Imagining myself in Palestine

Randa Jarrar writes: Trouble began weeks before I boarded my flight to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had heard horror stories about a detention area there, dubbed The Arab Room, and in my anxious and neurotic style, I had emailed a dozen people—American academics and artists of Arab, Indian, Jewish, and European descent— and asked them what I was supposed to tell the immigration officers at Ben Gurion once I arrived. They all wanted to know if I was using my American passport, and I assured them that I was. The vast majority told me not to tell the officers I would be staying at my sister’s in Ramallah. They said this would cause trouble, and offered up the names of friends and family for my use. The generosity of people poured in, and I was advised to say that I was staying with this writer, or that visual artist, or this former-IDF soldier—people I had never met, but who had volunteered themselves to be my proxy hosts. A friend of mine, who is a phenomenal photojournalist, gave me her phone number and said to tell the officers I would be staying with her, and I agreed. She told me to prepare for the officers to call her themselves once I gave them her number, as this is something they are known to do.

I was so afraid of facing the guards at the airport that I had a difficult time imagining the rest of my trip. I would picture myself walking around Ramallah with my sister, or attending a concert, or visiting my aunts, or seeing the separation wall, or staying at the American Colony Hotel for an evening, and I would draw a blank. There was a wall there, too, between my thoughts and Palestine.

Growing up, my Palestinian identity was mostly tied to my father. He was the Palestinian in the family, and when we went back to the West Bank it was to see his brothers and sisters and parents. We always entered Palestine through Amman, crossing the Allenby Bridge over the river Jordan and waiting in endless inspection lines. I remember these trips dragging on through morning and midday and well into the afternoon. My father would sit quietly, and when I complained my Egyptian mother would tell me that the Israelis made it difficult for us to cross into the West Bank. She told me that they wanted us to give up, that they would prefer we never go back. “We must not let them win,” she’d said. My relationship with my Palestinian identity was cemented when I enrolled in a PLO-sponsored girls’ camp as a tween. We learned nationalistic songs and dances and created visual art that reflected our understanding of the occupation. After my family and I moved to America in 1991, my Palestinian identity shifted again, and I began to see myself as an Arab-American. My father’s fiery rants on Palestine died out when Yitzak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish-Israeli extremist. I remember my father weeping in our American wood-paneled den. He said that Rabin had been the Palestinians’ last chance.

When my sister got a job in Ramallah last year, teaching music to children, I knew I would want to visit her. I had not been to Palestine since 1993. I had planned to go back in the summer of 1996, but I was pregnant and unmarried. My parents did not want to speak to me, let alone take me with them, in such a shameful condition, to the West Bank. I never went back with family after that. I led my own life. I moved about a dozen times over the following fifteen years—an American nomad. I didn’t want to visit the West Bank and be at the mercy of family. If I ever visited, I would do so independently. When my sister moved to Ramallah she found an apartment of her own, and it had an extra room. It was the perfect time to go. My husband booked my flight, and, thrilled, I told my sister I was coming.

I felt uneasy as soon as I arrived at the gate in Philadelphia. There weren’t, as far as I could see, any other Arabs boarding US Airways flight 796 to Tel Aviv. On the airplane, I found myself surrounded by Christian missionaries and Evangelicals and observant Jewish men. The group across the aisle had their bibles out, the man sitting next to me read from a miniature Torah, and as the flight took off, I found myself reciting a verse from the Quran, almost against my will. I am an atheist, but all the praying was contagious. [Continue reading…]

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