by Amal Amireh
“We Travel Like Other People”
“Mamnou3,”* she said from behind the window. The harshness of the word was neither softened by its familiarity nor by the lazy gesture that accompanied it when she threw my application back to me.
It was eleven on a cloudless June day. I have been standing in line since 5 o’clock that morning. I was twenty-four. She looked eighteen. I ventured, “Why?”
Her laziness immediately turned into impatience. “Mamnou3!” She repeated, already looking at the next heavily stamped travel application in front of her. Then as if to end any possibility of a conversation, and my future with it, she uttered the dreaded words: “Roukh baitak!”**
There she was in my city, actually few blocks from my home, shooing me away in an Arabic accented with contempt, and deciding my life for me. Her military uniform, her gun which is never far from her, and the bureaucratic authority of an illegal occupation gave her words a finality designed to crush. Just like bulldozers.
These words were the final stamp that sealed my application—an application that I had submitted a month earlier requiring permission to travel from El Bireh in the West Bank to Boston in the United States after receiving a Fulbright scholarship via AMIDEAST. I had graduated from the English Department at Birzeit University two years earlier, despite checkpoints and closures that in my senior year alone totaled seven months. This scholarship was my only chance for graduate education.
But the gods of military occupation had decreed that summer that no one between the ages of eighteen and thirty is allowed to leave the West Bank until further notice. Of course there was no official announcement of such a decree. That would spoil the arbitrariness of it all and give the occupied the dangerous notion that they are owed any explanation at all. You just learn of it when you compare notes with other crushed souls who were told to go home.
I did go home. I cried for a day. Then I did the only thing you learn to do from every Palestinian taxi driver: find another way. I eventually had to obtain a Jordanian passport and a couple of months later I left the West Bank to Jordan. As soon as I arrived at the Jordanian side, my newly minted passport was confiscated and I had to report to the mukhabarat in Amman. But that’s another story for another fury.
The short of it is that I made it to Boston.
But three young Palestinian students, Hiba, Haya and Fouad, will not be able to attend their respective universities in the US where they got scholarships, unless Hamas officials reverse their decision to deny these three Gaza students permission to leave. Gazans have been under siege by Israel for years. Denial of freedom of movement is one of the most painful and ugly aspects of this siege. Sick people and students are particularly victimized by this policy. This reality forces the question: Do Gazans need a Hamas siege as well as an Israeli one? Have Hamas officials lost all sense of decency? Of all the things Hamas did in Gaza (and to keep this piece manageable I won’t list them), this is their stupidest and most immoral act yet.
And as if the decision is not terrible enough, the justification Hamas gave is so depressingly and outrageously benighted that I don’t know where to begin. According to one official, the students are not allowed to travel to study in the US because of cultural differences. Are you kidding me? Of course, there are cultural differences. That’s why you go to another country so you are exposed to these differences. This is what distinguishes true learning from fatwa churning! Is Hamas distributing a list of “acceptable” cultures we are allowed to interact with? What exactly is our culture that Hamas seeks to protect? And what happened to the seven million American Muslims who are part of American culture? Has Hamas not hear of them? And believe me when I say that any second grader in Gaza will tell you that Prophet Mohammad urged his fellow Muslims to “Seek knowledge even in China.” Did China at the time share the same culture with the Arabian Peninsula? More importantly, what gives Hamas the right to make such decisions for these students? Aren’t their parents responsible for these decisions? If not, then why wait till college. Why not start kidnapping kids from their parents and raise them on special Hamas farms (i.e year round summer camps)?
Another justification, related to the first and as inane, is that the students were going to live with American families! The horror! We can’t allow that, can we? We might as well just throw the kids to the wolves or to Haifa Wahbe! In the mind of Hamas and their elks, “American family” is an oxymoron. The American family disintegrated a long time ago when women burned their bras and gays held their first pride parade. Since then, the non-existing “American family” has been used as an example to warn good old Muslim boys and girls of what will happen to our families if, let’s say, we pass a law against domestic violence, permit women of a certain country to drive, or let men cut or even see women’s hair. As to those American families that still pretend to exist, they are immoral entities of unmanly fathers, divorced mothers, drug-addicted sons, and daughters who date! And the dog! Don’t forget the dog!!! No, no, “mamnou3.”
The third reason Hamas gave for their decision is that AMIDEAST, which granted the scholarsphis, did not coordinate with them. This is their most honest one yet; it’s about politics and power. Ignored by a US organization, they hold the three students hostages. Besieged, they lay their own siege, not on AMIDEAST, but on their own people. Because if you think the way politicians think, what are three students in the scheme of things? Let’s continue to sacrifice the people for the cause.
I’m angry and sad that Hiba, Haya and Fouad are not starting classes this fall. I hope Hamas will recognize that its decision is unjust and will allow those students to pursue their dreams. I also know that these students, if denied, will do what Hamas will not like: find another way.
*Arabic meaning “forbidden.”
** “Go home” mispronounced and misgendered.
Amal Amireh is an Associate Professor of postcolonial literature at George Mason University/Fairfax.