Normally we, the white foreigners, would sit on the air-conditioned number 18 bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem while each and every Palestinian filed off. As they funneled through gun-manned turnstiles, we’d ease our way over the border and meet them on the other side, in Israel.
But this time the soldier with a machine gun slung across his belly wasn’t letting us go so easily. With a flick of his head, he motioned my friend (who he deemed at 21 “too young” and therefore somehow worthy of inspection) and I in the direction of the bus door, and beyond it, the checkpoint.
We entered an echoing chamber to find ourselves in a mass of at least 200 people. Packed into dense rows, they pressed towards three caged metal corridors that led to turnstiles, and in the distance ahead, the actual security checkpoint.
A majority were men: teenagers cracking jokes or calling to a friend across the aisles, middle-aged workmen staring with eyes glazed over, a grey-haired gentleman leaning on a cane in front of me.
The women interspersed throughout the crowd were draped in black burqas and silken hijab. A few of the younger ones with impeccable make-up and glittering rings were travelling alone, but most were surrounded by family. What caught my eye were the children.
The little girl, hair pulled back with orange barrettes that read “Love”, leaning against her father’s shoulder. The toddler with bouncing curls, dressed in bright pink, reaching to be picked up. The tiny baby slung in its mother’s arms, mouth and eyes wide open in perfect circlets.
And in the midst of it all, us: two blonde females, a minority among a minority, privileged by the sheer fact that we had passports.
When the turnstile clicked from red to green, the mass surged. We pressed obstinately, willing ourselves to make it through together, until one man held back for a moment and ushered us forwards with a faint nod of his head.
With that act of kindness, we were crushed into a slatted metal tunnel maybe a meter wide and six high, lashed with wire across the top.
We waited there for only half an hour, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being imprisoned. When we finally made it through one turnstile and to the other, we had to wait again for the green light that would allow us to actually enter the security room.
The turnstile only allowed three people at a time, and the father and his daughter with the “Love” barrettes got stuck in the triangle of bars as it turned. They stayed trapped for a few minutes as we all waited for the red to turn to green.
Ahead of me, I watched a father struggle to fit a baby seat and diaper bag decorated with Hello Kitty and the words “I love you” on it through the security machine. When it was my turn, I beeped twice going through the metal detector.
The first time – my sunglasses.
The second time – my sandals.
And so I walked, head bare and browned soles sticking to the grimy floor, into the Holy Land.
“Where is your visa?” the soldier behind the clear plastic barrier asked. He was young, as they almost all are, lanky, with a thin, dark beard. His face was not unkind; he looked more bored than anything.
I explained I didn’t have it, and so I held up my passport photo and information for inspection like a shield against the plastic. He peered at it and at his computer, asked me to clarify my name and birthday, and then waved his fingers, letting me go.
Grateful but guilty, I slipped on my sunglasses and shoes and flipped through one more turnstile towards the exit.
I shouldn’t have gotten past. I know that if I had been a Palestinian with no entry permit and not an American without my visa, I would have never been able to set foot inside Israel.
It took us nearly an hour and a half to cross the border. When, in the exit corridor, I noticed a sign that read “Have a safe and pleasant stay”, I almost laughed out loud.
Back on the bus for the final stretch to Jerusalem, my eyes were drawn to a young mother and her three small children pressed together in the seats in front of me. I caught a glimpse of one little boy, then two, with the same thin, almost solemn faces, and then a snapshot of a the baby between two seats.
I watched mesmerized as the mother cradled it against her lap, tapping her fingers in affection on the round cheeks, the mouth curled upward, the deep brown eyes.
And slowly, I began to recognize them – the same tiny baby I’d noticed on the other side of the checkpoint. The same diaper bag with “I love you” Hello Kitty. The same father, two seats ahead, clutching the empty baby seat.
They are human beings. Only a few of the countless funneled, caged, and checked through the border every day from the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel for the only reason that they are of a specific ethnicity.
My friend described the experience best in three words: “shuttled like cattle.” For I don’t know if I have ever been made to feel less like a human being.
But I know that I, who have experienced this only once and never have to again if I so choose, am lucky. For so many, this is inescapable life.
When we got off the bus, I held back to let the mother go ahead of me with her baby. As she dipped her head in thanks, I looked into the small, unassuming circle of black and saw the face of a fellow human being.