Chapter 4: Crossing the Border
Crossing the Border
OUTSIDE DENVER AIRPORT
“Amman, Jordan” I said. Javier nearly spit out the sip of whiskey.
“Fuck you, I knew you were a fucking terrorist.” Both he and Jon laughed pointing at my long black beard and continuing to finish their drinks. “What the fuck are you going to that hell hole for?”
“I´m an anthropology student. I´m going on a field school in Palestine. Well, I was going on a field school in Palestine. But I was supposed to meet them at the Amman airport in... two hours from now.”
“Good.” Javi said. “You´ll be the only one in the class that survives the summer.” We all laughed. “No seriously, though, why do you want to go there. I mean, I´m a vet. I was in that area twenty years ago. We fucking marched into Kuwait. I was just a little Cuban boy trying to get a free ride to college in Union City by doing ROTC and before I knew it I was marching through the fucking desert with a couple of thousand troops. The air raid was already over, you know the one everybody saw on TV, the news clip at the beginning of the Big Lebowski, when he is standing in line at the supermarket. And the entire Iraqi army was surrendering. A bunch of these sand niggas literally waving their underwear up in the air, screaming “No shoot, no shoot”. Our mission was to take these Kuwaiti guys and march them down to some military prison. I’ll tell you what, Saddam was our best friend over there.”
The next morning, Javi and I were in the back of Jon's pedal cab as Jon pedaled us over to the train station to get to the airport. Turns out Javi is a fucking flight attendant for American Airlines. Javi was on the phone with one of his colleagues getting me ticket for the next flight to Amman.
I awoke alone before daylight in a hotel room in Amman. I had fallen asleep only 2 hours earlier following the call to prayer which echoed through the empty, silk-sanded streets. I had left the television running, the mouth of an early morning news anchor on Al-Urdunniyya TV was rambling about a local soccer match and a traffic incident on Queen Zein Al Sharaf Street, which connects the airport to the US Embassy. I know that because I caught the English word "Embassy" and noticed the map on the TV screen as I awoke. A minor incident it seems, however, had mustered the support of several dozen armed Jordanian officers. But I was not headed to the airport today. Today, I was headed toward the border between Jordan and The West Bank - the Allenby Bridge Border Crossing. And anyway, the street outside my hotel window was quiet and empty, save for the old woman whose dawning silhouette rounded her plastic shopping bags like a ghost of yellow sand following her and her walking cane. In the light of that early morning and through my hazy eyes from six floors up, the old woman was almost a thing of air, a plume moving through the last echoes of the prayer call.
The night before, upon arriving at the Jordanian customs post in the airport, the two customs agents had wondered why I was here alone, with such a generous black beard and such sleepless, sunken eyes. One of them was laughing at the sheer spectacle of me - white kid, frizzy dark hair, backpack, almost sleepwalking, not a lick of Arabic spoken, fumbling at the ATM to take out cash for the customs payment, not knowing the value of a Denar. And only one of them spoke broken english. That one, the one who knew english, wore tinted eyeglasses and stared more keenly into my eyes, as if he were studying something unsaid, and did not smile, because he knew he'd be the one to ask me questions, while the other young agent looked at me like I was a stand up comedian, ready for the show that was about to ensue. The questions began, my answers, too, and it took a bit of back and forth to settle on a common ground of broken English and certain Arabic phrases. They both wore the Jordanian military uniform and royal Hashemite beret with a color green that has always reminded me more of the jungle than the desert. They went through my passport stamps, did not even have a computer that I remember, just flipped through the stamps. "So you are here with school?"
"Yes." I answered quickly.
"Then why are you alone?"
"I am meeting them in Bethlehem."
"Why didn't you fly into Tel Aviv?" I stopped to make sure I got this one right, and thought back to the instructions our professors had given to us during the briefing and departure meeting last week at our university in Albuquerque.
"We are archaeologists visiting Holy Sites in Bethlehem, that is why we are going to the West Bank." I could see this nebulous answer insulted his intelligence. He swore in Arabic.
"I did not ask you why you are going to Palestine. I don't give a fuck. I asked you why you didn't fly into Tel Aviv. Why are you going this way? Come on, man, we are not letting you through until you tel us why you are here in Amman. No family? No friends, relatives, business... was it just a cheaper flight?"
To be honest, I liked all of those answers, but I wasn't quite sure if he was almost giving them to me as if to say 'listen kid I don't want to be here all night just tell me something and I will let you through'. But I couldn't be sure, I wasn't familiar enough with the diplomatic intricacies. Jordan was ambiguous this way, somehow very Anglo-Frankish friendly but also so obviously filled with anger at the West, if nothing else for the widespread ignorance of tourists and the islamophobic tilt of certain media outlets. Perhaps the Hashemite Kingdom was outwardly friendly with the West, but would the airport guard working the graveyard shift be just as forgiving??
I wasn't sure if maybe these questions were a friendly way to get me to lie, which could be a perfectly reasonable cause to detain me and continue a more formal interrogation. Which I did't want either. I asked if I could step aside to check my phone, which was almost dead. I was able to connect to some kind of data for just enough time to read an email that had come in from the university's liaison in Bethlehem. Subject: WELCOME TO AMMAN, YOU TAXI DRIVER WILL BE WAITING AT THE AIRPORT.
I returned to the customs desk. "I have this email here, from the university, saying a driver is waiting for me."
"You still haven't answered my question. Why not Tel Aviv?"
"I don't know," I said, "it was just the itinerary set by the university. Maybe the plane tickets were cheaper to Amman." I said one too many words. He looked at my boarding information.
"Denver to Chicago. Chicago to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to Amman. And now you want to take some bus down to the West Bank Border Crossing? I have a hard time believing this was the cheaper way to go."
"Well, like I said, I don't know why, but I have a taxi driver waiting downstairs with instructions from our university to pick me up. If that taxi driver doesn't see me soon, he will call back and the university will have to contact this airport somehow to help me get though." I could see his eyes rolling into the long stretches of the night ahead of him. He looked at me one more time, one more good look into my American eyes. And then he stamped my passport. As I walked away, he and his coworker began an argument in Arabic.
CITY OF AMMAN
The driver was waiting with a sign that said "Jacob". I sat up front, and he told me he'd drop me at the hotel, then pick me up again to leave for the border crossing early in the morning, he said, before the sun gets too strong.
Just as I was leaning out the hotel window, the old woman with the cane, the news anchor and the traffic accident on Embassy Road - there was a knock on the door. It was the taxi driver holding a plate of breakfast, olives and hummus with pita and hard boiled eggs. "I will be in the lobby", he said. I was already dressed, and simply grabbed my bag and left, eating my plate as we walked down the stairs.
"So you dropped me off last night and came right back?" I asked. As we made it to the lobby he nodded at the desk clerk, and pointed down to a bed made of two blankets on the floor.
"That is where I slept." He said.
He told me he’d have to leave me at a bus stop a few kilometers from the bridge, he wished me luck, and asked why I hadn’t shaved my beard. I told him I just always wore a beard. he said that was stupid. It was.
THE BORDER CROSSING
By the time we reached the bus stop, the desert sun the glaring down and I was surrounded by a few Italian nuns who were fluent in Arabic and wearing white gowns which themselves looked to be descended from somewhere in Arabia. They were making their way to Bethlehem, I supposed. Then there was the large group of Indian Christian pilgrims, who would wait on line with me at the Bridge. When the bus arrived at the checkpoint, the madhouse began. Pilgrims and Palestinians who seemed to have no nationality were tossed into this maddening swarm of a “line” which even the winding iron corrals could not control. Arab and African Israelis were outside working the baggage duty, wearing orange road work vests. The IDF personnel has uniforms that seemed to make an attempt at being friendly and plain clothed - navy blue collared shirts and khaki pants. Inside, many of the Israeli personnel were young ladies, with attractive bodies after so much military training exercises. Even their khakis were skinny cut and tight fit. However, their personalities were far from flirtatious. It was altogether a frightening place to be right from the start. Within the first seconds on line, an Israeli soldier with a close-cut beard spotted me, and pointed at me while talking to one of the young ladies. Once I reached inside, they pulled me out of line, took my passport and told me to wait inside of an office.
The office was florescent lit and had cinder block walls painted white. The first interrogation lasted two hours. A frizzy haired young Israeli asked “You are Jewish, why are you here? Why don’t you know Hebrew? Did you go to Hebrew school? Does your family know you’re here? What political organizations are you involved in. And what’s with the beard?” Then a man walked in, put his hand on my shoulder and sat down right next to me, his knee touching mine. “I get it; it’s the hipster thing, right? Hipster Hamas! That’s what you are.” The nickname would stick for the rest of the trip. That was the ministry of the interior. The next interrogation was with the IDF and lasted another hour, after having waited without any communication for over two hours. While waiting, an old man who was working the checkpoint past by me and said, “Porque no te afetaste?” Why didn’t you shave, he said in Spanish. Why did he say that in Spanish? He was Argentinian, I could tell, but it was just so surreal. And then a young lady in an IDF uniform came and sat down next to me, holding my passport. “What is going on,” I asked immediately. “I just need to ask you a few questions. You are from the University of New Mexico? Why don’t you have a school itinerary? Why can’t we find any information on your study abroad program? I am from the States; you know this is all a bit strange for us. You can appreciate why we have to check.” She spoke in a perfect east coast American accent. At the end of her little interview, I asked again “What is going on. When will I be released?” She didn’t answer, except to say “we have to wait for the IDF office to clear your passport. “Where are you from?” I said as she got up. “New Jersey,” she said. “Me too,” I said, “Trenton. What about you?” “Ridgewood,” she responded. “Do you know Kyle Burns? I played baseball with him in college.” “Yes,” she said blankly. “I know his older brother and Ed, his father.” “Old Eddie,” I said in a relaxed way, “funny guy.” I looked at her name on the badge. “Shelly what?” “Shelly Silverman” she said. “Well I will tell Kyle I saw you here, he’ll love it.” “She looked down at me as she got up to walk back into the office. Her face was strong, but worried. “Please don’t” she said.
Hours later, after the final interrogation, the soldier who stamped my passport said if it were up to him I would never be allowed into Israel. I told him I didn’t have any plans to go there anyway. I exited out into the glaring sun and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I had no clue what time it was, sometime well past noon I could tell by the sun. I had arrived before 7 in the morning. I found the taxi station and immediately a young driver stood up. “Jacob” he asked, me mildly perplexed as he looked at my wild beard and hair standing straight up. I hadn’t slept or eaten or even had a drink of water. “I’ve been waiting for hours. Let’s go, your people are waiting for you in Beit Sahour. I can take you to a barber if you want on the way”. The taxi drivers standing around all laughed. As we walked into the parking lot, we were accosted by an IDF soldier. “Where are you taking him?” the soldier said. The taxi driver said nothing, just showed him the paperwork. The soldier looked at me the way customs officials do after they look at you passport. The taxi driver showed the soldier his car keys. “Go ahead,” the soldier said reluctantly.
Ahmed was the name of the Russian Palestinian who was my cab driver, and my first Palestinian friend. He had a reddish hair and a Jerusalem driver’s identification. He poke very little English and I had yet to learn the little Arabic I did on the trip. He motioned with his fingers to his mouth, saying I must be hungry. We pulled over in a bustling urban area somewhere along the way for my first taste of Arab pizza. It was incredible. We stood outside the shop on the corner and ate in silence. Everyone was looking at me. I wrote in my journal later that the area was called Abu Dis, but I can’t be sure. The cement buildings with rebar sticking up like raised arm hair and vegetable vendors on the street side reminded me so much of Mexico that if it weren’t for the Arab spoken behind me I would have forgotten where I was. When we got back into the car, Ahmed said two things to me in his broken English. The first was “Your family Arab?” I did not know how to respond, but I nodded my head, thinking they probably were at some point. I was tired of people telling me I look Syrian and Turkish and Greek and Palestinian and Tunisian and everything else but Polish and Russian and German, and Jewish. He smiled and put his hand on my knee in a gesture of friendship I would have to become accustomed to here in the Arab world, so different from the homophobic male friendship customs of the West. The last thing he said was, “Everyone looks at you because they think you are Hamas. I will take you for shave if you want.” I was tempted, but I was already over a day late for the most important trip of my life. Besides, when I told the story to my classmates about the interrogation, I needed them to see why they called me Hipster Hamas.
Arriving at the guesthouse in Beit Sahour, we asked directions from a Catholic man from Granada, Spain. My first conversation with a local was, of course, in Spanish. My mind was on fire. When I got to my room at the guesthouse the class was still on their way back from Deheisha refugee camp. I put my head down to sleep but couldn’t even close my eyes. When they got back, my classmate Mahmoud told me about his experience as a Palestinian the day before at the checkpoint. His interrogation was worse and more psychologically brutal. The two of sat in the Palestinian guesthouse and looked at each other in our brown eyes, our curly dark hair and are similar noses. I was shaking my head and tears were welling up in my eyes. We hugged and I went back to my room, closed the door, and just wept for humanity. There is no other way to describe it, but I thought it would be important to say here. I cried at various points on the trip, but I never wept like that, never in my entire life. Outside the call to prayer echoed down the empty streets of late afternoon, just a mile or two from where Jesus was born, they say.