On returning from Palestine

BvN_KvOIQAAKDbQ-2Omar Robert Hamilton
12 June 2015, Mada Masr

At the border it is always the same questions. Do you have another name? Do you have another passport? What is your father’s name? What is his father’s name? Have you ever been to Syria? Lebanon? Morocco? What are you doing here?
I used to feel sick for days before coming to Palestine. Would rehearse my answers, shut down my Twitter page, print off hotel reservations, eject SIM cards. I spent four years’ worth of interrogations claiming to be making a film about the restoration of a church in Nazareth. This time, I would think each time, they will Google me. This time, the Israelis will turn me away.
For eight years, we’ve been bringing people to the Palestine Festival of Literature. International authors, artists, publishers arrive in late spring, put on a festival in English and Arabic with their Palestinian counterparts, and leave having understood what decades of spin and lies and obfuscation have worked so hard to hide. They leave understanding how simple it is, what’s happening here.
For eight years, the visiting authors’ first experience of apartheid is at the border. White faces and Christian names cruise through with welcomes and visas, Muslim names and un-white faces sit and wait and answer questions about their lineage, are led through interrogations probing for an inconsistency, a nervousness, a reason to turn you away. Every year, without exception. You can call it security if it makes you feel better, but I won’t.
Eight years I’ve been doing it, and it is always the same. So much has happened in the world, but the border stays the same. When they ask what I have come to do, I say words like “arts,” “culture” and “workshop” in a variety of floral combinations. Words that sound harmless to these men with guns.
Are they, in fact, harmless?
Maybe they are Googling me. Maybe they know the whole truth. I wish, sometimes, that they would turn me away.
They want to disappear Palestine. Keep people away. The old will die and the young will forget. And they think it is working, this disappearing of Palestine. There is no airport to fly to, no arrival stamp in your passport, no website with travel tips you can trust. Google Maps does not know the names of the streets in Ramallah or how to drive to Nablus, it will only direct you toward the settlement-cities and military prisons. Where is Palestine? How do you get there?
In this age of nation-states and easyjets, Israel works to fracture both the land and the idea. Palestine is the West Bank, Palestine is Area A, Palestine is not Gaza, Palestine never existed, Palestine is a confusion. You cannot understand it. You must forget it.
But it is the idea that is strongest. Palestine is every breath from the Galilee to the Naqab, Palestine is every child born in a refugee camp, Palestine is Ferguson, Baltimore, Tibet and Western Sahara. Is that a strength — being strongest in idea? Or is it the last breath before death?
The idea of the Apache, Inca, Arawak were strong once, too. Are strong today.
“Just go to Israel,” I could say, when people ask me how to get to Palestine. “Just go and talk to a Palestinian and you’ll be in Palestine.” But what would they see? If you drive north from Jerusalem to Haifa, you will see a rolling grassy hillock to your right. You would not know that the Wall runs underneath it. You would not know what it looks like from the other side.
Israel is a colonist’s exercise in landscaping on a national, messianic scale. And so the landscape has to be translated for the visitor. This, I would tell you, is a road that only settlers can drive on, these are rooftops from which Palestinian flags are banned, this is an olive grove burned by settlers, this is a well that has been filled with cement, this is my friend who cannot come with us for dinner in Jerusalem and these trees hide the ruins of a village taken in 1948, and there, on that hill, is an apricot farm and there, on the other side of the Wall, is where the farmer lives.
Driving through the West Bank I look up at the settlements, small cities coiled around the top of the hills, watching, waiting. Palestine is the topography of war, the exodus of people up the mountain, the valley a tank can’t cross, the coastal plain to flood people down. The land is defined by war and Israel shapes the land for the war to come. The settlements wait for the signal from their higher ground.
The watchful visitor will soon understand that every inch of the land is monitored, controlled, prepared for. Every dimension of life is mapped and manipulated. Air, water, electricity, money, food, movement, education, ideas, love — none are free. The occupation of both the present and the past is a complex operation.
But it is more complex to hide a simple truth: that one people are trying to wipe out another.
That, in the end, is all there is to it.
When you cross Qalandia checkpoint, all becomes clear. The first time for me was in 2008. I was stunned by its brutality, the explicitly dystopian design, the razor wire and metal runnels and video cameras. By the inescapability of it. Four tight metal corridors offer themselves to you, each leading to a revolving steel gate. The metal is close, pushes up to your shoulders. Two people cannot fit in this animal run. There’s no way back, no way sideways, no way to talk, just wait your turn, wait to see what lies beyond that steel gate. There is only you in the metal corral and your own existence between the bars that strip you of pride or philosophy and leave you only as a body, a body facing forward and being herded in toward a reckoning.
In an abattoir they don’t let the cows see what’s waiting for them. They don’t want to scare them. It’s bad for the meat. Not here. Here your humiliation is laid bare. You must all stand and watch each other, grow weaker through each other’s weakness. The metal gate at the end stays locked. You wait together for permission to move, for the green light to buzz, to step forward into the deeper bowels of this slaughterhouse of dignity.
I cried the first time I got through. I came out into the sunlight and broke into tears.
Qalandia hasn’t changed in eight years. But other things have. Gaza, BDS, Netanyahu, Obama. Years of Palestinian deaths and Israeli words and American excuses. Enough has changed to fill a book with words. And yet nothing has. One people are still trying to drive another out of existence.