Editor's Note: Rewa Alwaqt is a pseudonym used to protect the writer's identity.
A few years ago, my partner and I had a civil marriage and planned to visit his grandmother in Palestine shortly afterwards. We are both Palestinian, but are categorized differently by the Israeli Border Authority and its demographic management system. He is a Palestinian identity card holder (hawiye) with a passport issued by Jordan that declares him a non-national. I am a Palestinian holding a foreign (Western) passport. Among border officials, he is treated as a Palestinian subject (read: inferior). I am treated as a Westernized Arab, discernable by my name, accent, and appearance (also read: inferior), with the privileges afforded by my passport. My partner only has the option of travelling through the south-west border to cross over to the West Bank, while I can travel through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, or take the northern border route that runs through Jordan and into the Galilee.
I could have taken the northern border while he took the southern border, but I would have had to ask a relative for their address and justify a reason for my visit. I did not want to ask for that when I would not be able to repay their hospitality. We considered travelling together and pretending to either be friends or strangers, but we are conditioned to overestimate Israeli military intelligence and feared the risk. Any association could drastically change carefully constructed individual identities. We did not have to say that we were married since I never changed my name, but my mother-in-law advised us to cross the border together regardless. She said “Just tell the truth; marriage is a good enough reason to visit one’s grandmother.”
The southern border crossing which runs over the now dry Jordan River, is named after General Allenby who built the bridge in 1918, and King Hussein who rebuilt it in 1994, but is referred to colloquially as el-Jisr or “the bridge” in Arabic. Principally administered by Israel, the bridge serves as a checkpoint that stops Palestinians from reaching their land. In fact, it is the route that Palestinians were forced to cross after the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 War, when their homes were taken and they were violently displaced. The bridge has always been a site of conflict; crossing it provides a punitive rather than reconciliatory experience.
Critical scholars in the field of Migration Studies assess borders as a supra-physical and temporal experience that transgress the few kilometers of the border fence and the few hours one may spend crossing it. For me, the border began at least the week before I arrived at the checkpoint, when I started deleting virtual evidence of my political identity. The border entails every act of repackaging one’s identity, like how I bought a dummy phone to accessorize my performance as an acceptable visitor to “Israel.” Long before reaching the border, it was also inside my churning gut.
After a two-hour drive to the Jordanian border crossing, we walked through the large arched gate and continued through crowded queues. We were informed that a VIP service could make the journey smoother— a brilliant business idea where fear is rampant. An hour later, after our papers were processed, we boarded a ten person van instead of the forty-two person bus and were driven on el-Jisr over the Jordan river, which has run dry. Passing by Hebrew signs and automated military guarded checkpoints, we were greeted by X-ray machines and stared down by armed border officials at desks.
We approached the border-crossing desk with his Green ID card and Jordan-issued non-citizen passport on top, and my foreign passport on the bottom. The border official asked me what my relationship was to my partner, and I responded that we are married and going to visit his grandmother. One officer in the window became two, and they conferred in Hebrew. The officials handed me a form that asked for the names of my maternal and paternal grandparents. I didn’t know how big or small their database was, but I imagined that on their screen was my Palestinian family tree and its exiled descendants.
They told us to wait in the VIP lounge, an enclosed area alongside the X-rays. Instead of the metal chairs in the waiting area, there were red leather couches and a bar with limited but complimentary coffee and tea options - even stale puff pastry with a soggy glaze. Chaperones of the VIP seating section switched between Hebrew and Arabic seamlessly as many Palestinians living under Israeli rule do. One was named Amir: a name used by both Palestinians and Israelis. They were suspiciously friendly, and I could not tell whether they worked for the VIP service as private employees, or if they were a covert extension of the military. What did become painfully clear to me, while we were sitting on pillows cushioning the eventual blow, was that we had simply paid a customer service fee for them to occupy us with a smile.
For Palestinians, the long waiting hours on el-Jisr are generally uneventful, every passing minute overcast with apprehension. I glanced at the row of reflective mirrored windows. From the outside, they seemed unthreatening, but from where its directors sat inside, it was a panopticon. I fumbled for my Kindle and my heart sank when I found a ‘Free Palestine’ sticker on its back cover. How could I have missed it in my obsessive sweep? As I pulled and crumpled it in my hand, I heard my name being called. I looked up and the officers standing near the reflective glass were no longer smiling. My ears burned red hot and I fidgeted with half of the torn sticker as I walked.
Behind the glass, everything changed. In contrast to fluorescent lighting outside, the innermost workings of the checkpoint were dim and dingy. It was as if I was backstage at the ongoing performance. The interrogation room had two desks, a camera, and a computer. The questions began quickly and caught me off guard, because they were neither about me, nor about my partner, but about my parents.
My parents hold Jerusalem IDs. As Israel annexes Jerusalem, claiming it as its own capital city, Palestinian Jerusalem ID holders are a target demographic in Israel’s annexation project. On the ground, Israel demolishes homes and displaces Jerusalemite families. On the border, Israel revokes IDs. In most accounts, if a displaced Jerusalemite adopts another passport while in exile, they could be at risk of losing their ID. Many Jerusalem ID holders simply do not travel back, so as not to risk losing their papers and their historic claim to the land. I later found out that the reason I was in that interrogation room was because little to my knowledge I inherited a Jerusalem ID that I had not claimed. This made the border officials suspicious, but they didn’t let me know that that was the reason for the interrogation and the wait.
Back in the lounge, hours more of waiting elapsed with fewer smiles, more anxiety, and visible exhaustion. Finally, a tall woman with evident rank approached us. She matter-of-factly declared: “You see, you are claiming to be married to this man, but his hawiye states ‘single.’ We cannot let you in on the basis that you are his spouse, because in our system, that simply cannot be.” I almost laughed at the roundabout ridiculousness but maintained diplomacy. “This is exactly why we are coming here, to register his change of status,” I answered. She responded that he may enter to change this on his own.
Israel is terrified of Palestinian families, especially new or growing families. Denying family reunification is a long-standing Israeli practice. I felt foolish for not knowing that it is not in our favor to enter together. How could we not know how to navigate a system that has oppressed us for 74 years? It is not only marriage that is used against us, but all stages of life, from birth to death. Mothers have been forced to give birth in cars at checkpoints so that they don’t do so in a Jerusalem hospital. Corpses of Palestinian elders - whose only wish was to be buried on their land - have been deemed security threats and turned back. I knew that the rules of a military regime were opaque and slippery, but perhaps I could have predicted them.
The officer proceeded to inform me that I could enter the next day on the condition that I pay a bond of 20,000 Israeli shekels wired from an Israeli bank account. We knew that changing my partner’s marital status would take longer than the length of our trip, so we started searching for relatives and friends who could help us wire the money. My partner entered to figure out these logistics with his family. I was driven back to the Jordanian side, where my parents picked me up after midnight. They drove me back at sunrise. After repeating the same route, I landed back on the red couches waiting as the money was wired by a relative’s friend of a friend. By sunset, a border official resentfully handed me a permit to enter the West Bank, valid for five days. If I failed to exit before the fifth day, the bond we paid would not be returned.
On all my previous trips, I had been given a visa for up to three months that allowed me into the Occupied Palestinian Territory and ’48 lands (occupied cities in the interior). Now they told me that, as I claimed to have a Palestinian spouse, I would not be afforded the privileges of a foreign-passport holder. I would not be able to enter through other bridges or airports, nor would I be able to visit my relatives, my ancestral village, or the Mediterranean sea without applying for a separate permit.
As I exited the border crossing, a VIP chaperone was out for a smoke. He was the one to tell me that my file showed that I had a Jerusalem ID registered to my name. For so long I held onto my foreign passport which had allowed me access, not realizing I was entitled to the Jerusalem ID. Now that I have been flagged as the spouse of a Palestinian hawiyeh carrier, it didn’t matter - not only was my foreign passport discounted, I could no longer claim my Jerusalem ID. The chaperone added that if only I had just said I was my partner’s girlfriend, they would’ve let me in a long time ago.
We spent the next few days eating my partner’s grandmothers’ cooking, visiting his relatives, and retelling our story from el-Jisr. The consensus was that perhaps this was for the best; from now on, my status will be clear in their system, and it may provide a smoother entry. They said that perhaps our future children would have the hawiye.
I wondered whether the next generation of Palestinians would be asked to write the names of their maternal and paternal grandparents on a form? Will the family-tree database keep track of their parents’ exiled generations? Will they be denied entry based on the Israeli logic that “they claim their parents are Palestinian, but the system does not recognize Palestine, so that simply cannot be” ?
We started the process of registering our marriage so that I would be able to enter the next time. We first had to translate the civil union certificate from English to Arabic, then get it recognized by the church. When we got there, the priest informed us that the church in fact does not recognize civil unions. It was then that we learned that nor do mosques, nor does the Palestinian Authority, and nor does Israel. All along, our civil union and the basis of our entry together was, like our Palestinian identity, unrecognized.