Al Bireh Ya Baladna: 'Our City, El Bireh'
“Everyone has the right to leave any country,
including his own, and to return to his country.”
-Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Don’t tell them anything. Just be cool and answer their questions, okay?”
“Yes, Baba. I will. Don’t worry.”
My father’s voice echoed in my head as the plane descended into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After 14 hours of being in the air, I was ecstatic to deplane and smell the fresh air. The memory of my father’s voice wreaked havoc on my nerves as we made the slow approach from the landing strip to the gate: Had I made the right choice in coming here?
It was September of 2010. I was twenty-two and had completed my undergraduate degree four months prior. I thought my dreams of finding a teaching position, getting married, and starting my life were within my reach.
Being the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, there was only one place my parents would let me travel to alone: Palestine. It wasn’t the most ideal choice, but I needed a quick getaway. Besides, I hadn’t been there since I was a little girl. It would be nice to see my extended family and reconnect with my roots. I suggested the idea to my father; he was in charge of those decisions.
Three days later, I was gone.
Baba was around my age when he fled Palestine in 1971. Israel had captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip three years earlier during the Six Day War of 1967. He had very little choice, jobs for Palestinians were scarce and Israelis were arresting countless men during the occupation,
Baba came to America for the chance at a better life. While I was growing up, Baba worked 13 hours, seven days a week. I treasured any amount of time I was able to spend with him because I knew he was working to provide my siblings and me the life and education he never had. He frequently told me tales of how it was “back in the day.”
The story of how he met my mom when he was twenty-two-years old is my favorite.
He had started college somewhere in Detroit, but had seen my mom at his cousin’s wedding and fallen in love with her at first sight. Baba asked for her hand in marriage the next day, but knew that work had to come first if my grandfather was going to allow him to marry his daughter. He dropped out of school and worked at a grocery store for a few weeks.
After a short eight weeks, my mother and father married with only $500 to their name. He knew he would be okay and my mother trusted him. They moved to Milwaukee to build a life together. My father eventually owned a home, a car and a store. He built his own life with his family and his six children. He was a typical “American Dream” success story.
Growing up, no matter where we were, at home or in public, whenever he would see me, I remembered he always greeted me, in Arabic of course, in the same way:
“Shu ismik?” [What’s your name?]
“Amani shu?” [Amani what?]
“Amani Lugman Asad.” [My full name]
“Min wain intee?” [Where are you from?]
“Al Bireh, Falasteen.” [Al Bireh, Palestine.]
He would laugh and then reinforce my answer by telling me that I was right and that I was a good girl for the response I gave.
I loved responding to him, no matter if he asked me this once a day or multiple times every day. As I grew into my teen years, however, he continued the same method of greeting, and I would respond, but secretly, I became annoyed. The routine had become old. I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I knew who I was and where I came from. Why did he keep asking me? Regardless of my feelings, I would push my annoyances to the side and answer. His feelings were more important because he’s my father. I love him. I respect him. And he’s the head of the house.
The plane slowed to a stop and parked at the gate. The chime of the seat belt sign turning off was my cue to gather my belongings and exit the plane with the rest of the passengers. I followed them toward the exit, unsure of where I was going because the signs were in Hebrew. It wasn’t until I reached the section of the airport that connected the customs area to the terminal that I was able to catch a ground view glimpse of outside.
The windows in the airport took up an entire wall, floor to ceiling, in order to showcase twelve poles that waved the same Israeli flag, framing the green grass that was neatly cut to say “Welcome to Ben Gurion.”
I passed through the doorway at the end of the divide and found myself face to face with about 20 army green booths blocking my exit. I had my choice of “Israeli Citizen” or “Foreign Passport.” I made my way to the foreign passport booth and encountered a woman standing within it, no older than me, in an army uniform, hair in a ponytail, and a bored look on her face. Without looking up, she asked for my passport. I dug in my purse, grabbed the navy blue book she requested, passed it through the little hole at the bottom of the glass pane and waited. Her face scrunched up as she studied my passport. She looked up and made eye contact with me. I smiled. She didn’t.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?” she asked in a broken English accent.
“I came to visit my family,” I replied.
“And where will you be staying?” she countered.
“Ramallah,” I replied.
The woman stared at me, and then at my passport. “Wait here,” she said.
She exited the green booth with my passport in her hand. She made her way toward a room about twenty feet behind me, and came back almost immediately with a male, who was also dressed in an army uniform, slinging a rifle over his shoulder. He now had control of my passport. The woman returned to her position in the booth and told me to go with the man. He escorted me into a large white room that held about fifteen blue plastic chairs and a vending machine.
“Wait here,” he commanded and walked through the doorway to the right.
I sat myself in one of the plastic chairs that lined the wall and waited. For what, I had no idea. All I knew was my phone didn’t work, I had no passport, no luggage, and I was alone in a foreign country. There was nothing I could do but wait.
The sound of a suitcase’s wheels dragging along the floor tiles caused me to look up. A man was escorted into the room by a different soldier. Different people, a large majority of them Palestinians like myself, joined me in the waiting area, but no one spoke. We all stared at the muted television hanging on the wall or pretended to read a book. There wasn’t much to see inside the room, and we all looked up anytime someone walked in or out, hopeful that the soldiers were looking for one of us. The man who had my passport now stood at the doorway to the room with a cigarette in his hand and was talking with another soldier in Hebrew. They kept laughing. I could see he no longer had my passport in his possession . An hour passed. I waited. I started to get worried. What the hell was going on?
I looked up at the sound of my name being called. I was ready to leave the room that was now feeling like a holding cell. I caught a glimpse of the time on the television: another two hours had passed while I waited. It was a new man who called my name. He wore a blue shirt and black pants – no army gear, yet official looking. He led me through a doorway in the holding area into a small back office and sat me down. He reached into his shirt pocket, extracted my passport, and began typing on his computer.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?” he asked.
I hesitated. Did I not just answer these questions for the lady in the booth only hours before?
“To visit my family,” I responded slowly.
“My aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. I have a lot of family here.”
He typed on his computer. “What is your grandfather’s name?” he asked.
What the hell? What’s he doing? “They are both named Mahmoud,” I responded.
“Your father is Lugman?” he asked.
Holy crap, how did he know that? “Yes,” I replied.
He turned the computer screen toward me. “Is this your father?” he asked. The screen displayed my father’s American passport picture. I was at a loss for words, so I nodded.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” he asked again.
I could feel my temper rise, but knew I had to keep calm. “To visit my family.”
The man typed some more. He stared at me for a few seconds then leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. “How come you’re not in school? How come you’re not working? How do you have free time to come?” he asked.
I stared at him, noticing a slight smirk on his face. Was this man serious? I took a deep breath before I replied that I had just graduated college, hadn’t been able to find a job, and that my current employer gave me time off to recover from the recent removal of my tonsils. He nodded, shoved a piece of paper in front of me, and asked me to document information for him such as my employer’s name and phone number, my American cell phone number, my personal e-mail address, as well as the names, addresses, and the phone numbers of all people I’d be visiting in Israel. Eager to get out of there, I gave him the information I knew. He nodded and told me to go wait outside in the holding cell.
I waited. I had gotten off of the airplane three hours before. I was exhausted. I just wanted to go home, and by home, I meant America. It was a mistake to come here. Over the next five hours, my name was called two more times, I was asked the same questions, and then asked to present a copy of my return ticket to America. Finally, my name was called one last time. This time, I saw the man who brought me to the holding cell held my passport in his hand. He handed my passport to me and told me to walk out of the room, pass the green booths, and go find my bags in baggage claim.
I was finally free.
I rushed to flee the airport after my interrogation. It had been almost twenty-four hours since I last inhaled fresh air. I found my bags, then found Omar, my mother’s cousin, still waiting for me outside the terminal, eight hours after my plane had originally landed. The look on his face when he saw me was pure relief. He rushed to me and wrapped me in a hug.
“How did you know to wait for me?” I asked.
“After you didn’t come out, I figured they had held you, so I tried to ask security, and all they said was you were being held as a security risk,” Omar replied.
How could I be a security risk? I was twenty-two years old and a naïve young American woman. At this point, I wasn’t ready to question or think about anything that happened. All I knew was that for the last 24 hours, I had no contact with anyone from my family. No one knew what had happened to me. As Omar pushed my luggage cart out of the airport towards his van in the parking lot, I explained the last eight hours of my trip to him. He shook his head and assured me that they liked to do this to the young Palestinians who were returning to their homeland for a visit. He explained it was the airport personnel’s mission to make the traveling experience for Palestinians so horrible, they wouldn’t ever want to come back. Well, they succeeded, I thought. When we finally arrived to Omar’s van, I relaxed a bit and the excitement to begin the last leg of my journey home returned.
El Bireh is a city right next to Ramallah. Ramallah is a two-hour drive from Tel Aviv. My senses were on overload as we drove toward the West Bank. The van’s windows were wide open, allowing me to feel the warm desert air.
The view was beautiful. Israel’s side looks a bit like the United States: smooth, clean, paved roads, and palm trees all around.
As I inhaled, the familiar smell that can only be described as the “blad” (homeland) smell caused my excitement to rise. The only way to describe it is a mix of burning wood, farm animals, and dusty air. It’s a familiar smell: comforting, welcoming, and brings you peace. But I knew when the terrain became rougher and less green, we were closer to entering “our side.” This was confirmed with a sign written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:
This road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and is against the Israeli law.
I remember the last night I had been there, twelve years earlier. An Israeli soldier was on our side. He shouldn’t have been. I just wanted him gone.
He pointed his gun at me, but I hid just in time. It was the middle of the night and he was walking up and down the street as if it was normal for him to be there. He had no reason to be there, but sometimes they showed up in the middle of the night with their tanks. They made sure we all stayed inside. This was our side, they couldn’t tell us what to do. But they did. The only thing I could do was try to get rid of him. I threw the closest thing I could find, an empty cigarette box. It hit him in the back and he turned around right away, gun pointed. Luckily, I shielded myself behind the wall just in time to become invisible. The soldier looked around, saw nothing, and continued to walk up the street.
Omar’s voice brought me back to the present. “Do you know where we are?” he asked.
I looked around and noticed we were passing the “muntazah,” which was the park where I played the last time I was there. Now that we were in the middle of El Bireh, I could feel calmness spread throughout my body. Men were sitting outside of the coffee shop smoking. Children played on the street. The smell of the local bakery wafted in through my window, reminding me how hungry and thirsty I was. Omar parked the car on the street in front of my grandparents’ home. I stepped out and looked up at the two story white stone building. I let out a sigh of relief.
I had made it.
Upon reaching my grandparents’ home and saying my hellos, I called my father back in America. He picked up immediately.
“You made it? Are you okay? What took so long? What did they do?”
“Eight hours they held me, Baba. They just asked questions about who I was going to see, where I was going, about my life in America, stuff like that. Baba, if I have to go through that every time, I don’t want to come back here again.”
I heard him sigh.
“Amani Lugman Asad.”
“Min wain intee?”
“Al Bireh, Falasteen.”
This time he didn’t laugh. He told me that I was right, though; I was from Palestine and had every right to be where I was. The harassment was a method to stop young Palestinians, such as myself, from wanting to return.
After all of these years, I finally understood my father:
I had the right to return.