“Why Spain?” the embassy employee asks from behind the bullet proof, or something-proof, glass. I glare at my reflection, made cloudy by fingerprints. I refocus my eyes into his forehead. He doesn’t look up. His voice reaches me through a built-in speaker so we can communicate despite the unmistakable divide.
The Spanish are known to be more lenient, grant visas easily, I want to say.
Instead, I say: “Oh I’ve always wanted to visit. My friends and I are planning a vacation to Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao…”
He interrupts before I can finish. “Do you have all of your documents?”
“Yes,” I answer. I’d spent a month scrapping for a letter from my employer; bank statements showing I can afford a trip to Europe; and enough family, friends, and connections at home to prove I wasn’t going to overstay my welcome in the EU. I place the bulky stack of A4 papers into the tray, and he pulls it in his direction, filling silence with the clang of stainless steel.
“Photo?” he says, licking his index and flipping through the papers. He uses his other hand to push the tray back toward me.
I place two headshots down, white background, 35 by 45 millimeters.
He frowns, looking down at the photos, my face, then down again.
“Was this taken in the last three months?” he asks.
“Yes, just last week,” I confirm.
“What do you do, and how much do you make per month?” he continues.
Look at my bank statements and you’ll know, I itch to say, but I swallow my breath once more and tell him the amount.
“I’m a freelance blog writer, I work remotely for a lifestyle magazine.”
He staples the papers together, nodding, continuing to avoid eye contact.
“We’re going to run biometrics now. Place your right hand on the machine.”
I do as instructed.
“Left hand. Both thumbs. Got them.”
He then places my documents in a brown envelope with my passport and writes my name and phone number on it.
“Here’s your receipt for 130 Euros. You’ll hear back from us within 21 business days.”
I had my Schengen visa printed on my travel document (i.e. passport), my (green) ID, and a printout of my military travel permit to travel out of Ben Gurion Airport. This is my first time flying through Tel Aviv, and there seems to be a copious amount of preparation work involved. Normally, as a Green ID holder born in the West Bank, into this existence, this classification, I would have to cross the land border to Jordan, the only place I’m allowed to fly from. Recently, Green ID holders who are not considered a “threat” have been granted security clearance to travel out of Tel Aviv. One hour taxi ride to the coast vs. multiple buses, borders, and potentially a night in Amman. I wanted to try my luck. My security clearance takes about two weeks to go through, and then a few days to get my permit. My record is clean, I’m not a threat to either state’s existence. I’ll beat myself over that later.
To help me navigate this uncharted territory, Lina sent me a screenshot of a few tips she wrote in her notes app. I met her at a social media seminar five years ago. She writes content for a local marketing agency. Lina, a seasoned Jerusalemite, can fly out of Tel Aviv. This time, though, she has to cross the river for a funeral in Amman, where she’ll be flying from. Also her first time. Shtahim flying from the airport and the blue IDed friend crossing the bridge. It’s like we want to have a horrible start to our trip. Lina says I need to stop calling myself that, Shtahim. It’s my reclamation of the term, I respond. She’s probably right, I don’t know if I can reclaim a word still used to oppress me and my people.
Lina’s guide to Surviving TLV
Knowing them, they’ll give you a level 6 security tag once you check in your bag, plaster a red label onto your passport with a star next to the barcode. High security threat. This is how you make your experience slightly easier.
Step #1: Clothes first. I suggest sweats or leggings and a top with a light sweater. No denim, no buttons or zippers. Don’t wear your beige joggers either, the ones with silver accents on the adjustable string. No metal. Speaking of, don’t wear a wired bra. Wear either a sports bra or nothing. Metal will be at least 30 minutes of additional search time.
Step #2: Don’t carry books. They don’t like a smart Palestinian. If you do, maybe pick up a romance beach read. No decolonial literature. No indigenous anthologies.
Step #3: No liquids in your carry-on. Pack them all in your checked luggage. Not even hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer cost me 10 minutes last time, and I ended up having to throw it away. The pandemic’s over.
Step #4: No Electronics. No keys. “Miss. Are you carrying anything that may be mistaken for a weapon?” Speaking of. Don’t wear your Palestine map necklace. Too sharp at the bottom, the tip of the southern border. May also be mistaken for a weapon. And will 100% piss off whichever officer is there. Why are you wearing a map of a land that’s not yours?
Step #5: Don’t smile. Don’t be nice, but don’t be a jerk despite how much you feel like it. Attitude will be an additional forty-five minutes, may even cause you to miss your flight.
Step #6: Tighten your screws, as Mama would say, and slip into your thickest skin. This isn’t El Container checkpoint. It isn’t Qalandia. They have private companies and the military running security controls in there. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the soldiers we’re used to. Corporate security on the other hand—I don’t know if I can prepare you for that. BUT mentally prepare yourself for The Conversation.
I go off script. I want to practice mindfulness, be in the moment. The moment people pass by the special security control, staring down at me. Some smirking, some shaking their heads. The moment a couple pushes their baby’s stroller a little faster once they see an Arab at their airport. I look up to the ceiling and squint, LED lights almost as invasive as this entire process. I watch the officers move about with unnatural lightness, doing the job they were hired to do: Humiliate. They may or may not strip search me but my body feels naked, violated, abused. Time moves quickly here. Or slowly. I don’t know. Too much to process, yet dehumanization that lingers. Two hours in. Thick skin. I chose the wrong moment to be mindful. Unfocus.
Step #7: Practice your answers to the following, even if the questions don’t make sense:
“What were you doing here, in the country? Where were you staying? Is that where your parents live? Did you travel anywhere else? So you stayed in your house the entire time? Where are you going next? Why Spain? Are you going anywhere else? How did you get your visa? Who drove you here? Did you receive any gifts in the last few weeks? Did anyone help you pack your bags? Are you carrying any seeds, herbs, tobacco products? Hmm. You can’t take cigarettes. It’s okay, we’ll throw them out for you. I’ll be right back.”
They’re going off-script. “Unfortunately, your backpack flagged our security system. It is going to have to go into the belly of the plane. Belly, check-in. We can’t say, but it did raise a red flag. No, you can’t take anything. No phone, no books. You can carry the contents of your wallet but not the wallet itself. Cash, ID and card only. No, you can’t carry this. There’s a pharmacy inside. You have time. Fine, take two pills only. Put them in your pocket. Why would you need your AirPods if you don’t have your phone? Here’s a bag for your money and card.”
Step #8: Take the bag that says “Bon Voyage,” shove your stuff into it.
Step #9: Wonder what it was that triggered the security system when you followed the guide. Did you miss the step on how not to be a third-class citizen?
Step #10: Text your family and Lina and update them before you turn your phone off, stop your fingers from shaking. Ask for a pen, have them refuse your request. Memorize Lina’s number, just in case.
Step #11: Race to passport control. Explain that your gate closes in five minutes. It’s not your fault, you’ve been here since 12:00. It’s almost 4:30. Skip the line. Run.
Step #12: Make it seconds before the gate closes.
Step #13: Ask a flight attendant for a glass of wine. Down it with two sleeping pills. Pass out and feel your body lose feeling.
On the other side of the Dead Sea, Lina follows my guide on crossing the land border into Jordan.
Across the River in in 13 Simple Steps
- Leave early. You want to be on the first bus to leave when the border opens at 8:00 am. Take bus 118 to the border. At the first stop, check in your bags. Buy passenger bus tickets and luggage tickets, and pay for exit tax. Ask for a tag for your bag, otherwise it gets left behind. Depending on traffic, wait between 15 minutes to a few hours. Remember when my family went to Jordan for Eid and spent 8 hours on a stationary bus?
- While you wait, pay the I’m-leaving-the-country tax. I wish someone could tell Jesus that his baptism site is now a triple border checkpoint. That people pay an “exit tax” to cross over the streamlet that’s left.
- Smile at the woman with wispy bangs at passport control.
- Do not get agitated. Even when fourteen flies land on you at the same time. Jericho flies are built different.
- Get the orange piece of paper and sit down on one of the sticky seats. Humidity or a toddler’s spilled juice box, you’ll never know. Make sure you still have your passports, tax receipt, bus tickets, and luggage tickets.
- Hop on bus number 1, this will get you to the Israeli border. This is a short bus ride, 5-10 minutes.
- Find the mountain of luggage. You wouldn’t be able to miss the backdrop to the Jordan Valley hills. Dig between suitcases, canvas bags, tanks of olive oil, random furniture pieces, strollers. Admire the infrastructure while you’re at it. You’ll find it eventually, your bag—not infrastructure to admire. Load the bag into the x-ray machine near the entrance of the building. Make sure you tag it, otherwise it won’t make it across the river.
- Go through security control, which will lead you to passport control. It’s not as intense as the airport I assume, but you will likely be taken aside for questioning. Why is a blue IDed non-permanent citizen of Jerusalem crossing the West Bank border? Explain.
- Once on the second bus, ignore the tobacco business khaltos. I know, I’m mean. But they’ll get you. “When are you coming back? Will you carry cigarettes for me? May God bless you. May God help you get married.” They’ll give you a carton for every three you carry, but it’s not worth it. Trust me. You may want to take a nap here. This one’s at least a 20-minute ride. Or enjoy the scenic landscape of the desert.
- Final border and security control. When lining up at the Jordanian side, women as old as your teta may push you around. Give them grace. Stay collected. They’re older than the state that’s oppressing them. Let them have it. They’re tired of this shit.
- You may get called into the interrogation window. Explain why you’re using a Laissez Passer and your temporary Jordanian passport. Explain ‘67 to them, hah.
- Get your passport stamped, pay the Jordan Entry Tax. Oh wait, you’re a temporary citizen, you don’t pay that.
- Go to the back corner of the building, past the duty free. Find your bag on one of the shelves. Scan your bag. It may be chalked with X on it. Pay the Jordanian officer 0.5 a dinar on your way out as a luggage tax? I don’t know. Hide the chalk mark with your hand as you pay, or they’ll search your bag. Leave the building.
Congrats, you’re across the river. God bless the king. More flies here. You should know the rest from this point onwards, the adventure to find a taxi to Amman. I’ll see you at the arrivals gate in Madrid.
We take the metro from the airport to our hotel in Sol in Madrid. It’s almost midnight and Lina and I are run-down. Lina notices a zit has formed on my cheek.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you a topical cream tomorrow,” she comforts me. We don’t talk about what we went through. We don’t need to.
The check in person at our hotel is American, I assume from the accent.
“Good evening, you two. Long trip?” she says softly.
“Yeah,” I respond. Long trip.
“Alright, let’s get you both checked in,” she stresses her N. “Awesome, you’re booked for a double room for two. Can I have both of your passports please?”
Lina hands the Laissez Passer, and her temporary Jordanian passport, and I place my Palestinian passport on the desk. I hesitate, not sure if she needs my permit. She doesn’t, I remind myself.
“Ooh, let’s see, what do we have here? Hm,” she fumbles with the three documents, clumsily dropping one on the floor. “Ope, sorry about that.” She titters. “Alright, you’re all set!” She hands us our keys.
“Thank you,” I mumble, and we both walk toward our room.
“I think it’s really cool,” I hear her almost squeak. “That you’re traveling together, I mean. I’m glad it’s not like what we see on the news. The war.”
“It’s not a wa—” I start. Lina squeezes my hand.
“Yeah,” Lina nods. “It’s nothing like what you see on the news.”
She says she wants to visit the “area” soon. Trade her Trader Joe’s chocolate hummus for authentic one? Lina smiles at her, I grit my teeth.
“Yalla, let’s wash the day off our bodies, and get ourselves into bed,” Lina pulls on my hand, slowly releasing her tense grip into a soft clasp.
We fall asleep to the loud rattle of glass bottles. Our bedroom overlooks the back alley of the San Miguel Market. I peek outside the window to the warm lit streets and see three workers empty boxes of wine bottles into the dumpster.
“We’re here,” Lina whispers.
I close my eyes and feel my body lose feeling.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome shows up for people who’ve experienced trauma. They often experience it when they’ve found safety. They regulate. A soldier coming home, survivors of abuse, survivors of natural disasters, a few examples to name. For someone whose safety is outside their home, for someone enduring ongoing trauma, PTSD can show up differently.
Mine shows up when I learn that spontaneity exists. That I can plan to drive to another city the day of. That it doesn’t have to be an ordeal. I don’t need my green ID and Lina doesn’t need her blue ID and we don’t need to go on two separate roads to get to the same city. We can get in the same car. The wall doesn’t separate us here. We’re not alien beings to one another. Our hearts don’t have to thump when we cross from one city to the other, or even one country and the other. We go on a trip to Bayonne, crossing the French border.
“Wait, is that it?” Lina asks me, eyes wide, zooming into Apple Maps on her phone.
“I guess that’s it,” I laugh, seeing our bus was on the other side of the map line. “Put your documents away, stop acting like a tourist. Act like you’re from here,” I joke.
Lina looks at my hands, my fingernails white from clenching my travel document and military permit.
We burst out laughing, turning a few heads toward us.
It shows up when I realize that I could hear the sound of an airplane shake the sky above me without fearing for my life. That not every aircraft is an F16 that carries the very objects that changed the sounds of my childhood. I stare into the Bilbao sky above the Atlantic as planes peek in and out of its clouds.
“You don’t have to look up every time you know.” Lina nudges me with her shoulder.
I find a new meaning in security. Security that doesn’t require x-ray machines and being patted down at the entrance of malls to be felt. Or arming an entire population to the teeth. Or building walls in a land that refuses to be divided. A land that exists so I could breathe. At the leather market in Barcelona, Lina and I look for new wallets. We use my green and her blue as instruments to narrow our search. Do the worn-out ID sleeves fit into the parameters of orange Spanish leather? We don’t find wallets that we can get.
I feel freedom suffocate, like a cement wall on my chest. I feel my body deny itself from it, not knowing what to do with it. I feel an almost solace once the plane lands back into Tel Aviv, Lina by my side this time. I feel comfort in being stopped at the checkpoint into Jerusalem on the way to Ramallah. Comfort in the validation that I didn’t do anything wrong. I feel a relief when the soldier nods “go” to the taxi driver, knowing I’m in the clear, not feeling like I’m on the run from one country to the other. I see the cement wall slide off my chest and stand upright against my eyeview, wrapped in the rust of barbed wire, blocking the horizon. I feel Lina, and I return to ourselves, to what we’ve learned to reject. I learn that my body can feel, and I continue to let it lose feeling.
Mays Kuhail (she/her) is a writer born and raised in Ramallah, Palestine. Mays writes fiction based on her lived experiences under occupation. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at BGSU, and is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review (MAR). You can find her on Twitter @mayskuhail