The journey to the border

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
on 26 Comments
Palestine Postcard.

We published the sequel to this journey before the journey itself. This is an amazing first journey of one young Palestinian woman to the home of her father, who was expelled in ’67. It’s important, it’s revealing and sometimes startling. It relates events of last year, but is as fresh as today. We hope to be hearing a lot more of her at this site in the future as her life journey unfolds.

Journey to Watunna, part I

As I prepare to write this, I feel a sense of unease. I am afraid that my words may upset some, and they will likely be misconstrued. But all I can do is write from my heart and offer these words for what they are: the reflections of an inexperienced but sincere young woman trying to learn how to balance compassion, justice, friendship, and righteous anger.

So, my roommates and I had planned to visit Palestine this past week, but as the date drew near it began to dawn on us what a unique and uniquely difficult weekend we had chosen for our trip. Not only has there been much international controversy over the recent plan for a “freedom flotilla” to Gaza, but our date of departure would coincide exactly with the beginning of a week of international activism in Tel Aviv and the Occupied Territories.

The week would commence with hundreds of activists taking commercial flights in to Tel Aviv, where they would announce their intention to visit PALESTINE—this symbolic gesture would signal their support of the Palestinian identity, which is repeatedly denied/obscured by Israeli policy and rhetoric.

Tensions were running high as the date drew near, and through the activist “grapevine” we began receiving disturbing news: passengers denied entry to their flights in Europe, arrests, detentions, and threats of deportment and banishment for anyone “failing to meet undisclosed criteria.”

My roommates, for different reasons, decided against trying to pass in to Palestine on our chosen date. It was understandable; the risk was high, and all of us had reason to believe we would be targeted at the border. Late on the evening before our planned departure, the majority of our group (very regretfully) voted to call the trip off.

I can’t describe the disgust, rage, and deep sadness that this cast upon me. To be prevented from going somewhere—the land of my father—simply because of the “stigma” of my Palestinian name… Knowing that choosing to “risk it” could cost me so much… and, what’s so much worse, knowing that these hysterical measures were being utilized to protect a regime so untenable that it found the slogan “Welcome to Palestine” so horrifically unacceptable…this represented much more than thwarted weekend plans. This was not merely an issue of tightened border security; I think that was the moment I truly inherited my identity as a Palestinian. Since 1967, when my six-year-old father was put in the back of a pick up truck and shuttled out of Gaza after his mother was forced to sign away their land, this story has been coming toward me.

I didn’t run. I braced as this cold truth broke over me, spilling out in hot tears of helpless frustration.

I called my father as I paced with burning eyes and heart, lips spilling my revelation—the terrible gravity and shock—that must have read like the back of his hand.

He answered, “I know, daughter. I know. This is the story of your grandmother, of your dad, your uncles…It’s not fair, habibti, and I know the hardest thing in the world for you is to see injustice. But listen to me. You cannot lose hope. Listen. You are my world now. I have given my life to make sure you and your brother and sisters have the best world possible…every family is like a little sun, my girl, and my hope is that if we continue to shine as bright as we can, and if many others do the same, eventually we can overwhelm the darkness. Don’t let this turn into hatred. We have to always remember, Jews have been through lots of injustice in history, too, and in the end we trust God to be the judge. We’re all people, even though we sometimes treat each other like we’re less than that. I’m glad you’re feeling this pain, but you can’t let it crush you.

“I want you to take this experience, and write.”

In the end, after a sleepless night in Amman, I decided to embark on my own, and the experiences and people I encountered this weekend were deeply powerful… but more about that later. For now, I thank God for the tears I cried, and for the father who helped me gather them into this pen.

I passed the few remaining hours of Thursday night in a state of deep, unsettled heartache. I lay down at about 3:30 am and stared into the darkness, weighing the worst-case scenarios of going to the border. I would be questioned, detained, searched; this I knew. I also realize that there was a very good chance my passport would get stamped, even though I’d request the Israeli officials to refrain from doing so. If they chose to ignore me, as they had done to many of my friends who made the same request, I’d be in big trouble—an Israeli stamp in an American passport is one of the worst things you can carry in this part of the world, and I’d legally be banned from several Arab countries right off the bat—including my second home, Saudi Arabia.

As I lay there, I knew I would face more serious risks than a simple stamp. Yet, with each passing hour, the sinking feeling in my stomach made me ever more certain that I needed to try to go—something inside me withered at the thought of letting such injustice halt me; indeed, something deep within me whispered that it was essential that I make this personal journey, facing real risks and humiliation, in order to complete this fiery baptism into my Palestinian identity.

Before dawn I had made peace with my decision. I would go. I rolled out of bed, washed my face and made a last-ditch effort to contact a classmate (a friend of a friend, actually) who I had heard would potentially be trying the border the same day.

I got a hold of her after a few tries and explained my situation: “Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m Livvy’s roommate…I’m heading to the border alone with no plan or place to stay, but what bus are you taking to the King Hussein Crossing and would you like to share a cab to Jerusalem?” We ended up sharing a service taxi together to the King Hussein Bridge Crossing and arrived before 10 in the morning.

The small immigration office on the Jordanian side was crammed with internationals, many of whom had been denied entrance to their flights in Europe due to their suspected intentions to protest the occupation. It was a little chaotic, but altogether the atmosphere was positive—we joked with the Jordanian officials and chatted in broken English with the pack of Greek activists ahead of us in line.
We were soon loaded into a bus but remained in the stalled, hot vehicle for nearly an hour before pulling out of the station. While waiting, I chatted with an elderly Jordanian lady, Sayeeda, whose smile and kind words were like a cool glass of water on that itchy, stuffy morning.

The ride to the Israeli border lasts less than ten minutes. As our bus was rolling through “no man’s land,” I received a final text from my Dad, “Love you so much. Proud of you. Contact me ASAP from the other side. If you’re not comfortable, just GO BACK.”

When we pulled into the parking lot in front of the Israeli office, everyone groaned in dismay: the front lot was swarming with people clamoring to get inside, and the scene promised a long, hot wait. We tumbled out of the bus and into the blazing, cloudless morning, trying to identify the end of the queue as machine-gun-toting officers began barking directions in Hebrew and broken Arabic. Babies whined,
sweaty children limped between suitcases, and it seemed that, somehow, the “line” was actually regressing.

Soldiers began randomly asking people for their passports, then disappearing—this made me nervous, so I moved to another part of the “line.” Soon I noticed that they had opened a separate queue for “foreigners” (i.e., non-Arabs) at the far end of the terminal, but by that point I was jammed deep within the crowd, separated from
my new American acquaintance and walled in by shabby luggage. Soon, however, the Palestinians and Jordanians around me began encouraging me to wriggle my way out of “their” line and into the “right” line for me, a privileged, blonde-haired bearer of a US passport. I wouldn’t have agreed, except I knew that the border was closing early and I’d be forced back to Jordan if I didn’t get inside in time.

With the help and encouragement of my shockingly cheerful Arab compatriots, I squeezed between luggage carts through the steamy sea of bodies until I made it to a barricade, blocking my way to the foreigners’ line. From behind, one young Palestinian mother squeezed my arm and told me “you can climb over this, yalla.” As she juggled her infant, she half-lifted me over the blockade and freed me from the gridlock. I turned back to thank her as she and several other witnesses cheered and laughed; how they managed to have such a beautiful attitude in that situation, I don’t know, but it was lovely.

I made my way over to the “white people’s” line, and in a few minutes I was handing over my passport to a young Israeli officer. He merely opened it to the first page, read my name, and asked me to pronounce it. I did so, as nonchalantly as possible, but I understood what he was getting at—my name is distinctively Palestinian, and he knew it. He asked me nothing else but, “Do you have any other
passports?” and then placed a fateful sticker bearing several circled Hebrew letters on the back of my passport. (He looked at no other pages—didn’t see my visas for Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, or the others…my name was enough).“You have to wait.” “I’m sorry?” “Wait over there. Someone will come to you.”

I nodded and proceeded in the direction of his loose-wristed wave; I found a cluster of other detainees, all of whom looked utterly un-threatening to me. In the next several hours I learned their stories as I waited, stripped of my passport, for my name to be called.

Raya, a five-foot, sixty year old woman sitting near me, told me she was a Canadian citizen of Palestinian descent who had been waiting waiting for nearly 2 hours. “It’s just unfortunate,” she said in perfect English, “That even though I’m Canadian, I have a Palestinian identity card and I have to show it when I come here. They evaluate me based on that, not my Canadian citizenship or the fact that I’m a mother, a teacher, a pacifist, or anything.” “I’m in the same boat,” agreed the man to my left. A UK citizen, Sami also faced hours of delays and questioning at the border because of the slim, green Palestinian ID card he was forced to carry.

I was shocked. Such a precise and stigmatizing system, forcing people with certain blood or birth origins to be treated separately from everyone else, and to be put through such degrading and exhausting ordeals, sounded horribly reminiscent of so many genocidal regimes I’d read in history. Is this really how it’s done? I wondered, my naïveté giving way to anger.

The morning passed in agonizing slowness, and after several hours of waiting and multiple interrogations, I felt worn out, degraded, and nervous. After a three-on-one session, my passport was taken once more, and I was left again to wait. By now the border had officially closed, but there were many of us remaining in visa-limbo there, clustered in a corner swapping stories and wry looks. One Croatian teenager asked me if I’d ever experienced this before, and did I think he’d be able to make it to his grandparents in Jericho? A group of Canadian Muslim girls in their early twenties touched up their makeup as they awaited for another round of interrogation. In one corner sat a small, elderly man in a tattered kaffiyeh. His dark eyes were framed with delicate wrinkles and glazed over with melancholy
resignation. As I watched him, and the half-dozen olive-skinned children who milled dazedly about the waiting room, my eyes filled with tears of frustration; so many borders, so many barriers. The world owes these souls and apology, and so much more.

The most heart-wrenching moment of my first detention came as I witnessed the questioning of elderly man from the West Bank, who, after being called up for the third time for humiliating inquiries, began to shout at his teenage interrogator: “I told you everything! I am from Bethlehem! My sister is dead, I am going to bury her! I live in Panama, I have a job. I am from Bethlehem, but congratulations, I WILL NEVER COME BACK. Are you happy? You have your wish. You are making me hate my own homeland.”

The man’s words buzzed in my head, filling my heart with a fresh wave of disgust, and I glanced up to see the Israeli boy’s own face flush—perhaps the man’s words had pierced him, too. It can’t be easy, being the oppressor, when your victim makes you stare his humanity in the face, I thought, and I blinked back tears as the terrible gravity of the collective tragedy weighed on my spirit. This is all ludicrous. I’m sure they’ve all seen that, even only for an instant.

I was questioned a total of four times. I don’t want to go into a line-by-line description of the experience, mostly because it would be horribly repetitive.

It always came back to that P-word and the inevitable question of my family origins. When asked, “Does your father hold a Palestinian identity card?” I replied, “I don’t know,” because I had personally never seen it. My answer was incorrect, apparently, as my interrogator informed me in a chillingly triumphant tone. “We have records on every Palestinian. Even the ones from before 1948. So YES, he DOES have a Palestinian Identity Card, and he’s in our system.”

My cheeks flushed, but not with shame.

….more later.

About Sarah Ziyad

Sarah Ziyad is a American-born Palestinian, university student, and free-lance writer and photographer with a focus on art, activism, and the Middle East.

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26 Responses

  1. Jane A.
    February 8, 2012, 9:43 am

    Thank you, Sarah. Please keep writing.

  2. Pamela Olson
    February 8, 2012, 11:19 am

    Well done, Sarah, beautiful writing. Even though I’m a non-Palestinian American, and thus never had to go through half of what you (and others) have to go through, the borders were what finally broke me and made me leave Palestine. It still twists my stomach into proto-ulcers every time I have to cross that border. Those brainwashed sadists are, sadly, quite good at their jobs… :(

    • LeaNder
      February 8, 2012, 1:28 pm

      Pamela, I am absolutely fascinated by your book. I found it very, very hard to stop reading. Fast Times in Palestine indeed.

      • Pamela Olson
        February 8, 2012, 2:24 pm

        Thanks for reading, LeaNder, and for your kind words :)

    • dimadok
      February 8, 2012, 2:47 pm

      These “brainwashed sadists” are doing their duties following the Oslo accords and the interim agreements between Israel and PA.
      You have some nerve to complain about that.
      How about the fact that every Israeli citizen has to obtain visas going in to different countries, for example USA? And lots of them are denied entry?
      How about the fact that there are countries where Israelis are banned for the entry?
      So what are the facts here- Sarah is a US-born Palestinian whose father was born in West Bank and has a birth record in PA archives, they found his name there, weren’t they? She should’ve applied for the Palestinian passport and get entry to West Bank or Gaza. See the aforementioned Oslo accords. But she doesn’t want to-she wants to use her US passport, which is fine but the accords state that these rules apply also to the foreign-born Palestinians. Now stamping the passport-it is voluntary and is applied for the sole discretion of the immigration officers, only three countries are excluded from it- Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, once again according to the bilateral agreements.
      Maybe Sarah could write to Omar Barghouti and ask him how in god’s sake he had managed to get entry and study in Israel, being born in Qatar? I am genuinely curious about it.

      • Annie Robbins
        February 8, 2012, 4:50 pm

        dim, oslo is dead and israel has no right to be making decisions about who gets into palestine.

      • dimadok
        February 8, 2012, 5:32 pm

        @Annie. Perhaps it is dead as an idea, but there are signed agreements to keep. Maybe then customs and taxes for the Palestinian goods should be kept in Israel. Or electricity cut from Gaza? How about goods exports and imports? All I’m trying to say that there is a complex web of interactions, where borders and immigration controls are parts of it.

      • Pamela Olson
        February 8, 2012, 6:08 pm

        I’ve visited 30 countries, Dimadok. Nowhere — not Belarus, not China, not Russia, not Croatia, not Syria, nowhere — was I treated with one-tenth the sadism that characterizes passing through an Israeli border if you are suspected of the thoughtcrime of supporting human rights for Palestinians (and it’s much worse if you actually are Palestinian). And the kicker is, we don’t even want to go to Israel. We want to go to Palestine, where we will be welcomed and treated with kindness by our brothers and sisters (and in many cases mothers, children, spouses, teachers, childhood haunts), and where the people should be FREE.

      • dimadok
        February 8, 2012, 8:07 pm

        My 3-year old daughter was body searched and her plush toy X-rayed on the request of TSA on the flight from Madrid to USA. 4 uniformed men and 1 woman were present during the procedure. So DO NOT patronize me about “brutality” of the border control. I’ve served 3 years at various checkpoints doing also a screening of foreign visitors and others. The alleged “sadism” has nothing to do with it. I was cursed, screamed and pushe by the same people demanding our services. Did any of them got arrested, deported or even shot at? The answer is no and the reason for that is our training. However if you are coming with activist agenda against the State of Israel you shouldn’t be surprised to get a ” chilling” welcome there.

      • Annie Robbins
        February 8, 2012, 8:08 pm

        Perhaps it is dead as an idea, but there are signed agreements to keep.

        dim, were you able to listen to the leaked video of netanyahu bragging about the fraud/scam he pulled off? is this the new talking pt? same as tobin.

        perhaps you can inform us just exactly what pray tell palestininas ever reaped out of the oslo accords? it’s just a vehicle for the occupation to thieve away and plunder palestinians land and resources and transfer the jailing of palestinians onto..palestinians. the agreements were supposedly for 5 years, not for infinity.

        In 2010, a senior official in the Israeli State Attorney’s Office told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz that since the mid-1970s, Israeli companies with permits to operate in the West Bank were required to pay a regular fee and additional royalties for each ton of material they extracted to the Civil Administration (“Israel seizing hundreds of millions of shekels meant for Palestinian services,” 7 April 2010).

        That all changed in 1995 when the newly-created Palestinian Authority signed the Interim Agreements (generally known as the Oslo accords) with Israel. At that point royalties began to be funneled to the Israel Lands Administration, the body that manages land inside the state. The assumption in the agreements was that after 18 months the quarries would be transferred to the PA (the agreements also envisaged a full Palestinian state within five years).

        The Civil Administration, a unit of Israel’s ministry of defense, is in charge of administering the occupation. It is responsible for home demolitions, flying checkpoints, the construction of Israel’s wall in the West Bank and squelching protests.

        To say the least, the Civil Administration is not a trusted benevolent body for the Palestinian people. Speaking to Haaretz in 2010, one legal expert said that the Civil Administration and the defense ministry insisted that building the wall, funding Israeli police in “Judea and Samaria” (as Israel calls the West Bank), constructing bypass roads and other settler infrastructure should also classify as “for the good of the local population” (“Digging up the dirt,” 3 September 2010).

        link to

      • Annie Robbins
        February 8, 2012, 8:13 pm

        However if you are coming with activist agenda against the State of Israel

        oh please. her father was born there. it’s his land you stole. you should be ashamed.

      • dimadok
        February 8, 2012, 9:16 pm

        @Annie.It seems that your are confusing the realities and the signed agreements. Palestinians got a “state-like” features: passports, VIP-cards and some legal authority. What happened next-second intifada. Now if you are asking Israel to go back and implement all Oslo accords that would be just stupid from our historical perspective.You can hold a stick from a both ends-demand legal rights and promote violent struggle. Now nowadays PA is trying to establish so sort of stability there, to get some breathing space for the economy to grow and what is on the activists agenda- BDS.
        Now do you honestly expect that any Palestinian who commits a crime in Israel or against the Israelis will be surrendered to the authority? If so than Palestinians need to show that they can keep their criminals in place where they belong. No such thing has happened so far.

      • Chaos4700
        February 8, 2012, 9:59 pm

        My god, you let perfect strangers who were barely qualified strip search your three year old daughter AND YOU’RE FINE WITH THAT? What kind of a parent are you? Oh — right, you’re Israeli. You’ve done far worse to other people so this was small potatoes to you.

        I pity you, dimadok, that you don’t know what freedom tastes like. I miss it keenly.

      • LeaNder
        February 9, 2012, 7:44 am

        My 3-year old daughter was body searched and her plush toy X-rayed on the request of TSA on the flight from Madrid to USA.

        Chaos, this doesn’t sound real to me. Although I can imagine scenarios in which it would work, e.g. game-playing with a 3 year old girl, who might want to do the same that her father/mother does, wants to have her toy/bag checked too. … But I can ask friends in Madrid who fly a lot and have a daughter who is five now.

      • LeaNder
        February 9, 2012, 8:06 am

        However if you are coming with activist agenda

        Was there a special internal guideline concerning activists-with-anti-Israel-agenda? How were the guidelines concerning Palestinians? How many invectives for the diverse groups of Palestinians according to the guidelines, supposing there were some, did you learn during your stay there? What did you call the ones you had to wave through without relay? The ones you had no chance to watch like rats in a cage waiting? Were there service members among your colleagues and what was their job. What exactly was yours?

      • Tuyzentfloot
        February 9, 2012, 8:14 am

        Chaos, this doesn’t sound real to me.

        It’s real. They figure the parents would hide stuff on the kid or the kid’s toys. And it’s disgusting. When they did that with my son, who’s a bit older, another guard was watching me in case I intended to screw the other guy’s head off. Dimadok found his calling. You can do that job in every country and it feels just like Israel.

      • Shmuel
        February 9, 2012, 8:22 am

        However if you are coming with activist agenda against the State of Israel you shouldn’t be surprised to get a ” chilling” welcome there.

        So it’s not about security, but is rather a policy of politically-motivated harassment? Thanks for being so frank.

      • Bumblebye
        February 9, 2012, 9:00 am

        Does Israel keep its criminals “in place where they belong”? Or does it say well done, do it again and then let the b*ggers go? Especially when they are foreign “activists” who came to steal land and resources from the Palestinian people, yes? Y’know, the ones who happen to be good ol’ Jewish ethno-supremacists? Can’t recall hearing that any of them have ever been deported.

      • Charon
        February 9, 2012, 8:41 pm

        dimadok, the TSA is modeled after Israeli-style security. The TSA, DHS, the Patriot Act (co-written by Michael Chertoff who has a vested interest in Israel-style security… has his own security company even who are responsible for the cancer machines). Thank Israel for it.

      • Woody Tanaka
        February 8, 2012, 7:04 pm

        “These ‘brainwashed sadists’ are doing their duties ”

        Yeah, just “following orders.” Heard that one before…

  3. Kris
    February 8, 2012, 12:34 pm

    This is a fascinating account, Sarah Ziyad, and beautifully written. I hope you will continue to write; yours is a compelling voice.

  4. LeaNder
    February 8, 2012, 1:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Sarah and yes –more later–pleased

  5. Annie Robbins
    February 8, 2012, 1:46 pm

    very impressive sarah, i look forward to your further contributions to MW.

    “I know, daughter. I know. This is the story of your grandmother, of your dad, your uncles…It’s not fair, habibti, and I know the hardest thing in the world for you is to see injustice. But listen to me. You cannot lose hope. Listen. You are my world now. I have given my life to make sure you and your brother and sisters have the best world possible…every family is like a little sun, my girl, and my hope is that if we continue to shine as bright as we can, and if many others do the same, eventually we can overwhelm the darkness……”

  6. Danaa
    February 8, 2012, 1:50 pm

    Great story – just like the sequel.

    The similarities between the Palestinian ID “card” and the yellow star Jews of Europe were forced to wear is unmistakable. It’s treated like the mark of Cain.

    This is what ethnic cleansing looks like – it starts with a mark, a star, an ID card. This legitimizes the denial of rights to a simple visit, to a place, to family event. It comes with expectation of humiliation, made banal by repetition., amplified by hours of wait – all meant to sear into the soul the status of a second citizenship. Yes, israelis could accelerate the process of a border crossing. But no, they do not wish to do that, and won’t. The difficulty of the act of crossing is there for a reason.

    Where does it go from there, and how fast, are the only questions to which we have no definitive answers yet. What this story makes clear however, as have many other stories like it, some told, some not, is that we can have no doubt about the intent. When the fine words about Israel’s “need’ for security and Jewish desire for a “Homeland” are stripped away for a second, all that’s left is a simple story about an individual trying to cross the border. The way Sarah – a human who happens to be Palestinian – is treated, should tell us all we need to know about the intent framing the cold facts of “the crossing”. The facts bear the message that this is not just a border; it’s a red line. The intent surrounding the facts is to separate “human” from “Palestinian”. That’s what this particular border is about. A sign that not everyone can just be tourist, just go about their business, just come and go between places.

    I hope Sarah can hang on to her righteous anger. Sometimes that’s the flip side of dignity. May her stories multiply, and may her listeners.

    PS where is Witty to tell us about humanizing “the other”? I almost miss him…..

  7. Blake
    February 8, 2012, 2:39 pm

    When I read accounts like this the tears well up….and that from someone with a strong pain threshold. We need to get humanity back!

  8. Annie Robbins
    February 8, 2012, 8:15 pm

    i hope everyone gets a chance to view the photo now that allison helped download it onto the thread in it’s normal size (thanks allison!). it’s a cool photo of sarah and her traveling companions.

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