Since the beginning of our M.A.D.ventures we have been anticipating to get to Palestine. We were excited to go there and collect information about artistic expressions of Palestinians, so we can talk about it as part of our educational tour in Europe, and we were also worried, as we expected our travel to Palestine not to be smooth.
Everything would have been easy for our visit to Israel if not for our background of being involved in development work and recently traveling in Muslim majority countries, signaling of something else – these two guys are not interested in Israel, they are heading to Palestine. It is no secret, that Israeli border control refuses entry to many people especially if they suspect travelers to be activists, or intend to work with an NGO in Palestine.
Knowing this we have started our mental preparation long time before we booked tickets: we thought of credible stories, for example, that we wish to learn more about Israeli culture, or that we are dancers who want to explore folk jewish dances, filmmakers interested in spiritual arts of orthodox jewish community, we even considered to pretend to be birdwatchers coming for a seminar on migrating birds. At the end we decided to tell half of the truth: we are interested in arts and culture. No specifications.
Then came the physical preparation: “cleaning” our computers of any mention of Palestine, hiding our blog posts that would give a hint to our real intentions, going through google results on our names, working out facebook privacy settings, scrutinizing our photo and video archives, and carefully planning luggage. At some point, I had a feeling we are spies preparing for a mission. Never before I would have thought art and culture can prevent me from entering a country…
As both Malaysia and Indonesia do not maintain diplomatic relationship with Israel, it was difficult to get a cheap flight to Tel-Aviv from there, so we decided to fly to Cairo and catch a morning bus to border with Israel. And so we did… Our first troubles started still in Egypt, as on the way beduins blocked the road with burning tyres as a protest for some political reasons that we could not figure out without basic arabic skills. At that moment we thought our trip would be over before it started. After an hour of negotiation and arrival of Egyptian military, we passed through.
Our next trouble was, of course, on the Israeli border. The mood was not welcoming at all as a young female israeli soldier looked at my passport and threw it aggressively on a table. “Here we go…” – I anticipated long questioning. We passed one by one through metal detector while our bags “drove” through scanning machine. And the “interrogation” started: Kamal was called aside by two young Israeli soldiers, while a third one was standing in such a way so he could hear what Kamal says and see me together with Heather – an american who joined us for travel – waiting patiently and chatting on the bench. It makes it more difficult to pass the Israeli border for Kamal, obviously being both from African and Muslim background does not help. The Israeli soldiers focused their interrogation on him: what is you grandfather’s name, what are you doing here, why did you go to Malaysia, do you know somebody in Israel, do you celebrate Ramadan, what about Christmas, are you going to meet the Palestinian authorities, how do you know each other and so on, and on, and on…. My turn was next, I felt calm, and tried to smile to release tension, but my smiles were not answered… I started to get nervous after questioning: the soldiers were whispering between themselves, my bag was separated from the others and kept aside by another soldier, and our passports were…. I could not see where they were! The feeling of the unknown was getting on my nerves.
After some waiting, the soldiers announced that we can proceed. I smiled as I thought “We did it!”. My happiness did not last long: a soldier called me to open my bag. As she started to take things out I suddenly saw it! The brochure from Malaysia with photos of colourful soap bars and big letters – Palestinian soap from Nablus. My legs were heavy… She continued to take things out as I prayed that the traitorous paper is left unnoticed. I guess my prayers were answered: the soldier turned away, I grabbed the paper and put it in a different purse… As I was zipping my backpack I could feel how visibly my hands were shaking… I hope that was it: they questioned us, they checked our bags, they gave back our passports and we will just need to get the stamp.
However, there was another round of questioning same questions again, same cold response to our smiles and jokes, suspicious looks and constant checking with something secret in computer monitors. And then again border control officers disappeared with our passports in their hands. And again long waiting in the empty hall filled only with the echo of “Gangster’s paradise” song by Coolio, which Heather declared as a proper soundtrack for the atmosphere. And then the third questioning round followed – this time we were invited one by one in a small room by an immigration officer. Three rounds of questioning by four different people! As the clock hand moved towards 9 p.m. and we counted almost three hours at the Israeli border, our passports were finally given to us with the first smile and “welcome to Israel”.
Receiving our passports, we were rushing out, gasping for a relief from fresh air and trying to get away from the wave of sickening feelings: 18-19 year old soldiers, almost kids! with heavy weapons around them and steel look from under their eyebrows… We felt intimidated and disrespected, treated like we were criminals smuggling guns (in fact, it was just some soap bars from Nablus, Palestinian city) and we wondered – is this the same kind of intimidation Palestinians face from Israeli soldiers?
More photos from the road trip here.