On a recent trip to Israel, Randa Jarrar gets detained, denied entry, and sent to 'the Arab Room.'
Image from Flickr via Rusty Stewart
By Randa Jarrar
Trouble began weeks before I boarded my flight to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had heard horror stories about a detention area there, dubbed The Arab Room, and in my anxious and neurotic style, I had emailed a dozen people—American academics and artists of Arab, Indian, Jewish, and European descent— and asked them what I was supposed to tell the immigration officers at Ben Gurion once I arrived. They all wanted to know if I was using my American passport, and I assured them that I was. The vast majority told me not to tell the officers I would be staying at my sister’s in Ramallah. They said this would cause trouble, and offered up the names of friends and family for my use. The generosity of people poured in, and I was advised to say that I was staying with this writer, or that visual artist, or this former-IDF soldier—people I had never met, but who had volunteered themselves to be my proxy hosts. A friend of mine, who is a phenomenal photojournalist, gave me her phone number and said to tell the officers I would be staying with her, and I agreed. She told me to prepare for the officers to call her themselves once I gave them her number, as this is something they are known to do.
I was so afraid of facing the guards at the airport that I had a difficult time imagining the rest of my trip. I would picture myself walking around Ramallah with my sister, or attending a concert, or visiting my aunts, or seeing the separation wall, or staying at the American Colony Hotel for an evening, and I would draw a blank. There was a wall there, too, between my thoughts and Palestine.
Growing up, my Palestinian identity was mostly tied to my father. He was the Palestinian in the family, and when we went back to the West Bank it was to see his brothers and sisters and parents. We always entered Palestine through Amman, crossing the Allenby Bridge over the river Jordan and waiting in endless inspection lines. I remember these trips dragging on through morning and midday and well into the afternoon. My father would sit quietly, and when I complained my Egyptian mother would tell me that the Israelis made it difficult for us to cross into the West Bank. She told me that they wanted us to give up, that they would prefer we never go back. “We must not let them win,” she’d said. My relationship with my Palestinian identity was cemented when I enrolled in a PLO-sponsored girls’ camp as a tween. We learned nationalistic songs and dances and created visual art that reflected our understanding of the occupation. After my family and I moved to America in 1991, my Palestinian identity shifted again, and I began to see myself as an Arab-American. My father’s fiery rants on Palestine died out when Yitzak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish-Israeli extremist. I remember my father weeping in our American wood-paneled den. He said that Rabin had been the Palestinians’ last chance.
When my sister got a job in Ramallah last year, teaching music to children, I knew I would want to visit her. I had not been to Palestine since 1993. I had planned to go back in the summer of 1996, but I was pregnant and unmarried. My parents did not want to speak to me, let alone take me with them, in such a shameful condition, to the West Bank. I never went back with family after that. I led my own life. I moved about a dozen times over the following fifteen years—an American nomad. I didn’t want to visit the West Bank and be at the mercy of family. If I ever visited, I would do so independently. When my sister moved to Ramallah she found an apartment of her own, and it had an extra room. It was the perfect time to go. My husband booked my flight, and, thrilled, I told my sister I was coming.
I felt uneasy as soon as I arrived at the gate in Philadelphia. There weren’t, as far as I could see, any other Arabs boarding US Airways flight 796 to Tel Aviv. On the airplane, I found myself surrounded by Christian missionaries and Evangelicals and observant Jewish men. The group across the aisle had their bibles out, the man sitting next to me read from a miniature Torah, and as the flight took off, I found myself reciting a verse from the Quran, almost against my will. I am an atheist, but all the praying was contagious.
I spoke to no one on the plane, and no one spoke to me, until I got up to stand in line for the bathroom. A man with a wandering eye and a yarmulke asked if I knew why a section of the plane had been hidden behind a thick grey cloth. I said that it was probably to give the flight attendants a little privacy during the eleven-hour trip. He nodded, and said, “Good. I was worried that it was for those crazy Ultra-Orthodox people. They’re like the Jewish Taliban.” I nodded, uncomfortable. I wondered if he would have spoken to me like this if he knew I was of Palestinian descent, and an ex-Muslim. He continued, “They’re ruining Israel. They spit on an 8-year-old girl because she was dressed inappropriately.” I had heard about that, and told him so. A bathroom opened up, and he moved to slip inside, but before he locked the folding door he said, “Unbelievable how crazy they are.”
It was not a conversation I had expected.
As we descended into Israel, the blue Mediterranean floated by below us. We saw the shore of Tel Aviv, and the buildings along it. An American teenager sitting in front of me started shouting, “It’s so pretty! It’s so pretty!” She wouldn’t have any trouble clearing customs, I was sure.
When we landed, everyone on the plane clapped, something I thought only Lebanese people did, and I smiled. I turned on my phone and called my sister and let her know I had arrived, and that I would call her on the other side of customs and immigration. I was only an hour away from her. I took a deep breath and did something superstitious, as I tend to do when I am feeling powerless and anxious. I flipped to a random page in my passport, hoping to find meaning and reassurance in it. On the page I flipped to was a picture of an old steamship, presumably in the shadow of Ellis Island. I found the image inspiring, calming, and I felt ready to face customs.
[T]his was how Israel treated someone with a voice and American citizenship.
I had deleted anything on my website critical of Israel, which amounted to about 160 posts. I had deleted the section in my Wikipedia entry that said that I was a Palestinian writer. It had been unsettling, deleting my Palestinianness in order to go back to Palestine. I had been told that the Israeli officers might confiscate my phone and read my Facebook posts and Twitter feed, so I temporarily deactivated my Facebook account and locked my tweets. The entire endeavor left me feeling erased.
I had read an article about the hundreds of activists that had flown into Tel Aviv Airport last July 8th. They had all been detained over the weekend and then flown back to their countries of origin. Only one of them had made it through. When she was asked how she managed it, she said that she chose the “smiliest” immigration officer and stood in her line. So, when I entered the immigration hall, I did the same. The agent I chose was blonde and young, and her line was moving the fastest. I stood, waited, and tried to relax.
When there was only one person in the line in front of me, the woman went to the back of her booth and a young bearded man took her place. He did not seem “smiley” at all. I considered switching lanes, but I knew I would look suspicious. So I waited.
When it was my turn, I gave the officer my blue American passport. As he scanned it, I noticed that he had unbelievably long lashes. He thumbed through the pages, and I was afraid of what he would make of the Lebanese stamp. He asked me what my purpose was for visiting Israel. I told him it was my Spring Break, and I had come to visit friends. He asked me where I was staying. I did as I’d been told, and said I was staying in Jerusalem, with the photojournalist. He picked up a black telephone. When he hung up, he told me to go wait in the room in the corner. I asked him if I could have my passport back, and he said no. I asked him when I would be getting my passport back, and he didn’t answer. He only repeated that I needed to go to the room in the corner.
I crossed the immigration hall diagonally, and entered the Arab Room. Sitting in the room and waiting were a young Arab man and an older Arab woman in hijab, two black men in African garb, one of whom was holding an iPad, two middle-aged Arab women in hijab, one dark-haired Tunisian-American woman in a long skirt, one woman in a Whitney Houston t-shirt, her hair gathered up in a turban, and one dark-skinned Arab woman in a pant suit. It was readily transparent that we had all been racially profiled. A young man joined us, and got on his phone. I heard him saying, “No, they just finished questioning me. I’m half-Egyptian. I should be out soon.” I got up and told the woman guard at the door that I needed to go to the bathroom, and she nodded. When I came back to the room, I sat down and took out a magazine, reading as calmly as I could. About twenty minutes passed before a redhead, who couldn’t have been older than nineteen, summoned me down the hallway. I followed him to an office where a few brown men were answering questions. The redhead asked me to take a seat and swiped my passport through at his station.
He asked me, “What is the name of your father? And what is the name of your father’s father?”
My father and I hadn’t spoken since he read my first novel, nearly four years ago. He had sent me an angry email, and told me that we would no longer be seeing one another, or speaking.
I gave the redhead the names he’d asked. He noted something on a piece of paper, and asked me where my father was from. My father was born in 1950, when the West Bank was part of Jordan, so I told the redhead that my father was a Jordanian-American.
“So, he is from Jordania?” the redhead said, and I said that technically, yes. “Where was he born?” he said, and, cornered, I told the redhead that my father had been born in Jenin. He noted something else on a piece of paper, gave it to a man who seemed like a superior, and asked me to go to another room in an opposite corner. When I said that I was a writer and an American citizen, born in Chicago, he shrugged, and instructed me, again, to go to the room in the opposite corner.
I went to the room, and I waited.
My father had said in his email that, by writing about sex in my novel so shamelessly, I had disregarded the legacy of my Palestinian family, which, he claimed, had defeated Napoleon.
I always thought he was being dramatic about Napoleon, but eventually I looked it up. In a book titled Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus 1700-1900, I found the Jarrar family, and I found Napoleon. The Emperor’s attempt to conquer Palestine had been stopped short in 1799, and an ancestor of mine named Shaykh Yousef Jarrar, the mayor of Jenin, had written a poem “in which he exhorted his fellow leaders… to unite under one banner against the French forces.” I’d never heard of this poet-warrior ancestor before, but I had given my son the middle name Yousef, as if by instinct.
A woman, wearing seven rings on her fingers, and a lot of blue eye makeup caked around her eyes, emerged from a small interrogation room and asked me to join her. She told me to close the door behind me. The room was the size of a walk-in closet, and I knew it had been built to intimidate travelers. The woman said she liked my necklace, and we spoke about jewelry for a few minutes. I admired one of her rings in particular, and she smiled and said it was from Egypt. She then swiped my passport, and asked me about my parents’ names, again. This time, I told her I was not in communication with my father, and that I was an American citizen, and a writer. She did not seem to care about this information one way or the other, and spoke my grandmother’s name. I hadn’t heard my grandmother’s name in years. She had died in the early eighties. I told the officer this, and she nodded, and gave me the names of many of my ancestors. I wanted to ask her for her grandmother’s name, but gave her the name of my friend in Jerusalem, and my Israeli publisher in Or Yehuda instead.
“Your publisher?” she said, confused, and I said, yes, my book had been translated into Hebrew and published in Israel. I could see her computer screen. She plugged in my publisher’s name and my friend’s, in Hebrew, and their addresses came up. The program she was using looked clunky and old, but it held information on every citizen in Israel. At this point, things began to feel Kafkaesque.
She said that there was a Palestinian ID attached to my name. I told her I had no such ID. She said that I had entered the West Bank with the ID in 1993, and that they had record of the entry. She said that this would be a problem. When I tried to plead my case, she asked me to put my right finger on a glowing red scanner. Then my left finger. She took my photograph and asked me to go back to the first waiting room. When I asked her what I should expect, she said she wasn’t sure.
Half an hour later, a group of teenage guards took me to baggage claim. I asked them if I could speak to someone from the American embassy, or the consulate, and they nodded, smirking. A few minutes later, I asked them what we were doing there, and they said we needed to find my bag. I said that my carry-on bag was my only bag, and they seemed shocked. I travel a lot, I told them, which they seemed to find suspicious. They asked me why, and I said I was a writer. They frowned at me. We waited for more guards. It must have been their shift change. The baggage claim was deserted. In the corner, a few guards were giving each other massages. The guards I was waiting with gave each other high fives and chatted about teenage stuff. I kept asking what we were waiting for, and they ignored me.
Finally, they took me to a room in the corner of the baggage claim area. It was becoming clear to me that at Ben Gurion, unjust things happened in corners. The guards asked me to open my bags. I did as I was told. I noted that the room was filthy. The Israelis were concerned with showing a clean and gleaming exterior—the floors of the airport outside shone–but for suspected threats and people like myself, behind closed doors, tucked away in dirty corners, they hadn’t bothered. A very butch young woman asked me to follow her. She led me to yet another room, where the walls were faded and filthy, and the floor was covered in dirty carpet, littered with small bits of paper and hair clips. It reeked of intimidation, and of humiliation.
I don’t believe in hokey things such as souls or spirits, but I could sense a deeply disturbing feeling in the room. There, though I was not strip-searched, the young guard poked and searched every millimeter of my clothes and underclothes. I tried to keep myself distracted, so I wouldn’t weep. I tried to keep my spirits up. I wondered if she thought I was a “hair-orist.” I did not want to allow these teenagers to rob me of my dignity.
When I came out of the room, a boy with pimples, who looked like he was my son’s age, was going through my clothes. Above him hung a tourist poster for the Dead Sea. The poster read: The Dead Sea; Where Time Seems To Stand Still. I had been in Ben Gurion for over two hours, and knew the feeling. It was as if I existed outside of time, suspended in a strange molasses of interrogation.
When he was done checking all my clothes, he asked me if I needed any help re-packing the bag. I said that I didn’t, and that I had a system for packing. “You have a system?” he shouted. I told him this was an American idiom. Still, he watched me closely as I packed.
I was worn down and angry. The teenagers escorted me back to the waiting room, the Arab Room, where there was now a new guard. A few people were gone, and a few new people had arrived, but it was still an Arab Room.
The woman with all the rings walked in with my passport in her hand and said that she was sorry, but that I was not allowed to enter Israel. She said she had spoken to her supervisor, and that he had decided that I was not to enter. When I asked her if I could speak to him personally, she said she would ask, and walked away with my passport. I never saw her again, nor did I see the supervisor.
I called my sister and told her the news. She was devastated. A friend of mine had been waiting in his car outside the airport to drive me to her, and I called him, too. When I told him now that I was being shipped back to the U.S., he said, furious, that he would call his friends at the U.S. Consulate. When I called him back, he said that there was nothing they could do, and that I was banned by law from entering Israel because I was considered Palestinian.
I told a guard that I was a diabetic, and hungry, and an hour later someone wordlessly brought me the sandwich. I began to feel like a prisoner, grateful for a dry bit of bread and cheese. Half way through the sandwich, I asked the other people in the room if they were hungry. A middle-aged woman in hijab said she was, and I gave her the rest of the sandwich. A large guard appeared over me, hovering, and asked me in Arabic where I was from. I answered reflexively in English, “I am from here. And from California.” He asked me, in Arabic, where I was going after the airport. I said, in English, that I was going to Jerusalem. He walked away and accused me of pretending not to know Arabic. He said the word Arabic hatefully. I followed him, and said, in Arabic, “OK, I do speak Arabic. Where do I want to go after this? I want to go to a bar with my friends.” He laughed at me, and said I could go to a bar when I got back to America.
After a while, I was the last person in the room. It had high stone walls that spanned every floor of the airport, and when I tried to look all the way up, I could not see the ceiling. I felt as if I were trapped in a strange, deep well.
An elderly man who was not Jewish but who had attempted to make Aliyya was put in the room with me. When they told him he was being deported back to the U.S., he said he would not leave. The guard said to him, “I could do this the nice way, or I could do this the not nice way.” It was ludicrous in more ways than one, to hear a nineteen-year-old speak to an old man that way. He sounded like a thug.
An hour later, the bearded young man who had originally questioned me at the immigration hall became my guard. When I tried to go to the bathroom, he said I was not allowed. This made me nervous. I had been allowed to go before. I told him so. “Well, it’s different now,” he said.
“Different how?” I asked. “Am I under detention?”
He would not answer me. I told him that I was an American citizen and that I demanded to know whether or not I was under detention. He closed his eyes, then opened them, and said, reluctantly, “Yes.”
I lost it. I demanded to see someone from the embassy or the consulate. He ignored me. I said that he needed to take me to the bathroom. He said no. I lifted up my dress and pretended to squat, and shouted, “Fine, then I will go to the bathroom right here!”
He became angry and shouted to another guard to take me to the bathroom. When she said she couldn’t, he took me himself. He insisted on the gender-neutral handicapped toilet, and he waited outside the stall. When I was done, he checked the stall after me, to make sure that I had not concocted a bomb out of my pubic hair. I laughed at him, and he angrily took me back to the detention room.
I waited two more hours. Whenever a guard came into the room, I would ask him what was going on with my passport, and what I could expect. The guard would look down at me and sneer, “You have to wait. You have to wait.” When I told him I had been waiting for hours, he only repeated, “You have to wait.” My wait felt interminable. In his speech to the UN, Mahmoud Abbas quoted the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “State of Siege.” He read, “Standing here. Sitting here. Always here./ Eternally here,/ we have one aim and one aim only: to continue to be.” And he added, “And we shall be.” The state of sitting, of standing, of waiting, is the principal state of the Palestinian, it is the state of the refugee, of the oppressed, of the outsider, of the writer.
Eventually, two female guards came to tell me what time I would board the flight back to the U.S. When they did, I burst into tears. I had been holding out hope, right to the last. After they left, I was stuck with the male guard again, the one who had picked up the phone in the immigration booth.
I asked him if I could board a flight elsewhere—to Amman, or Cairo, even Paris. I wanted to go somewhere, at least, even if I couldn’t see my sister.
“No,” he said. “You have to go back from where you came.”
I said that this was unacceptable, and that I wanted the choice to go elsewhere.
This time, he shouted it. “No. You must go back from where you came.”
“Are you from The Lord of the Rings?” I said.
He narrowed his eyes at me, and snapped, “Come with me.” He made me stand in a hallway for twenty minutes, as punishment. I made fun of his long eyelashes. I asked him if he was related to Snuffalupagus. He ignored me.
An hour or so passed, and a guard came and eventually escorted me to flight 797, back to the U.S. We bypassed security, avoiding a scene, and when we got to the airplane the guard gave my passport to the flight attendant, an American.
“Do not give her back her passport until you arrive in America,” he said.
She squinted at him, confused. “What do you mean?”
“This woman was denied entry, and must return to the United States. Do not give her this passport until you have left Israel and arrived in America.”
She looked at me and nodded, frowning.
I went to my seat, which was in the middle of the middle row, the worst place to sit on a twelve-hour flight.
The flight attendant walked over and handed me my passport. “Um, here you go,” she said, and I laughed and thanked her.
Holding my passport again on that almost-empty plane, I understood, in a way, how lucky I had been. The passport hadn’t been confiscated. I was not imprisoned. And yet, this was how Israel treated someone with a voice and American citizenship. There are today, held without charge in the Israeli military detention system, hundreds of Palestinians, including children. There are reports of a systematic pattern of ill treatment towards them. Silenced and oppressed, these prisoners have little recourse. In the news recently I saw that two thousand of these prisoners have resorted to the last form of protest left to them: they have collectively gone on hunger strike.
I flipped through the passport, and, surprised, found that the officials had left a stamp on it. The stamp was massive, and read, in English and Hebrew, Ben Gurion Airport ENTRY DENIED. I stared at it for a few minutes. Then, I saw it: the picture of the ship I had seen eight hours earlier, that I had thought was a sign of good luck.
I remembered how, when I first met my mother-in-law in Texas, we had bonded over her collection of costume jewelry. A lot of the pieces were from her first husband, whom she had divorced before meeting my father-in-law. I noticed that many of the pieces he’d given her had imagery of boats and ships. When I pointed that out to her, she had raised her wine glass and said, “You’re right! He was shippin’ me out.” And that’s what had happened to me. I had been shipped out.
Two massive, bald-headed men sat on either side of me. If I believed the conspiracies, I would have thought those guys were Mossad. But it was obvious before long, from the way they blasted terrible club music on their earphones and, later, passed out, that they were just some doofuses on their way to America. In an attempt to be polite and not touch the men around me, I folded my arms, but this became terribly uncomfortable after a while. A few hours into our flight, I decided that I was tired of being polite and so I put both my arms down. Minutes later, the man on my right began to jab my elbow. I ignored him and feigned sleep. He jabbed and jabbed.
Finally, I turned to him, my arm firmly on the armrest, and said, “I get it.”
He looked at me, embarrassed.
“I really get it. But I am keeping this armrest. I am not moving. I will keep my arm here for the rest of the flight,” I said. And I did.