June 26, 2009

I arrived in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv a few days ago, en route to Ramallah. Of course I didn’t tell that to Israeli passport control. Two of my friends recently got deported from the Israeli border/airport, one because he was googled and found to have written an article critical of the Israeli government, the other because she told the truth — that she was headed to Palestinian refugee camps to teach art classes — and then refused to give the Israeli guards information about everyone, foreign or Palestinian, whom she knew in the West Bank. Both cases made me ill for their own sake, but they also made me sick with fear that I might be turned back, too.

To be as safe as possible, I turned my Facebook privacy settings to maximum, changed my profile picture to some Swedish girl I found on the internet, changed my website to show someone else’s pictures, and removed all the Palestine-related stuff. (A few years ago they googled me at the border and found a picture of my family in Oklahoma brandishing firearms during our annual “head out to the country, shoot at paper targets, and take funny pictures” outing at Christmas — it can be found about one-third of the way down the page here — and gave me a hard time about it.) I still spent weeks developing minor ulcers over the thought of it while at the same time feeling ridiculous that they should get to me so badly even from two continents away, without yet having said a word.

I left Oklahoma during the second week of June and spent a week in New York visiting friends, which was amazing — so good to see everyone, meet great new people, and stay out ’til 6am most nights (which I was hoping would cancel out the upcoming jetlag, but in fact it doubled it). The cheapest flight to Tel Aviv went through Zurich with a two-hour layover. Zurich seemed like a cool place to visit, so I asked Swiss Air how much it would cost to extend my layover to three days instead of two hours. They said it would cost ten extra dollars. Somehow I scraped it together.

I found a very charming CouchSurfing host named Hannes who let me stay on his fold-out couch in his loft near the Zurich Old City. (If you haven’t checked out CouchSurfing.org, I highly recommend it — great people to meet and free places to stay all over the world and interesting travelers to host right in your home town.)

Coincidentally that weekend in Zurich, a Belgian friend from college named Paul-Olivier Dehaye was having a huge party at his house, which was modeled after the co-op I lived in during my senior year at Stanford — Columbae — and full of interesting international characters. Another Columbae alum, Alby Chan, was also there on vacation, and the theme of the party, aside from wine, foosball, and painting on the walls (the house was going to be demolished soon to build something more profitable), was showing up in brightly-colored clothes that could be exchanged until everyone was wearing all one color, like a bunch of wandering Rubik’s Cube faces. Few people managed this goal, but many clothes were exchanged nonetheless. Good times.

Monday morning, after an anxious, sleepless night, it was time to board the final leg of my flight to Tel Aviv. I was naturally surrounded by American Jewish kids on their way to Israel for a Birthright tour — a free trip to Israel for American Jewish kids paid for by Jewish organizations to strengthen ties between Israel and American Jewry. I talked with them but stuck to my story about being a tourist in Israel just in case the guards decided to cross-examine us, or in case an Israeli plainclothes agent was listening in. (I know how ridiculous this sounds. All I can say is that things even more absurd have actually happened at Israeli border crossings, and I would rather be paranoid than sorry.)

At last our plane pulled into Ben Gurion Airport, and it was time to face the Gatekeepers of the Holy Land — Israeli passport control. My stomach was churning, but I did my best to look utterly unconcerned. It helped that on the way to passport control, an American Jewish girl asked me a question, and we started chatting, which gave me a chance to rehearse my story and took my mind off what was coming. She asked me where I went to college, and when I said I went to Stanford, class of 2002, she said, “Oh, then you totally probably know Justin Weinstein-Tull!” I totally did — he was in Columbae the year I was there.

We talked about him for a bit until we got to the passport control line, where without thinking I chose the shortest line instead of trying to size up which of the guards looked most lenient. It was too late to change now, but my guy looked reasonable, solidly-built with a shaved head but not unkind-looking. I had a big story cooked up about working at a think tank in DC and going to Jordan for work (my passport revealed that I’d spent four months in Jordan in 2007, when in fact I spent nearly all of those four months in the West Bank but didn’t get any Israeli stamps in my passport), etc. But in the end I scrapped all that and just said I was a tourist going to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Eilat. Luckily he didn’t ask me about Jordan.

I asked him to please stamp my passport on a separate paper because I said that after I left Israel, I was heading to Turkey via Syria. Not true. I just don’t like to have Israeli stamps in my passport because it makes it harder to claim I’m a tourist every time I come in. (And yes, you’d think Israel would have all this on the computer, but for whatever reason this has rarely stopped them from believing my usual touristy lies.)

He looked at me suspiciously, then gave me a Dick Cheney-esque smirk. He stamped a three-month tourist visa on a separate sheet of paper all right — my gate pass. My heart sank. I knew what was coming. As I passed the next gate, a female guard asked for it and tore it into four pieces.

I said innocently, “Wait, that’s my visa. Don’t I need that?”

She said, “No, you only needed it to give to me.”

I knew that wasn’t true, but I wasn’t in any mood to argue and risk getting deported after getting so achingly close. If I kept my mouth shut, I would at least get three months in Ramallah before I would have to go through another border and deal with all this again.

Last time they tore up my visa like this, they failed to put my information into the computer, which turned me into an instant illegal immigrant. It also made it more dicey to go through checkpoints in the West Bank. Without a valid visa, soldiers have an excuse to detain me at checkpoints, or worse. Luckily they usually just don’t care. If you tell them you lost your visa paper and you’re on your way to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to get a new one, they’re usually happy for you to be someone else’s problem. But you’re still, as always, subject to their whims, and sometimes they will hold up whatever vehicle you’re in, even if several other people are sharing your service taxi, while they decide your fate. It’s a massive pain, but that’s life here, and for me, even without a visa, it’s much easier than most.

When I tried to leave the country without a visa last time, sure enough, they treated me like an illegal immigrant who had no proof of legal entry. I tried to look all sweet and innocent and bewildered and outraged that the airport had lied to me, and somehow they let me pass after only a couple of hours of making me sweat. Hopefully something similar will happen next time. As always, there’s only one way to find out.

After the gate guard tore up my visa, another Israeli girl stepped up to me to ask a few questions — what I was doing in Israel, what I had been doing in Jordan, whether I had been here before, whether I was planning on doing any kind of volunteering while I was in Israel, etc. It was almost scary how easily all the friendly lies came. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience, like I imagine method acting must be like. Improvisation on the theme of Israeli tourism. It apparently worked — I got through without my luggage even being ransacked.

And without a visa. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.

(By the way, it apparently pays to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport a mainstream, busy kind of time. If you arrive at 7pm or 2am, as I have before, it gives them that many more hours to detain, question, and harass you.)

I caught a sherut (Israeli shared taxi) from the airport to Jerusalem, forgetting that sheruts from the airport to Jerusalem usually pass through half a dozen settlements and several Israeli-only roads in the West Bank before getting to Jerusalem proper. I shrank into my seat in shame every time we passed a Palestinian town whose access road had been blocked by the Israeli-only road (literally closed off with giant cement blocks) and every time we passed the scores of new Israeli-only apartment buildings being built illegally on West Bank land.

When the only people left in the sherut were me and an American Jewish girl on her way to the Hebrew University, we started chatting. I asked her innocently, “We were in the West Bank for a while, weren’t we?”

She smiled. “Yeah. Those roads used to be a problem, but not anymore.” She meant Palestinian resistance to them, both legitimate and illegitimate, had pretty much been quelled, at least for the moment, which was true.

“Hmm. And a lot of settlements seem to be expanding.”

She smiled again. “Yes, they’re expanding.”

“They’re all expanding,” I said in amazement. “They’re expanding like they’re going out of style.”

I’m too exhausted by the subject to talk too much about settlements right now, but here are some articles in case you’re interested.

Israel defies US with plan for 240 new homes on Palestinian land, The Guardian

Barak authorizes construction of 300 new homes in West Bank, Haaretz

Fictions on the Ground, New York Times

Seeing Through Israel’s Delay Tactics, The Boston Globe

The basic idea is that Obama said in no uncertain terms that Israel should immediately stop all expansion of illegal settlements (every single one of them is illegal according to international law), and Israel has ignored him despite the fact that the US government gives Israel $3 billion a year in aid. Not only are they expanding Jewish-only settlements, they continue to evacuate and demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.

It’s possible Obama will step up more serious pressure after giving Israel some kind of grace period while he figures out health care and the economy. I don’t know. I hope for the best and try to be prepared for the worst, as always. I suppose the silver lining at the moment is that the press continues to report Israel’s violations of international law with slightly more honesty than usual. Might actually presage a genuine policy change down the line.

I try to tell people to be patient — that political change of this magnitude takes time, like trying to turn the Titanic, and Obama’s trying to change or fix or generally un-FUBAR about 500 things at once while under crushing political constraints that are guaranteed to warp whatever he tries to do, even under the best and most generous assumptions about his intentions. But all the homes and trees still being knocked down, and all the construction cranes above brand new industrial colonial blights on this ancient landscape… It’s 2009 for Christ’s sake, not 1894. Khalas. (Enough.)

Finally we reached East Jerusalem at the entrance to the Old City near the bus stop where I could catch a cheap ride into Ramallah. The driver said, “I won’t get out here to help you with your baggage. You know why?”

“No,” I said, though I had an inkling.

“One time a taxi driver was in this area and got out to help someone, and an Arab got in and drove away, with the baggage and everything.”

I nodded tiredly. This was what usually happened when I made the mistake of taking an Israeli cab into East Jerusalem. They always had a random story about something bad an Arab once did as an excuse to avoid the whole area and not trust any of them.

The driver dumped me off a few hundred meters from where I wanted to be, rather dismissively, but I felt like kissing the ground. In short order I was on a bus to Ramallah…

…and stuck in a traffic jam at the Qalandia checkpoint.

Home sweet Palestine.

I found a cute, cozy apartment on the Ramallah version of Craig’s List. It’s near all the best nightlife in Ramallah, and I’m sharing it with two Palestinian guys, a dentist and an artist. The dentist, Mohammad, has a practice near Al Manara, the main traffic circle of Ramallah, and he studied in St. Petersburg, so he speaks Russian as well as Arabic and English. And Italian, I think — he studied in Italy for a while. The artist, Mahmoud, paints, sings, and plays the oud (lute). He’s performing in a play tonight at the Cultural Palace (the biggest cultural venue in the West Bank) to a sold-out show. Mohammad says Mahmoud sometimes plays the oud on the veranda in the evenings in our apartment. Sounds lovely to me.

I didn’t really announce I was coming to Ramallah, both to keep a low profile in case Israeli agents were trolling around on the internet (I know — ridiculous) and to minimize how much it would hurt if I got turned back at the airport. So it’s fun running into old friends who are surprised to see me turn up suddenly after all this time.

All in all, it’s good to be here. A bit surreal, like a video of someone else’s life. I still feel like a visitor, spending most of my time with people I don’t yet know sorting my housing situation out, etc. They say you can never step into the same river twice, and it’s certainly true of Ramallah. It will be interesting to get reacquainted with the city. The most obvious difference is that business seems to be booming more than ever.

Now that the violence has gone down, the foreigners have flocked in in force, so the nightlife is a bit crowded (and more expensive than it used to be, which means my idea of ‘nightlife’ will probably mostly involve sitting on rooftops smoking hookah with friends, tossing frisbees or kicking soccer balls around, and going to small, inexpensive concerts — not bad, really). Most of my favorite old places didn’t used to have signs announcing where they were. You just had to know. Now they all have signs and about three times the number of patrons. Good for the owners, bad for the sense of intimacy Ramallah used to have, but we’ll see how it is after I’ve settled in and checked it all out.

Here are some pics I took of Ramallah last time I was here, for reference.

At the same time, the reality of occupation is hitting me again (yeah, yeah, coffee and beer and breezy summer nights are all good, but horrors are still going on all around, especially in Gaza), and it may take me a while to remember how to deal with it in a reasonably healthy way. People feel so helpless and cynical — more than before, I think. Kind of crushed and just keeping their heads down and waiting to see what Obama will do, without much hope.

People appreciate Obama’s words so far, but they are well aware that words are very easy. If no actions follow — if Obama gives up on the very first and most obvious move of forbidding Israel to build any more illegal settlement housing units, which as I mentioned are popping up by the hundreds all over the West Bank — what hope is left will wither absolutely. Hard to tell what will happen then. Probably nothing good.

Already I feel exhausted by it, as if I just don’t want to hear anymore. I’m full of more stories and feelings than I can express from the previous times I was here. I think (hope) the worst of this feeling will pass once I’m writing again. During the year and a half I spent in Oklahoma getting the book off the ground, the only times I felt this antsy were when I took a week off from writing, and right now I haven’t written in about two weeks. On July 1 I’ll be able to move into my new apartment and start setting up house and trying to find an office with an extra desk (and air conditioning) where I can work every day without distractions.

The subject line is because when I started this email, I was eating a cheeseburger in the cafe under my apartment, which has free wireless and an ambient temperature of about 88 degrees. It’s called the Birth Cafe, which to me brings to mind a delivery room full of sweat and blood and screaming, but it’s a pretty chill little place with decent cheeseburgers, if not adequate air conditioning. If only Ramallah had a beach…

Of course, Ramallah is only about 30 miles from the Mediterranean as the crow flies, but Walls and checkpoints turn the journey into an all-day production if not an impossibility for Palestinians who don’t have permits to leave the West Bank (and writers who don’t have cars), and we haven’t yet figured out how to ride crows.

Much love,

P.S. For my blog from Ramallah in 2004-2005, click here.

For more information about Hamas and the elections of 2006, click here.