Worst. Border crossing. Ever.

Pamela Olson
30 June 2005

I went to Wadi Rum in Jordan this weekend (the desert from where Lawrence of Arabia marched on Aqaba) to renew my visa. Very nice -- sweet tea, rock climbing, desert sunsets, moonlit dunes, undercooked chicken, and lute music. And my Bedouin guide awkwardly hitting on me. The usual.

The border crossing, both in and out, was a breeze. I was in and out in 15 minutes. I couldn't believe my luck. The only problem was a Jordanian official who stamped my passport on accident even though I asked him not to. He immediately cringed, apologized, and put a big X through the offending visa stamp. "See?" he said. "Cancelled. Not obvious."


Coming back in, I cleared security without a fuss, but the Israeli passport control girl told me once again that they were out of paper and therefore couldn't possibly give me a stamp on a separate sheet of paper.

But this time I had some time to kill, so I just kept saying, "I know, but this has happened to me before, and it's a BIG PROBLEM for me if I don't have a visa stamp." I said it over and over, about ten time in the same unflinching tone of voice, until she finally caved in and went to the next room to grab a visa paper for me. So it's all good.

On the news front, I have to admit that the anti-disengagement riots by extremist right-wing settlers in Gaza and Israel are a lot of fun to watch from this side of the Green Line. I hate when people get hurt, and Lord knows I hope they don't succeed. But we've always known these guys were crazy nutcases who regularly act this way toward Palestinians. But harassing Palestinians isn't usually considered newsworthy.

Settlers fighting IDF soldiers and throwing nails onto busy highways in Israel, on the other hand, is quite photogenic. Anything that exposes the dark side of Israel's government's policies (i.e. coddling, funding, and handing stolen property over to maniacs in the name of ethnic cleansing and dispossession until they became uncontrollable) in such a public manner is warmly welcome.

West Bankers and Gazans have for so many years borne the brunt of these state-subsidized crazies, and now they are taking their psychosis out on Israel. Why? Because Israel dares to take a couple of their beachside villas built on stolen Palestinian property away, even though they're doing it in the name of expropriating even more Palestinian property in the West Bank. It's fascinating how abjectly brazen and delusional they are. It's a circus.

But the best part came on CNN last night when PM Ariel Sharon criticized these people, whom he armed, built houses for, and gave so much money they don't even need to get jobs and thus have all the time in the world to block intersections, glue government building keyholes shut, and hole themselves up in abandoned buildings cum bunkers in the Gaza Strip. (All the money that's been drained into the settlements has also done a lot to destroy welfare and health care in Israel, where 20% of kids go to bed hungry every night.)

Even 12-year-old girls are getting arrested for rioting and attacking police officers, and sometimes the parents refuse to identify the incarcerated kids and pick them up, supposedly as per the child's request. Of course the kids shout lots of inciteful slogans at the police officers during the day, but it's reported that they cry a lot at night.

Anyway, on CNN last night, Sharon said plaintively, "These hooligans are lawbreakers and disruptors of the peace. They do not represent the majority of settlers, who obey the law."

My Palestinian American roommate and I nearly fell on the floor laughing. In the context of Israel a settler is, by definition, an illegal squatter on stolen property. Having the gall to say on international television that the majority of settlers obey the law is... impressive.

Unfortunately, some settlers have used their anti-disengagement sentiments as annother excuse to attack defenseless Palestinians. An attempted lynching yesterday by settlers in Gaza, who bludgeoned and tried to beat an 18-year-old Palestinian boy to death while IDF soldiers looked on, actually got some press coverage in Israel because an Israeli correspondent saw the whole thing.

Other settlers more quietly terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank, knowing the police are too busy with riots in Israel proper to even contemplate doing anything to stop them. Police almost never stop settlers from harassing Palestinians anyway, but now that the insanity of the extremist settlers is making headlines, their stepped-up harassment of Palestinians just makes Israel look even more like a chronically lawless mess that has now created a monster it can't control.

Hopefully it will wake Israelis up enough to get them to rally and actually start building a more reasonable Israel that can live in peace with its neighbors. The first step in curing any disease is recognition. The settlements are clearly a disease.

Speaking of reasonableness, here's something that made me feel very proud to be an American - an exhibition in New York of portraits of Americans who spent their lives using America's ideals to fight America's established powers. Without these people we would have far less of the truth, democracy, equality, and freedom that are the pride and treasure of our country.

My favorite quote from one of the paintings:

"Kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that."

    ~ Utah Phillips

I'm also proud of the people today who are working hard to keep the current regime from taking so many of our hard-won rights and freedoms away.

* * *

Anyway, since I don't have time to write about new developments, I'll just send something I wrote in December and never managed to send out. It's about my border crossing at that time, when they held me six hours on the way out and seven hours on the way back in. Compared to many of my friends' stories (like a German friend who was interrogated for fifteen hours in the basement of Ben Gurion airport) it was a walk in the park. Just goes to show you.

* * *

Worst. Border crossing. Ever.

December 2004

The funny thing is, it wasn't even all that bad. It was horrendous for me, but the minute I tried to gripe to a Palestinian about my woes, I was shamed, as usual. There's something demoralizing about never winning the "My day was worse than your day" contest. No matter how bad I feel about the things I see and experience under this depressing occupation, I can grab any random Palestinian off the street and his situation is a thousand times worse and he complains less.

And here I am complaining about my lack of opportunity to complain. I guess I should count my blessings.

I got to the Jordan River border crossing in good time, around 11:30 a.m., on a brisk December morning. The taxi ride up to Beit Shean was surprisingly pretty. The parched hills along the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley had turned soft shades of green from the recent rains.

I couldn't wait for the drive down through northern Jordan to Amman once I crossed to border. It's usually gorgeous anyway, and now, after the winter rains, I figured now it would be some kind of technicolor green Biblical fantasyland.

Unfortunately, I would never find out.

The border guards asked the usual inane questions:

"Do you have any weapons?"

"Why were you in Israel?"

"Why are you going to Jordan?"

"Who do you know? Where have you been? How did you finance this trip? What's your mother's shoe size? Has your cat been properly spayed or neutered? By whom? Where were you the night of October 22nd, 1996...?"

It would be as tedious to write them all down as it was to sit through them.

Apparently my bags didn't have enough stuff in them to make me look like a real backpacker, and my story didn't seem quite kosher either. They continued the interrogation for an hour, down to the very last detail of my last three months in "Israel", my life before that, and my plans for the future.

I'd gotten up very early and hadn't eaten all day, and my made-up story didn't hold water. I just wasn't prepared for this kind of grilling. They caught me on a number of inconsistencies. Looking self-satisfied, they called be back to the interrogation rooms for a security check.

Looked like the spiders had caught themselves a fly.

First they did one of their famous gratuitous full body searches. They didn't go as far as making me strip entirely, but they didn't leave much up to the imagination either. I've been to my share of Sigma Chi and Synergy parties, but I still felt violated. Did they have the right to do this? Do they have any reason to do this besides trying to make me feel gross, violated, and intimidated? Almost certainly not.

But there was not much I could do about it. If I refused anything, they could detain me indefinitely or even deport me. I didn't know my rights exactly, and I didn't have the money to sue anybody if I did. Even if I knew my rights and had unlimited funds, that kind of thing would mean months of delay, which would defeat the whole purpose. And I'd lose anyway. For all practical purposes, all they have to do is say 'security' and it's open season. Either I submit or leave. Unless they put me in administrative detention, in which case even leaving wouldn't be an option.

They took me into another room where they went through every compartment of every bag I had, rifling through my things like it was a clearance table at Dillards. Shaking my clothes, opening every little compact and bottle, reading my daybook, jacking with my cell phone, even going through the secret inner lining pocket of my purse.

The cell phone was the worst. 80% of the names in my phone are Arabic, like Mohammed, Mustafa, Ahmed, etc., and it was awful to see them clicking through all my friend's numbers and even reading my SMS messages right in front of me. I walked over to the kid with my phone, and he said, "What do you want?"

I said, "I'm just curious what you're doing with my phone."

"Curious?" he said. "Or scared?"

Someone's a Shin Bet wannabe.

Another was reading every page of my day planner. I wanted to scream. At least I hadn't taken my journal through. That would have killed me.

When they were intently reading a scrap of paper from my purse, I couldn't help but walk over to see what they were looking at. The guard looked at me up through his eyelashes.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"Can I help YOU?" I asked right back. These are MY things, dickweed.

"Sit down and wait."

I'd gotten cocky. For other crossings I'd removed every single tiny trace of anything that suggested Arabic or Palestine from my things before I went, and I tried to pack heavy so they didn't get suspicious.

But it was a pain carrying a heavy pack around, and during the last three crossings they hadn't looked much further than a quick glance at the main compartments.

This time they found a Qur'an verse a friend had given me in California, a drawing some kids in Jayyous had done of me with my name written in Arabic next to it, my Bravo Supermarket card with its Al-Bireh address printed in Arabic, my Arab Bank ATM card, and, most damning of all, a Palestinian Red Crescent identity card with my picture affixed to it, my name on it, and an Arabic stamp covering the picture.

"Er, what's that doing in there?"

I managed to 'explain' it all in a way that almost kinda fit, but it was more convoluted than Bill's dissembling about Monica. I heard them say something in Hebrew that sounded like, "Definitely ISM."

Activists for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) are routinely blacklisted and deported, their materials (photos, reports, etc.) routinely destroyed as they try to leave the country. This was not good.

They told me to wait, after which I spent three hours on a cold metal bench in a cold room staring at the clock. I could describe the wait in detail: being hungry and thirsty, my stomach twisting into hard little knots as I thought about all I had to lose. My life here. My friends. My plans. The new apartment I'd just started fixing up. The dates I'd made. The Nazareth restaurant where I get my spicy chicken sandwiches every other day. Ziryab, the artsy coffee house where I spend too much time. Al-Silwadi Juice where I get my carrot, pear, and ginger cocktails. The view of the gorge and the Muqata'a on my way to work. They could take all that and a million other things away from me if they felt like it. My fate was entirely in their hands.

After the first hour and a half they asked me for my cell phone PIN number so they could turn it back on again. I had no choice but to give it to them. I know they took it completely apart, because the clock was unset when I got it back. They also erased at least one of my phone book entries. And later I found out that they had questioned an acquaintance of mine based on information they'd taken from my phone. I felt ill and violated. I felt foolish and like I'd let people down.

After two hours I asked to talk to them again, and after another hour they agreed. They asked if I wanted to change my story. I said yes. I told them that everything I'd said was technically mostly true. But I had neglected to mention I also work for a health development institute in Ramallah.

I expected the worst, but they just clucked at me and said, "Lies have no legs," and that now the security check would be a bit faster. After another excruciating hour and a half or so I was released to cross the border.

At passport control, I was stopped again. The passport girl said I would have to wait. By now it was after dark, almost 5:00 p.m. I was nearing my sixth hour in Borderland.

"Listen," I said, "I've already been checked very thoroughly, and they said it was OK."

"I'm sorry, but they are security. We are... something else."

"What are you?"

"Er... police."

I'm a bad liar myself, and I know one when I see one. She was sweet, but she wasn't budging from procedure. So I stood there while at least 20 people got their passports checked and stamped.

Then she called me up again and spent several minutes squinting at my passport and then at the computer screen, as if both contained immense reams of coded information about my life, plans, habits, pasta preferences, affiliations, and which shoe I put on first in the morning. Or maybe as if there were several pictures of me wearing subversive T-shirts, and she couldn't quite make out what they said.

I could see the computer across the way, which was identical to this one. It looked like it was from about 1992, and its screen showed nothing but a few glowing orange strings of Hebrew characters.

Then she told me to wait again.

I said, "I HAVE BEEN VERY THOROUGHLY CHECKED ALREADY. THERE IS NO REASON TO KEEP ME HERE ANY LONGER." Just like that. In all caps but with no exclamation point. I wasn't hysterical or anything. I was just tired of this asinine crap.

No dice.

The next time I was called up, she asked me if I was a tourist. Half-delirious from hunger and frustration, I said, "Yes," as much out of habit as anything.

She said, "OK," and stamped me and let me pass. I blinked. What kind of game was this? Had she even talked to security?

Whatever. At least it was over.

And then I discovered that my Arab Bank ATM card and daybook were missing. I was half-tempted to leave them, I so dread going into that room again, but I found a guard who eventually found my card stuck in my daybook that they had so enjoyed leafing through.

And I was free.

The Jordanian border was by comparison a pleasant spring breeze. And riding in the taxi to Amman, 100 km at a stretch without being asked who you are or what you're doing or who you know or why you're there -- aaaahhhh. A free country.

And by now a dark country. I missed the green northern Jordan springtime show entirely.

I got to my friend's hotel in Amman, where he laughed and said he was about to get suspicious he'd never see me. I said I'd been held six hours. He said, "Only? You were lucky."

Yeah, yeah.

He told me they'd probably bugged my phone, so I'd better junk it.

A Belgium professor who had just finished a stint at An-Najah University in Nablus (in the northern West Bank) was sitting in the reception area with us. He heard my border story and said that one of his friends, an Israeli woman, had done years worth of research on the Bedouins and their dispossession by the Israeli government inside Israel. And then at an Israeli border, the guards had confiscated her computer and erased the hard drive. She lost everything. It was a catastrophe.

The Belgian guy said, "Israeli people just don't expect their own people to treat them this way."

Try being a Palestinian.

I told them about the office I work in in Ramallah and how it was occupied and trashed in 2002, coffee poured down the copy machines, computer hard drives twisted beyond recognition and pissed on, graffiti on the walls, photos vandalized, even the roof was busted up.

The Belgian professor went on to describe how every other day in the refugee camp near Nablus, like clockwork, Israeli tanks and Jeeps would go in, provoke the young kids until they started throwing stones, shoot and kill one of the kids, and then leave. And each time it got reported in the papers that "Another terrorist was neutralized."

He said, "It's like a ritual."

* * *

The next day I went shopping at the Mecca Mall in Amman. Later, back in downtown, I bought a kilo of Toufahteen nargila tobacco for a friend in Jayyous and some Bahraini rose and melon tobacco for myself.

Fayez and I had dinner together and then went back to his office to chat with the ever-changing bunch of Arabs and foreigners, politicos and tourists, activists and Iraqi drivers who hang out at the Al Sarayya. Fayez told me he suspected I'd be at the border the next day for about eight hours. But he was wrong. Off by one hour.

* * *

After chatting too long with some British backpackers at breakfast, I arrived at the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge crossing around 11:30, my entrails sodden with dread.

It went pretty much as expected. They knew who I was and where I was coming from. They had a document full of the details I'd given the guards up north. They jerked me around and made me wait and asked me ridiculous questions and tried their best to make me feel like a criminal. After several hours I asked to speak to a lawyer, but they pretty much ignored me.

Worse yet, a white-haired fiftysomething security chief behind a big desk with a massive Israeli flag displayed behind him tried to get me to name every person I knew in Palestine, including the people I worked with. I assumed that the next step would be asking me details about them. But there was no way I was even going to give names. Who knew what kind of list they might be put on? For all I knew they might be harassed at their next checkpoint, or arrested, or beaten, or, God forbid, targeted based on the fact that I'd given the authorities their name. Going back to Palestine wasn't worth that possibility.

I said, "Well, I know Mohammad, Mahmoud, Ahmed..."

He narrowed his eyes. "What are their last names?"

"I'm really sorry, I'm terrible with last names. I don't remember."

He was not amused. "Look. You can go to Ramallah tonight, or you can go back to Amman. It's up to you. But it's also up to me. So maybe you should be more specific when you answer my questions. Now what are their last names?"

That threat pretty much shut me up as far as griping about my rights being violated, but I still wasn't going to give out the names of innocent people just because some jerk leveled a threat at me, which was probably illegal on his part anyway. No way was I going to give satisfaction to some wank with a computer full of my personal information due to a gross violation of my privacy based on nothing except suspicion. He was trying to intimidate me into being or at least feeling like a collaborator. I guessed he'd just have to send me back to Jordan.

I told him I still didn't remember anyone's last name. He asked again, but nope, still couldn't recall.

Apparently I'd called his bluff, because he finally just sighed and went on.

Later he asked me, challengingly, how I'd ever summoned the utterly impudent audacity to lie to Israeli security services.

I said, "This. This is why. Waiting hours and being questioned and treated like this for nothing. We both know I am not a threat to Israeli security. This kind of thing has no place in my life or anyone else's. I have better things to do." I remember being half out of my chair with agitation at this point. He nodded and wrote some notes.

"This is wasting your time, too," I reminded him, trying to highlight our shared plight in this diabolically retarded game.

"Yeah, but I'm getting paid."


I was left to wait again. One of my waiting companions was a twentysomething whom I took for a European. His accent was unidentifiable, but he was wearing a nice suit and designer glasses, and his English was impeccable. He allowed me to gripe for several minutes about my plight before I thought to ask him where he was from.

He looked at me strangely. "Here."

"Here?" I said, surprised. "You're Israeli?"

"No, I'm Palestinian."

He was a lawyer, it turned out, named Abed, and he gave me his number in case we got separated or he got through first and I ran into more troubles.

We talked for about an hour until I got called up for questioning again. He told me a few stories about his life under occupation, about his girlfriend at Bir Zeit University who had gotten gravely ill from complications that arose from inhaling too much Israeli tear gas at a university demonstration. She had disappeared into Jordan for treatment some years ago and probably died. He hadn't heard from her since. His baby brother had also been run over and killed by an Israeli settler bus. His brother had been six years old at the time, around 1995, and Abed had witnessed the whole thing. The settler bus hit the boy, flung him into the air, and then ran him over when he landed. It never even slowed down.

Abed did manage to get through the border while I was in my next interrogation. And then I was left to wait alone. I asked one of the guards if I could at least find out what charges were being brought against me. Abed had told me that Israelis are technically not allowed to hold Palestinians longer than three hours without bringing a charge against them. This rule is, of course, routinely violated, but I thought maybe they'd balk at an American who knew her rights.

The guard said this rule didn't apply to Americans, only Palestinians, and when it comes to foreigners and security issues, Israel pretty much has a blank check.

I said, "So you can just say the word 'security' and do anything you want?"

He stared into space a few moments as if he'd never thought about it that way before. Then a smile lit his face. He looked at me and said, "Yes."

They don't even need a reason to harass or spy on someone. There are no rules. Welcome to martial law in the Age of Ashcroft. Just say 'security' and the world's your Abu Ghraib.

There was more questioning, more waiting, more stomach knots, more wondering. At one point, while I was waiting, tears stung my eyes and I couldn't seem to hold them back.

I tried to figure out why I was crying. I'd heard so many horrible stories that this was purely nothing. These two wasted days of nervousness and humiliation were horrible, but they were nothing.

And then I thought, maybe that's it. Hearing all these awful stories about wrongful arrest, detention with no trial, Ammar's 32 hours tied up at a settlement and psychologically tortured, about houses being smashed and kids being killed... you can't let it all in, because any one of them is too much, and all of them together is like a thousand-foot waterfall landing in a small paper dixie cup.

But here was just a taste of it, just a sampling of what it actually felt like to be treated like a criminal, your rights trodden on, the time of your life wasted just because of who you were. And it cracked the dam of my defense mechanisms.

Anyway, obviously I got through, with a three month visa no less. And the next time I went through they had no idea who I was.

* * *

Later I was talking to a friend about the experience, and about cruel, senseless, and unforgivable things in general. I said it seemed like after a while you would have to start going numb to injustice, otherwise it would drive you crazy. But I told him I didn't seem to have the capacity to stop being outraged about things I feel like I should be outraged about. "I always get... amazed."

My friend said, "Yeah, me too!"

"But I have to. I mean, because otherwise they win. I can't just accept things that I shouldn't accept."

"Yeah, because then it becomes normal... it becomes the baseline, what is expected, and then..."

"And then you forget that it isn't normal, that you have to fight it. Even in America, they put people in these shitty miserable jobs and act like that's the best anyone can do."

"People forget what is possible."

"Yeah, it sucks. In this world, as it is, either you are in constant pain, or you become an asshole."

"I know. How do you find a balance?"

Considering their circumstances, I think the Palestinians do an amazing job for the most part. No matter how bad their day was, at the end of it they find a group of friends and sit around and talk and laugh. But some have told me that they are laughing with their mouths only. They don't feel it. And whenever there is silence, the horrified misery of this life creeps in again. I really have no idea how they stay so reasonably cheerful, at least on the surface. All I can figure is that they have no choice.

It's impossible to explain what it feels like to be occupied by a foreign military. It's just something you have to experience. It's pretty much an unqualified bad if it's not asked for, and it invariably involves brutality and humiliation beyond the previous scope of my imagination. Knowing what is going on here, much less living it, is constant pain if you don't find ways to block it out. And blocking it out feels bad, too.

In a Palestinian population half that of Oklahoma, three people per day have been dying violent, horrible deaths for four years, and many more mutilated, and this while land is being stolen, honest livelihoods and people's homes are being destroyed by the dozen, and the world's press, as the final kicker, blames the victim and vilifies the Palestinians as a bunch of terrorists.

It's a pretty typical scenario. Bush the Elder blamed the Kurds, Clinton ignored the Rwandans, Europe whistled while the Bosnian Muslims were being raped and massacred, etc. Which makes one feel all the more jaded. And all the more resolved not to take refuge in becoming jaded, and not to stand by silently while things you consider unforgivable are happening.

* * *

The following is adapted from "The Farmer and the Cowman should be Friends" from the musical OKLAHOMA!

    The Arab and Israeli should be friends

    Oh the Arab and Israeli should be friends,
    Yes the Arab and Israeli should be friends.
    One man buys an F-16,
    The other grabs a rock and sling,
    But that's no reason why they can't be friends.

    Holy Land folks should stick together,
    Holy Land folks should all be pals,
    Rabbis dance with jihadists' daughters,
    Mullahs dance with the settlers' gals.

    I'd like to say a word for Al-Aqsa*,
    Their sexual frustration makes them thuggish,
    They run with all their might
    If soldiers come in for the night,
    But when asking for PA pay, they're not sluggish.

    I'd like to say a word for the settler,
    His life's built on intolerance and pillage,
    He roams in Palestine
    with just his Uzi and some yine**,
    And poisons wells and fields in every village.

    Oh the Arab and Israeli should be friends,
    Yes the Arab and Israeli should be friends.
    One man builds a bomb with ease,
    the other mows down olive trees,
    but that's no reason why they can't be friends.

    Holy Land folks should stick together,
    Holy Land folks should all be pals,
    Rabbis dance with jihadists' daughters,
    Mullahs dance with the settlers' gals.

      * Kita'eb Al-Aqsa, or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - a particularly annoying militant faction of Fatah who generally ruin everything.

      ** Hebrew for "wine"

Next: From 'Gook' to 'Raghead' - Thoughts on Iraq

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