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I Was Not in the Mood
"You kick us out of Jaffa, then wonder how come we're born elsewhere!"
These words flew out of my mouth when I opened it to answer the first in a long list of questions asked by the Israeli security officer at Lod (Tel Aviv) Airport.
I was certainly not in the mood.
It was 4:30 in the morning on a hot summer day in 1995. The almost-five-hour flight from London had fatigued me and all I wanted to do was rush out of the airport to meet Ibrahim, who had sweetly come all the way from Ramallah to pick me up at this very early hour.
My anxiety and irritation increased as the young woman at passport control slipped a pink tag into my Palestinian passport. I, of course, have no problems either with pink or with being Palestinian. But at that very moment, all I wanted was a white tag. As I had experienced many times before, pink automatically meant at least an extra hour with security officers at the airport.
Oh, how I wanted a white tag this time!
"How come you were born in Damascus?" the officer repeated, obviously neither pleased nor satisfied with my impulsive reply.
I was not in the mood to tell the security officer that in 1940 my father, who had come to Beirut from Jaffa, was overwhelmed the minute he saw my Damascene mother. She was eighteen, he was thirty-three. He had graduated from the American University of Beirut some twelve years before, while she was still a student at the British Syrian Training College.
The minute he stepped inside the grandiose courtyard of her family mansion in Damascus old town and realized how rich her merchant father was, his dream of marrying this tall, dashingly beautiful woman with greenish-grey eyes started to fade. In the end, this particular dream was fulfilled, but many others were shattered, and my father and mother lived a tormented life together.
I was not in the mood to tell him that in December 1978 my father had died of a heart attack in Prague while attending a writers' conference. The well-known Palestinian writer Emile Habibi was the last person to see my father alive and spend the evening with him.
I was not in the mood to inform the Israeli security officer that every time my mother got pregnant, she went back to Damascus to give birth. In 1943, 1944 and 1949, she traveled between Jerusalem and Damascus to give birth to my sisters, Arwa (now a psychologist living in Amman) and 'Anan (a sociologist now living in America), and, much later, to my brother, Ayman (a diplomat). She also traveled between Amman and Damascus, where I was born two years after that. I did not want to admit to this, as it would only complicate matters and would certainly increase the security officer's fears for Israel's security, thus prolonging the interrogation.
"Have you ever lived in Damascus?" he asked.
"No," came my brief answer.
I was not in the mood to tell the officer that until the age of eighteen, when I left Amman to study architecture at the American University of Beirut, my workaholic mother, who owned a publishing and printing firm, looked forward to getting rid of her four children every summer. The very first week of our summer vacation, she sent us off to her parents' house in Damascus or to her relatives in Beirut. My brother, Ayman, and I were more than happy to spend part of the summer vacation with our unmarried aunts, Nahida and Suad (for whom I was named), who completely spoiled us and my two teenage sisters. They took us to pick cherries at my aunt Farizeh's summer house in the Syrian resort town of Zabadani, up in the mountains some twenty-five miles west of Damascus. On Fridays we helped my aunts pack food and watermelons, in preparation for a picnic in one of the many restaurants along the Barada River (which became filled with watermelons that were being chilled), in the lush Damascus neighborhood of Dummar. One of the highlights of our summer vacation was the Damascus International Fair, where Aunt Nahida always bought us what she thought were the latest Russian products: a set of wooden dolls (matryoshka) for me, and wooden cars and planes for Ayman. When she ran out of ideas, Aunt Nahida took us for a stroll in the busy Suq el-Hamadiyyeh, where we quenched our thirst with sticky pistachio and gum arabic ice cream from the Bukdash ice-cream parlor. Some forty years later, I can still remember the taste of gum arabic. In the afternoons, while my aunts were having their siesta, we played and ran around the huge water fountain in the middle of the ed-dyar (courtyard) with our many cousins. But our summer vacation would not have been complete without a visit to Beirut. After a few days of continuous nagging, my two aunts always agreed to accompany us, or sometimes sent us alone, to stay with Uncle Mamduh and Aunt Firdaus in the neighborhood of Zquaq el-Balat.
To avoid our bad-tempered Uncle Mamduh, we spent most of the day swimming off the crowded St. George's Hotel beach of humid and hot Beirut. At the end of our three-month vacation, and just a day or two before school started, we arrived in Amman and the first thing my mother did was complain about our dark complexions. The Damascenes had an obsession with whiteness, and did not appreciate the concept of a fashionable tan.
"Do you have relatives in Syria?"
"No." End of conversation.
I was not in the mood to tell the security officer at Tel Aviv airport that my mother was the youngest in a family of eleven, and that was just her nuclear family. I did not want to scare him by saying that I had four aunts and four uncles, and more than twenty cousins. They and their families all lived in Damascus.
I was not in the mood to tell the Israeli officer that from 1950 until today, my mother's groceries had been delivered weekly from Damascus. It was impossible to convince my mother that Amman had good meat, vegetables or fruit. This was also the case when she lived in Salt and Jerusalem. The only time she bought local produce was in 1968, when we lived in Cairo. She often complained that the Egyptian Airlines pilots were not as cooperative as the taxi drivers between Damascus and Amman.
I was not in the mood to tell him that Damascus is not, as he seemed to think, just one huge military base filled with SAM-1 and SAM-2 missiles, but rather a vibrant city, especially our neighborhood in the old town where my grandfather's house still stands.
It would have been difficult for me to explain to the Israeli security officer that I have always envied my parents, and even my grandparents, for living at a time when residing in, or traveling between, the beautiful cities of the region was not such a big deal and did not call for security checks. I was always intrigued when my father described his trips between Jaffa and Beirut, which included lunch at a seaside restaurant in Sidon. I was even more intrigued when my mother described to me how in 1926, as a child of four, she had visited her mother's family, the Abdulhadis, in the village of 'Arrabeh in Palestine. I have always been enchanted by the route they took between Damascus and 'Arrabeh, which went down through the Yarmouk valley and the beautiful plains of Marj Ibin 'Amer and Sahel Jenin. "First we went to our relatives in Nablus, and a few days later we went on horses to the village of 'Arrabeh," my mother would say. It was the horse ride which fascinated my mother, whereas it was the very impossibility of taking such a trip between 'Arrabeh and Damascus now which bothered me more.
The security man handed me and my passport over to a security woman sitting in a room behind a desk, then disappeared, leaving me alone with her.
She flipped through my passport, and rather aggressively asked, "And what were you doing in London?"
"I went dancing," I answered, looking her straight in the eye, with an expressionless, tired face, and a voice even more aggressive than hers.
"Do you think you're being funny?" she said, her voice louder and more serious.
"No. And do YOU have any problem with dancing?" My voice now much lower and more sarcastic.
"What was the purpose of your visit to London?"
"Dancing," I insisted.
As we went back and forth, she started to lose her temper and I started to lose my sleepiness.
A few minutes later, she picked up the phone and started talking in Hebrew, a language I do not understand.
"Dancing . . . Dancing . . . Dancing . . ."--the English word jumped out of her Hebrew sentences.
I was not in the mood to tell the Israeli security woman that I had been on vacation in Scotland with friends, friends I had not seen since 1983, when I had been working on my thesis at the University of Edinburgh.
I did not want to explain to her who these friends were. Going through their names one by one would only complicate matters and make the interrogation unbearably long.
I didn't tell her that my friendships with some of these people went back to the 1970s, and my golden university days in Beirut. Even though I was totally exhausted, I had enough common sense to realize that "Beirut" was a buzzword for the security officers of Israel. Some of those friendships went back to the fifties and sixties, during my childhood and adolescence, growing up in Amman.
As a tall and hugely built male officer (obviously her superior) entered the interrogation room, I was more certain than ever that one should never take the risk of mixing friendship with security issues, especially if it concerns the security of the State of Israel.
As the two officers exchanged a few words in Hebrew, my anxiety increased.
"What were you doing in London?" asked the male officer, extremely aggressively, while looking me straight in the eye.
"Dancing," I insisted.
"You know that failing to cooperate with us on security matters will result in your arrest?"
"Fine," I replied, quickly resigned to this ridiculous verdict, "but I need to go out and inform poor Ibrahim, who has been waiting outside the airport for hours to pick me up."
"No, you are not permitted to go; and who is Ibrahim? Is he a relative?"
I did not want to tell the two security officers that Ibrahim was not exactly a relative, as none of my relatives, and neither my husband nor any of my friends from Ramallah, are allowed to come pick me up from the airport. I wondered if the officers knew that I, like many other Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, needed many types of permits to move about: a permit to enter Jerusalem, another to go out to Jordan, a third to enter Israel, a fourth to work in Israel, an impossible one to enter Gaza, and a four-hour permit to use the airport, which gives you just enough time to get there with no flat tires, lasamahallah (God forbid).
Ibrahim is one of two or three taxi drivers in Ramallah who happens to have a car with a yellow license plate, which allows him to pick up passengers from the airport.
I was not exactly in the mood to tell the officer that one of my dreams is simply for my husband to be able to pick me up from the airport or from Allenby Bridge when I come back from a trip. But that is a privilege no Palestinian has.
"You cannot prevent me from going out to tell Ibrahim to leave. It is not fair to make him wait any more, especially now that I am going to be kept here for much longer."
"No, you cannot leave!" screamed the male officer, losing his temper.
"Watch me do it," I said as I turned around and started walking out of the interrogation room into an arrivals hall filled with passengers, many of them coming to enjoy the sun and beautiful, relaxing shores of Israel. My heart was pumping as I walked towards the exit; by then, two security men were walking very close to me, one on each side. One of them kept repeating, "Don't make us do things we don't like doing."
"Yes, arresting me in front of these tourists will create a scene which is not favorable for tourism in Israel!" I screamed back. "Why can't I be treated just like any of these tourists?"
By that time, the three of us were standing outside the arrivals hall, right in front of Ibrahim, the driver.
"Elhamdullah 'ala es-salameh Suad khir inshallah shoo fi (Welcome home, Suad, what is the matter, I hope all is well)?" he said as he formally shook my hand, his eyes fixed on the two security officers.
"Where is your luggage?" he added, busy trying to figure out the story of me and the two men in civilian clothes with the hostile faces accompanying me.
"Ibrahim, these are security officers. It is a long story. In short, I am under arrest and I just came out to let you know that you should not wait for me any longer--please call Salim and tell him that I have been arrested at the airport."
"Arrested?" Ibrahim repeated, shocked.
"Don't worry, Ibrahim. It is not a big deal," I reassured him. "I have been arrested because I told them I went dancing in London," I added.
"Dancing? Did you say dancing?" Ibrahim was now in total shock.
Oh, God, that was all I needed. It seemed that Ibrahim was even more troubled by my dancing in London than the Israeli security officers. What can I say? I have always believed that the Occupation ruined the spirit of both Israelis and Palestinians.
These were the last words Ibrahim and I exchanged before one of the officers approached Ibrahim and asked him to accompany them. The three anti-dancing men disappeared inside while I stood there outside the airport with no passport and no luggage.
So much for being frivolous, Suad, I started castigating myself.
Less than half an hour later, Ibrahim appeared through the big gates of the arrivals hall, pushing my luggage trolley with one hand and waving my passport in the other. With a victorious expression on his face he said, "Come on, let's go, Suad."
"What happened, Ibrahim? Tell me."
"It takes a man to talk to men," he bragged. "Come on, Suad, let's get out of here. I just assured them that you are a bit strange."
"Ibrahim!" I bellowed.
From the Hardcover edition.