My father and I sat in transit in Abu Dhabi airport, embedding various phone numbers and addresses from our West Bank itinerary into my iPhone. Coolly, calmly, I converted the numbers into a Weight Watchers’ calorie counter. The phone number of our Ramallah hotel was encoded as: Bread: 213 calories, Chocolate: 545 calories and so on. We were to visit my father’s birthplace and he had decided, against our host’s advice, to tell the Israelis that our travel plans included a quick visit to his village in the West Bank although we would stay in Jerusalem for the remainder of the trip. I had to conceal all traces of the details of our West Bank hotel and contacts and schedule them into my phone, hiding the numbers into that ridiculous calorie counter.
Before arriving in Israel and the West Bank, my father and I had been cautioned by Sophie – the American human rights activist now living in Ramallah, who had invited me to run writing workshops at the Palestine Writing Centre – to rehearse a story to recite to the soldiers at the border: we were tourists visiting Jerusalem. I was not to mention the writing workshop, which meant that I pre-arranged all books to be sent to Sophie by mail from my publisher in the UK so they couldn’t be traced to me. We were to say that we had no interest in visiting the West Bank. We were staying in a hotel in Jerusalem.
‘What’s the big deal?’ I asked Sophie. My father, in his sixties, my five-year-old daughter and I were obviously there for a short visit.
It wasn’t that we were any kind of ‘security risk’, Sophie replied in the email. But the most frustrating thing for non-Jews and non-Israelis trying to get into the West Bank is that you are at the absolute mercy of the whim and mood of the border soldiers. I knew this, having countless friends who had been delayed for over six, eight or 10 hours only to be released without any explanation.
Sophie thought it was better if we stuck to an ‘Oh, we have no interest in seeing the West Bank; take us to your best tourist spots and let us stimulate your economy’ kind of approach. If we were to say ‘West Bank’, things could get complicated. We’d be interrogated about who we were staying with, what the writing workshops were about, our family history and so on. It was completely arbitrary, so the safest option was to avoid mentioning the West Bank altogether. My father and I, however, refused.
We memorised the name of our hotel in Ramallah and made sure that we carried no paperwork referring to it. Instead, we printed out the names of hotels in Jerusalem. I even sent an email to one hotel enquiring about a booking, in case I was questioned. Maybe the soldiers would follow a paper and email trail? Who knew what lengths the Israelis could go to in order to make entry as difficult as possible. There would be a greater chance we would be allowed through if we focused our visit on West Jerusalem (not East Jerusalem, where those pesky Palestinians were).
The problem with this plan was that, if we didn’t mention the West Bank, we would lose all chance of passing the checkpoints from Jerusalem into the West Bank. This would mean that my father could not visit the village he was born and raised in, Burqa.
That wasn’t an option for us. It was enough of an indignity for my father to return to his birthplace as a ‘foreigner’ by virtue of his Australian passport.
My father was born in Burqa in 1945. A breathtakingly beautiful village, high in the hills and mountains with a view of the Mediterranean Sea on a clear night. None of my family remains in Burqa, and most of the people my father knew and grew up with are either in exile, dead, imprisoned and languishing as political prisoners in Israeli jails, or managing a halfway life in Jordan, officially stateless.
My father’s home is a magnificent structure, made of white limestone with ornate patterns on its doors and windows, and the original mosaic tiles on its floors. It sits on a huge plot of land filled with olive and fruit trees. Eleven years ago, a limestone verandah wrapped around the front of the house and my sister and I stood on it with my father, attempting to carefully extract his school certificate from an old photo frame. The stones of the verandah have since been stolen, and the house is in ruins. Nobody is allowed to return to live in it and, therefore, look after it.
When my father was three years old, the state of Israel was declared. This had a devastating and continuing impact on my father’s family. In 1967, my father became officially stateless and dispossessed of the right to return to his birthplace. He was awarded a UN refugee scholarship to study in Egypt, and eventually ended up on a scholarship to undertake his PhD in Australia, which has been his home since 1973. Despite our ancestral home in Burqa, my relatives are all in Jordan, either in the predominantly refugee suburb of Zarqa, or Amman. They have been dying off there, buried in a country to which they do no belong.
To see the village he was born and raised in was the only reason my father had accompanied me on my writing trip. But there was also one more reason. It was to find his father’s grave. Eleven years ago, on our first visit, my father could not find it.
So we were determined to make it happen. Which is why father and I were sitting in the airport rehearsing our story. We were going to say we were ‘staying in Jerusalem’ but visiting the West Bank for a day only. It was worth the risk.
Compelled to use such preposterous, grovelling methods to circumvent an occupier in order to visit your birthplace – the utter obscenity of Israel’s occupation struck me in a visceral way. I joked about it to my father to try and lighten the mood. He humoured me, but I could see the anxiety and fear shadowing his face. I remained strong, patient and optimistic for my father’s sake. My father is high-strung at the best of times; the risk that we might be refused entry to his birthplace made him panicky and agitated.
Our bus from Amman approached the fortified border. We’d been turned back at the first border crossing, King Hussein Bridge, because the minute our bus arrived, the Israeli soldiers decided that they would close the border and call it a day. You can’t argue. You can’t get angry. You just have to think on your feet and find a solution.
We caught a taxi and decided we would drive to the second border crossing, Sheikh Hussein. Three hours later we arrived. We boarded the bus and, after another hour of waiting, we were finally on our way.
When the bus approached the border into Israel, we had to slow down for, yet again, another waiting game. The insufferable wait at checkpoints is a form of psychological torture, dehumanising and infuriating. You must sit silently and wait. Wait for an Israeli soldier to acknowledge your existence. Wait for your presence to be considered as more than an inconvenience. Wait to be addressed as a human being, not a managed object.
The Palestinians beside us in the bus sat patiently. Me? I was ready to scream; but I had an example to set to my daughter, and a father to avoid provoking. And anyway, what right did I have to lose my patience when the people on my bus endured this on a daily basis?
Somebody asked our driver about the hold-up. He shrugged and pointed to two young soldiers, a girl and boy, standing to the right of the bus. They looked like they’d just been conscripted. They were obviously flirting, batting eyelashes at one another and laughing. I stared at them, willing them to turn around, acknowledge the presence of a bus of forty travellers awaiting their approval to pass. They barely glanced in our direction.
Eventually, over 45 minutes later when they wearied of flirting, they looked at us. After a cursory “explosives test” under the bus and a quick wave of the hand, we were allowed through. My blood boiled. I looked around at the Palestinians in the bus. What hurt the most was how resigned they were to being treated this way. And yet, the resilience – the patience! I’d been close to breaking down so many times.
Eventually, after our bags were scanned and inspected – again by cocky, young conscripts who looked bored and went through the motions as if we were nothing more than luggage to inspect – we approached the soldier at the window. My daughter stood to my right, pretending the suitcases were her students and calling out the class roll. I whispered to dad to keep it cool, to not lose his temper, to not let the frustration and anger and hurt that had been percolating since 1948 erupt to the surface.
The soldier at the counter was in his early twenties. My father presented our passports. I stood right beside him, trying so hard to maintain a poker face. Everything hinged on this soldier. He only needed to say no, and the trip was over. Back to Amman and then to Australia.
My father blew me away. He must have dug deep because he seemed to suppress every ounce of anger and frustration and summoned all his charm and charisma.
‘Where are you going?’ the soldier asked in his thick Israeli accent.
‘Well, we are here from Australia,’ my father replied, feigning a cheerful tone. ‘We are visiting Jerusalem and want to spend a day in the West Bank. To see my village.’
The soldier managed something like a tiny smirk. ‘Your village?’
I dug my fingernails into my hand.
My father explained that his house was in Burqa. It was empty and he longed to see it after all these years. ‘I must see it,’ he said, his voice choking for a second.
The soldier was unmoved. He flicked through the papers and passports at a torturously slow pace. He questioned us for some time, punctuating the interrogation with long pauses in between our answers as he thought about whether to grant us permission to enter my father’s birthplace.
What infuriated me was his passive-aggressive approach. At one point he spoke in broken Arabic, and then he started asking my father if he’d taught his children Arabic too, back in Australia. Before my father had a chance to respond, the soldier started to lecture my father on the importance of teaching children their mother-tongue, then suddenly switched to asking us about kangaroos in Australia then to lecturing us on not staying long – on having to leave quickly. I was bewildered. It was utterly surreal. I felt like my head might explode from the pressure of it all. I think back now and can’t help but feel impressed with the impassive, almost nonchalant expression on my face as I looked at the soldier, willing myself to not give him the slightest suspicion of how much this meant to us. If I remained detached and indifferent, we might be able to fool him. Not give him an excuse to punish us.
We’d been at the counter for over 40 minutes, entertaining this soldier’s small talk, provocative questions and deliberate obfuscation. My father had requested a 14 day permit, giving us some extra time to be safe.
The soldier ummed and ahhed until my father, at wits’ end, asked him to please let us in so that “I can see my village before I die”. I swallowed the lump that had been building in my throat. We waited. And waited. The solider stretched his hands above his head, then dropped his hands down to examine his finger nails. Then he stood up and left us to chat and laugh with a supervisor as we stood waiting at the counter. He eventually returned, smiled and then said, ‘Ok, I do this for you’, offering a heavy sigh at the end as though he was acting against his better judgment in being so magnanimous. He handed my father our passports and then wagged his twenty-something-year-old finger at my 66-year-old father and said, ‘Adnan, don’t you dare stay longer! Okay? In and out!’
My stomach turned.
We turned around and my father looked down at the permit. He’d only given us seven days. ‘It’s better than nothing,’ my father whispered to me, but we both knew it had been the soldier’s last attempt to let us know who was in charge.
We walked to the doors, and I hurried in front of my father and daughter because I could no longer hold it in but I did not want them to see me cry.
The only thing worse than having your own dignity and humanity belittled is watching it robbed of somebody you love.
I could have stood there for hours, weeping at the border, surrounded by tourists being interrogated in corners and windowless rooms, swaggering soldiers, my daughter – my father, revelling in the bitter-sweetness of a seven day pass to his birthplace. But I yanked my composure back from the corridor of despair, because those who are denied their human rights do not have the luxury of despair. It is hope, resilience and composure in the face of injustice that restores our dignity.
We made it to my father’s village and once again I was intoxicated by its spell of history, charm, elegance and tragedy. Why is a physical, visceral connection with one’s homeland, birthplace and parents’ graveyards an instinctively human need? There is something about attachment and access to our ancestor’s graves that offers human dignity to both the living and the dead.
There is nothing in the world that has impacted on me more than watching my father search for his father’s headstone. The Zionist project in Palestine severed families – both the living from the living, and the living from the dead. Lost in 2000, we found my grandfather’s grave eleven years later. It is my hope that it will never again be lost to us, and that we will triumph over the madness, brutality and injustice of occupation and return as a family to lay flowers and say a prayer over it once again.
By Randa Abdel-Fattah
Randa is the award-winning author of eight novels. She practiced as a lawyer for ten years, and is now completing a PhD in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University, researching Islamophobia in Australia. She is also currently working on a 4-book children’s series.