“Give me your passport.” The young soldier reached his arms around the machine gun strapped high and tight around his chest, his stern face flushed in the Jordan Valley heat. Grasping my travel documents, he flipped to the first page of my passport, the embossed outline of an eagle glinting faintly on the cover. Above us, a fan wheezed, its arms swatting circles in the stale air. Beyond the immigration counter, travelers paused at a cafe or meandered towards the Hebrew-language signs indicating the way to the Jerusalem bus. I’m so close. I glanced back at the man holding my passport. He’s been looking at that for a long time. I resisted the swell of panic in my gut, praying that my careening nerves would not disrupt my studied, calm expression.
The soldier looked up at me. “You have to wait.” My heart sank, but I feigned confusion. “I’m sorry, what? Wait?” I tried to sound sweet. He frowned.
“Go wait there.” He jerked his helmeted head in the direction of the opposite wall, where several older Arab men slouched on dog-eared leather benches. In the corner, a woman wearily rocked a flushed, sticky-looking infant.
“Next.” The soldier was already looking past me, and I glanced helplessly at my friend, a fellow American who had sailed through immigration ahead of me, now awaiting me beneath a blue-and-white “Welcome to Israel” billboard.
“Go over there,” the soldier snapped again. A short woman saddled with weapons sauntered towards us in tawny, spotless boots. The first soldier handed her my passport and muttered something in Hebrew. The two looked at me coldly. “Go over there,” he said, for a third time. “Someone will come.”
“But my friend--”
“You have to wait.”
Hours passed, long and muted. Every hour or two I’d be called back to a small room where I’d stand, facing one or two or three armed officers, who proceeded to “interrogate” me. These repetitive interviews circled the question of my family and ethnic background. I’m Palestinian, born in the United States.
“Your name is Arab. Do you speak Arabic? Where was your father born? What religion is he? Where was your grandfather born? Have they ever been involved in terrorism? Do you know any terrorists? Why are you in the here, why don’t you stay in America? You say you like to travel. Why don’t you go somewhere else?”
I kept my composure, but inside I roiled at their insinuations. Images of my elderly relatives and their proud, simple trades--farmers, grocers, peddlers--cycled through my mind, jarring with these accusatory questions. I wanted to lash back, defend the decency of my family and the dignity of our heritage, but instead, I was quiet, compliant, desperate to appease my interrogators, to be released.
A few of the soldiers showed real, if fleeting, concern for my welfare--one security guard offered me water about four hours into the ordeal, offered to bring me food from the cafe that stood, like a taunt, on the other side of the immigration counters. (I proudly refused, and later regretted this a little). For the most part, though, I was treated with rehearsed disdain that left me flushed with anger and humiliation. They let me go a few hours after official closing time, granting me a visitor visa on the condition I stay away from “Arab zones,” like the West Bank. The stamp fell heavily on my passport, which was returned to me at last as my hosts sent me wandering, dazed, into the fading light, weak with relief, disgust, and hunger.
* * *
My day at the border left me shaken, verging on outrage, but as I pulled away that night I comforted myself that the worst was behind me. Instead, I found similar forms of anxiety-fueled discrimination infusing nearly every moment in Israel. Some would be direct--a drunk, off-duty IDF soldier hitting on me, then recoiling in disgust when he learned I was an “Arab dog.”
“What are you doing in Tel Aviv?” he spat at me.
Other times, strangers, hearing my American accent and not guessing at my heritage, confided in me their fears about the lurking Palestinians who were apt to erupt in violence at any time. They were terrorists, killers, apes, these concerned citizens warned me, and I had best stay away.
Of course, my experiences had been comparatively mild, considering the violence and dispossession experienced by many other Arabs in Israel. My relatives’ stories testified to the agony of war, the mutilating effects of displacement and cyclical poverty that I’d personally been spared. My father was born a refugee in Gaza. He had beaten the odds, leveraging hard work, audacious optimism, and a knack for learning to raise himself above the currents of his fate. As his daughter, born in the United States, I’d been sheltered from the more difficult aspects of my Palestinian heritage for most of my life. I learned of my culture mainly through the hearty mediums of festivals, fables, and food.
Now, as a young adult who had stumbled into the midst of a divided society, I finally inherited the awareness so many other Palestinians had never lived without: being born to an Arab family under occupation means disadvantage and, often, danger. The language of force and fear rang loud even in moments of silence. Ever-present checkpoints, soldiers and surveillance prevented any of us--Jews, Arabs, the in-between--from escaping the sense of imminent danger, near-chaos. Years of abuse and retaliation had embedded the crude narrative of “us” and “them” and subsumed many better human impulses, justifying cruelty. When soldiers detained me, scrutinized my papers, or mocked my heritage, I felt the deep helplessness of the occupied in the face of the occupier, yet when I looked at those young men and women, saddled with so many pounds of wartime gear, I couldn’t help but feel the oppression touched us both.
My time in Israel left me raw, and that autumn, my friends saw the change in me; I was quieter, conflicted, angry. I could not shake the weight of what I’d seen, and the shadow of the summer stretched over my formerly carefree college life. Restless, I turned towards activism, and discovered a diverse community wrestling with parallel questions of identity, racism, and privilege in their own lives. There were a few Palestinians in the mix, but I was captivated and encouraged by the entire milieu of the community--here were people asking hard questions and refusing to succumb to the status quo.
A dear friend of Mexican heritage, T, “came out” on campus that year as an undocumented student, and blockaded herself in front of City Hall to call for immigration reform and better respect for human rights. She was arrested, as expected, and we held a vigil to await her return. When she appeared the next day, shaken but defiant, we hugged and murmured our pride and relief. When she described her ordeal, I thought back to the few brief moments I’d been stripped of my passport and cordoned off, too, in that far away holding room on the Israeli border. When she spoke of growing up in perpetual fear of immigration officials and police, I recalled the cold dread in the eyes of West Bank fathers as they stood at checkpoints, glancing at the dirt as soldiers cast desultory glances at their wives and children, their guns and feet splayed or propped up on chairs in the sun.
That same year, Trayvon Martin died, leaving in his wake a grief that spilled out into streets across the nation. I marched and chanted and cried with the aching, angry crowds, but I kept towards the back of the throng. Inside, I wrestled with doubt about my place there, wondering if I was trespassing on another community’s deep and particular tragedy. I knew Trayvon’s death was not unprecedented, and that it wouldn’t be the last of its kind, and that I’d never feel the magnitude of his death like those in the black community. I marched alongside another dear friend, A, whose face was stricken with an unspeakable weariness. He wore a hoodie, intentionally––it was the same outfit Trayvon had worn on the day of his death. I knew, and A knew, that in his lifetime he’d had a thousand chances to be Trayvon.
Grief is an experience both intimate and diffuse; how, then, do we navigate the public avenues of solidarity? As an American, I recognize a responsibility for the structural injustice of this country. As a human being and the daughter of a non-white immigrant, I feel my blood boil when I recognize the pervasive poison of white supremacy, of blind triumphalism. Yet I know, too, that my white skin and comfortable economic status have exempted me from so much suffering. How, then, do I register my support of the marginalized, my protest against their oppressors?
Audre Lorde, in a letter to a white feminist critic, wrote that “to come together we must recognize each other,” and I believe that begins with recognizing ourselves, acknowledging our particular stories, and honoring this essential starting place.
I’m the daughter of my father, and that means many things. In the US, I’m a “second generation” immigrant; in Israel, I’m an unsavory demographic; at the hairdresser, I’m a strange specimen whose blonde hair possesses a surprising, “ethnic” texture. Yet I’m mostly just white--that’s how I’m most often perceived, and most frequently addressed. A stroke of genetics set me down in this world in a fair-skinned vessel, and I must own the implications of this, too, as I move forward.
But move forward I must. Sincerity, I think, is not enough. It’s not sufficient to just feel strongly; we must actively work to know, as deeply as we can, what this world looks like from inside our neighbors’ skin. We must ask one another, “What is it like to be you?” We must insist on the radical act of listening. We must hear.
It’s no small feat to communicate to another human soul. We must be truly present to one another, leaning in, courageously open to the probability of being surprised, offended, or spurred to action.
Such acts of mutual presence are the birthplace of true compassion. They are ruptures in the walls between us, incubators for revolution. And we need each other at every turn, for so many of us have grown numb to our own experiences, crowded by our defenses or anchored by our particular status quo. By asking, and listening, we help one another towards deeper seeing, clearer strides.
Yes, there are casualties to exploring these depths; there is a rawness to these realms in us, and we may hurt each other on the journey, or stir up forgotten pain. In asking my father his story, I have discovered the seams and cracks in his narrative, the admissions and omissions that reveal he’s not always felt welcome here. Over the years, he’s wrestled with his English diction, dressed in meticulously chosen clothes, strived to fit the apparent ideal of an upwardly mobile, self-made man. Yet despite all this it’s too often been made clear that his brown skin, his Eastern-sounding name, and his Muslim faith render him, for many, irrevocably alien. He’s brave and uncomplaining, overwhelmingly grateful, but I can hear the ache left by these rejections. The hardships, too, are part of our story, the pride as well as the pain.
Along the way, I’ve tripped and perhaps trespassed. Occasionally, my white skin, and all it could imply, has triggered the latent and understandable anger of others. A few times on the street in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’ve been threatened by swinging fists and curses from those who are angered by my whiteness. This frightened me, but I can only imagine the pain that preceded these moments. I know we are all breathing toxic air, and that such rage comes from a place wholly unknown to me.
Some rejections have come to me backwards. Once, an overzealous (white) activist, seeing me address a crowd at a pro-Palestine event, heckled me: “Get off the stage and let a Palestinian speak! Stop silencing Arab women!” My friends in the audience whipped around, several of them shouting back, “She is Palestinian!” I mostly found this funny, but also wondered about the nature of solidarity, of the tendency of outsiders to want to dictate the terms of another’s struggle.
Since the day I marched alongside A to mourn Trayvon Martin, our country has plunged even deeper into the long-latent grief wrought by white supremacy. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Baton Rouge, important voices, streaked with anger, are rising. I’ve been unsure of my place in this emerging movement; I’ve tried to read, repost, and listen for the truth inside the fray. I’ve attended some rallies, spun a few well-intentioned essays, and cried many private tears. And still I wonder if such “support” does anyone much good--is this useful work, or simply the reflex of a guilty conscience?
I return to the words of Audre Lorde, about meeting one another, even while acknowledging the sometimes-radical differences in our experiences. Perhaps rhythm and balance are key--time apart to cultivate self-awareness and responsibility, and time together to listen, work, strategize, and dream.
Certainly, I see that each community is bound by particular experiences, unique griefs and dreams, that require private, safe places for unpacking. As an outsider, I respect these sacred terrains, but I hope to find places to meet, too. My whiteness must be dealt with, reconciled, but dwelling there too long can be an obstacle to progress. Instead of wallowing in apologies for the color of my skin, I am trying hard to “start where I am,” inside the body I’ve been given. I strive to remain conscious of my privilege, but also make room to nurse my own wounds, casualties of my experience as a female, an Arab-American, a religious minority. I must ask, persistently, honestly, openly, how these forces are at play in the spaces where I live and work, and how my actions might exaggerate or alleviate the injustice around me. And I am in need of community, of diversity, to be the bulwark against complacency, to check me when I drift towards cynicism.
We all need this, after all, the affirmation of our stories, if only because oppression’s main work is the undoing of our sense of presence and identity. In our vastly different experiences of injustice, one thing T, A, and I all share are the various assaults on our selfhood, the attempts to negate us as human beings by reducing us to a color, a document, a demographic. We begin by knowing our own truths, by grasping defiantly to our worth, and by boldly believing that we belong, preciously and crucially, to each other.