Nothing makes me nervous and vulnerable like traveling. The mask of calmness I wear when I start my trip rarely lasts till the end, but it was torn off way too soon when I made a recent trip from Ames -- Iowa to my home -- Jerusalem on El-Al airlines.
I was not quite relieved from the hardships and the harassment I faced on Tel-Aviv airport when I was on my way to Chicago. Being very eager for the summer program I was on my way to, and looking forward to meeting my friends that I longed for, gave me the energy and the patience to tolerate all the provocative actions made by the Israeli security men. On the way there, I had not been surprised by the glances and comments made by the passengers on the flight, who were very annoyed by the only Palestinian-looking woman wearing Islamic dress on the Israeli airline.
The benefit I gained and the joy I had experienced at Iowa State University's summer program diluted the anger I held on my way forth. Moreover, I liked the fact that the flight was direct from Tel-Aviv to Chicago and that the food was more tolerable than it is on other airlines. So I did not change my return ticket to other airlines.
The warmth of Ames and its people made the end of August come too soon. I got up early in the morning after a restless sleep, with my stuff already packed, I put on my most comfortable outfit - a blue cotton shirt, very American khaki pants with large cargo pockets and sandals. Finally, I put on my Islamic headscarf that made such a contrast with my pants.
"Put on socks" Betsy my "over-caring" friend said as she took me to the lab where I spent the summer working, I wanted to put the final touches on my work before I leave. I spent the rest of the morning at campus greeting the people I met during the summer. Ada was one of the people I said goodbye to. An Israeli working at the university, she was the woman who took care of me when I got sick. We don't know each other well, but we shared regional tastes, like the Tabule salad and the tradition of dipping hot bread into olive oil.
"Expect the worse on El-Al," she said. "Their job is to make you miserable, they'll make you identify your luggage in Chicago and ask you some questions."
"Don't worry, I'll be fine, you know how calm I am!" I told Ada as we shook hands.
Early in the afternoon Betsy took me to the airport. She put a present in my backpack and gave me a goodbye kiss. I spent my short trip on United flight reading her letter and opening the present with a smile on my face.
Arriving at O'Hare airport, I thought "this place is overwhelming, too busy, the ideal spot for people with agoraphobia to have a heart attack. My flight will take off in about four hours, good, I'll get my boarding pass then read an anger management book called, "The Dance of Anger" over coffee. I reached the international terminal. Going to El-Al's desk, I noticed some Arab women walking in the same direction, but they were dressed too well for traveling. They wore beautiful outfits and high-heeled shoes, a sign, to me, that they were from a country that floats on a lake of oil. My hope that they will be on my flight vanished immediately.
My thoughts were interrupted by an order to stop in Hebrew. My outfit was casual enough to distinguish me from the Kuwaiti women, I thought to myself as I walked between the divider to reach the security man who gave the order. I found another three men waiting for me. Two of them disappeared with my bag after I took my wallet, travel document and ticket from it. The one who had called me over took the job of interrogating me while another observed and took notes. He first spoke to me in Hebrew, but I answered him in English.
He then switched to English and asked, "Do you know only English?"
"And Arabic," I answered abruptly. The man went on and on asking me the most annoying questions, so I gave him the most brief, vague and uncertain answers. I was sarcastic in the way I received his endless questions, my way to hide my anger. The security agent could not help laughing at my answers while the observer stared with an expressionless face. He thought that the interrogator was too kind for me.
The interrogation was only interrupted when the men who took my bag reappeared. They wanted me this time. They took me to a separate room where my suitcases were.
"Open each and put your arms deep inside," the command came in Hebrew. When I did that they let me leave.
The interrogators were arguing loudly when I returned, but they stopped when they saw me. The expressionless man seemed more enthusiastic about questioning me.
"You have a problem, here, your visa has expired yesterday," he said as he pointed to the date.
"Right, but, actually, this is last year's visa." I said, watching his mean smile shrinking.
But he did not give up continuing with his irrelevant questions and rude comments until I was taken again to a separate room. It was 10 minutes before my plane was to take off. It was my turn to be checked, physically, this time. So much for my cup of coffee, I thought. So much for managing anger. I was already tired and angry and the flight hadn't even begun.
At last, I was given my bag, and the least mean of the interrogators walked me to the flight.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" I asked.
"No," said the man.
"Too bad! I guess it's good you don't have another Palestinian on the flight, or we might not take off until tomorrow morning," I said.
"You are too much Samah," he said laughing.
I put my bag on an x-ray machine and walked through the magnetic field. My friendly interrogator ignored the machine and walked, carrying a briefcase, through the security gate. We were stopped. His bag had to be checked by an American security guard, despite the special uniform he was wearing. He was annoyed, he wanted to make a fuss, but time was short.
Like my outgoing flight, I'm the last passenger to board the plane.
My seat is 38 D, a window seat, good, I thought.
I walked all the way to my seat feeling the looks of disapproval all around me.
"Excuse me, this is my seat" I said to a primary-school boy fixing a black kippa on his blond hair.
"Where are you from," he asked me in fluent, American English as he let me in.
"East-Jerusalem. And you?"
"Ranana," he answered.
We listened to the safety instructions and sat quiet for a while. Then Moshe, as I could read on his bag, said, "I visited my grandma in Indiana, now I'm going home, I'm by my own on the flight, but Mom will be waiting for me at the airport. This trip is very, very long." "You are a big boy, you can make it by your own, Moshe. It is a night flight, try to get some sleep after dinner and you will be home before you know it," I told the boy.
Moshe smiled, and kept talking to me over dinner. I was too tired and overwhelmed to keep the dialogue on, so I was glad when the lights were turned off and the kid went to sleep. Unconsciously, he leaned to the left against me and seemed to be comfortably sleeping.
Once on the plane I was exhausted, tired cold and sick, I asked for an extra blanket three times until I was given one. I opened my bag to get my medications, but they were not there - the security people had messed up every thing. I was so mad, my privacy was violated and I was deprived from my legitimate rights, but there were the socks that Betsy had put in my bag. I put it on gently, trying not to disturb the boy, and leaned back.
Four long hours passed with Moshe soundly sleeping and me totally drawn into my thoughts, emotions and worries. An elderly man, with the old European black outfit and hair curls, tapped Moshe's shoulder to make him fix his posture. Moshe moved himself away and never went back to sleep.
That night I got more and more nauseated till I vomited. Then I relaxed and almost slept, but I was disturbed by a woman yelling loudly, "Hey, give me my blanket."
"Don't yell at me," I answered curtly.
"How dare you take my blanket?" she said more loudly.
I ignored her completely because I was too angry to talk to her in a civilized way, but she got even louder. Two other people came and stared yelling with her, and together they made a big scene.
When the hostess, finally, came and told her that the blanket was not hers, the "team" left without a single word of apology. Moshe told me that he was sorry.
"Don't be," I answered.
I sat in my seat biting my tongue, full of anger superimposed on my native anger, counting the seconds for the hellish trip to end. I always felt anger as a big load of energy that crushes my heart if I don't release. I had to stick to my narrow seat for another six hours. At that point, the seat, the plane, even the sky, all were too narrow for my anger.
A Jewish American woman switched her seat with Moshe's and came to talk to me, she expressed how sorry she was about the scene, and then she said that she saw me being interrogated extensively in the airport.
"That must have been hard, but you know, the need to enforce security..." she said.
"It is oppression, discrimination and hatred that they are enforcing. Have you been interrogated?" I asked.
"A little bit," she answered. "But I'm Jewish and I look different than you do."
"What do you mean by different? Do I look explosive while you look rosy?" We laughed. She took my phone number and went back to her seat.
After a long, long time, Hebrew music and clapping announced our arrival to Tel-Aviv airport. Again, two security men were waiting for me, but this time I was less patient than ever. My muscles were stiff and I was broken with fatigue, enough to make questioning me a tough job for them as well.
Hours and hours passed before I was released. Two of my friends were still waiting for me at the airport.
Finally at home, my nephews rush to open my luggage looking for their promised gifts. The gifts are all there, wet with shampoo and sticky with ulcer medicine. Bottles have been left open by those searching through my suitcases, other bottles have the contents poured out, loose pills, cotton buds and cotton balls; a plastic container oozes cold cream which was pasted over clothes, books, gifts. No one speaks and, then, it all comes out, a flood of tears. If only my next trip would ask of me no more than traveler's jitters. If only I didn't need a book on managing anger. And, I wonder, will the American Jewish woman who was friendly and took my phone number ever call?