I decided to walk over to Rainbow Street and get an over-priced-anything, as a concession to myself. Rainbow Street is a sort of tourists’ outpost on the opposite hill, a long contemplative walk from the Canary Hotel. I found an ice-cream shop and ordered a scoop of pistachio-filled “Arabic” ice-cream, since I can’t get that just anywhere. I wanted a Strawberry chaser. But I gobbled my cone and slinked to the café for a sandwich. It was a good thing that my coworker texted me a warning, an hour earlier, to stay in Amman. The Israeli promise to deliver my visa from Haifa to the Sheikh Hussein bridge in 48 hours was, frankly, an archetypical Israeli promise. That was my prevailing thought but, seeing nothing to gain, I distracted myself by finding a shortcut to Rainbow Street and pretending that 2.50 dinar was not an abominable price for a lemonade. “I’m paying for the motif of this place,” I reassured myself. I lingered at the ‘bar’ listening to the radio. “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire was playing:
“…As we danced in the night,
Remember: how the stars stole the night away
Ba de ya – say do you remember?
Ba de ya – dancing in September!
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy dayyy…”
I remember my first visa-dance. It was August 31st 2011, in the early hours of the morning. Global Ministries flew me to Tel Aviv on Turkish Airlines for economy’s sake. I was a young male, traveling alone in the wee hours, on a ‘suspicious’ airline. Worse, I was nervous. Like a true rookie, I picked the booth with a lady-guard. She was buying none of my story. How could I not know my driver’s name? How could I not know at what hotel I was staying? What kind of organization is the Methodist Church, anyway? She had a tenacity that made the Israeli character from NCIS look good-humored. She took me in the back to her supervisor, who was clearly tired and disinterested. They snapped in Hebrew to each other and continued to question me along the same lines she had at the booth. When they asked if I was going to the Palestine Territories, I told an outright lie: “No.” I pushed the dumb-tourist routine algorithmically until the supervisor mumbled something and waved passively. Her eyes went wide and she stood bolt upright, protesting. He waved again and then stamped my passport. I must have been quite the convincing idiot. She admonished me for being so directionless and I thanked her warmly for her concern.
“Nice touch,” said Janet as we drove away from the airport, “but try to avoid the women if you can: they have more to prove…”
“Well, I hate to be sexist…”
I also hate to be racist. A close friend studying psychology asked me how I would feel if she worked for a Jewish social services agency.
“The same as I would feel if they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or secular, as long as they help people instead of hurting them.”
While I am flattered people tread carefully for my sake, there are Jewish and Jewish-Israeli organizations working alongside our ilk. B’Tselem and ICAHD belong in the same sentence as Badil and Al-Haq. ‘Clash of cultures’ is a myth: we have a clash of ethics. The lines are not drawn according to race or religion but according to awareness and convictions. I asked a mentor of mine how he felt about fibbing his way through security and he replied that helping the oppressed took precedence over personal integrity. I can not think of any better answer! The US-supported infrastructure and bureaucratic hoops in Israel are so ubiquitous, entrenched, and patently insidious, it necessitates a bag-of-tricks.
When that visa expired Global Ministries found a conference on migration in Geneva for me to attend. My eyes were shut-tight in prayer for most of the return flight, working on my story. I relented, at last, and mumbled “oh God, please don’t make me lie this time.” When I landed, I went through two random scans where I said I was studying theology. Seminary is a powerful lubricant. I almost stopped to rest but hesitation is an enemy to confidence. I strode up to the guard who was laughing and joking with his neighbor. Without asking me a question, he flipped open my passport and applied the stamp. As I walked away, he was still joking with the other guard…
I learned to hide my nerves beneath layers of detachment. When I returned from Ireland after the second three month stint, I played my cards exactly as I had on the Geneva exit, right up until the guard I picked was relieved by another: a female guard. She was having none of my story, after I had been in ‘Israel’ for seven months. What guest-house in Nazareth? Why is seven months not enough? Do you have enough money? I was taken into the back where I met her supervisor, also female. I SO hate to be sexist. She grilled me. At one point, she asked me to write down my friends’ names in a list. Without hesitation, I took the lined paper and filled it with bogus, generic names. No one has time to check them, only to check my face for fear. I waited well over an hour in the lounge after my ‘interview’. She finally returned and gave me a three week visa. Apparently, my tracks were covered well enough that I could not be turned away at the airport. I caught the Neshur van to Tantour, brushing off sideways glances from people in yarmulkes. The sun was rising and the drive was fantastic. I felt alive.
Sing some Earth, Wind & Fire with me:
“That’s the way of the world
Plant your flowers and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold…”
This latest delay came exactly ten weeks after the Maunday Thursday exit: a Christian three days short of Easter in Jerusalem. My exit stories are more interesting, now that I think about it—I’ll be glad to share them another time. Even Israel will hardly stop me from leaving. The closest that ever came to happening was at the baggage counter in Hong Kong. I told them (truthfully!) that I was going to be volunteering in Israel and the baggage clerk placed an ominous phone call to make sure it was acceptable for me to travel over-land from Jordan. Now that I have experienced other nation’s checkpoints, I am curious to meet my worthy opponents, the Israelis, again. When I entered Jordan for the first time I had a surreal experience at the checkpoint. An old officer waved-off my inspection and declared “Welcome to Jordan!” for reasons The West could hardly fathom. This will be my first Israel-entry by land. Janet is coming to get me again. We will drive South and I will try to picture the fruit stands and coffee-vendors of this East Bank rather than the settlements and barbed-wire growing invasively along the Jordan valley to the West.