TLV: Parts I, II, and III
"I couldn’t tell what was true and what was false anymore. Everything was a mash of everything. Nothing was real. Nothing was fake. They said everything I was saying was wrong and I could feel myself starting to believe them.
I'm not sure if this is about the occupation and borders, the government's use of interrogation and what that really looks like, or my final attempt at healing. I've thought recently, that the three cannot be divorced as topics from each other as they relate to my life and so writing my experiences as they happened, in the way that they happened to me, will perhaps best serve the purposes of healing while shedding light on truths. This by no means is an account of tragedy whose scale is comparable to Palestinians, Africans, and others who have suffered at the hands of Israeli occupation and brutality for decades. My cognizance as a survivor who suffered minimally is very, very, real and I carry that guilt with me every single day from the moment I returned to my home. That guilt is a part of my story.
I have left out, intentionally, names/parts of this story to protect the identities of individuals and families.
My story has been split intentionally into parts. The following are parts I, II, and III which cover my travel to the TLV airport, being red-flagged there, and a portion of the interrogation. Writing my experience has been challenging because of the trauma I returned to the States with, and so I have chosen to slowly release parts of the story over a longer period of time.
In July of 2016, I had travel plans to spend two weeks in the West Bank at a Palestinian University through a cultural exchange program. Everything was all set; things had come together as if they were meant to be. The program had a lengthy application process which I had completed and heard back from, I had applied to a competitive scholarship on campus and was awarded the money to put towards my travels expenses and program tuition, but above all, I had convinced my weary parents to grant me the permission to travel to a land occupied by the state of Israel. I was so sold on the trip that I bought the ticket before my parents even knew I planned to leave. I knew in my heart that I was going to visit Jerusalem and no power on earth would stop me.
And so I packed my bag with my Birkenstocks, travel journals, and anything and everything else I thought I'd need. I remember being at home the morning of my flight looking into my mother's eyes. I remember in her eyes this look of intense fear. She pleaded with me once again, as she had countless times over the past few weeks, "please don't go." I laughed as if she were joking with me, and continued pairing socks for my new Vans.
I took one photograph that entire trip, and it was from the window seat of the plane with my DSLR. My layover was in the US and from there my flight was directly headed to Tel-Aviv. I had a nervous knot in my stomach that I couldn't get rid of with all of the ginger-ale on that plane. I still have that photograph and I hate looking at it.
When we landed, I picked up my luggage and headed toward border security. The lines were incredibly long and I found myself surrounded by what felt like hundreds of people. As I stood in line I noticed many Jewish student groups who were traveling together wearing matching T-shirts. Some people were with their families while others looked like they were traveling with friends. Most people who I noticed were traveling alone appeared to be Jewish. Instantly, I felt that knot of nervousness grow tighter and tighter. "It's going to be fine, you're fine," I kept telling myself over and over again. But the reality was, that I was a Muslim woman of color with a history of activism, traveling alone. Very few times had I ever felt so incredibly conscious of the color of my skin and the presence of the hijab that framed my face. Both felt like heavy weights on me that I couldn't shake off even if I wanted to. I felt like I stuck out; like the people around me were watching me, wondering just as I was wondering, why I decided to put myself through this alone.
Finally, it was my turn to approach the front desk. The man, Interrogator 1, asked to see my passport and I handed it over to him with a smile. I couldn't tell if I was overcompensating with the consistent flash of my teeth or not. I was nervous because I knew what was at stake. I didn't want to be deported. I would rather have been hit by a bus in Jerusalem than be sent back from the airport. When I gave him my passport, that was the last time I had my passport in my own hands until the very end.
He asked me for my father's name. I told him. He asked me for my father's father's name. I paused. My grandfather had passed when I was a little girl and I always knew him by the name his grandchildren called him endearingly. I racked my brain for a solid 15 seconds and the name finally arrived at my tongue. He asked me why I was traveling, and I told him. Not once did he make eye contact with me throughout this process. He finally looked up from the paperwork in front of him and waved his finger towards the back left corner of the massive space. He told me to take a seat there and that I will be asked more questions.
I looked around me and noticed other families and groups being let through and none of them had to go towards the back. My heart began racing and my eyes widened. He gave my passport to an officer and I followed him to a small waiting room with mobile walls. The room was full and there was one empty seat open next to a black woman that looked to be around my age. She was by herself like me. I sat down quickly and pulled my phone out to call my parents.
My father answered. I told him what was happening and I told him not to worry. I told him that there were others here and they probably just wanted to ask me a few more questions before I was given permission to enter. I got off the phone and looked around to see who else was there. There was a group of black men sitting in the corner in suits and ties, a few Muslim families, and a white family with very light eyes and light hair. When the white family spoke to each other, it was in some eastern European language that I couldn't understand. It was definitely not in Hebrew.
An hour passed. I was surprising myself by how I had kept my cool this entire time. Although I was nervous, I felt this stillness inside of me. It's like my body knew I needed to survive this and it would do anything, even keep completely still, in order to get through it.
My name was finally called by one of the guards. She told me I could keep my things in the room and no one would touch my stuff. I didn't want to argue, so I just followed her into the first office. There was a man, Interrogator 2, there with my passport sitting behind a desk. He seemed happy to see me and he welcomed me into the room. I sat down and felt comfortable and a little more at ease. He asked me for my father's name, my grandfather's name and why I was entering Israel. I told him. He gave me a small slip of paper to fill out. I had to write down my full name, my place of work/university, my phone number, and my e-mail address.
He asked me if I was in contact with anyone who was Palestinian. That was a tough question for me at the time. two of my best friends are Jordanian/Palestinian and my partner at the time and his entire family were full Palestinian. I said no.
He smiled and thanked me and said I could take a seat outside again. I sat back down in the hard seats with my legs propped up on my luggage. I looked around, some people had left and new people were now taking their places. I pulled out my phone to call my father. I told him it went well and that I answered all of his questions. I told him it was going to be fine and not to worry. I told him I was definitely getting in and I'd call him when I was on the other side.
When I got off the phone I realized the woman who I had sat down next to was still here. She smiled at me and I smiled back. I felt okay.
A few more hours passed. I had a battery and charger with me so luckily I was able to keep my phone up. I grew more and more nervous. I was waiting for the guard to come get me again with my passport and tell me I was free to go. I imagined what that would look like As time went on, everyone in the room became more comfortable with one another. We gave each other reassuring smiles and engaged in short conversations. The woman next to me told me her name and I told her mine. She told me why she was here and who she was. I shared myself with her too. She was exactly like me in so many ways. I couldn't help but think about how both of us, so like each other, were selected for further questioning. It didn't feel random.
She had been there for two hours before I had gotten there. I was amazed at her patience because I was at a point where I was becoming more and more frustrated. During this time I could feel myself overthinking everything. Had they hacked my phone when I gave them my number? Did they call my uni? Did they call my place of work? Did they hack my e-mail? Could they see that I was engaged to a Palestinian man? Could they see messages between myself and my fiancé's mother? Could they see texts in my group chat with my best friends? Should I have wiped my phone clean? Was there something on my Twitter? Should I have deleted my Facebook? The stillness of that knot grew stiller, tighter. I wanted to not exist.
The guard called me in. This time I was lead to a different room with a different man. This man was friendly but not as friendly as the first. He wore a tight short sleeve shirt that gripped his muscles. He had a short haircut and sat behind a desk with a computer. In front of him were my passport and the first slip of paper I had filled out with my personal information. My heart was racing.
I sat down in front of him and he smiled saying hello. He told me that he was nice and that I could trust him. He warned me that if I was not truthful about anything that he would know and he would send me back. I said that I wasn't going to lie. And he said he hoped so.
He asked me about school, what I had studied, what my job was. He asked about my family and where they came from. He asked about why I was here and why I had come alone. He asked where I had traveled to before. He asked if there was anyone else I planned to visit while I was here. He asked me about my values and what I did for fun. He was trying to be friendly and nice and it kind of worked. I felt like I could trust him and that it was going to be okay.
He sent me back to the waiting room without my passport. Before I left the room I asked him why I wasn't being allowed to leave. He told me that it was going to be okay and that they were just doing some checking before I entered.
When I got back to the room, she, Friend 1, was gone but her bags were there. They had probably called her in to talk. I decided not to call my father this time. I had a bad feeling. Friend 1 returned and took her seat next to me. She sighed as she sat down. She told me that they told her they had checked her phone records and they were going to hold her for further questioning. I couldn't breathe.
An hour passed. The guard called my name. I was in the room again with Interrogator 3. This time another man was sitting in a chair next to his desk and was on his phone. He seemed to be an associate. Him being on his phone made it seem like he wasn't paying attention to our conversation. The man was dressed in business pants and a long sleeve dress shirt. He had very red hair and light skin.
This time, Interrogator 3 was stern with me. He told me that if I was hiding anything at all, he would know and that now was the time to tell him. I was silent for a moment and then I spoke. I said that I was not hiding anything and that I deserved to know what was happening. I said that all the information I had given was authentic. I said that I was tired after my flight and I would appreciate it if I could have my passport back and be on my way. Another man entered the room. He asked Interrogator 3 something about something I wasn't paying attention to because it had nothing to do with me. The man glanced over at me and I smiled at him. He didn't smile back. He had his hands in his pockets and was dressed in all black. He was very tall and lean. He didn't look happy to see me. He left the room. Interrogator 3 asked me once again if I was hiding anything. I said no. He told me then that they could check my phone and my e-mail and that the next person that questioned me wouldn't be so nice. I was so angry. He escorted me back to the waiting room.
Friend 1 was still there. She asked me how it went and I told her. She said that she didn't think they were going to let her in. I didn't say anything, but I had a feeling too.
An hour later I was called in again. I entered the same room and this time Interrogator 3 was there with the man with the red hair, Interrogator 4, and the tall man, Interrogator 5. I could sense a shift in the room. If my last meeting with Interrogator 3 had been unfriendly, then I don't even know what to call this one. Interrogator 3 didn't say hello. He was not smiling. None of them were. Interrogator 5 was standing behind the chair I sat in. He asked me to repeat what I had majored in in college. I said Political Science, Human Rights, and African Studies. He said so you care about Human Rights? I said yes. He said so you care about Palestinian Rights? I looked at him blankly. He raised his volume and said, answer the question. I said I didn't know. I couldn't believe how loud he was. Interrogator 4 said well you're here because you care about the well being of the Palestinian people, don't you? After all, they are in an oppressive condition. They are. He looked at me. It wasn't a question, it was a statement. But he was looking into my eyes for an answer. Interrogator 1 said look, I'm nice. I've been very patient with you. But you are wasting my time. My friends here won't be nice like me. I told you you can trust me but you are hiding things from me. Interrogator 5 said YES she is hiding things! I will make sure that you are punished severely for what you are doing. There will be repercussions for your lying. Tell us. Tell us NOW. I asked him to stop yelling. He was yelling. I was so angry. My body was shaking but my voice was not. Interrogator 3 said why do you wear your scarf like that? What does it mean to you? I have never seen anyone wear a scarf like that. I said this is how I've always worn it. I think it looks nice. He said I think it means something. Are you part of a group? Has someone sent you here? Tell me. I was shocked. I couldn't believe I was sitting in that chair. I couldn't believe these were the questions I was being asked. Interrogator 4 said we know why you are here. Just tell us. He was stern. He said he went through my phone and he knew everything. All of the messages I had deleted. All of the emails I had. He said he had seen everything. I asked what he saw specifically. He said that I should tell him. He gave me no details. It felt like my brain was flip flopping inside my head. On one hand, I believed him. Why wouldn't Israel be able to hack me? They could see right through me. They had the money and technology to do it. So why not? On the other hand, I believed he didn't. I believed this was a ploy employed by them to get me to say things I didn't mean. To give out names I didn't need to give out.
This is the moment I broke. I began yelling louder than Interrogator 5. I had been in that little waiting room and a series of smaller interrogation rooms for several hours. I couldn’t tell what was true and what was false anymore. Everything was a mash of everything. Nothing was real. Nothing was fake. They said everything I was saying was wrong and I could feel myself starting to believe them. But I wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t a terrorist. I was an American student that literally cannot hurt a fly. I wanted to smash my head against the desk in front of me.
I broke. I was yelling, tell me what's going on. I want my passport. If you are going to deport me just let me go. Stop confusing me. Stop yelling at me. Stop accusing me. You're playing with my mind. I was yelling these things. I never yell. Interrogators 4 and 5 were smiling. Interrogator 3 was looking at me blankly while he leaned back in his chair. I was shaking. Interrogator 3 asked me once more, are you a part of any terrorist network? I said no. He asked me to leave.
I went back to the waiting room. I called my father. I told him they probably weren't going to let me in. But I'd call him when I knew more. He said not to worry. He asked me if I was okay. I said yeah I'm totally fine. He told me it wasn’t a defeat. He said it over and over. He knew his daughter. I said I knew. I was fine.
This entire time I had not cried. I was just so angry.
Friend 1 was gone and so were her bags. My heart sank. I hoped she was okay.
The next few moments my mind was reeling. I was running through the options in my head like a computer. I could feel my head overheating, burning. If I tell them about the exchange program, they might let me in. But I could jeopardize the program. If I don't they might deport me. If I tell them, I could jeopardize the program and deport me. I wanted to die. I really wanted to die. I really did.
I could feel all of them inside my head. It was like they were a part of my inner voice. It was over. I had failed.
Twenty minutes after I was out of that room I was called again. This time I wasn’t even taken into the room. I was met outside of the waiting room by Interrogator 5. I’m going to ask you one more time he said. If you do not tell me the truth then we will deport you. Why are you here? I gave him the same answer I had given all of them countless times.
You are not telling me the truth, he said. I’m giving you one final chance. If you do not tell me the truth I will make sure that you or anyone you know, your friends and your family, will not be allowed to enter the territories of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
The faces of my friends and my partner’s family all flashed before my eyes. I had precisely 10 seconds to decide what was right. Did I believe him or not. Could they do it or not. Did it matter if I entered or not.
Could I tell the truth or not.
I decided. I gave him the same explanation I had given them all along. I didn’t want to be caught lying. I didn’t want to give out the name of the University. I didn’t want to jeopardize my friends and family.
Go get your bags he said. Go. You’re leaving. We’re deporting you.
I pleaded with him. I said I was telling the truth.
He said I wasn’t. He said my friends and family would have trouble traveling anywhere. He said I would regret this day as long as I lived. He said that. He looked like he meant it. I paused for what felt like years. Maybe I hadn’t played my cards right.
So I told him. I gave him limited information. He didn’t write anything down. He just looked at his shoes as I spoke. He told me I was still being deported. I wanted to kick him. I wanted to hurt him. This wasn’t me.