From Egypt To Israel And Back Again

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I’m standing on the Israeli side of the border between Egypt and Israel at Taba, and I’m sweating. I’m on my way to The Jerusalem Conference, a three-day monologue about Israel’s security in the ‘new’ Middle East. I’m going because I want to confirm my preconceived notions about blame and injustice in the conflict there by listening to politicians hang themselves with contradiction. I want to sit quietly in the audience and pretend that if they could just see clearly, if they’d just listen to me, that peace would come quickly, and fairly.

But at immigration, I’ve been pulled to the side of an air-conditioned hall because the hair I have in my passport picture does not match the hair I have now, on my head. I do not have two pieces of government-issue I.D., not including my passport, that back up the fact that at some point in the last seven years I’ve had a haircut. So I’m a suspicious character.

There is an immigration officer looming over me. I am slightly awed by his thick muscles and his polished gun, which dangles from his shoulder. He is grimacing like he wants to bite me or crush me into bits and pieces. The conversation we have goes something like this, and I tell the lies I have to:

-You are coming from Egypt.



-I live there.


-I’m doing research.

-What kind?

-Experiential stuff. I’m writing a book. Writing what I see.

-About history?

-Not exactly.

-What are you writing?


-Listen, just answer my question: what are you writing?

-Fiction. Stories. A book about people and their lives.

-What people? What lives? What are you doing here?

-I’m doing research. I said that. I’m writing stories about traveling. Traveling in Egypt. Like, going to the zoo. Like, getting lost in the desert. Like, swimming in the Nile and maybe getting bitten by an alligator.

-Those are dumb stories.


-Do you speak Arabic?


-Are you studying Arabic?


-Do you want to?

-Like, ever?

-Listen, just answer me: do you want to speak Arabic!?

-I don’t know! No.

-The Qur'an?

-What about it?

-Do you have one on your person?


-Have you read it?


-Do you want to?

-I don’t know.

-You do not have a Jewish name.

-I’m from Montana.

-Do you speak Hebrew? Do you have a Torah? Israel is a strong country. Why are you not researching here?

So I’m sweating because I’m uncomfortable. Because I’m writing a book about refugees in Egypt: Iraqis, Sudanese, and, inevitably, Palestinians. And I don’t want them to know this.

Also I’m wondering if I have done something wrong. If I have contraband. If a Qur'an is contraband. If knowing Arabic is mental contraband. If not being Jewish and being inside of Israel at the same time is a moral contradiction I should be punished for. Then I wonder if I’m racist for being scared of them, or for being angry at the way they’ve impressed their views on me so judgmentally. I feel a twinge of judgment, this time my own: these questions are irrelevant and these questions are unfair and these questions are mean. My judgment grows and turns to anger, and before I know it I’m screaming at myself. Inside of my head, of course. Why am I afraid to tell you the truth?

I slow down and think about it rationally. The Israeli side of this border has a reputation. A friend of mine, a male archeologist from Greece, was strip searched just a few months before. By females. He was provided no justification, as if he was picked at random. When they found nothing, he was verbally degraded and told that his Greek heritage was—how did they put it?—anti-Israeli. Another story I heard, this one second-hand: an American woman’s computer was quite literally shot, with bullets, because there were pictures of a Qur'an on her hard-drive or text from the Qur'an was saved on the background. An argument ensued over it, so the officer took the computer outside and shot it, making it a moot point.

By this time in the conversation, several immigration officers have gathered around. Like they have nothing better to do than watch a tourist squirm.

The bulky officer from before starts in on me again, asking why I am here all over again, where I’m going exactly, and what my goal is—this question is said in such a way that implies I have destruction or vengeance on my mind. I get through these queries eventually. Then, from nowhere, he wants to know why, when I visited Israel before (he had seen my entry and exit stamps, which were separated by only an hour, as I was passing through Israel on my way to Jordan), I hadn’t seen the holy city of Jerusalem. Why I hadn’t gone to the sites and prayed at them.

I start stuttering a little bit, which makes the immigration officers around me—who, coincidentally, seem far younger, far more beautiful, and far more armed than any other immigration officers I’ve seen in the world—think I’m guilty of something. There is a girl in the back and she is pretty. Although I have the feeling she wants to shoot me because she fondles her gun and smiles at me like I’m made of cardboard and have a target drawn on my face.

Maybe I am imagining this. All this gun-lust. But that’s what it feels like, standing here with all these eyes and all these questions that seem to vilify a religion and a culture so explicitly, and vilify me by the nature of my distant association with them, which is just a matter of geography—as in, I live in Egypt.

Eventually I make it through the border. Hours later and I’m feeling this awkward distaste for my host, as if I had expected a warm welcome and was instead grilled for showing up at all, as if I had arrived, improperly dressed and without an invitation, to an exclusive party.

I get on a bus from Eilat to Jerusalem. I’m sold a ticket, but the bus is full so I sit on the floor and count army boots. There are roughly eighty seats on the bus and I count seventy-four pairs of boots. They are soldiers in uniform with their guns and their packs. I watch the soldiers. They are young. They seem almost too young. They remind me of my kid sister. Eighteen or so, just out of high school. I think about putting a rifle in my sister’s hand and asking her to fire it at something living. It is a strange image and I feel nauseas from it.

These boys and girls are forced to be here, serving their country. I wonder what percentage of them want to be. These are kids and they are chatting, smoking, telling jokes, flirting. Boys and girls. It’s like a bus ride to summer camp, except camp is IDF military training.

I get to Jerusalem and I walk to my hotel. It is a fancy one on Mt. Scopus, one of the many hills that make Jerusalem a difficult city to walk in. The Old City is in the distance and I can see the city walls, where, for thousands of years, people have defended their holy sites from siege. At a distance it looks quiet and noble and sad, if such a thing could be said about rocks stacked on top of each other. I use the evening to take a closer look. I bus and I walk there. But I am disappointed because the Old City is one part holy site and five parts shopping mall. Areas of the outer walls are peppered with bullet holes. You can put your finger inside them and feel where someone might have died; you can wonder why, and what for.

In the morning there is a buffet breakfast and they serve shrimp cocktails and pancakes. The conference starts and I’m feeling lethargic and like I shouldn’t have come at all. Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat stands up and says he wants East Jerusalem back. People clap. He says he wants East Jerusalem back without the predominately Arab population that lives there now. And people cheer. I’m wondering: but where will the Arabs go?

My judgments become harsher and my frustration grows as the hours and lectures pass. A variety of ministers, rabbis, U.S. congressmen, and military representatives from both Israel and the USA stand up spout what sounds like propaganda and rhetoric: they speak in absolutes, talk only about black and white, and reinforce the notion that Israel will remain, at all costs, one nation. And it will be a Jewish one, exclusively.

While I have always thought myself sympathetic to the cause of a Jewish homeland—since I believe strongly in the notion that all people deserve a place to call their own—I feel myself growing tired of the method and of the blind violence so often labeled as ‘defense’ or ‘progress’. Of fighting violence by being more violent, by being quicker, stronger, better prepared, better organized, better armed.

But there is a crystallizing moment during a presentation on the media’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when a quietly conservative woman takes the stage and motions some tech guy in the back to roll the footage. They project a children’s show, created and broadcast in Gaza, that shows a pretty lady and a variety of little puppets quite literally preaching hate to the Arab youth of Palestine: they say, with a smile, kill and redeem and take back our homeland and Israeli devils and other such things. It probably airs Friday afternoons, just after lunch and prayer.

It is supposed to show everyone in the room what kind of enemy Israel is facing. It seems to be a justification for Israeli blockades, for Israel’s use of guns in street wars where the weapon of choice is sticks and stones. Like, look at these kids, all hateful.

Although that doesn’t sit well with me. Instead of proving their point, the video just demonstrates to me why these sorts of ever-present conflicts exist at all: no side is innocent or justified, although all sides pretend to be. So I’m angry and confused. I don’t know who I agree with or who I’m mad at anymore. I feel like punching someone. At this point, I’d punch anyone: an Arab, an Israeli, some suited man representing American interests in the region, or even an ignorant traveler, like myself, who thinks he’s got it all figured out and walks around Jerusalem drinking beer and pretending that he’s peace-on-Earth. That is when I know, in some small way, what it’s like to live in a world where you don’t really know who your enemy is, or what you’re really fighting for, or when to cast a stone and when to hold it.

I’m forced to admit, which shouldn’t have been a surprise but still somehow feels like one, that I have no idea how to save Palestine or how to give every citizen of Israel, and every refugee who used to live there, exactly what they deserve: a home; peace; a sympathetic government. So I go back to Egypt, a little bit broken. A little more humble than when I’d left.



Posted on 8/03/2010 by

Julie Collazo

Julie Collazo

Ian- I was totally sucked in by the first paragraph and you kept me reading all the way til the end. Thanks for this piece.

Posted on 8/04/2010 by

Heather Carreiro

Heather Carreiro

Excellent piece Ian. I had no idea crossing the border into Israel was so brutal. I have studied Arabic (and have tons of stuff on my hard drive) and have lived in Morocco and Pakistan, so after reading your account I doubt I'd get in! At this point since my husband and I plan on living and teaching in the surrounding region, we're planning to avoid an Israel stamp in our passports, but wow the stories you shared had me questioning whether I'd ever want to do that border crossing.

Posted on 8/04/2010 by

Karen Dion

Karen Dion

Fantastic piece! This really was a great, compelling piece of writing--and such difficult thoughts were expressed so well. As an aside: as you started, I was nodding in recognition because last year I had some trouble at Tel Aviv airport over having a different hair colour to my passport photo...nothing like what happened to you, though.

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