“I know why she’s here: she has a dangerous amount of shoes in her suitcase” – a man pointed to a young girl, probably his relative, resulting in laughs – or smiles at least – in the waiting hall in Ben Gurion airport.
That waiting hall, interestingly, was not the one you get into after having crossed the final security check; it was the one before which I myself in the end didn’t get to cross. It was me, three highly confused French guys of a bit darker complexion, an old guy with a memorable hat, and an Arabic-speaking church group from London (including a priest and his family, as well as the guy who made the joke that for some reason got stuck in my head). “We didn’t know what to expect…” – one of the French guys said to me. “Some racism would be one thing for sure!” I thought to myself but didn’t want to ruin their hope completely to have fun in that one democracy in the Middle East. After four hours of waiting and questioning, I myself already knew at that point I am not getting through that security check; my bags had stickers with bright colours indicated that, for the lack of better words, I was fucked. The French company still had their hope. Who knows, maybe they were allowed in in the end.
So, long story short – I got denied entry and had to return home.
Long story long – almost two days in the infamous airport detention centre, questioning my own legal status as a citizen of whatever, serving as a translator, and realising that the best thing I can do is to accept this is happening and maybe even make this experience a little bit less stressful for others.
I was definitely lucky in one simple respect: I knew this could happen. Fuck it, I even knew there was a chance I would have to spend some time in that facility. For me, this was the worst case scenario, the shitty Plan B. Yet for other girls and women I met in my, hmmm, let’s say, cell, this was an utter shock. The only scenario they had was to come to Israel and happily enjoy their time here.
For one young girl from Poland, it was supposed to be a two-day holiday. A return ticket booked, nothing suspicious in her passport. Another girl, a school student and a model, came to Tel Aviv for a one-day photoshoot. An elderly woman from Ukraine came to Israel her 10th time maybe, to visit her daughter who has been legally living there for more than 15 years now. That lady was spending her, if I recall well, fourth day here, waiting for her next flight home. She was the one who told me that there have been women with kids in the same detention facility, a grotesque proof of which were toys in the small parking lot-like “outside area” of that centre.
“A shitty hostel conditions would be fine,” I thought on my way from the airport in a militarised jeep (or whatever that vehicle is called), and the room indeed reminded one, just with a small catch: you couldn’t leave (ah yes, and no common rooms with drinks). So here it was, ten women (when full) in a small space, some still trying to figure out what the fuck has just happened, most crying once in a while and trying to hide their tears, some still in a state of denial. And me, thanking myself for all of the Buddhist reads and talks that I have explored in the past, thinking, “OK, this IS happening, accept it, you are indeed here, don’t panic. It’s only two days, c’mon. How can you complain after having seen what you’ve seen in your life happening to other people?” I really think I did well there, including making my nonsense jokes (oh man, they made even less sense in Russian…) and kindly (‘kindly’ also meant ‘efficiently’) asking the guards for what other cellmates of mine wanted, in my TurboPolite manner. “Excuse me, would it be maybe possible to [get an extra blanket] [get some water] [make a call]?”
Making a call was a one-time privilege: “One call, but only within Israel.” Before I made mine, I started talking to a guard who happened to seem like a really sweet guy (well, mainly coz my English was good). After an exchange of jokes we even had a nice chat about life, travels, living abroad and other pretty nice stuff while having a cigarette that I said ‘yes’ to just to spend more time in the fresh (except for the cigarette smoke, that is) air. I honestly thought that if we had met somewhere else that chat would have felt exactly like a conversation that two backpackers could engage in, spontaneously and without reservations jumping into topics that actually interest them. Oh well, the cigarette was gone and so was the feeling. The other, hmmm, nice thing we got was some extra time outdoors (no gym equipment around though; all those prison TV shows were lying!) and even some coffee on that Saturday, that is, Shabbat. Interestingly, it seemed that the guards wanted to spend their time there as little as we did.
Another flashback is a bit less nice. While getting my backpack checked the second time (when I knew I would be sent home eventually), there were several airport officials sort of questioning other people around while their things were being scanned. And, the meanest of all of them, shouting at a woman who had no idea what was happening, had to be a Lithuanian Israeli. I even thought, “dear lord, that is one mean lady!” Never before had my native Language sounded so terrifying. [goosebumps]. “Emmm apparently I was supposed to get a work visa at home, I’m not allowed to change its status from here”, I told her (which was true; true in that this was the reason the airport officials gave me; I’m still not entirely sure it’s impossible to change your visa status from within the country). My explanation was greeted by a mean look, and I felt a sense of relief when the lady dropped me off at one of the waiting halls. By the way, the same woman (who the officer shouted at) was later thrown into a dark cell, all alone, since she was still in the state of denial, refused to leave her stuff in a special room at the centre, and insisted on getting her passport back. I myself found some comfort in talking to other women that night; I couldn’t imagine how that woman must have felt all alone.
So, the question is: what is this entry that I’ve been contemplating for so long? On one hand, on the very surface, I do want people to know that, well, a trip to Israel can sometimes end at its very beginning. On the other hand, I do want it to be my written goodbye to Palestine more than anything else. Yet, I understand, there can be no proper goodbye to that. I was too much of a coward – too afraid to face the reality? – to write to all of the people who I left in Palestine – and Israel! – individually. Like a bubble of air in my bloodstream, the deep sadness that I felt after coming back home is still there. I do try to see it as a new beginning (“Trust the magic of new beginnings,” a nice quote goes), all I need to do now is to find out what it is a beginning of. And I am definitely enjoying my time in Europe, seeing friends who, together with my family, are the greatest treasure I have. Luckily, it cannot be taken away by some airport officials, so nothing fundamental hasn’t changed after all.
It is circumstances that we perceive as difficulties that have the greatest power to transform us, to test us and how calm – another word: conscious – we can be, I believe. So, in that respect, maaaan it was an extraordinary experience! Now, if something a bit stressful happens, all I need to do is to compare that thing to those two days I am finished describing. How liberating is that? “Level of liberation: detention centre”, weeeeeeeeeeeeeird.
Lastly, I know this post might seem as one of the darker ones you can find here, and I frankly do hope that it will produce some kind of a cathartic effect that writing usually has. Yet, I also hope that it didn’t sound more dramatic as it needs to be. I myself found and observed so much of good in those days – like all the women in our cell instantly becoming friends and taking care of each other – that I am, in a weird way, thankful for this experience. Also, complaining about my own situation after having seen how some people live in Palestine (or other places) would be pure ignorance, c’mon. It was a story I wanted to tell more than I want it to be read, maybe the first entry the statistics of which I won’t feel the need to check constantly.
Maybe it also doesn’t make sense to say goodbye to any place or anyone that’s still with me? That would be another liberating thought to keep.