The quintessential Palestinian experience

Laila El-Haddad and her daughter, Noor, in the US in 2008.

“Its not very comfortable in there is it?” said the stony faced official, cigarette smoke forming a haze around his gleaming oval head.

“Its OK. We’re fine,” I replied wearily, delirious after being awake for 30 hours straight.

“You could be in there for days you know. For weeks. Indefinitely. So, tell me, you are taking a plane tomorrow morning to the US?”

It was our journey home that began with the standard packing frenzy: squeezing everything precious and dear and useful into two suitcases that would be our sustenance for three months.

The trips to the outdoor recreation store in preparation for what I anticipated to be a long and tortuous journey across Rafah Crossing to Gaza. The insect repellent, the mosquito netting, the water purifier, the potty toppers for my kids and the granola bars and portion-sized peanut butter cups. This time, I wanted to be ready, I thought to myself, just in case I got stuck at the crossing. The crossing. My presumptuousness is like a dull hit to the back of my head now.

In addition packing the suitcases, we were also packing up our house — my husband Yassine was finishing up his residency at Duke University and set to start a medical fellowship at Johns Hopkins in July. In the meantime, we were “closing shop,” putting our things in storage, selling the rest, and heading overseas: me to Gaza, my husband to Lebanon to visit his family; and eventually I was to meet him there (assuming I could get into Gaza, and then assuming I could get out). Yassine is a third-generation Palestinian refugee from the village of Waarit al-Siris in northern historic Palestine; he was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon and holds a laissez passer for Palestinian refugees. Israel denies him return to his own home — or even to the home of his spouse in Gaza. So when we go overseas, we often go our separate ways; we cannot live legally, as a unit, as a family, in our own homes.

I hold a Palestinian Authority passport. It replaced the “temporary two-year Jordanian passport for Gaza residents” that we held until the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the mid 1990s, which itself replaced the Egyptian travel documents we held before that. A progression in a long line of stateless documentation.

It is a passport that allows no passage. A passport that denied me entry to my own home. This is its purpose: to mark me, brand me, so that I am easily identified and cast aside without questions; it is convenient for those giving the orders. It is a system for the collective identification of those with no identity.

We finished packing as much as we could of the house, leaving the rest to Yassine who was to leave a week after us, and drove four hours to Washington, DC, to spend a few day at my brother’s house before we took off.

First, we headed to the the Egyptian embassy.

Last year, my parents were visiting us from Gaza City when Rafah was sealed hermetically. They attempted to fly back to Egypt to wait for the border to open — but were not allowed to board the plane in Washington. “Palestinians cannot fly to Egypt now without a visa, new rules,” the airline personnel explained, “and no visas can be issued until Rafah is open,” added the Egyptian embassy official. They were in a conundrum, aggravated by the fact that their US entry stamp had reached its six-month limit. Eventually, they got around the issue by obtaining an Egyptian tourist visa, made easier by their old age, which they used to wait in Egypt for one month until Rafah Crossing opened again.

I did not want to repeat their ordeal, so I called the embassy this time, which assured me the protocol had changed. Now it was only Palestinian men who were not allowed to fly to or enter Egypt; women were allowed and could get their visa at the Egyptian port of entry. I was given a signed and dated letter (6 April 2009) by the consul to take with me in case I encountered any problems. It read:

“The Consular Section of the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt hereby confirms that women, who are residents of the Gaza Strip, and who hold passports issued by the Palestinian Authority are required to get their visa to enter Egypt at Egyptian ports and NOT at the various Egyptian consulates in the United States on their way to the Gaza Strip for the purpose of reaching their destination (i.e. Gaza Strip).”

With letter and bags in hand, we took off, worried only about the possibility of entering Gaza; the thought of not being able to enter Egypt never crossing my mind.

Two long-haul flights and one seven-hour transit later, we made it. I knew the routine by heart. Upon our arrival, I was quick to hit the bank to buy the $15 visa stamps for my children Yousuf and Noor’s American passports and exchange some dollars into Egyptian pounds. I figured it would help pass the time while the lines got shorter.

I then went and filled out my entry cards. An officer came and filled them out with me seeing my hands were full, a daypack on my back, Noor strapped to my chest in a carrier, Yousuf in my hand.

We submitted our passports and things seemed to be going smoothly. Just then the officer explained he needed to run something by his superior. “You have a Palestinian passport. Rafah crossing is closed …”

“I promise it will just be five minutes,” he assured me. But that’s all I needed to hear. I knew I was in for a long wait. It was at this point I yanked out my laptop and began to Tweet and blog about my experience. At first I thought it would simply help pass the time; it developed into a way to pool resources together that could help me, and ended as a public awareness campaign.

The faces were different each time. Three or four different rooms and hallways to navigate down. They refused to give names and the answers they gave were always in the form of cryptic questions.

The first explained I would not be allowed entry into Egypt because Palestinians without permanent residency abroad are not allowed in; and besides, Rafah Crossing is closed, he said (my response: so open it). I was told I was to be deported to the United Kingdom first. “But I have no British visa,” I explained. I was ordered to agree to get on the next flight. I refused. I didn’t come all this way to turn back.

I was escorted to the “extended transit terminal.” It was empty at first, save for a South Asian man in tightly buckled jeans and with a small duffel bag, who spent the good part of our time there there in a deep sleep. During the day the hall would fill up with locally deported passengers — from villages and cities across Egypt, and we would move our things to the upper waiting area.

Most of the time was spent in this waiting area with low-level guards who knew nothing and could do nothing.

At different intervals, a frustrated Yousuf would approach them angrily about “why they wouldn’t let him go see his seedo and tete [grandpa and grandma]” and why “they put cockroaches on the floor.” When we first arrived, he asked if these were the “Israelis,” his only experiences with extended closure, delay, and denial of entry being at the hands of the Israeli soldiers and government. “No, but why don’t you ask why [Israelis] are allowed through to [Egypt to] sunbathe and we aren’t allowed to our own homes?”

Rabina kbeer,” came the response, signifying impotence. God is great.

There was very little time I was given access to anyone who had any authority. I seemed to be called in whenever the new person on duty arrived, when they were scheduled for their thrice daily interrogation and intimidation, their shooting and crying.

Officers came and went as shifts began and ended. But our status was always the same. Our “problem,” our case, our issue was always the same. We remained, sitting on our chairs, with our papers and documents in hand, waiting.

Always waiting. For this is what the Palestinian does: we wait. For an answer to be given, for a question to be asked; for a marriage proposal to be made, for a divorce to be finalized; for a border to open, for a permit to be issued; for a war to end; for a war to begin; for a child to be born; for one to die a martyr; for retirement or a new job; for exile to a better place and for return to the only place that knows us; for our prisoners to come home; for our homes to no longer be prisons; for our children to be free; for freedom from a time when we no longer have to wait.

We waited for the next shift as we were instructed by those who made their own instructions. Funny how when you need to pass the time, the time does not pass.

“You need to speak with whose in charge — and their shift starts at 10am.” So we pass the night and wait until the next morning. “Well, by the time they really get started it’s more like noon.” So we wait until till noon. “Well, the real work isn’t until the evening.” And we wait until evening. Then the cycle starts again.

Every now and then the numberless phone would ring, requesting me, and a somber voice would ask if I changed my mind. I insisted all I wanted to do was go home; that it was not that complicated.

“But Gaza is a special case, we all know that,” I was told. Special — as in expendable, not human, not entitled to rights, I thought.

Unfamiliar faces that acted as though though I was a long-lost friend kept popping in and out to see me. As though I were an amnesiac in a penitentiary. They all kept asking the same cryptic question, “So you are getting on a plane soon, right?”

First, a gentleman from the Palestinian representative’s office that someone else whose name I was meant to recognize sent. “It’ll all be resolved within the hour,” he promised confidently, before going on to tell me about his son who worked with Motorola in Florida.

“Helping Israeli drones do their job?”

“That’s right!” he beamed.

An hour came and went, and suddenly the issue was “unresolvable,” and I was “a journalist up to trouble.”

Friends and family in Egypt, the US and Gaza worked around the clock with me, calling in any favors they had, anyone they knew, doing anything they could to get some answers and let me through. But the answer was always the same: State Security and Intelligence says no, and they are the ultimate authorities. No one goes past them.

Later a second Palestinian representative came to see me.

“So you are not going on that second flight, are you?”

“What are you talking about? Why does everyone speak to me in question form?”

“Answer the question.”

“No, I came here to go to Gaza, not to return to the US.”

“Ok, that’s all I needed to know; there is a convoy of injured Palestinians with security clearance heading to the border with some space; we are trying to get you on there with them; 15 minutes and it’ll all be resolved, we just need clearance, it’s all over,” he assured me.

Yousuf smashed another cockroach.

We were taken down a new hallway. A new room. A new face. The man behind the desk explained how he was losing sleep over my case, how I had the whole airport working on it, how he had a son Yousuf’s age. He then offered me an apple and a bottle of water and told me to rest, a command I would hear again and again over the course of the 36 hours.

Is this man for real? An apple and a bottle of water? I thought to myself, my eyes nearly popping out of my face.

“I don’t want your food. I don’t want to rest. I don’t want your sympathy. I just want to go home! To my country. To my parents. Is that too hard to understand!?” I screamed, breaking my level-headed calm of the past 20 hours.

“Please don’t yell, just calm down, calm down, everyone outside will think I am treating you badly, come on, and besides its ayb [disgraceful] not to accept the apple from me.”

Ayb? What’s ayb is you denying my entry to my own home! And why should I be calm? This situation doesn’t call for calm; it makes no sense and neither should I!”

“C’mon lady don’t have a breakdown in front of your kids, please. You know I have a kid your son’s age and its breaking my heart to do this, to see him in these conditions, to put him in these conditions, so please take the plane.”

“So don’t see me in these conditions! There’s a simple solution, you know. Let me go home! It’s not asking a lot, is it?”

“Hey now, look lady,” he said, stiffening suddenly into bad cop mode, his helpless grimace disappeared.

“Rules are rules, you need a visa to get in here like any other country, can you go to Jordan without a visa?”

“Don’t play the rules game with me. I had approval from your embassy, from your consul general, to cross into Egypt and go to Gaza; and besides, how else am I supposed to get into Gaza?” I shouted, frantically waving the stamped and signed document in front of him as though it were a magic wand.

“So sue him. State Security supersedes the foreign ministry’s orders, he must have outdated protocol.”

“The letter was dated 6 April, two days ago, how outdated could it be? Look, if I could parachute into Gaza I would, trust me. With all due respect to your country, I’m not here to sight-see. Do you have a parachute for me? If I could sail there I would do that too, but last I checked Israel was ramming and turning those boats back. Do you have another suggestion?”

“What is it you want, lady? Do you want to just live in the airport? Is that it? Because we have no problem letting you live here, really. We can set up a shelter for you. And no one will ever ask about you or know you exist. In any case you don’t have permanent residency abroad so our government policies say we can’t let in a Palestinian who does not have permanent residency abroad.”

“I have a US visa — the stamp in my passport is expired but my extension of status document is valid until the end of June. And besides — what kind of illogical law is that? You aren’t allowing me back home unless I have permanent residency abroad?”

“I don’t read English please translate.”

“You see it says here that my status is valid until 30 June 2009.”

“Good, so then we can deport you back to the US,” he said, picking up the phone and giving a quick order for the Palestinian convoy of injured Palestinians heading to Rafah Crossing to go on without me, my only hope of returning home dissipating before my eyes at the hands of a barely literate, manipulative enforcer.

“You just said if I have permanent residency abroad I can go home, now you say I can’t, which is it?”

“I’m sorry you are refusing to go on the plane. Take her away, please.”

We were ushered back to the extended waiting area, back to the roach-ridden premises that had become our home, along with a newly arrived Luxemburger and French couple and their two children who had failed to produce their passports and were being sent back home. Here I was, about to be deported away from home, over-prepared, with my documents and signed papers, from consulates and universities and governments — and they, used to traveling passport-free within the EU, being sent back home because they had only their ID cards.

It wasn’t long before a new guard came to us, and requested we follow him “to a more isolated room.” “It will be better for you, more private. All the African flights are arriving now with all their diseases, you don’t want to be here for that! It’ll get overcrowded and awful in here.”

Given the the well-wishes that preceded my last interrogation about the “discomfort” I might endure, I somehow had a feeling where we were headed.

Before we were asked to bring all our luggage and escorted down a different hallway. This time we were asked to leave everything behind, and to give up our cameras, laptops, and mobile phones. We took our seats in the front of a tiny filthy room, where 17 other men (and one Indonesian woman who was sleeping on the floor, occasionally shouting out in the middle of her interrupted sleep) of varying nationalities were already waiting.

A brute man — illiterate by his own admission — took charge of each of the files, spontaneously blurting out vulgarities and ordering anyone who so much as whispered, to shut the hell up or get sent to real prison. The room was referred to as “habs,” or a cell; I can probably best describe it as a detention or holding room. A man with a protruding belly that seemed at odds with his otherwise lanky body was the door guard.

Officer number one divided up the room into regions: the five or so South Asians who were there for whatever reason — expired paperwork, illegal documentation — were referred to as “Pakistan” when their attention was needed. The snoozing, sleep-talking woman in the back was “Indonesia,” and the impeccably dressed Guinean businessman, fully decked in a sharp black suit and blue-lined tie, was “Kenya” (despite his persistence to the contrary). There was a group of Egyptian peasants with forged, fake, or wrongly filed ID cards and passports: a 54-year-old man whose ID said he was born in 1990, another who left his ID in his village five hours away, and so on.

By this point, I had not slept in 27 hours, 40 if one were to count the plane ride. My patience and my energy were wearing thin. My children were filthy and tired and confused; Noor was crying. I tried to set her cot up, but a cell within a cell did not seem to her liking and she resisted, much as I did.

We took the opportunity to chat when officer number one was away. “So what did you do?” asked “Kenya,” the Guinean businessman.

“I was born Palestinian,” I replied. “Everyone in here is being deported back home for one reason or another right? I bet I am the only one being deported away from home; the only one denied entry to my home.”

Officer number one returned, this time he asked me to come with him “with or without your kids.” I brought them along, not knowing what was next.

There were two steely-eyed men on either end of a relatively well-furnished room, once again inquiring about my “comfort” and ordering — always in the form of a question — whether I was taking a flight that morning to the US.

Noor began making a fuss, bellowing at the top of her lungs and swatting anyone that approached her.

“She is stubborn. She takes after her mother, I see,” said the man.

Soon we were escorted back to the waiting area. I knew there was nothing more I could do. We waited for several more hours until my children exhausted themselves and fell asleep. I bathed them in the filthy bathroom sinks with freezing tap water and hand soap and arranged their quarters on the steel chairs of the waiting room, buzzing with what seemed like a thousand gnats. Thank God for the mosquito netting.

Eventually, dawn broke, and we were escorted by two guards to the ticket counter, our $2,500 flights rerouted, and put on a plane back to Washington.

I noted on one of my tweets that I would be shocked if my children’s immune system survived this jolt. It didn’t.

My daughter vomited for the whole flight to London as I slipped in and out of delirium, mumbling half-Arabic, half-English phrases to the flustered but helpful Englishman sitting next to us. I thank him wherever he is for looking after us.

Whatever Noor had, Yousuf and I caught along with an ear and throat infection in the next days.

Eventually, we reached Dulles Airport. I walked confidently to the booth when it was my turn.

What was I going to say? How do I explain this? The man took one look at my expired visa, and my departure stamps.

“How long have you been gone?”

“Thirty-six hours,” I replied bluntly.

“Yes, I see that. Do you want to explain?”

“Sure. Egypt forbade me from returning to Gaza.”

“I don’t understand — they denied you entry to your own home?”

“I don’t either, and if I did, I wouldn’t be here.”

With that, I was given a a stamp and allowed back to the US.

Now that we are warm, clothed, showered, rested and recovered from whatever awful virus we picked up in the bowels of Cairo airport, I keep thinking to myself: what more could I have done?

“The quintessential Palestinian experience,” historian Rashid Khalidi has written, “takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified.”

In this place, adds Robyn Creswell, “connection” turns out to be only another word for separation or quarantine: the loop of airports never ends, like Borges’s famous library. The cruelty of the Palestinian situation is that these purgatories are in no way extraordinary but rather the backdrop of daily existence.”

Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist, photographer and blogger ( who divides her time between Gaza and the United States.