September 23rd, 2014

Even though I’ve already been home for two weeks, I feel the need to go back and cap off the Palestine portion of this blog, and especially to outline the unnecessarily stressful process of leaving the country. It’s taken a while for me to write about it because a. my laptop’s been out for repairs, b. my headphones broke and I pushed everything else aside to try and fix them, even packing for Santa Cruz, and c. I’ve been packing for Santa Cruz. Not to mention jet lag, which knocked me out for a good week, and was only furthered by the terrible caffeine habits I quickly picked up in hopes of countering it. It was a vicious cycle, but I’m back to living diurnally.

My absolute last day in Palestine was actually spent in Israel with Tessa. Stationed at Old Jaffa Hostel in Tel Aviv, we seized the day to be total tourists. For the first time since July, I wore shorts and sunglasses and fully switched over into Californian mode. Actually, Tel Aviv reminded me a lot of Southern California: white sand beaches, green grass, volleyball, modern skyscrapers, thrift stores, niche cafes. Even surfers, with kippah swim caps and the star of David painted on their boards. Picture San Diego in the Middle East and you’d get pretty close. It was such a different world from the one we’d been living in that it was a shock to remember that that by night, you can see Tel Aviv from the mountaintops in Nablus.

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(Tourist mode activated)

Then again, the more we toured the city, the more we realized the similarities between Palestinian and Israeli culture. Both eat hummus; both are steeped in religion but vary regionally in how strictly they adhere to their doctrines (Tel Aviv and Ramallah, for example, are quite liberal and secular); even the languages, Arabic and Hebrew, sound similar and often share the same words.

Even so, I never reached the same level of comfort in Israel that I felt in the West Bank. This is mostly my fault, because in general, the people I met during my short time in Tel Aviv were extremely friendly and helpful, even though I didn’t speak their language. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I avoided telling anyone I had visited the West Bank at all, because I assumed they would react negatively. But Tessa felt more comfortable with this and mentioned our trip to the hostel manager, who just nodded and seemed to find it normal. “Don’t worry – you’ll be fine at the airport,” she assured us, when we were discussing how to get there. “You’re young women, they won’t bother you at all.” I hoped so, but I had my doubts; from what I’d heard from the other volunteers, leaving the country was harder than entering it. One English teacher had undergone a pretty violating search when she arrived in Israel, but the one she received on her way out was much worse (I’ll spare everyone the gory details). And several of my friends sent West Bank-affiliated items in the mail before getting on the plane, in the hopes of avoiding any extra attention from airport security.

You might be wondering why the Israeli government would put so much effort into regulating people who are trying to leave their country. There’s a shroud of secrecy over Israel’s security procedures, but from what information I’ve gathered from my fellow volunteers (and, of course, the other bloggers out there), the main intent behind them is to decide who should be allowed to freely return to Israel, and who should be labeled for requiring extra control, or, worse, blacklisted and ultimately denied reentry. By comparing experiences, other travelers have figured out that the customs officers slap a barcode sticker on the back of your passport to classify your threat level, the first digit above the barcode being the significant one. Apparently, that number ranges from one to six, with six being the worst possible assignment. Now, there’s a lot of speculation over what each number actually means. According to one blogger, the “one” ranking is reserved for “white Jewish Israelis,” while a “six” means you’re “Palestinian, Muslim, or hostile.” Another just thinks a six means that you’re “super duper suspicious.” Marijke Peters from BBC Watch notes that “every foreigner living in the West Bank’s got a scare story about Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport,” and goes so far as to call the codes and intimidation “Kafkaesque.” I had read all these accounts before heading to the airport, and (as some of you may recall from my very first post) I had already been thoroughly searched and detained on the way into the country. Needless to say, I was a little anxious.

At least my taxi driver was cool. He and I rocked out to The Beatles the whole way to Ben Gurion Airport (I’ve never been in a city that doesn’t regularly play Beatles songs on at least one of its radio stations, Nablus included). He dropped me off in front of the airport and wished me luck. I had the oud over one shoulder, the trumpet over the other, a suitcase in tow, and a purse hanging from an arm. A tiny part of me hoped that any officer scanning me would think I’m too burdened down with luggage to actually be much of a threat.

I approached the security gate and tried not to look as apprehensive as I felt. In an effort to appear relaxed and friendly, I started making small-talk with the guy in front of me, a Floridian with a white mustache and a thick Southern accent. Almost everyone on the flight was American, because the final destination was New Jersey. After a few minutes his turn came up and he whizzed through questioning, and then the officer was calling me over. She started out smiling, but, just like the first time, her smile drooped a little with every question, until she was scowling and calling over another officer. Together they verified that I was American, with Arab heritage and an Arab last name; that I had visited the West Bank; that I didn’t receive any mysterious objects from anybody I had met during my stay. Then they took my passport and had me sit off to the side. Awesome, now everyone’s going to stare at me. And they did, at first. But then, a few of the Americans came over and took a seat as well. “Wow, you got the right idea, sitting while we wait for the counter to open!” the man from Florida exclaimed. His wife came too, and suddenly a small crowd of us were lounging in the area designated for suspicious people like me. The officers returned and seemed a little bemused by all the Southerners and East Coasters discussing politics and the weather. But they handed me back my passport, and brusquely told me to enjoy my flight. I quickly flipped the passport over, and saw: a six! What did I do to deserve a six?!

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Okay, listen: Tessa got a four. Giulia got a three. I had spent almost every waking hour of the past six weeks with them. And I get a six, which is rumored to be enough to bar its recipient from returning to the country? (It’s okay, my passport expires this year). “Okay, maybe I don’t understand the system correctly,” I thought. Maybe the ranking system is outdated, or all those bloggers were really just paranoid and over dramatic. After all, I wasn’t pulled into a dingy room for further questioning, right?

But as I continued through Ben Gurion Airport, I realized that both my ethnicity and the number on my passport carried more meaning here than they should have. Every time a new security officer examined my passport, they would nonchalantly turn it over to check the barcode, and suddenly hiss, “shesh”, meaning “six” in Hebrew, at their coworkers. I was taken to a special line, separate from the rest, where I was x-rayed and my carry-on items were extensively searched. In a way, this was great, because I was ushered through security faster than I’d ever been in my entire life. At the same time, I was conscious that this was because for the first time in my life I was being truly, negatively, racially profiled. Even when I was going through security on my way into Israel I had my doubts, but this time my background was indisputably the only significant difference between me and the other volunteers. 19 hours later, when I had safely arrived home in California, I opened up my suitcase and laptop and realized that both had been thoroughly searched without my knowledge, which is actually and definitely illegal.

But, hey, I got home safe and sound, and I’ll have a new passport soon. If I want to reach Palestine again (which I do), I can always go through Jordan.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep using this blog as a space to write about what I’m doing musically. I’m hoping to make it to New Orleans later this year for some jazz…

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