All this sickness has to go somewhere, and it seems it has gone directly to my stomach. In my belly is a rock of congealing violence; of fractured time and place; of the anxiety of powerlessness.
I am at the border crossing from Jordan into Israel, in order to reach the West Bank. We’ve already gone through the Jordanian side, where the process always feels vaguely confused, although mercifully quick. We are ushered into a waiting room which has an air of cheap, threadbare formality. A large circle of chairs in terrible brown upholstery are arranged facing towards each other; there is Quran playing in the background. A man comes by with a thermos of coffee; there are portraits of King Hussein hanging in the fluorescent light – he is shown young, smiling, handsome in that particular way that Arab men with strong but fine, even features and thick hair can be. This border crossing is named after him, and also after General Edmund Allenby, who held various posts in the British empire’s military and colonial administration in Jordan when the word referred only to a valley and a river, as well as in Palestine, Egypt, and Sudan.
We leave the Jordanian side and cross the “bridge” in a car. The Israeli side looks much more militarized; the first people we see are soldiers with machine guns. It is Saturday, the Sabbath, which means the crossing closes earlier than usual. The lines at the first processing point are long.
We had somewhat embarrassedly paid extra money for a “VIP” service which means there are employees who explain things to us quite patiently, and physically accompany us through every step of the process. It means we circumvent the queues and in doing so, sidestep the center of the brutal power dynamic; we brush past it rather than stand at its target in lines made up mostly of Arabs, crowded together between metal barricades.
The first man to process me speaks my father’s name, Mohamed, back at me with a shift towards recognition and mild surprise in his eyes. His hand hovers for a second as he hesitates before circling a number to indicate how potentially suspicious I am based on this brief, initial profiling. It’s the same number I’ve gotten in the past so I am relieved. I notice there is an awkwardness in the way I am clutching my passport, the only reason I am able to consider this journey.
Almost everyone who questions me asks if I speak Arabic and, with a continually growing sense of shame, I say that I prefer to speak in English. On the one hand this is a part of my deflection; my attempt to present myself as less Arab, more American, as less knowing, more blithe. On the other I feel repelled from conversing with the soldiers in an Arabic they have mastered purely in order to better occupy, to more firmly control.
After questioning I am sent to a waiting room. The TV is showing a crew’s adventures in fishing for Blue Fin tuna on National Geographic.
There is a woman wearing niqab sitting just outside the room and yelling in a thick London accent that “they don’t have a right to do this.” I think she eventually passed through with her husband, because now when I look outside the door all I can see are a woman’s feet in sandals. Her pedicure is almost the same color as mine.
At passport control, the employee takes our passports directly to the window. A few minutes later the woman at the front of the line, clutching an American passport like mine, calls out my name so I can come step in front of her.
A while later we finally collect our visas and our luggage and step out into the sun. We head to Jerusalem and to our work in Palestine. I think about how much importance and effort is poured into keeping people out of this place. It feels like it is being hidden away, in the real sense of the words.