I was in the footsteps of Mary & Joseph, pacing along Star Street to my favorite barber. His shop is nestled into an alcove on that fateful street in the antique narrows of Bethlehem. I greeted him in simple Arabic (“مرحباً” ) and he welcomed me to his chair.
Why do you not have more Israeli friends if you are here so long?
From that chair I admired his shop, as he brushed and oiled the electric clippers. There was a clock with an embroidery face, cacti growing in tiny pots, scissors bathing in fragrant alcohol, newspaper clippings taped to the mirrors, a faded pink towel by the sink,
Do you have plans to visit the territories? Jenin? Hebron? Bethlehem?
and snapshots of his baby grandson scattered around a portrait of his father. He commented to another gentleman that I stayed with the Zoughbi family, cracking a warm smile. He gestured to the clippers and I nodded: (“قصير, من فضلك ”). Short, please.
What do your parents do for jobs? What is their phone number?
Wavy, buckskin locks fell free to the floor in piles. They grew in Ireland, through Jordan, across Asia to Hong Kong, and washed in Filipino waterfalls before coming to rest in Palestine. I would not let anyone cut my hair or shave my beard. I was waiting for a special day:
You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.
the day I crossed the Sheikh Hussein bridge.
* * *
Last Monday I sat outside of the Israeli embassy in Amman for four hours of pressure-cooker meditation. I prayed for every person I could imagine, and not myself, to detoxify the concoction of fear and impatience gushing through my arteries. My passport returned to me with a cloud of excuses but no visa stamp. Two days later I called Yousef the taxi-driver and breathed slowly for two hours as he drove me to the Northern Bridge. We drank coffee and he mused about each town we passed in his native Jordan. I took another deep breath, walked up to the counter at the Jordanian border station and presented my passport. They charged me an eight-dinar exit tax, asked three questions, and said “okay, bye-bye now.”
A pathetically short bus-ride separates one nation’s reception lobby from the other’s. Mere meters from Jordan, where they sent me through the X-ray machine with my belt still on (beeping all the way) is Israel, where security personnel circle a bulky piece of luggage like a pride of lions. I brandished my best idiotic smile as the security guard pulled me from the herd. In five minutes I was holding my pants up by hand while my jacket, shoes, every article in my pockets, and both bags were going through the machine. Then they reversed the conveyor and looked again. Then they rotated both bags in every conceivable direction to run additional scans.
Two guards informed me I was undergoing a security check. One asked me why I looked nervous and I laughed and said I was embarrassed he could see my underwear (for the second time). When guards say I look nervous it is not an observation but a wish: hoping for a defensive reaction. In December I took the bait and became flustered but these days I giggle and play coy. Once the peep-show was over, I went into the back room for the grand exhibition and story-telling festival. Every pocket was swabbed, every box opened, and sunscreen bottles uncapped as I watched my luggage be gutted. “Are you an actor?” said the short one with thick glasses. Yes (kinda); I said it helped make English lessons fun for the children in Haifa (lie). I was a substitute teacher, that’s why I carry colored-pencils and dolphin stickers (truth). Those envelopes are addressed to Jerusalem because my friend has a P.O. box there but I don’t know why (lie). I am learning Arabic, yes (truth). My parents helped me pay for this trip (lie). No, my local church did not send me (truth). The embassy staff told me I did not need the visa ahead of time (half of them); here is paperwork from the ministry of interior in Haifa (a copy). Fiction and non-fiction braided into one.
Repacking bags after a search is a time of quiet, personal privilege. One of the seven sleuths attending to me asked me where my passport was. “I don’t know,” I said coolly. To me, every second at the bridge undenied was a miniature triumph: I spend their time and resources improving my discipline. I parked my bags, sat down, and re-entered the prayer exercise developed at the embassy. I devoted most of my energy to keeping a disconnect between thoughts and physique, sitting in dull tranquility while my emotions seethed for six hours. I literally commanded my body not to shiver. Guards came from the office at intervals to question me and probe for contradictions in my story. By that time I was intentionally staring at a book of Mark Twain stories, watching them with my peripheral vision and looking upward (with a smile) only when they were within two meters. I caught glimpses of Israelis being human beings, drinking Coca-Cola and teasing each other. One with straight hair and narcotic, sapphire eyes almost broke me:
“You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.”
My faith in humanity almost ignited. Over nine months of service, I had finally learned to see the guards as people, doing the best they can, worthy of respect and love. After 13 weeks of exile, though, I know that the system which employs them is fundamentally sick. I looked past the lady and saw her role: a guard slaying a maverick. “Jousting” at the bridge is a ‘shoot-the-moon’, ‘all-chips-in’ level of maneuver – epitomized when I pulled a Palestinian flag pin out of my pocket and said, nonchalantly, “oh, the kids gave me this…” Lying felt disgusting but relenting meant failure. I held my integrity in dissonant suspense. I was a beast wrapped in a machine, having the best day of its dystopian life.
The same guard who discovered my stickers invited me to come into the food court under her supervision. She had a name: Roz. She smiled sweetly at me and told me to put my money away when I tried to pay for my soda. I stopped myself from admiring her long curly hair and splashes of freckles; I needed to be perfectly in-character. I visualized myself as a blonde Sean Connery: stirred but not shaken, cool but not frigid. I ate my tuna sandwich with deliberate bites and well-timed sips of orange soda. I had my own sapphire eyes to flash in this masquerade, dressed cunningly as a hippie-seminarian who works with children. I did stroke my beard and throw a few glances toward Roz but my attention was on my primary interrogator, emerging through the double-doors and striding to the counter, then back again with a Red Bull in her hand. Our gaze did not meet. I knew exactly where I was: a short sprint from the Promised Land but several steel doors away from my passport. I was no fool. I followed Roz back into the lobby and resumed my stake-out.
“You have one week to renew at the ministry of interior; do you understand?” (I did: perfectly)
The Galilee palms were bathed in golden, evening sunshine. I overheard two men speaking to each other in Arabic. I asked where I might get a ride to Jerusalem and they offered me a ride, if I agreed to ride with them to Jericho while they visited a friend. The Arabic name for Jerico ( الأرحا) means “The Scent”. I smelled a sweet opportunity. I felt almost human again but I was slow to relax my guard. When I learned they were going to بيت زفافا I asked them to drop me at Tantur”
“Tantur? That is almost in Bethlehem – you said you wanted to go to Jerusalem–”
“Yonni,” said the other, understanding my dilemma, “it’s between Jerusalem and Bethlehem–halas…”
* * *
The barber misunderstood and lathered my face for a shave; I didn’t correct him. I love the feeling of his straight-razor sweeping across my chin. He is the only person who has ever done this, other than me, and his shaves are so expert — refreshing. We walked over to the sink to wash away the excess. Leaning before him, it felt like a baptismal ritual. As I toweled off, he held his index finger up and signaled for me to sit down: the after-shave cologne. It left a sweet, cleansing sting on my exposed features. To my surprise, I was not so baby-faced. With all the camouflage taken away, I saw a grown-man in the mirror and I hoped this one would have the chance to speak frankly, truthfully, and freely from that moment forward.