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Worst. Border Crossing. Ever.

(p. 179)

As insanely busy as I was with my journalism job and the election campaign in early December 2004, there was nothing I could do: It was time to renew my tourist visa again.

I got to the Jordan River border crossing in good time, around 11:30am on a brisk wintry morning. The taxi ride up to Beit Shean was lovely. The hills along the Jordan Valley had turned soft shades of green from the recent rains.

I couldn't wait for the drive down to Amman once I crossed to border. It's usually gorgeous anyway and now, after the winter rains, I figured 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 . . . ?"

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 that level 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 to the imagination. Did they have the right to do this? Did they have any reason to do it besides trying to make me feel gross, violated, and intimidated?

There wasn't much I could do about it either way. 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 purpose of getting back to my life and jobs as quickly and painlessly as possible. I'd probably lose anyway. For all practical purposes, all they have to do is say 'security' and it's open season.

They took me to 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, even going through the secret inner pocket of my purse. One of them took my cell phone, and it was awful to see him clicking through all my friend's numbers and reading my text messages right in front of me, including several sweet notes from Qais.

I walked over to the guy with my phone. He looked up and said, "What do you want?"

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

"Curious?" he said. "Or scared?" I felt like I was in a bad TV show about crooked cops. Another teenager 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 I saw someone else intently reading a scrap of paper from my purse, I couldn't help but walk over to see what he was looking at. The guard looked at me through his eyelashes.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"Can I help you?" I shot back. These are my things, dillweed.

"Sit down and wait."

I'd gotten cocky. For other crossings I'd removed every 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 Quran verse a Lebanese 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 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 heard them say something in Hebrew that sounded like, "Definitely ISM."

This was not good. Activists for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) are routinely blacklisted and deported, their materials (photos, reports, etc.) often destroyed as they try to leave the country. And God forbid I admit I was a journalist. Even mainstream journalists had been complaining that "the treatment given to all of the foreign correspondents upon arrival in Israel is hostile . . . worse than what they now receive in Egypt or than what was once the case at the border crossings to East Germany and Russia."

They told me to wait, and I spent three hours on a hard 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. My fate was entirely in their hands.

After the first hour and a half of waiting, they asked for my cell phone PIN number so they could turn it back on. I gave it to them, feeling I had no choice. I know they took it completely apart, because the clock was wrong when I got it back. They also erased at least one of my phone book entries. Later I found out 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.

Two hours later 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 everything I'd said was technically true. But I had neglected to mention I also worked for a health development institute in Ramallah. [This, by the way, was also a lie.]

I expected the worst, but they just clucked their tongues 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 girl at the window said I would have to wait. By now it was after dark, almost 5:00pm. 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. I stood by while at least twenty other 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 vast 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 made in 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. Just tired of this asinine crap.

No dice.

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

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

Whatever. At least it was over.

As I was leaving the building, to my horror, I realized my Arab Bank ATM card and day planner were missing. I was half-tempted to leave them, I so dreaded going into that building again. But I found a guard who eventually found my card stuck in the planner they had so enjoyed leafing through.

And I was free.

The Jordanian border was a pleasant spring breeze by comparison. 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 -- ah, the sweet feeling of freedom.

But by now it was full dark. I missed the green northern Jordan beauty show entirely.

When I got to Fayez's hotel in Amman, 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 Belgian professor who had just finished a stint at Al Najah University in Nablus 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. 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."

* * *

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

Fayez and I had dinner together then headed back to his office to chat with the ever-changing assembly 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, bracing myself for the miserable hours to come.

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 ignored me.

They led me to an office with a big desk with an Israeli flag displayed behind it along with photographs of the Israeli heads of state. A woman offered me tea and crackers, but I refused. It felt too weird to accept hospitality from people who were tormenting me.

A white-haired fifty-something security chief soon came in, sat behind the desk, and asked me to name every person I knew in Palestine, including the people I worked with. I felt he was trying to intimidate me into being or at least feeling like a collaborator. I assumed 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, arrested, 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.

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?"

"I really don't remember."

"Are you sure?"


He looked at me intensely. I held my breath.

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

Later he asked, "Why did you lie to us about what you do in Ramallah?" He said it in an almost wounded way. It was difficult not to roll my eyes. What are you, an angsty teenager?

"This," I said. "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 was half out of my chair with agitation. He nodded and wrote some notes.

"This is wasting your time, too," I reminded him.

"Yeah, but I'm getting paid."


I was told to wait again in a little detention area. One of my waiting companions looked like he was in his early thirties. He wore a nice suit and designer glasses, and his English was impeccable. He politely allowed me to gripe for several minutes about my plight before I thought to ask where he was from.

He looked at me strangely. "Here."

"Here?" I was surprised. "You're Israeli?"

"No, I'm Palestinian."

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

He told me I reminded him of his girlfriend who had gotten gravely ill following complications from inhaling too much Israeli tear gas at a demonstration at Bir Zeit University. She had disappeared into Jordan for treatment some years ago and he hadn't heard from her since. His six-year-old brother had been run over and killed by an Israeli settler bus in 1995. Abed witnessed the whole thing. The bus hit the boy, threw him into the air, then ran over him again when he landed. It never even slowed down.

Abed was gone by the time I got out of my next interrogation, so I was left to wait alone. I asked one of the guards if I could at least find out if any charges were being brought against me. The guard shook his head. 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.

"So you can just say the word 'security' and do whatever you want?"

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

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.

Then I thought, Maybe that's it. Hearing all these awful stories about wrongful arrest, detention with no trial, Qais's thirty-two 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, 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, I got through, with a three month visa no less, after being detained for about seven hours. The next time I went through they seemed to have no idea who I was.

Traveling back to Ramallah, my hard-won love (in an expensive taxi, of course—they detained me until there was no more public transport), I felt light as a feather, ecstatic about the prospect of three whole months in my beautiful adopted home before I had to deal with any of this nonsense again.

Of course, the minute I got back into town and 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.

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Copyright 2012, Pamela J. Olson

You are welcome to contact me -- pamolson @ gmail dot com