Interrogated at the Israel-Egypt border

View of the Egypt-Israel border, near Halutza, 2 July 2003. (GPO)


8 August 2004 — Life is moving at a strange pace these past few days. I came back to Cairo from an absolutely beautiful vacation in Istanbul a week ago and about 8 hours after relaxing back into the relative familiarity of Arabic and Cairo cooler than its been all summer, I left again, by bus across the Sinai to Taba, a beach town on Egypt’s border with Israel, the desert site of gleaming luxury hotels and unfinished peace agreements. I tried crossing the border with my dear friends Amanda and Tony. We were hoping to spend a couple weeks at an international work camp at the Lajee center (www.lajeecenter.org) in Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, in the West Bank. We were nervous about crossing, but we had our stories straight — we were going as tourists to visit Jewish Israeli friends we know from New York. As you can tell by the incomplete tense of these past few sentences, our efforts were frustrated — by the Israeli border police.

We were held for over 11 hours at the border and interrogated about every single item in our possession and repeatedly asked if we belonged to any “peace or leftist or even UN organization.” It was an incredibly harrowing experience — long periods of mind numbing boredom, staring out into the beautiful red sea, watching hordes of Israelis return from a roasting vacation in the Sinai and endless British Bible tour groups and American backpackers pass through security unharassed. An unpleasant boredom punctuated by short bursts of nerve-racking questioning about the most personal details of our lives (as culled from “offensive” sources in our bags like journals, letters, photographs, stationery, and even slogans on T-shirts), our plans for tourism in Israel, how we know each other, why we study Arabic, and do we know any Arabs. I thought about joking with them that I lived in Egypt, it would be impossible to not know any Arabs. I dropped it after they told Amanda, while flipping through stamps on her passport, that Germany, India and Malta were “Arab countries” and asked her why she had visited so many Arab countries. Each and every piece of clothing, reading material, electronic equipment, and food items that we had — including our rolls of toilet paper — was scanned by hand-held detectors and went through the x-ray machines at least 3 times. They also, somewhat apologetically, spent about 3 minutes searching through my hair!

Being interrogated and held without explanation for that long can be an interesting lesson in human relations. At first I was tempted to try and find some sort of a human connection with the guards. Keep it lighthearted and it’ll be ok, I kept telling myself, because really, it was ridiculous to be made to feel like a criminal or a security threat for carrying some photographs of Palestinian children in a playground and a letter addressed to a woman in Bethlehem. For knowing some Arabs, speaking some Arabic, living in Cairo… “Would you like some coffee?” the Ethiopian-Israeli guard asked us as she refolded my clothes for the third time — complimenting me on how nice and colorful my Indian shirts are — and returned them to my bag. Our hearts sank. We’re going to be here for a while, clearly. “Bully will get you some,” she said, pointing to a tall and somewhat goofy looking plainclothes guard: “This is Bully.” Hello Bully. “How many sugars? Milk? See, we treat you right here in Israel.” Bully smiled as he returned with the right orders — “Black for you, one sugar and milk for you, milk and no sugar for you.”

It was early in the morning, the guards were tired and bored; that’s probably why they’re being so vigilant, we reassured ourselves in calmly nervous smiles, in between relentless questions. Of course we’re going just to Israel and not to the Occupied Territories. Why? For tourism of course. Where to? Eilat, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, the Tiberias, Khaifa, Jaffa, we carefully enunciated the Hebrew pronunciation of Haifa and Yaffa. Who do we know? We produced names and phone numbers of Jewish Israeli friends in Jerusalem and Haifa and Tel Aviv. Why do you have all these Arabic books? They’re children’s books, for my friend’s kids — she’s a Jewish Israeli who is doing a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU). They flip through the books for 45 minutes, unconvinced by the cartoon images of donkeys and camels and carts. “Ah, your Jewish friend in Tel Aviv, his last name is Emir, an Arab name.” “Aiwa,” Tony replied too fast in Arabic, “I mean, yes.” “Aiwa, … ahh, you speak Arabic … interesting.” Bully smiled at the other guards. Once again, scrutinized for Arabic, any trace of this criminalized language.

My faded red phone book doubles as a note book in Cairo and has some scattered impromptu notes from Arabic plays and conversations with people, even directions to cafe houses — in my scrawling Arabic handwriting. One of them had the words “Armed Forces” in them — a particular coffeehouse in Cairo is located behind the “Armed Forced Hospital” in Ma’adi and my notes clearly said that. I had to answer questions bordering on the completely inane for about 20 minutes about why I had the words “armed forces” written in Arabic in my phone book. This was relatively early on and I managed to keep my sense of humor and laugh about how ridiculous their suspicions were — especially when the next set of questions were about a context-specific phrase from a play I had seen —”mafish jibne” (there’s no cheese).

They question each of us individually. One woman seems especially concerned about why I don’t have a job in Cairo. How does my Arabic study stipend from the American University in Cairo (AUC) support me? How do we all know each other? Tony and I are friends from NYU, we met Amanda in Cairo last year during a summer Arabic course at AUC. And now you’re studying Arabic again, she asked me incredulously. The cover picture on one of my books sets them off. The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish mystery novel set in Istanbul, has an image of a mosque on the cover. What’s this? Its about Turkey. I let them read the blurb: A lawyer whose wife disappears. Is this about Islam? Al Quds? I’m dumbfounded by how any image with a dome and a minaret makes them twitch. Wordlessly, I show them another comment from the blurb: “A splendid novel … as delicious to our mind’s palate as a Turkish delight and as subtle in its design as a Persian rug.” The Orientalism of the San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer is happily lost on them, but they are willing to believe that the book might be innocent.

A young woman who looks no older than eighteen triumphantly pulls out a scrap of paper among Tony’s files with phone numbers of Israeli friends. Innocuous enough. But the other side of the paper revealed World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) letterhead in Italian). Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, a flurry of heated discussion in Hebrew among the not-so-bored-anymore guards … “What is this? Why do you care about Iraq?” Tony pleaded ignorance — “It’s not mine, I asked an Italian friend for a piece of paper to write some numbers on and this is what she gave me.” They seem unconvinced. “Are you sure you’re not part of a leftist organization?” I take a deep breath as they return to my bag. Please, please let them not find my striking black and orange WTI T-shirt. Luckily, in my hasty packing, it is inside-out and they don’t look for the logo. But they do find my second (temporary) passport. It’s brand new. I just got it in Cairo the day I was leaving in the hopes of getting the Israeli entry stamps on that one and not on my regular passport, so it would be left unsullied for possible trips to Lebanon or Syria or Iran — all places where friends are working or doing research. I explained why I have two passports and that I wanted to go to Lebanon for a friends wedding. I come up with names of fictitious Christian Lebanese-American friends whose wedding in Beirut I wouldn’t want to miss. They write everything down. Names, spelling, religion, dates of the wedding, how I know them … “Don’t worry, it’s no problem,” one of them say, “we can stamp your temporary passport — it’s quite common.” I’m not sure if I should be relieved at this momentary show of assurance …

Egyptian soldiers speak with an Israeli woman on the Israeli side of the border, 2 February 1980. (GPO)

Finally, its Amanda’s turn. We’ve been sitting in a small room for 3 hours since we first walked in at 5.30 am. The sun is getting stronger and brighter over the desert and just as the guards change shift, Bully finds a photo album in Amanda’s backpack. It’s from the time Tony and Amanda spent at Aida camp last summer. Beautiful black and white images of the camp, kids playing and laughing, an unrecognizably bearded Tony smiling, people planting trees. The guards huddle around the album for a while — where was this taken? Are you sure you haven’t been to the territories before? Are you sure you don’t know any Palestinians? Why do you have a letter addressed to a woman in Bethlehem? What do you mean you thought you could mail it from Jerusalem? There’s no postal service to the territories — don’t you know there’s a war in this country? The Ethiopian guard calls her headquarters with our passport numbers as another guard assures Amanda that personal opinions are just that and everyone’s entitled to them. Good cop, bad cop.

While we sit around and wait for a decision, another guard flips through one of Amanda’s library books from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and out falls a bookmark/postcard screaming — IRAQ DEMO TOMORROW! They flip through a folder from one of her friends with articles on Arab and Palestinian film (the topic of Amanda’s thesis). These aren’t about film … ? The guards are suspicious. “The language of terrorism,” “Homage by Assassination,” “Death in Gaza,” and maps about Israeli expansion accompanying an article … none of these words and images jumping out of the academic theory-heavy articles from Social Text and Framework help our case or convince the guards that these are really about cinema studies. But what seals our fate is a small round sticker that drops out with an article (somewhat ironically) titled “Culture across Borders” — a Palestinian flag with the words: “Boycott Israeli Apartheid!”

It’s clearly all over now for us. These “incriminating” materials seem to unmistakably lead to only one conclusion — that we don’t like Israel. And that immediately labels us as a security threat. For the next 8 hours we’re individually interrogated about the last detail of our personal lives — almost to breaking point — by several of the guards and even by a special police officer who came to the border just to question us about each other. What leftist organization do you belong to? Are you a part of the International Solidarity Movement? How many Palestinians do you know? What is your religion? Your father’s first name? One more time, why are you coming to Israel? Why did you lie about not knowing any Egyptians? Are you dating an Arab now? Who is in this picture? Do you know where your friends were born? Where did they grow up and go to college? Have they come to Israel before? Why do they study Arabic? Who are their friends and what organizations are they a part of? If you don’t like Israel, then why do you want to come here?

I don’t know what they were hoping that we would confess. That we’re going to work with a bunch of kids in Bethlehem and help them pave their gardens and build a playground? That Amanda has planned two Palestinian film festivals and that Tony and I are involved with a student group calling for NYU to divest from Israel and with a global anti-war movement (WTI) holding the US government accountable for war crimes in Iraq? That all three of us think Israel is a colonial state illegally occupying Palestinian land? That we disagree with the Zionist project but do not think Israel has no right to exist? That we admire and support the brave work of refuseniks and anti-Zionist Israelis? That we think Palestinians have a right to exist in dignity?

Most of this information is an internet search away and none of it is a crime. They took down all of our information and 11 hours later returned with our passports — each of them (including my brand-new temporary passport) stamped with a huge “DENIED ENTRY INTO ISRAEL” stamp — and escorted us back to the door to Egypt. “You must go back to Egypt now, you can’t come back to Israel ever again.” Why? “We don’t believe your stories. They don’t match up. You cannot come in to Israel. We think you will visit the territories.”

Palestinians and Arabs and people of Arab descent have been dealing with this and far and far worse for years and years. Now the border police are starting to deny entry to even non-Arab, non-Muslim citizens of their most favored country — the United States of America — based on their political sympathies. It’s quite terrifying to imagine what they were trying to hide by not letting us into Israel. I wonder what will happen, if, in the near future, people flood the Israeli borders and honestly say they are going to the occupied territories. How many people can they refuse?

The most contradictory part of course, is that their refusal to let us in comes at the same time as Sharon’s open invitation to French Jews to move to Israel and at the same time as the immigration of over 250 American and Canadian Jews to Israel on ideological grounds. It’s funny how the question of Israel being at war — as one of the border police warned us — doesn’t seem to scare them away.

As upsetting as our own denial of entry stamps are to our personal and professional plans, it was far more enraging to have a small taste of the daily humiliation and frustrations and suspicions that Palestinians have to constantly face. Unlike Palestinians, we can leave, we don’t have family we’re being forcibly separated from, we are not being stopped from pursuing our livelihoods, we do have the choice to return to the places we can and do call “home.”

The afterword is that we can’t enter Israel/Palestine for now — at least not until we get some more legal advice about how to proceed. More than anything else, this experience has left us further enraged by the occupation and even more committed to continuing to work for justice in the region.

Anjali Kamat is a freelance journalist currently studying Arabic in Cairo. She completed an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University, and is an organizer with NYU Students for Justice in Palestine, the World Tribunal on Iraq, and Youth Solidarity Summer (for radical South Asian youth). Others mentioned in the story: Anthony Alessandrini completed his M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. He is the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives and is an organizer with the World Tribunal on Iraq and NYU Students for Justice in Palestine. Amanda C. Lee is finishing her M.A. in Middle and Near Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and helped coordinate the Palestine Film Festival in London this year.