I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.
By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.
Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”
Surely Omar was pleased that, since the peace agreement, he could visit his family in Bethlehem? Not really: “Jordan allows every Israeli to come here. They get visas automatically when they come in. But we have to apply at the Israeli embassy, where they treat us badly, and 95% of applications are refused. I tried to go in for my uncle’s funeral, but they wouldn’t let me. This is the balanced peace we have with our neighbours.”
The Jordanian side of the crossing takes less than ten minutes. Omar collects our passports to flash at an officer while we drink water in the shade. Then back onto the bus, without Omar, and over the bridge.
On the Israeli side there are even more flags than in an Arab country, and a sign offering ten million dollars for information concerning two Israeli soldiers gone missing during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Ten million dollars! For men missing for 27 years, who must be dead. I exclaim aloud, and Ahdaf remarks that the sign’s true purpose is to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to its people, and the money in its hands.
We give our bags to a Palestinian worker. They will be given back when we’ve been processed through the border. Past plainclothes men with sunglasses and fingers on the triggers of enormous guns (I’ve never seen guns the size of the guns I saw hanging off Israeli backs – science fiction guns, guns from the film Men in Black) and into a queue. When I reach the girl in the booth she gets on the walkie-talkie and sticks a green sticker on my passport. Another girl arrives and tells me to wait on a bench.
A couple of minutes later I’m taken into a separate room, by yet another girl, and my first questioning begins. Why are you here? Are you married? Do you have children? What are their names? Where is your father from? Have you been to Syria? When was the last time? Where will you visit in Israel? Where will you stay in Jerusalem? Why do you have a new passport? Do you have any other passports? What kind of writer are you? Do you have a weapon?
It took ten minutes. Then I was told to stand inside a machine which blows wind over your body to pick up any forgotten traces of explosive. And I was waved on.
I thought I’d done it then. But around the white-walled corner the process began in earnest. Maybe eight windows processing eight queues. Our Palfest group dominated two of them. Victoria Britain was at the front showing the British Council letter of invitation with all our names. Slowly we moved up, interspersing Arabs with Anglos, to dilute the Arabs in the consciousness of the Israelis. Jamal got through with no trouble. But Suheir was turned back. Victoria suggested I join the other queue. “That window seems more tolerant,” she said. “I’ve been comparing.” Her harsher official was a prettyish Sephardic girl. Mine was very white. Which made no difference. When my turn came I was directed to a bench which already seated a mainly Palestinian crowd, including Suheir. In total four of our group, all with Arab or Muslim names, were stopped.
I sat down to begin the wait. I wished I’d taken a book from my bag before handing it over, and perhaps a nicotine mint. If I’d been told that I had a five-hour period of stillness ahead I might have meditated. But I was in a place of noise and distress, peppered with distractors. I observed the Israelis as they flitted or slouched, expecting one of them to call my name. During this long time I was oppressed by their low-slung trousers. I mean, maybe it works for people with the right kind of buttocks, I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t work for Israeli kid-soldiers.
After three hours a slight young man in short-sleeved casuals summoned me quietly to a second interview. I told him I was part of a group of writers and that I planned to do a reading in Jerusalem.
“How many editions of your novel are there?”
“Only one, I’m afraid.”
“And what is the plot?”
“You should buy it,” I grin. “If you buy it it might run into a second edition.”
His smile has gone.
“No. I was hoping for a PDF.”
The European holding me at the border of Arab Palestine wants me to send him a PDF of my novel.
I gave an inevitably partial account of the plot. He nodded, and then smiled again. “I know you’ve been waiting a while already. It’ll only be another couple of minutes.”
It took another couple of hours.
As well as playing psychology, I think they were googling us. My interviewer had suddenly asked, “Why is Suheir with you? She isn’t a writer. She’s an actress.” Suheir is an actress, most recently in Salt of this Sea, but she and her interviewer had only talked poetry. And then there was George, a neatly dressed young American of Egyptian origin. He waited from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, when a very aggressive Israeli came at him with a document. “Sign this or you go!” she sirened. The document forbade George entry to ‘Palestinian-controlled’ areas on pain of immediate deportation and the denial of entry visas for a decade. “I can’t sign this,” he told her. Her answer was nearly a scream: “So you go back to Jordan!”
“What’s their problem with you?” I asked George. “You have an American passport and a Christian name.” “I’m a pro-Palestine activist in the States,” he explained. “They haven’t said a word about it, but I presume they looked me up.”
So the visit began with intimidation, and continued the same way. I wouldn’t say I was ever scared in Palestine, but part of my brain was constantly occupied with sizing up the occupied landscape – finding the Wall on the horizon, judging vehicles and the distance and mood of soldiers, being aware of the positions of towers and checkpoints.
It’s worse, of course, for the Palestinians. Several of them were held all day at the border, including a sad-faced woman in late middle age. The Israelis regarded her with open disdain. Her demeanour made me wonder if she had a funeral to go to. At one point she begged, and when she was finally allowed through she asked God to bless her tormentors.
Suheir was asked this question: Why did your father leave? A survey of the others on the bench established that it’s a routine question for Palestinians from the lands occupied in 1948. Of course, you won’t get through if you tell the truth: He left because he was driven out at gunpoint, because his sister was terrified of being molested, because there had been a massacre in the town, because he feared for his life. That won’t work. So for the purposes of the crossing, the correct answer is: I don’t know. He died, and I never asked. Or perhaps, He left because this place was a desert before you came; he wanted to live somewhere more civilised.
Your visit must begin with a lie.
For us internationals with our semi-official backing, it was a difficult entry, but not a forced entry. Obviously not. At the many borders the Israelis have constructed I surprised myself with my capacity for calm, good grace and repartee. I worried beforehand that I would find it impossible to remain polite, but the reality is something different. My aim was to pass, to enter, and I played my role to make the entry smooth.
And all this talk of entry, difficult and forced, reminds me of the Arabic word used to describe assaulted Palestine and its hundreds of bulldozed villages: al-mughtusiba, which means both ‘usurped’ and ‘raped’. The alleys of the Azzeh camp in Bethlehem, for instance, have wall signs announcing their names, which are the names of the villages the refugees fled. I took a photo of one which reads: Al-Menshiyeh, two kilometres north east of Akka (Acre), population 810, occupied and raped 14/5/1948.
Obama (who I will call Osama since his ‘clash of civilisations’ Cairo speech), and the proponents of normalisation, forgetting and ‘balance’, believe that peace will be achieved when raper and rapist are taught to smile into each other’s eyes. I disagree. I believe the rape should be stopped, and the Zionist borders – between Jordan and Palestine, between the villages and towns in Palestine, between 1948 Palestine and 1967 Palestine, between a farmer and his land, as well as the borders in the minds of Israeli Jews which produce these physical manifestations – should be torn down.