“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.”