as he rushed through the rest of the conversation I had the feeling he had overstepped the boundary. I wished I could overstep this entire thing just as easily.
The hall was empty. The men gossiped and drank their coffee as they watched any woman who walked through the building. The floors were an off white of Arab mimicry, and the booths were wooden with glass windows. I passed the booths when the man finally stamped my passport and walked through a hall clearly marked for employees only. Of course, I stopped at the door frame. Thought about it. I peeked my head out and asked if he was sure this was the right way, and he said of course. I rushed through.
Military personnel looked at me. But I walked with my head facing the ugly tiles of what Jordan was, a mockery. An attempt. A failure. Something cheap and kitsch. A knock off of authority.
I went back outside into the heat of the Valley. I sat in the shade where picnic tables were lined up. An older man sat in the shade, talking business on his cell phone. And the locals danced to their music in the rundown gift shop. A group of travelers emerged, musicians, and sat near me. They joked and spoke about 3 week stay in Amman. They were Arab. And their passport was Israeli.
I was the only one going into the West Bank from here. The bus that took us to the Israeli side finally appeared. My sweater clung to me, the humidity and heat made me tired. I paid three shekels for the ticket, and sat near the front. The musicians sat behind me, and a married couple was off to my left. This was us. The hopefuls.
The bus driver tuned the station to news, and we listened to Israeli relations with the Arab world. We listened to wars. We listened to what life can become over the controlled frequency of language.
"Welcome to Israel."
The sign written and posted to the metal gate ascended upward as the gate parted and soldiers motioned us forward. They then pointed the bus to the side. We waited sometime. I watched the soldiers--women and men my age. Wearing the latest fashion in sunglasses, hair layered with Western trends, jeans hugging their hips, these women carried guns.
They searched the bus. They ran mirrors underneath it to make sure it was safe. The married couple looked on anxiously. The man started to mutter to himself, What was taking so long. He started shaking his leg, fidgeting, getting out of his seat to see what was going on outside. It was this kind of impatience that got one in trouble at any crossing. The antsy ones were the first to get denied.
Finally the bus began to move and the young Israeli soldiers returned to what it was my generation did, joke and laugh and act stupid.
We got off the bus and headed to the Israeli terminal. It was a long hall, with soldiers to guide you where to walk and exit. I loaded my things on the conveyor belt and allowed them to examine my life. They took my passport from me, and sat me in the special section reserved for people like me.
I asked for my wallet, the worst thing that could happen is to get stuck and robbed at the same time. But they reassured me no one would steal my things.
Yeah, I thought, who am I to think Israelis would steal anything from a Palestinian?
They called me over and told me to open my bags. The wires poured out, wires for my laptop, my phones, my external hard drive, everything that could look dangerous to an Israeli was there. Wires galore. I explained these were all for my electronics. They flipped through my books. Looked at my students' homework I brought with me to grade. They took out a can of soda and ran it through the X-Ray. Not once, but multiple times. Because Coca Cola can explode on you.
After they had managed to spread all my stuff out before me, they got bored and told me they were done. And they left me to repack my things while they still held my passport.
They told me to wait. A girl perhaps younger than me held my passport and sat next to me. She asked me thoughtless questions, questions that poured out of her like some machine spewing oil. She asked if I carried any weapons. I laughed. I said, "Does a tweezer count?" She grew alarmed that I had answered anything but a "no," and asked, "Wait, what did you a say?" I motioned with my hands what a tweezer was, plucking an imaginary eyebrow. She laughed and handed me my passport.
This was the part that mattered. I walked towards a window where two girls, soldiers, sat at a computer gossiping. I handed them my passport. They asked where I was going, where I was staying, why I was coming back to Israel. They asked for all my email addresses. For all phone numbers. They asked for every uncle's name. My father's name. What I did for a living. Who paid for my trip. What my father did for a living. The questions did not stop. For every answer, a new question arose. My mother called me during the interrogation and while explaining that it was not a good time, both phones lost connection as my mom told me that more than likely they would deny me. And that I would catch the next flight to Los Angeles. My cousin had been waiting for about 3 hours at this point, and I had no way to talk to him. The soldiers held my passport and told me to go back and have a seat.
Meanwhile tourists, Israelis, business folk poured in. And they all passed me and entered the Holy Land. No one sat with me. All the soldiers looked at me, wondering why I was held. One Israeli soldier probably did not receive the memo and winked at me. If he knew who I was, I am sure he would blind his eyes with soap.
Hours passed. I had no food, no water. I asked to use a restroom. A soldier escorted me and waited for me in the restroom, and then followed me back out. This was absurd.
The soldiers were all girls. Teenage girls who flirted with their superiors. Who sang together and tickled each other. I was being held by the most childish of governments in the world. Finally the soldier who interrogated me at the window appeared. She looked at me as I paced back and forth in front of my things. Was I going mad?
It was the fourth hour of detainment. She appeared again and I made sure she felt my eyes melt her flesh. Why did she do this to me? I was alone, I had to catch a safe reliable ride, preferably during daylight. This was becoming too risky. She returned my glance with innocent eyes, and said, "I am so sorry."
I looked down to the ground and told her that I knew this was her job. She offered to go and check, and ran back into the room of booths of windows to see what was to happen to me. She came and said they were waiting on a call from a superior. She walked away and I sat back down, smiling at my palms. God made me who I am, but He did not bring about these nationalities. This was man's creation, and while I questioned it, I still felt myself completely loyal to one side. I sat perplexed.
The girl reappeared apologizing again. "Still no luck, huh?"
No. Being Palestinian is not lucky.
"I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. Please, do you want anything to eat or drink?"
Why was she being kind? She did this, she could have stamped my passport and I would have been gone. But here she was pitying me. I was confused. Finally another girl soldier appeared from the office, holding my passport up like she had climbed the steps Rocky conquered.
"You can go!" she shouted with ecstasy.
"Really, that's it? I got the three months?"
I walked up to the girl who entered my information, the one who apologized and offered food.
"It means a lot you understand the situation you placed me in. That you tried to help when you realized my plight. From a Palestinian to an Israeli soldier, I thank you."
She smiled shyly and I walked away. I hoped that maybe, if she was ever placed in some volatile situation, she would not shoot at a Palestinian and remember I was just as human as her. But who was I kidding. These were armed soldiers.
I was relieved but felt completely powerless. It was in THEIR hands to let me back in. My palms were completely worthless here.
I called my mom. She grew excited. She called my cousin to tell him I was safe. He had been waiting 10 hours.
I walked outside and Jewish taxi drivers swarmed me. My appearance must have spoken innocence to them. They all grew frightened when I said I needed to go to Ramallah. They spoke broken Arabic and their tones showed they would never approach Ramallah with their cars. It was too dangerous. I told them to forget about Ramallah, to take me to Jerusalem. They scoffed, and I told them I would find another way home.
"I am not going to be taken advantage of. I know I look young, but you will not rip me off."
The men backed away except for one, a darker man who grabbed my things and whispered in an odd dialect of Arabic, "Do not worry, I will not rip you off. Just come, before they start asking more questions."
I followed the man. He put my things in the trunk and started his car. He said, "The worst thing to me is for someone to say I am dishonest. And for you, because I know your situation, I will prove to you I am a good person." We drove through orchards on one lane highways. If something horrible were to happen to me, no one would ever know except for the quiet of the bushes.
I spoke to my mother and she prayed for me to be careful. I told her "Don't worry, I will call you frequently."
The man was the most curious of men. He was Iraqi Jewish. To be more specific, his parents were Kurdish. His Arabic was a mix of Iraqi dialect and Hebrew mixed into one. I could not follow his discourse fully because of his accent. We talked.
I asked him if he still considered himself Arab.
"Of course, my parents only speak Arabic in the house. We are still Arab. But Jewish. And we have Arab Muslim friends. We used to always buy our produce from Jenin, until they closed down the borders on us."
I found it interesting that he referred to the political powers as "they." That "they" did not represent him or his interest in some way. That "they" obstructed his father from visiting Palestinian friends. That "they" closed down freedom of movement.
"All we really want is peace."
I was amazed. His ego was not a nationalist Israeli ego. He was a curious man, full of questions about what it is like being Arab in America. If our customs are as strictly enforced in the United States as they are in the Middle East. He asked me about women's rights. And we talked. It was human.
As we pressed towards the area designated under the Palestinian Authority he promised me he would find me a service van to take me the rest of the way. He could not cross the checkpoint as an Israeli. It was illegal. He found one parked on the side, filled with all men. He ran out and asked if there was space for a girl. The kufi wearing man nodded his head.
The Arab Jew wished me luck. And before he left me he said, "Did I treat you badly?"
"No, you give me hope."
He smiled and climbed back into the Taxi, and headed back to Tiberias.
I called my mom. From here I could handle it. These were my people. My people who would probably give me the same unrest in the future, the same injustice, the same hypocrisy. And yet somehow, they were mine.