Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interrogation Part III

I slunk into the chair next to Patrick and Paul, who turned to me expectantly but without speaking.

“Well,” I started in answer to their gaze, “on the bright side, looks like we might go back to Porto Rafti today.”

I barely had time to explain before I was called back in again. The pregnant woman still sat with fingers interlaced, but standing beside her was the first official who questioned us. Her arms were crossed and she watched me until I sat down. Suddenly she flew forward and slammed the door.

“You lied to me!” she yelled as she returned to the other side of the table. “You are a liar!”

I immediately started sweating. This was now going much worse than I anticipated. I took a deep breath to regain my composure.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I didn’t lie.”

“You did not tell me you were volunteering,” she retorted.

I countered, “You didn’t ask me if I was volunteering.”

Her jaw tightened and she slammed her fist on the table.

“You are a liar!” she cried and pointed her finger at me. “If you lie, you think you can get in to Israel? I am the authority and I get to decide to let you back in or not! If you want to get in to Israel you need to tell the truth!”

I assured her that I meant to do so. So the interrogation began.

“You did not tell me you have been volunteering,” she repeated. “Where have you been working?”

I said I wrote and edited with an NGO in Jerusalem.

“Where else?”

Her tone seemed confident enough that I decided not to test her knowledge of my life.

“I have also worked with a center for youth and adults with developmental disabilities near Bethlehem.”

The woman from immigration now spoke: “You have to have a volunteer visa for this.”

This was news to me, and I told her so.

“You can’t do what you’re doing,” she persisted. “You can’t have a three-month visa and then leave and then come back and get another three-month visa.”

“Since when?” I answered with a furrowed brow. I was willing to concede that the policy may exist somewhere in fine print but it certainly wasn’t regularly enforced. “Everybody does this. When people leave to go to Jordan and come back, you just give them another three months. I’ve seen this.”

She seemed to ignore me.

“You’re only allowed one three-month visa per year.”

“Since when?” I said again. “I was here last March and then came back in September and then got another visa in November.”

“It’s always been this way.”

I pressed the issue and said, “Is there somewhere where I could read about this?”

She looked up in the air and shrugged.
“Uh, Ministry of Tourism, maybe.”

The first woman turned to face the wall behind her and continued her line of questioning.
“You did not tell me you have been to Hebron.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

She spun around with fierce alacrity.
“I’ve read your blog. You’ve been to Hebron.”

I remembered a story I wrote about an excursion to Hebron during the summer I worked as a journalist.

“But that was a year ago,” I objected. “You didn’t ask me where I went a year ago, you asked where I went on this trip.”

“That is a lie!” she maintained.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, and I think I said it sincerely.

She placed both palms on the edge of the table and leaned forward until she was halfway across to me. I leaned back as much as I could.

“I have every reason now to deport you,” she said. “If I do, you will be banned from reentry for ten years.”

I looked from face to face and wondered why Patrick and Paul hadn’t been invited to share in this experience with me.

“Tell me why I should let you back in to Israel,” she said, pacing beside my chair.

My mouth hung open as I scrambled for compelling reasons. I said the first thing that came to mind.

“Well, we, we help the economy, I mean, we’re, we’re buying things here.”
I bit my tongue, surprised that I used capitalism as an excuse for a visa. She almost laughed.

“A lot of people help the economy. You’re not that special. Give me another reason!”

“Umm, my dad is coming to do medical lectures at Ben Gurion University in a week, and so we are hoping to meet up with him.”

She clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth, unimpressed.
“That’s not good enough, give me another reason.”

I thought for a moment and said, “It’s going to cost a lot of money for us to change our flights from April to now and we don’t have much money.”

“I don’t care how much money it costs you,” she shrugged. “These are not good reasons.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, raising my hands in exasperation, “but you asked me to give you reasons, and I’m just trying to give you the reasons that you asked for.”

“How long have we been holding you now?” she asked, standing behind the woman from immigration who still sat with her stocky arms on the table.

“Three-and-a-half hours?” I guessed.

She smirked. “Well, it’s been a lot longer than that, and I don’t mind keeping you all night until you start talking.”

“I’m trying to answer the questions that you’re asking me!” I exclaimed.

“If you had told me the truth three-and-a-half hours ago, you would have had no problems and gotten out.”

She tried to continue but I interrupted.

“Wait, wait a minute,” I said confused. “You’re saying that if I had told you we had volunteered with Palestinians in the West Bank, you would have let us through, immediately, without any questions?”

Both of them looked at me and said, “Yes, of course.”

I laughed and said “Really?” I wanted to say, “How come I can’t lie, but you can lie?” I resisted that temptation.

The official pointed at the door and ordered, “Get out. Go wait outside.”

Patrick said they could hear her yelling at me, catching words like liar, deportation, ten years. He also said he was glad it was me and not him. Then, for the last time, I was called back in to the office. Only the pregnant woman from immigration sat there. She sat very still and spoke calmly.

“Even though you lied to us, and even though you have not told us what we have asked for at every turn, we will give each of you a one-month visa.”

“Is there any way that we could get two months?” I requested slowly and softly for fear of treading on thin ice. “Our flight is April 23rd and that’s all we want.”

“No, I can’t! I should actually deport you now because you lied, and you’ll be banned for ten years.”

“Well,” I gulped, “I guess we’ll take the one month.”

After four-and-a-half-hours we walked outside to a cool night, one I barely noticed. I numbly climbed into a transport van just outside the terminal. All I wanted was to sit by a fire in the house on the hill. Thinking could wait until later. I let my head smack against the window. The sun had already gone down across the Mediterranean and we drove to Jerusalem in darkness.

Interrogation Part II

“Please wait here,” she said, pointing to a row of chairs in a secluded back-corner room. “I’ll call you individually.”

We slumped down in our chairs, bags smacking the floor, blank expressions staring across at a blank wall. All I could think to say was “Shit.”

“We’re gonna have to pay a bunch of money to change our flights and we won’t see our stuff again,” Paul mumbled. He leaned his head back and chuckled. “Maybe they’ll at least send us back to Greece.”

Patrick thrust his legs out in front of him and said, “Not gonna lie, but when I saw you come around the corner with a security guard I definitely thought about running. They already gave me my three-month visa!”

Over the next hour, we were each escorted into a small office where the security official sat behind a large desk. Patrick went first, then me, and Paul last. All of us heard similar questions: why we went to Greece, where we were from, what our parents’ birthdates are. The woman rarely looked at me, typing quickly and facing a wide computer monitor turned so far away from me that she almost had to lean to see it herself. Her ponytailed hair was curly like confetti and she wore an unmarked windbreaker. I glanced at several maps near my head as she drummed the keyboard. She was fairly friendly for the time being, laughing that I actually knew my parents’ birthdates (which made it seem stranger that she even asked) and commenting that I must like Israel a lot considering all the stamps in my passport. I smiled.

“So,” she said, still typing even though I hadn’t said anything in several minutes, “what have you done in Israel?”

While we sat dejected in the corner waiting area, the three of us reviewed our responses. We had discussed them before, most recently a week earlier as we prepared to fly to Greece, but we passed through security faster than I’ve ever seen. Palestinian and Israeli friends had cautioned me not to share too much of what I do in the West Bank. But I have no desire to lie because I have no desire to make things easier for myself by editing out the existence of my Palestinian friends. Instead, I try to answer questions honestly as they’re asked. If it wasn’t specifically asked, it doesn’t need to be specifically answered.

“Well, we’ve done some backpacking and tourism,” I responded, which was true. We backpacked around the Galilee and I to different cities for interviews and we frequented sites designated as tourist attractions. “I have family friends here and we’ve visited them as well.”

She asked Patrick a more pointed question: “Where have you been in the West Bank?”

He thought for a moment before saying, “Ah, we’ve been to Bethlehem, we hiked the Wadi Qelt so we ended up in Jericho, and we went to Ramallah for a day . . .”

She quickly interrupted.
“Where else? Have you been to Nablus? Have you been to Qalqiliya? Jenin? Tulkarem? Have you been to Hebron?”

Patrick narrowed his eyes and pensively sucked his teeth.
“Shepherd’s Field?” he ventured.

Singing angels, immaculate conceptions, and incense-flooded caves outside of Bethlehem didn’t seem to interest her so she sent him back outside to wait.

After the interviews, wait we did. I called my dad several times, discussing possible answers or contingency plans if things went sour. After nearly an hour-and-a-half, a very stern and very pregnant woman walked into the room. She held photocopies of our passports and looked at each one of us in turn.

“Please, come with me,” she said in abrupt syllabic punctuations.

She led us to the other side of the passport control area where we once again sat down in another enclave, partitioned into a waiting room and two adjacent offices. I was called into the office momentarily. I stood and took a deep breath, Patrick gave me a thumbs-up, and Paul stared at the ceiling. I sat down in the cold undecorated room across from the pregnant woman who embedded her thick elbows into the table’s surface. She flipped through stapled papers in front of her.

Then she set them aside and said, “I’m from immigration. We need to talk.”

She repeated many of the questions asked by the first lady, but very quickly her subtly faded away.

“Have you been volunteering?”

I faltered, caught off guard by her directness.
“Well, we’ve backpacked, we’ve been tourists.”

“Have you been volunteering?” she repeated with severe precision.

I cleared my throat and said, “Well, I’ve written some for an organization based in Jerusalem.”

“Who do you know here?”

I listed off a few names, Israeli names of family friends and coworkers. When I did the same at the Israel-Jordan border and mentioned that my grandfather had worked on excavation sites and taught in Jerusalem, we were quickly granted three-month visas and sent on our way. This woman from immigration took, at least in my experience, the road less traveled.

“Give me their phone numbers. I’m going to call them.”

The number I pressed dialed Musalaha’s administrator. She answered evasively, confirming that I had written some for them but appropriately fibbing that she didn’t know me well enough to answer more questions. The woman from immigration was unsatisfied. She slid the phone back across the table and wiped her forehead. The room was too quiet and too empty so the quietness filled it until it mutated into eeriness. Finally, she interlaced her thick fingers, her neck lowering beneath her broad shoulders, and she looked squarely at me again.

“We know what you are doing,” she declared dramatically. “We googled you.”

I googled myself later. The first hit was a link to articles I wrote about visiting Palestinian cities and the devastating effect of the occupation. The second hit was the blog I kept while living in Ramallah. The blog had links to stories I wrote for the Palestine Monitor.

“So we know. Wait outside.”

Interrogation Part I

Our plane touched down and skidded liked a skipped pebble across the runway at Ben Gurion Airport. The loquacious woman behind me attempted to instigate a round of applause; apparently not enough religious pilgrims were onboard and her plan awkwardly sputtered when no one accompanied her. The seat-belt sign chimed off and I retrieved my backpack from the overhead compartment.

Patrick, Paul, and I were returning from a week-long visa renewal trip to Greece. Our alma mater has numerous campus locations around the globe for study-abroad programs, including one in Porto Rafti on the east coast of Greece; both Paul and Patrick studied there in undergrad. During the semester, along with many excursions to Athens and the Peloponnese, the group travels to Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. A few weeks before our visas expired, we hosted the traveling school when they visited Bethlehem, a new addition to their schedule. For years, even for years after the second intifada, Harding claimed Bethlehem was too dangerous and would only point longingly to the city from the safety of the Mount of Olives. We introduced the group to the Al-Basma Center and presented a slideshow lecture in our living room on the Israeli occupation and resulting humanitarian crisis. The program director invited us to Greece whenever we felt the urge, and since our second visa was rapidly winding down, we felt the urge very soon.

My family and I lived in Greece for several months during a sabbatical in 2001. I was enchanted with Greece, the land and culture and myths. My younger brother and I roamed around ruins looking for fauns and naked goddesses, the former of which we never found; we frequently saw the naked part on beaches and at every magazine kiosk. I went back after my summer in Palestine in 2008; two friends and I backpacked from Turkey to northern Greece where we hiked and camped around the floating monasteries of Meteora before hopping on a train to Athens. The timing worked out well for this most recent excursion. The three of us were a little tired and I was certainly ready for a brief break from editing the Musalaha book. We climbed the coastal mountains around Porto Rafti, stayed up late talking with students, inhaled greasy gyros in the Plaka, crept through ancient temples like little kids, and even stripped and dipped into the icy Aegean, gasping and struggling to stay afloat like whimpering shaved dogs. I mourned the end of the week, but I was ready to get back to Beit Sahour, back to what I felt like I should be doing. Most of our friends behind the Concrete Curtain aren’t able to visit the sea and hiking trails are seized with settlement expansion. My sadness was another reminder of my enduring options.

Our flight touched down on February 23rd, two months to the day before our final departure. At least, we hoped we would have two more months. Passport control stood between us and our April exit. My fingers were crossed as we disembarked.

As soon as we exited the jet way, a security guard jumped out of nowhere and requested our passports. All three of us choked on our hearts that had suddenly catapulted into our throats. She only asked a few questions about where we had been and how long we were planning on staying before she waved us forward. We swallowed and high-fived as soon as we passed around the corner.

Only a few people filtered through the passport control booths, so the three of us approached separate windows. Patrick was through in barely a minute with a three-month visa stamped in the back of his blue passport. I stifled an ecstatic smile; this was going much better than I anticipated. But as soon as I slid my passport underneath the window’s edge, a security official appeared next to my right elbow. I was amazed by their ability to spontaneously materialize. She said nothing except a brief word to her coworker who slowly thumbed through my passport. She watched me intently as I occasionally peeked in paranoia out of the corner of my eye, trying to answer quick questions from the man behind the glass. Suddenly, she leaned forward and whispered something in Hebrew to her cloistered colleague. He looked up at me.

“Wait,” he said, interrupting something I hadn’t said, “when was the last time you were in Israel?”

“Oh, only a week ago,” I said with strained nonchalance. I motioned at Paul standing at the adjoining kiosk. “We just went to visit some friends in Greece. We have a flight out later.”

The woman slowly shifted until she faced me, her arm propped on the narrow lip of the counter. She spoke to me for the first time.

I stammered, “Oh, uh, in, uh, in two months. We fly out two months from today.”

“Two months?” she said forcefully though without much surprise. “This is a long time.” She paused for a moment and my mouth dried out.

“No,” she continued, “you need to come with me.”

She snapped her fingers for my passport and turned for Paul’s. Then she pivoted toward me again.

“Where is the third one?” she annunciated slowly.

I had said nothing to the man behind the glass about a third one.