The other day I had to be in an unfamiliar place in Jerusalem for nine o’clock. To allow for my tendency to get lost even in my own neighbourhood, I was up at five and out of the door by six.
My careful plans didn’t work out. As I reached Bab Zqaq, a crowded bus swung across the junction and onto the road for Jerusalem. I had missed it by about two minutes. I gnashed a tooth or two. The timetable is erratic, especially in the early mornings, and I had no idea when the next bus would arrive or when it would depart, especially as the driver waits for it to fill before he goes anywhere. My only option now was to shlep over to the big checkpoint, cross it on foot, and catch one of the more regular buses from the other side. (Yes, it can take a great deal of time and precision-planning to get to a city that’s five miles down the road.)
To enter the checkpoint, you pass through these caged chutes, which are sometimes so tightly packed with people that it’s barely possible to move. I hate waiting in that crush. It’s hot, there is always the irritation of cigarette smoke, it’s noisy, it’s claustrophobic, and you have no idea when you’re going to get out, because it all depends on the mood of the guard. As a non-Palestinian, I have the option of bypassing the cages and walking straight into the terminal on the specially marked ‘Tourist/Humanitarian Lane’ (no bars on this one). It’s not an option I’m prepared to take. Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I entered the machsom with about twenty-five Palestinians. The guard at the first turnstile didn’t bother to check our documents. He looked half-asleep. As I headed towards the main checkpoint building, the tarmac already warm beneath my feet, I could hear shouts and screams floating out into the newly minted morning. Arabic? Hebrew? Over the loudspeakers it’s hard to tell what language they are using until you get close. The guards often manage to make both languages sound quite unlike the ones I hear spoken around me, and it’s not just the loudspeakers that achieve that affect. Stop, shoes off, shut up, wait, go, go back, stop old woman, stop boy. In a blog post about her decision to sail to Gaza, the author and Civil Rights activist Alice Walker described the memories that witnessing the Israeli border police in action brought back for her: “In the Southern United States when I was a child, they would have said: Boy, or Girl, I want to talk to you…”
In the search area there was a lot of yelling from men with guns and a lot of people hurrying to get through, and I put my head down and hurried with them, knowing that I had no reason to be jittery – these men can’t really do much to me. A Palestinian who relies on his work in Jerusalem to feed his family and who must arrive on time if he doesn’t want to be sacked has far more to worry about. And at the final documentation check, where the Palestinians have their hands scanned and their permits inspected and where I just flash my passport, a long queue. A guard in a booth was checking the papers; another one was superintending the line, his weapon tapping against the metal of the turnstile whenever he moved slightly. I put my headphones in and prepared to wait, irritated by the way that the woman behind me kept nudging my back. Now if there is one thing I hate, it’s being nudged when in queues. It’s a British thing. I turned round to give her the famous frosty stare, and she nodded towards the guard with the gun. I looked at him and he gestured to me to come to the front of the queue.
Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I went over. (After all, I reasoned, I’m running late. I have to be in Jerusalem for nine, if I make a fuss they’ll probably just take it out on the people queuing with me, what can I do about that, I will make a different choice a different time, but today I have to be on time…) The guards were friendly to me. They smiled. They tried to make pleasant chitchat: “Good morning. Where are you from?” Somehow I think I was the only person in that line to receive a good morning that day. I wanted to ask them why. Why do you yell at that man for not moving fast enough for you, but you smile at me? Why don’t you wave him to the front of the line when it’s obvious he’s old? You’re not soldiers, you’re civilians, so why did you even accept a job here? You chose it. Why? And the questions to myself: why didn’t you stay where you were? Why did you just do what they told you? You chose it. Why?