I wore my green Kuwaiti jean skirt suit today. I call it my mix and mingle suit. I like it because it’s completely open to interpretation and outside of exclusive religious clothing boundaries. I could easily be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish in this outfit based on how I wear my headscarf. And I was counting on that flexibility during the commence of a trip that has held me paranoid for almost the whole month of Ramadan. I was later to find out that my knowledge of different headwear styles would perhaps be what saved the day–saved me–when questioned by Israeli security before being able to obtain a visa. But I’m jumping ahead before I’ve even begun to tell you…
Boarding tickets in hand, we prepared to go through our hometown’s airport security to find a Jewish security guard that was so happy that we were going to “Israel”. She was so excited that she started telling us where to go and what to do since it would be our first time there. She wrote several places down on our boarding tickets. We left her cheerful custody to place our property through metal detectors, and well, place my body through an x-ray machine I thought I’d never go through..the kind that shows your body (darn Kuwaiti outfit–word to the wise: don’t fly with a jacket unless you can take it off. The DC airport security asks for people to take off their jackets and shoes and well, I didn’t have on much under my jacket). But it wasn’t bad, I didn’t feel violated. It was better than a pat down or strip search. I’d pick that machine anyday over someone’s hands on me or eyes on me. You just place your hands behind your head, they call for a same sex security officer to view your x-ray in a back room and that officer pages the security officer near you as to whether or not you’re okay. I guess my body met their standards, because they let me through…lol.
By the time we got out shoes back on, our Jewish security guard friend left her post of checking tickets to double as the hazmat tester. She tested our baby’s water to make sure it was H2O. How lovely of the airport staff to make sure the dearest person in the world to us had the purest water available! Alhamdulillahi ala kulli hal!
We proceeded to walk to our gate to find the Jewish lady in our presence again. After looking me up and down, she started naming all of the orthodox places that we should eat and go to. Every place she mentioned, she also qualified it in the same breath by mentioning it’s orthodox owners, neighborhood, etc. She thought we were orthodox Jews, and she was Jewish!! And mind you, I had my hijab on the nice and proper way, triangle in the back, and a pin at my neck. She then started talking to our 14-month old daughter, asking her if she was going to make aliya (Jewish immigration to Israel)! Mash’allah, she was the nicest person in the airport so far and if Israel was anything like this woman’s personality, then fun times were ahead. I like to think she was taking extra care of us from the kindness of her heart–from not letting the other security personnel test our daughter’s water to listing places to visit–and that she wouldn’t treat us any differently if she knew we were Muslim. But I wasn’t about to let her in on that information and try our “luck” :).
We then sat and waited to embark on the two-part journey that would take us to the Furthest Mosque. Being Ramadan and still flying within the same timezone, we broke our fast on the flight (I put some dates with the baby’s food). We connected in Philly, having only enough time to use the bathroom, change the baby’s diaper, and gather some liquids to hold us until the meals were served on our flight.
We caught a ride to our gate which seemed to be a mile away (I’m not exaggerating), to find a separate line with another security gate equipped with metal detectors just for traveling to Israel. In other words, it was a checkpoint. And already, people were staring. There was even a female security guard with white gloves on whose sole task was to pat women’s heads who were wearing headscarves. And you know, I was the only woman wearing a scarf. I seemed to be the only anything in there–just pick a category and I could fill it.
I must admit I was scared. Did any Muslim fly through Tel Aviv? Was it
“ok” to pray in the airport? By the looks of it, no. Seems my cover was blown and we already looked suspicious. We had already gotten in the line and after reading a sign that said that there wasn’t any access to restrooms at the gate, we left the line to find bathrooms to use. When we came back, my scarf was tied in a different and fancy-smancy way to assimilate (it was tied back, but my neck was still covered). We passed through the security “checkpoint” to find all eyes on us. There was not a seat in sight and you would’ve thought a red target sign was painted all over our bodies. That’s how many eye darts were on us. A man we were to later know as Hamid gave me his seat. “For the baby”, he said. I couIdn’t tell if he was Arab or Israeli, but I was leaning towards the former. Just in case I was wrong, I just told him “Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.” Eyes were still on us, and I felt that I had to make a speech to the people. Just as I was about to begin with “We come in peace”, the flight attendant called for all passengers with disabilities and children to board the plane.
So we got up and took our seats, deciding it was safer to pray on the plane as people were boarding than in the view of everyone in the gate’s waiting room. We sat next to a Jewish lady who married an African-American man. They had a child. We didn’t get many smiles from the plane’s guests, but you should’ve seen the looks they gave her. It seems the flight crew placed the misfits on the same row–all us multiethnic-click-the-other-box-and-yes-we-are-flying-with-our-children-on-our-laps people. But we were as “happy” as we could be given the ten hour flight ahead. Her son and my daughter became the best of friends on that flight, holding hands and waving to each other, even while half asleep.
Our 14-month old did great on our two part flight–during the first twenty minutes to Philly, she smiled and didn’t even seem to have her ears popping. What were we worried for? Then there was the 10-hour flight to Tel Aviv wherein I contemplated asking the pilot to land wherever we were, even if it was in the middle of the sea (our daughter needed extra help from the makers of Benadryl, nursing, and for us to both be enclosed in a blanket in order for her to sleep). There were just too many distractions and attractions, from other babies crying to the flight attendants talking on the intercom to the airplane aisle lights being on. Oh and the rude people crossing our aisle to get to the bathroom. We are all accustomed to sleeping in the pitch black dark with pure quiet, but we all did what we had to do, and somehow we slept.
After a grueling 10 hours in the air that left me with aches and pains in body parts that I didn’t even know I had, we arrived…to wait and be questioned, and then to hit the round running.
As soon as got out the plane, we crossed our second “checkpoint”. A series of long lines with LED lights, separating passengers with Israeli passports from all others. I wanted to take a photo but was too afraid I’d be breahing security…I’ll try to take one on the way back inshallah.
By the time we got in line, we noticed Hamid near us and he introduced himself with salaam and told us his name. Smiles. We weren’t alone. He proceeded us in line only to be standing at his window for a long time…then he was taken somewhere else…not in the same direction as everyone else. What could be the hold up? And what did that mean for us?
Our turn came to walk up to the window, and my husband was asked a series of questions all seemingly the same, but worded differently. At the same time, he was looking intensely at a computer screen that we couldn’t ser that was under the table. We could hear him typing. In italics, I will put what I was thinking at the time.
“What’s your father’s name?”
[insert Muslim father's name here to be met with frowning eyebrows]
“What’s your father’s father name?”
[insert Christian grandfather's name here for a perplexing look on the guard's face]
“And why did you come to Israel?”
To sightsee.Is that a crime?
“Do you know anyone here?”
What do you mean?
“Do you know any Israeli?”
[insert Jewish friend's name here, not Palestinian friends!!!]
“And how do you know her?”
Well, I actually don’t know her. I know of her. She and my wife are working on a project together.
“A book about what?”
A book about different religions and stuff* (you know I can’t give my book ideas away before I get them sent to a publisher…).
“Ah, and how did your wife and this woman meet?”
On a website, a peace website. [Hearing my husband trying to explain a website he's never been to, I walk up and start explaining...it's called Peace x Peace...]
[Guard motions over to other guard, gives the other guard his passport, and speaks rapid Hebrew and tells my husband to go with him. My husband leaves].
I push the baby stroller up and put my face close to the window.
The guard calls my name with a perplexed look.
“You are married to him?”
“Why didn’t you change your name?”
?!?!????? Because…I don’t have to. Not all women change their name to their husband’s…
“And what does your husband do?”
He works for Geico.
Yes.Well, that’s interesting that he knows what Geico is as Geico is not international…what can he see on his computer?
“And what does he do for Geico?”
He’s a supervisor…he takes complaint calls when people make claims.
“What do you do?”
I’m a stay at home mom and writer. I take care of my daughter.
“What did you do before that?”
I was an art teacher.
“This your daughter?”
Yes. Look up baby. Inshallah this’ll be over soon. (Guard stands in his glass booth and peers intensely at daughter)–OMG, is he gonna question her too? She only knows like 7 words.
“Do you know anyone here?”
Yes. [insert Jewish Israeli contact here].
“And where does she live?”
In Rishon Le Zion. Sorry about my pronounciation, I don’t know how to pronounce Hebrew.
“And you came here just to meet her?”
No! We came as tourists to sightsee!
“Will you meet her?”
“And where are you staying?”
In Jerusalem. In Nachlaout (Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem).
“Is that where she lives? Are you staying with her?”
No…(said this slowly as if speaking to
child), she lives in Rishon Le Zion.
“And how did you meet?”
On a website called Peace x Peace. (Guard looks confused and is fishing for more. He’s typing away, perhaps trying to find this website?) Paranoia setting in. Oh gosh, my friend is a peace activist. Do they not like peace activists? Are they pulling up something on her? Something that will cause negative consequences for me?
“Tell me about this website.”
It’s a website for women to exchange information to build cultures of peace. You can ask questions and talk with like minded people. [My friend] has been telling me about Judaism for my book and answering my questions for me. [Insert Hebrew and Jewish vocabulary and concepts I've learned about here].
“Your friend is Jewish?” (Guard looks puzzled. He knows I’m not lying to go that in depth with Jewish terms as a Muslim). Yes. You are surprised? Does that make things better? You look pleased with that response…
“Tell me about this book you are writing.”
[brief explanation, sorry not sharing til it's on the publishing press inshallah]
“Is this a muz-lem book?”
No, it’s an international book for children everywhere!
“You have an accent. You don’t sound like the typical American.”
uh oh. I thought we moved past this now and were becoming friends. Are you trying to say I’m not American enough for you? Actually sir, I develop an accent when I’m angry and also when I’m scared…can I tell you that? What am I supposed to say? You have an accent!!! My chin starts shaking… Um, that’s because I speak 3 languages. I sometime carry an accent from one to the other.
English, Russian, and Spanish. I won’t dare mention Arabic…I don’t speak it fluently anyway.
“You speak them fluently?”
(I nod yes.) Mmm-hmmmm.
“Why those three?”
My mom is Puerto Rican and in love with Russian culture.
“What were you doing in Kuwait?”
Whoa! Where did that come from buddy? You’re looking at my visa stamps… I worked for the National Council on US-Arab Relations.
(Guard looks perplexed…better help him out and me out at the same time.) I was chaperoning American girls there who were studying the culture, you know, making sure they didn’t get into trouble or do the wrong things.
“Okay, your husband is waiting in that green room over there. You may join him if you wish.” [Guard stamps a visa in both my daughter's and my passport.] Dang! It’s not over yet?!
The Green Room
I walk over to the green room which looks the waiting room of a greyhound bus station. It has a TV in it and a soda machine. Is this some kind of social experiment? I thought thus room was supposed to look like an interrogation room on Law & Order? I bet the room is tapped…where are all these conspiracy theories coming from? I spot my husband along with some other people. Hamid is in the room!!! (Is that a good thing or bad thing? Are we being questioned because we ran into him? I don’t care…it’s nice to see a familiar face when I’ve been questioned after a long flight and had to stand the whole time of questioning.)
I give cheery salaams to my hubby who looks tired. I have my daughter and my own passport in hand. My husband notices, “your passports are stamped.”
“Yours isn’t?”, I reply.
“No, they still have mine.”
I’m starting to realize that the trip might end before it actually begins. I thought we already had our visas. But you get your visas at the airport. Did we fly all the way around the world just to be sent back?
A couple of newcomers to the green room came…and left…before my husband and also Hamid were given the green light to go. We were in there so long that when people came, asking why they were here and conversely, why we were here, we said, “Its the room for special treatment. The room for special people.” I piped in, “it’s the A+ room!” a little too cheerily. We chit chat and talk as if we are in the high school detention room, or characters in The Breakfast Club.
Female guards came in and out to talk to the women being questioned. Some were taken in a back room. Only one male guard was dealing with the 4 males in the room, including my husband and Hamid. Perhaps this was the delay? How could they want to let me in, and not my husband? I think I was more suspicious but then again, my husband’s name always places him in the “random” check line at airports because of it’s similarity to other names on a certain list that is comprised of people labelled with the “T” word. You know the one I mean. We had to wait 20 min in DC for the airport personnel to check his name against names on a list in a back room. They try to be all secretive about it, but we know what they are doing. It’s not random.
Anyways, the guard finally comes out from his back room with two questions, seemingly to us both.
“You became Muslim?”
No, my husband replies. Yes, I reply. He looks confused. We explain that his parents converted, and so did I. Crystal clear.
“You came to visit someone in Israel?”
“I thought you knew someone here…”
You asked us if we came to visit someone. The answer is no. We came to sightsee.
How many more tests must we pass? Why are they still trying to catch us up in a lie that doesn’t exist?
The guard comes back out with my husband’s visa stamped. Alhamdulillah. Now to deal with Customs and baggage claim and all the stuff I’ve brought into this land.
The Green Channel
My husband was in the green room for all about 40 minutes. We were in there so long that by the time we came out, the airport was almost empty and our luggage was neatly together to the side. We didn’t even have to wait…again, that is. Then we saw green LED lights saying Green Channel. I braved myself for what was on the other side…nothing. There were no customs people. I couldn’t believe it–after all my fussing over my computer, my OCD list of what was packed in everyone’s luggage, and care to try not to exceed 6kg of food being brought in, there was no one to check up on me. I immediately started wishing I brought more food in… I wanted to take a picture of that beautiful green sign as well, but was scared. :) I just kept looking back, not believing that the questioning wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I figured I better hurry through the channel before someone changed their mind about our free pass.
Driving, Cleaning, Eating, Exploring, Sleeping
After 25 minutes of trying to find the rental car dealership in the airport and several incorrect directions, we finally found the shuttle that would take us there. We went to the rental car branch and found…guess who? Hamid!! Right on time too because the rental car people were telling us that we weren’t allowed to take their car into Palestinian territory and we didn’t know what the repercussions were if we did. They said it wouldn’t be insured…Hamid told us he took into Palestinian territory all the time, and that he was actually heading there now! A sigh of relief! Wait! Were we going to break the rules?
So we drove the one hour drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to find our apartment that we rented to not be as pretty as the pictures advertising it. To begin with, it took a while to find our apartment and since it was the Sabbath when we arrived, we couldn’t call our Jewish landlady. The apartments were marcated very lightly and we didn’t see the street sign until after the fact. Actually, of all the people walking down the street, no one knew the name of the street they were on or how to lead us to our apartment, which, by the way we were already located at. Once in the apartment which was said to be cleaned, the floors were covered with dust and so was the bed. Sighs. I spent the whole week cleaning my house so that I’d come back to it nice and clean, and I traveled overseas just to clean “our house” again. But knowing me and my OCD nature, I would’ve cleaned it anyway. I just didn’t want to. So I cleaned the floors, knobs, bed linens, crib, tables, chairs, kitchen…oh, my hubby helped too. He’s not one of those kind of men who are afraid of anything related to “womanly duties”. Alhamdulillah. That made the work go faster. I’m so happy we brought the Swiffer and Clorox wipes…
We hit the ground running ever since we took off on this massive undertaking of a journey. We arrived to this country around 4pm, pretty much starved from fasting and only getting one meal on the plane. And yes, we know that travelers don’t have to fast, but come on! It’s Ramadan, why not strive? Why not try? So after maghrib, when the house was clean, we set off to see what we came here for (mainly)…the Old City. All I can tell you is it was dark and swarming with people and merchants. We didn’t know what hit us. We did however see the Dome of the Rock as we drove to our apartment from Tel Aviv this afternoon!!! It’s that big!!! We couldn’t believe it was right there before our eyes!!! But back to after maghrib, we stopped at a restaurant just outside of the Damascus Gate, named Al Ayed, and got our grub on. We threwdown, well, I threw down. There wasn’t much to see from the darkness of the night and masses of people, except something beautiful on the restaurant’s TV: tarawih prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque courtesy of Al Quds TV. We asked our waiter to tell us how close we were to Al Aqsa. He said 5 minutes away walking if we just entered the gate. He asked us where we were from. America, we replied. All the waiters told us “Ahlan wa sahlan” with smiles.
Ahlan wa sahlan, readers. Welcome to Jerusalem. We still don’t believe we are actually here. It seems like a dream…a mirage…but inshallah, for our souls, an isra wal miraj.