LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Welcome to the Holy Land
15 June 2004
I made it safe to Israel and will head to the West
Bank in about a week. If you would like to get email
updates while I am working in Ramallah, please reply
and let me know so I can put you on the list.
I flew from SFO into London on a red-eye and had a
seven-hour layover, so I caught the Tube into the
center of town and saw the Tower Bridge and the
Parliament building and the Thames. I walked by a
park across from Parliament where people were holding
long vigils protesting the war and occupation in Iraq.
There was a city block of anti-war signs, some of
them political, some of them graphically showing the
effects of sanctions and depleted uranium fall-out on
children. If you remember Gulf War Syndrome, that's
what the guys get who are on the giving end of the
weapons. In April of 2003, Dr.
Doug Rokke, former
director of the Army's depleted uranium project, said:
"People [in the US armed services] are sick over
there already. It's not just uranium. You've got all
the complex organics and inorganics [compounds] that
are released in those fires and detonations. And
they're sucking this in.... You've got the whole toxic
The effects have been much worse for the people on
the receiving end, especially children.
and cancer have increased alarmingly in Iraq since the
first Gulf War, and evidence increasingly suggests it
is due to the depleted uranium weapons used by the US.
One photo that struck me particularly was a smiling
little bald girl with childhood leukemia, recently
released from a hospital not because she was cured but
because they had run out of medicine.
It was heartening anyway to see grassroots
resistance to the war so strong in this "democratic"
headliner of the Coalition of the "Willing."
I stopped off at a hole-in-the-wall tea shop for
lunch, and the menu read:
egg and chips
Not precisely that, but close enough to make me
bacon and chips
egg and bacon
egg, bacon, and chips
egg, bacon, sausage, and chips
egg and tomato
egg, tomato, and chips
egg, sausage, and bacon
ham, egg, bacon, and spam
egg, bacon, sausage, and spam
spam, egg, bacon, and spam...
After a second red-eye to Tel Aviv, I arrived at
1:00 a.m. at Ben Gurion airport, where I made the
mistake of answering the questions at passport control
semi-honestly. (Yes, I was staying for more than a
month, and yes, I had been to non-Israel Middle
Eastern countries before). Red flags were raised and
I was asked to wait until everyone else had been waved
through. Then I was asked to wait some more next to
the security office.
There were at least twenty security people
wandering around looking extremely bored, drinking
coffee, gossiping, vacantly watching the arrivals
screen as it blinked and changed every five minutes,
and very occasionally questioning people.
There were never more than five people waiting
around to be checked, and most of them came and went
while I and a French man who had been born in Algeria,
taught math in Turkey, and now was planning to tutor
math in Israel for ten days, were held, our baggage
and documents confiscated. We were never told what
the problem was or what we were waiting for, we were
not questioned, we were just held. After half an
hour, the French man was already complaining. I'd
been expecting it, so it took me until the two-hour
mark to get frustrated.
I finally asked them if there was a problem, if I
could do anything to speed things up.
"Just wait," they answered,
"Is it my baggage? Can I help in any way?"
"It's been two hours already."
After that they came every twenty minutes or so to
ask me a couple of inane questions.
"How long did you spend in Egypt?"
"About a month."
"OK, and what did you do there?"
"I visited Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and Dahab."
"Do you have any friends there?"
"I know one person there from university."
"OK, thank you."
Twenty minutes later: "What was the nature of your
visit to Syria?"
"Just as a tourist."
"And where did you visit?"
"Damascus, Palmyra, and Aleppo."
"And do you know anyone there?"
"A friend of mine has family there."
"And did they ask you to deliver anything to
friends or family members in Israel?"
"Yes, they gave me some bulky belts and mysterious
cannisters and tubes to deliver to the Gaza Strip.
Can you point me in the right direction please?"
Actually I said, "No."
"Do they have family members in Israel?"
"Not that I know of."
"OK, thank you."
Half an hour later, "So are you a student, do you
"I graduated a couple of years ago and have worked
"Who replaced you when you left your work?"
"Er... I don't know."
"So did you just quit?"
"Why didn't you just take a long vacation from it?"
"Um... I can find another job."
"OK, thank you."
Twenty minutes later: "How long did you spend in
"About a month."
"OK, thank you."
The French guy was already getting apoplectic when
another woman approached him and asked him the same
insinuating questions for the fifth time.
He said, "I already told you! I already told
someone over zere! I am here as a teacher, not a
terrorist! I am just a teacher, why do you do zis to
The woman said, "You told the police, but I am
security. I don't know what you told them. I want
you to tell me."
"Zis is ridiculous!"
"Sir, it is not helping for you to be upset. Just
do what I say and we can finish."
"It has been two hours! Everyone else is through,
you hold only me! Why? Just because I have been to
It took ages to calm him down, and any minute I
expected him to walk out and catch a plane back to
After nearly four hours, the French man and I were
cleared simultaneously for passage, and we grabbed our
documents and passed through the gates, only to be met
by yet another layer of 'security' who took our
"I am head of security," she said, "and I want to
ask you a few questions. Sir, what is the nature of
your visit to Israel?"
He was simply stunned. Meanwhile someone had
carted his baggage to him and he saw that it had been
ripped open, the zipper broken. He stared and said
flatly, "I told security already everything. Why is
my bag like zis? I want to complain."
"Sir, which airline did you come on?"
"What? Turkish Airlines. Why?"
"OK, you can complain to them at their desk later.
First I must ask you a few questions."
I winced, figuring the veins in his head would
finally explode. After more quiet bursts of outrage,
he was waved aside and detained some more while I got
my last interrogation.
"What is the nature of your visit to Israel?"
"What was the purpose of your visit to Syria?"
"Why did you go to Lebanon? It is not a normal
touristy place like Spain or Italy."
"Why did you travel in the Middle East? What is
interesting to you?"
"How long did you stay in Syria?"
"What was the nature of your visit to Egypt?"
"Did you make any friends in the Middle East? Do
you keep in contact with any of them? Do any of them
have family in Israel?"
I was so relieved I was actually being talked to
and given a chance to explain myself that I felt
almost grateful. I answered as inanely and politely
as possible. I told her I came to the Middle East
because I like history and deserts, and I don't speak
any Arabic, so it was hard to make any friends in the
Middle East. I had met some nice tourists, though.
She seemed pleased, gave me my passport back, and
waved me through.
I found my baggage and discovered that at least one
had been unpacked and repacked, which surely didn't
take four hours. Meanwhile they never asked me even
to open my heavy, bulky carry-on. It passed through
the whole song and dance unchecked.
Anyway I was just grateful they didn't freak out
about my Arabic textbook or discover the Palestinian
scarf I had stuffed in some folded wool socks. A very
nice woman at the information desk let me borrow her
phone and call my Russian-Israeli friend Dan, and he
came to pick me up at about 5:20 a.m., God bless him.
We'll travel to Eilat, hang out for a few days, and
then I'll head to Palestine.
Again, please reply if you would like updates from
Ramallah. If you know anyone else who might like to
get the updates, feel free to pass this on. Have a
great summer everyone.
P.S. Anyone in Israel or Palestine or Jordan this
summer, I'd love to visit you or invite you to the
West Bank some time. Please keep in touch!