Sunday, March 13, 2011

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.

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