Passage to Palestine
As a kid, I always looked for Palestine on the map and was confused as to why I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t on the atlas in class or in the textbooks. Throughout my twelve years of public education, only my seventh-grade teacher went out of his way to educate students about something that was not even in the curriculum when it should have been.
Where am I from?
I spun my plastic globe around in circles as I tried to pinpoint Palestine. I looked up from the globe to my father across the room, watching the news.
“Dad, where is Palestine?”
“Next to Jordan. West.”
I slowly spun the globe around until I found Jordan. I placed my index finger on Jordan and slowly moved it to the left.
My dad spoke up when he noticed what I was doing.
“You’re not going to find it there. It’s only on older maps now.”
He let out a sigh.
How was he supposed to explain displacement, colonialism, occupation and illegal settlements to a seven-year-old child who has never remotely been exposed to any of that
“Banna, if anyone asks, just say you’re from Jordan.”
I grew up with a missing piece to my identity. Once I was old enough to understand my people’s history, a sense of anger and hatred took over. I watched videos of bombs being dropped, of the home invasions, the agony… it wasn’t fair. I erupted with fury at anyone who denied the truth, and unfortunately I can’t say I did in a mature way. The older I got, the more stories my father would share about his life there. The older I got, the more I tried to learn and connect to Palestine, the more I wanted to simply go home and bury my hands in her soil.
The last time my father was in Palestine was in 1994, and before that, 1972. I asked him almost every year to take me to Palestine. And every year he would say “when things calm down.” Eventually, I knew it was time to take things into my own hands. I met an international student from Palestine at my school, Appalachian State University, and we became friends. He began telling me about Palestine, the process of getting there, and encouraged me to go. After that day, it had always been in the back of my head to go. I was under the impression that it would be very difficult to go to Palestine, and it turns out this is a common misconception amongst young Palestinian Americans.
Most people know about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. In 1948, the state of Israel was established. This resulted in the Palestinian exodus knows as the “Nakba” where over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land. The majority migrated to the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan. The Israeli government continued to build illegal settlements on the remaining Palestinian land. The military occupation which began in 1967 continued to destroy the lives of Palestinians: ethnic cleansing, apartheid walls, demolitions of homes. Massive violations of human rights. I am not denying anyone’s religious history as the “Holy Land” is sacred to all Abrahamic religions. At the same time, I will not sugar-coat the horrors that occur in the Holy Land. To this day.
I was a twenty year old college student in Boone, North Carolina in 2016. It was the year I was required to do a summer internship. I did some research and applied to a tour operator association in Amman, Jordan, and got it approved. I had a long summer ahead of me. First, backpacking across Europe with my best friend, then a three-month long internship, and last but not least, an unexpected trip to Palestine. By chance, Eid Al-Fitr vacation fell during my internship, and was able to take a five day trip from Amman to Ramallah. That’s when I decided I was going to go for it. I told my mother and she was skeptical, but she trusted me to make the right decisions when it comes to traveling.
It was a three-hour flight from Italy to Amman. For the first time in my life, I didn’t listen to any music on a flight. Instead, I ended up talking to an old Palestinian man living in Amsterdam. We talked about life and politics for the entire duration of the flight. In the end he gave me his number and said if I’m ever in Amsterdam, I’m more than welcome to stay with his family. The plane landed in Amman at three o’clock in the morning. Despite me telling him I would be okay, the old man made sure my ride came to pick me up. Two of my cousins arrived and Jamil. I said our goodbyes.
The majority of my family lives in Irbid; a city in northern Jordan. I have Palestinian-Jordanian family living in Amman, but the Jordanian-Jordanian’s live in Irbid. After a couple of days, I left Amman and headed to Irbid to spend time with family before my internship started. The ride consisted of winding roads and haze. I always knew we were close when my ears started to pop due to the change in elevation. I stared out the window and remembered the summers spent in Irbid as a child. Specifically, the time my cousins and I were playing with sheep in the backyard. My mother took pictures of my brother and I riding the sheep. It was all fun and games until we were forced inside. Ten minutes later we returned to the backyard and I saw blood on the pavement and two beheaded sheep. A few hours later, those sheep were on the dinner table for us to devour. Surprisingly I reacted like a local kid. It did not phase me.
It was my first time traveling to Jordan alone. Navigating through the city and country through public transportation was all new to me. I always had family do the talking for me. It was my turn to cook and serve my sub-par dish of broken Arabic.
July 6th, 2016
It was a cool morning in the vicinity of Marj Al-Hamam, Jordan. I stood outside of my uncle’s home with my pack fully loaded and strapped. It was five minutes to six. Anxiously awaiting my ride to the King Hussein Bridge (known locally as the jisser). My ride to my internship in Amman was an elderly man that reminded me of my father. He had been my cab driver previously, and as we conversed, I mentioned I was planning on visiting Palestine. A conversation always struck up in the cab rides I took because my accent put a huge-flashy sign above my head that said “not from here.” He then offered to drive me to the border for 35 dollars, so I took him up on his offer.
6 AM comes. Still no taxi. Where was Amo? (A local custom is to call old men uncle, which is Amo in Arabic.) I needed to get to the jisser before traffic picked up. I called twice-no answer. He seemed like a reliable man. If I went back into the house to wait, my relatives would try to convince me to postpone my trip, and that’s the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to wait any longer, so I began to walk along main roads in hopes of finding a cab. Not a soul was in sight. I began to worry that I wasn’t going to make it to Palestine that day, but I kept walking. I saw a car in the distance coming in my direction. The haze made it difficult to tell what kind of car it was. As soon as I thought it might be a cab, I ran to the street to make sure it would see me. Sure enough, it was another cab. He pulled over and I approached the passenger side window. In Arabic, I asked “Will you take me to the jisser for 25 dinars?” He hesitated-but agreed. I’m pretty sure he heard the desperation in my voice.
It was a quiet ride. Not much conversation. The roads were empty which automatically made it a pleasant ride due to the absence of the honking, yelling and all other chaos that comes with driving in Jordan. Halfway there I received a phone call from Amo that was originally supposed to take me. It turned out he overslept and apologized several times.
As we drove through the Jordan Valley, I admired the sand-colored mountains as the warm breeze was flowing through my hair, and the sun was kissing my skin.
The ride came to an abrupt ending. We suddenly stopped and found ourselves at the Jordanian border in what seemed like a line of cars that went on for at least a mile. A young man from the area approached my window and said he would get me past the line of cars and through the gate ten Jordanian dinars but that I needed to hurry. I didn’t want to make the cab driver wait, and I didn’t want to waste any time, so I agreed.
I took the chance considering the cab driver did not protest which I assumed was an okay sign. Jumping from car to car with total strangers in a foreign country may not be the safest way to travel, but as an American, I have that naive sense of safety and personal uniqueness. The young man took my backpack and I hopped out of the cab and into his car. He quickly drove us to the gate and parked his car near it.
“Hurry!” he exclaimed in Arabic. We got out of the car and started running. “Follow me and keep up.” We ran through the gate. I was not sure what was happening exactly. We ran past a security officer who nodded his head at the stranger I was with. Oh, I saw what was happening. He used his wastah (influence) to make fast cash from people like me. This was making up for lost time, so I wasn’t complaining. He helped me enter the crossing and from there we went our separate ways.
We went through a metal gate that was open. He waited in line with me, got me a ticket and tags for my backpack, then put it on a conveyor belt. I asked him where I would retrieve my bag and he said, “You’ll see.” I entered the building on the Jordanian side of the crossing by the Dead Sea. It seemed like everyone around me knew what was going on except for me. I asked a man for help, and he guided me through the steps which included filling out a short form. I grabbed a form and made my way to an open seat. I looked down at the form and chuckled. It was all in Arabic. I’m fluent in speaking Arabic, but reading and writing is still an ongoing process for me. I couldn’t get past writing my name. There was another Amo standing at a table filling out his form, so I decided to ask him for help. I held out my passport next to the form so he could transfer over the information. He took my passport and held it up to his eyes. I felt so bad once I realized he had poor eyesight. What should’ve taken thirty seconds took what felt like an hour. I apologized, but he kept reassuring me that it was okay.
So far two hours passed. There were tables set up selling drinks and snacks, kids were running around and there was a lot of yelling, nonetheless this was simply a routine. I waited for about an hour until my turn in line came. I approached the window and slid my Jordanian passport and form to the Jordanian employee. We spoke in Arabic.
“Where is your visa?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Do you have a Palestinian ID?”
“No, but I have an American passport.”
“Does not matter, we have a system, you know? You are in the wrong building. You have to go to siyaha (tourist building) where Americans go.”
Great. Now I’m a tourist in my ancestral country. With a Jordanian passport, a pre-approved visa is required to enter Palestine. With A U.S. passport, visa approval is determined on site. I was born in the United States, I inherited the Jordanian passport from my mother, but I’m trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle of myself. Where is my home? Palestine? Jordan? North Carolina? How the hell do I navigate with three identities?
I let out a huge sigh as I walked away from the window. This was minuscule compared to what people here go through on a routine basis. I went outside and got my backpack jumping through a chaotic clutter of luggage, then proceeded to where I was supposed to be. I found myself waiting in another line where I met Nasser, a French Arab. We both expressed how this was our first time going to Palestine as we waited for our stamps of departure. The siyaha building was quiet and orderly, unlike the first place I was in. Treatment was noticeably better. The whole process took less than ten minutes. We sat next to each other on the bus and hit it off as we made petty jokes about what we would encounter on the other side.
“Why are you visiting?”
“We’re solely here to start a revolution take the land back. Which city should we start with?”
We were now heading to the Israeli checkpoint. The bus ride crossing from Jordan to Palestine (also known as the West Bank) took about five minutes. It wasn’t even a mile. So close, yet so far. As we approached the Israeli border, I began to see armed soldiers and Israeli flags hanging from barbed wire fences and security towers. All access to the West Bank is controlled by Israel. The bus arrived at the Allenby Crossing. Everyone got off the bus. I stared at the Israeli soldiers through my window. Leading up to my trip, my relatives constantly warned me about the way they treat Arabs at the jisser “American passport or not-you’re still Palestinian.”
I got off the bus and briefly waited in line. Once I was called up, I slid my passport through the window. Man #1 continuously looked down at my passport and up at me.
“What is your name?”
“I said what is your name?”
He continued to stare at my passport then muttered something in Hebrew to the employee next to him. I heard him say my middle name “Monif.” The only word I understood from their exchange was my father's name Monif repeated more than once. I was afraid that his protest or political connections in the past when he was a young man might present problems for me now.
Man #1 told me to proceed to security, but he didn’t return my passport. I asked for it back, and he said someone would call for me to retrieve it. I went straight through security, then waited for my name to be called. I saw an elder Arab Amo asking a general question to one of the Israeli crossing employees who was about 30. The younger man snatched the passport out of the Amo’s hands and in Arabic demanded to see his visa multiple times while holding the passport way out of reach above his head as if the Amo was a child trying to reach for his toy from an older sibling. It was just flat out disrespectful.
“Please give me my passport. My visa is inside of it. I can show you.”
My blood started to boil, I idly stood by knowing that there was nothing I could say.
I continued to wait.
Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. One hour.
No result. Nothing.
I asked Man #1 when I would get my passport back so I could proceed.
An Arab man approached me after he saw me ask about my passport.
“Don’t expect to get it anytime soon. This is their way of testing our patience. Every time I come here they make me wait for ten hours, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I was born and raised in Holland with a clean history, but because I’m Palestinian they make it as irritating as possible to enter.”
When I started my trip, I confidently thought I’d have no problem entering because of the small navy blue book I possessed. My American passport was no better than trying to spend pesos in the Middle East.
I sat down on the floor against a wall, used my backpack as an armrest and made myself as comfortable as I could. I was tired, but complaining was not an option. Actually, I could never be comfortable in the presence of the occupies. This was a personal journey for me. Palestinian citizens have to cross over to Jordan, a different country, just to get to an airport, and go through the same process just to get back.
Three hours later and my name is finally called. I took my passport and headed over to another line for a travel visa. There was a group of American girls in line behind me and we began to chat it up. Two of the five girls were Arabs. My turn came.
Man #2 at the window was mawkish and overly sarcastic.
Half an hour passed as he asked irrelevant questions about my family’s life story. The slimy grin on his face wasn’t helping either.
“What is your name?”
Oh gee here we go again with the name bullshit. I thought to myself.
“Who are you going to visit.”
“My friend from university.”
“Do you have family here?”
“Yes but I’ve never met them.”
“My father never brought me here.”
“What is your father’s name?”
“What does he do?”
“Where is he from?”
“How long has he been in the United States?”
“Since the 1970’s”
“Where did he go to school and what did he study?”
“North Carolina State University. He studied civil engineering.”
“What is your mother’s name and where is she from?”
“Nawzat Bataineh. She’s from Jordan.”
“Where in Jordan?”
“Where did she go to school?”
“And before that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do yo u have any siblings?”
“I have a younger brother.”
“What is his name and how old is he?”
“As’ad Bazzari. 18 years old.”
“What does he study?”
“Computer science. I think.”
Is coming to my country as a tourist a crime? They had obviously investigated me as a potential threat. I was tired, upset and now for the upteenth time, I had to hold it all in, keep a straight face and pray that my next move would not be in reverse, put on a bus back to Jordan.
I filled out the paperwork and returned it to him. He pointed to the seats by a wall.
“Just wait there until you are called to see if you have been approved for a visa”.
I sat on the floor and waited only to spot Man #2 from Holland. He was still waiting for his passport. Hundreds of people came and went, easily and successfully crossing and I waited for hours wondering if I could get in.
I reconvened with the girls from earlier. We realized that two other girls besides myself were the only ones that didn’t get a visa yet. We were the only Arab girls. We each talked about what we were doing in Jordan and what we wanted to do in Palestine.
As I neared my eighth hour at the jisser, I was exhausted. I closed my eyes and buried my head between my knees only to hear someone call my name. I walked over to a young woman that called my name and she took me aside. She reviewed my form.
“Yeah that’s me”
“Why are you visiting?”
Play dumb I thought.
“Oh, you know! I’ve always wanted to visit Jerusalem.”
“There’s so much history and I find it so fascinating!”
“It says here you are staying with your friend Rami. Is Rami’s father or uncle Omar Barghouti?”
“I don’t know, I just met Rami not too long ago.”
I suddenly remembered that Rami’s family is considered a thorn to the Israeli government. And when I say family, I mean a tribe of thousands. Omar Barghouti is the founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
How on earth could I forget that?
Young people get hammered with questions due to fear of their participation in grassroots movements, journalistic activities and the collective desire of the people of the diaspora returning to the homeland.
The officer asked me many questions regarding my political activism and the Palestinian cause. What caught me by surprise was her awareness of my participation in protests both in Raleigh and Los Angeles for the 2014 attacks on Gaza. I did not put that information on social media. A huge alarm rang in my head. Could I end up in custody for those things?
“Are you part of BDS?”
“We don’t have that at my school.”
“You went to protests for Gaza in the United States.”
I said nothing.
"Banna if you protest here, you will go to jail."
I felt like saying I'm already in the pre-jail jail of trying to get into the real jail of Palestine but, I said nothing again.
Even though I felt threatened again and again, under suspicion for past, present and future crimes, I had no choice but to put on a mask of friendly cooperation for the occupying force. Asking their permission to let me step in my own country.
I began to lose hope and thought that I would be denied entry. Or worse. I saw the French guy from the bus in Jordan from a distance heading towards the exit. He waved to me and flashed his visa in the air with a smile on his face. Then I heard my name.
I walked over to the voice calling my name expecting to be sent back to Jordan.
"Here is your visa. You have three months to stay.” Man # something
I couldn't believe it. I was so relieved. Instead of leaving in zip ties, I was exited the building and walked towards the busses.
I saw the bus drivers taking a smoke break. I asked for instructions on how to get to my destination in Ramallah. As one of the men put out his cigarette, he told me he was about to leave and I could get on his bus,
I was the last person to board.
As I was stepping on, the driver noticed my large backpack and said I could sit in the single seat directly next to his, which had plenty of room and a great view.
It was a short ride to the Palestinian Authority in Jericho, yet the whole process of crossing took eight hours for me. Again, I didn’t know what to expect from the Palestinians. All I knew about Palestine was that it’s a war zone. There wasn’t much talking; just the loud sounds from the bus engine. It was bright and dusty outside. I admired the rows of palm trees that seemed to go on forever. I saw something waving in the distance. As we got closer, I realized we were heading towards a flag. The flag of Palestine.
I’m going home.
Twenty years into my life and I was finally connecting the missing piece to my identity. I can’t describe how I felt when saw I the Palestinian flag flying in person. All these years it was merely just a doodle in my notebook or a sticker on my laptop; but there it was. Waving majestically over history’s rivers of blood and tears.
And this was only the beginning.