The officer put a glass of water and a cigarette on the desk that separated us. I had been waiting for over eight hours and I would have loved either, but I refused. He smiled. Before walking me into the room he had ordered a blond female soldier to search me; to fill the silence I had asked her if she liked her job and she had replied that she liked it because it made her meet a lot of people. She didn’t see the irony and I didn’t say a word. Standing naked before someone with a gun shuts you up.
Keeping quiet has always been difficult for me, but I never had to remain silent as often as I did in my first three months in Palestine, where I was teaching theatre to teenagers in a refugee camp, and running seminars in universities through a human rights research institute. The officer lit for himself the cigarette I had refused and started asking the same questions over and over again, to check for consistency. Next to me stood two tanned soldiers who must have been my age, wearing green uniforms and bored expressions. One looked at me and gave me an embarrassed smile and for a moment we felt sorry for each other. He was quite attractive, and in the absurdity of the moment I managed to think that in a different kind of world I might have liked to date this guy. In a different kind of world, it would have also taken only three hours and a beautiful seaside highway to drive from Tel Aviv to Beirut. Instead, I had just spent a day waiting at a border crossing, and was now being interrogated, merely because I was traveling – legally – from Lebanon to Palestine, via Syria and Jordan,
“Have you been to Israel before?” Yes. Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem. I answered reluctantly, like you do to someone that has your passport locked away in his drawer. He read from a printout: “Here it says that you have been to Jenin. That’s Israel, also.” “Actually, that’s Palestine.” I realized the stupidity of my words as I pronounced them. The officer smiled again, amused by my response. He lectured me on a history he knew I didn’t agree with and made me wait for many more hours, before finally letting me go. On the minibus to Ramallah I looked at my fellow passengers and wondered, ashamed, what could have happened if I hadn’t had the protection of a EU passport.
I had known before that human rights violations were not always blatantly illegal, but it is only in Palestine that I not only witnessed on others but also experienced for myself the subtle violence of continued humiliation. Only in Palestine did I have to stay silent before someone in power, and only in Palestine did I find myself at a loss for words. This double impotence frustrated me. It is in Palestine that I also grew disillusioned with activism. Instead, I decided that my role was to bear witness.
I grew up craving experience, perhaps a little recklessly at times, but because of the conviction that I couldn’t argue without first understanding, and I couldn’t understand without first experiencing hands-on. This eagerness took me to the United States as a sixteen-year old who barely spoke any English; it then took me to India for a year, to Cuba, Sudan, Nigeria, China, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. I was intrigued by conflict, because the places with the greatest injustices were also the ones where I found the greatest stories of human solidarity. I wrote obsessively, as if experience would escape unless I set it on paper. Journalism seemed the natural development for me.
I had always taken for granted the importance of the right to think and express freely, and I knew this right was often denied or limited, yet it is not until Palestine that I realized what this negation actually implied. As I discovered, story after story, accounts that even as an informed and interested reader I had never been able to see, I grew indignant at the number of stories that went untold. Becoming a journalist was no longer a possibility, it was now my goal and responsibility.
Palestine, of course, is not my only interest. I found the same untold stories in my Southeast Queens beat, the same injustice in the words of Sean Bell’s parents, whom I interviewed for one of my last pieces. It is stories like theirs that I want to continue to tell.