A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"You are refused"; or, Down to Egypt

On the 'Nissos Rodos' bound for Haifa from Iskenderun, the primary cargo consisted of trucks and their Turkish drivers bound for Saudi Arabia. The ferry from Iskenderun to Haifa is recent; the war in Syria has cut off the old trucking route. The only other passengers onboard were two tourists tucked away in their first-class cabins, and myself. As I was the only in third class, I had a third of the 7th deck all to myself. While there were hundreds of comfortable seats, there was no bunk, but sleeping on the deck was comfortable (unlike the ferry from Nador to Almeria a little over a year ago, jammed with Moroccans spread out all over the deck).
The truck drivers congregated in the lounge, playing cards or backgammon, watching films, drinking tea or praying in a little makeshift mosque in the corner. I sat around in third class or topside doing a lot of thinking. Over the past year I've had a lot of advice on how to enter Israel; don't volunteer any information, send my peace books (better word than petitions) to Israel so I don't carry them through, have a specific date for leaving, a detailed itinerary, simply say I'm a tourist, or a strictly religious pilgrim visiting the Holy Land. Don't    imply any connection with Islam or Islamic countries. Don't get angry.
In the end I disregarded every piece of advice but the last. I didn't get angry.
I disregarded this advice because if I am going to call myself a Quaker I'd better think about integrity as much as peace.
As the ship moored in Haifa I was already thinking ahead, about how I would contact my first hosts and how I would get to them, when I was called to reception. I was then directed onto the mess deck where an Israeli security man was already waiting for me with my passport in his hand. Another man stood next to him.
"Why are you coming to Israel?" he asked.
"I'm a peace pilgrim."
The man sighed just a little.
"How long are you planning to stay?"
"One to three months."
A bigger sigh. I knew I was in for a grilling.
He then asked where I was going, and I replied that my only concrete plans were to attend a Vipassana meditation course near the Sea of Galilee, and to visit and possibly volunteer to help fellow Quakers at the Friends International Center in Ramallah. There was a line of questioning regarding these answers.
"Quakers?" for example. Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, long explanations were impossible. I don't think they know what Quakers are even now, other than some pacifist group in Ramallah.
At this point I was still trying to keep my answers as simple as possible, so I didn't talk about delivering a peace book to Dani Dayan, as I didn't know for a fact that I would do this. But I would raise the issue myself.
Eventually he wanted to know about the people I was going to stay with, and I told him I had their names on a list. I also mentioned that they came from a website called Couchsurfing, and that such hosts had got me all the way from Portugal to Iskenderun.
As I went to my bag for the list of names (it sounds bad, I know) I also pulled out my peace books to show the security men. When I was called back in, I handed over the list of names and my peace books.
"These are peace books I've carried since Portugal. One is for Israeli settlers to stop building settlements in Palestinian Territory, and to respect the autonomy of the Palestinians, the other is for Hamas to resist with non-violence, and to recognize the state of Israel. I have to tell you now that I believe in a Palestinian state, as the only way to peace."
Both guys gave me a concerned look and leaned forward a little to make sure they heard every word.
Now the reader may imagine boldness on my part, and may imagine that I said these words with a firm voice, standing tall, unwavering. But my voice wavered, I was shaking, and I may have appeared to be cringing a bit. No George Fox here.
Nevertheless, all was out, I thought. But for the next two hours or so, I was very courteously and professionally interrogated with tag team rapid fire examination and cross examination. I was impressed, I have to admit. But I was also disappointed. I wanted to tell the truth about myself and my journey and my intentions, but I don't feel the truth really came out. I don't think they wanted the truth. I think they wanted answers that their training has taught them are green, yellow or red flags. "Peace pilgrim" , for example, a yellow flag. "I believe in a Palestinian State", for example, a red flag. And the money I had, or the lack of it, an easy way to justify a refusal to enter Israel.
The interrogation remains a bit of a blurry memory, but they asked me why walk? (It's a peace walk, you know, walking for peace) Why one to three months in Israel? (depends on hosts, money, being able to get into Palestinian Territory or not, possible changes in plans)
what other possible possible plans? (might go after a month in Israel, might stay with Quakers in Ramallah for a while) Why walk? (walking for peace, uh, but did some hitchhiking in Turkey) Did you walk with anyone else? (Uh, with a few people, with my daughter to Morocco...) Where is she now? (Lexington, Kentucky) Anyone else? (A few, but there was this woman who walked with me for three months) Where is she now?(In Iran... RED FLAG... but she's cycling, see, Belgium to China, just passing through...) Why were you in Turkey? (It's uh, on the way to Israel) Why come on a ship from Iskenderun? Why not fly? (I want to get as close to Syria as possible... RED FLAG) Why Syria? (my original intention was to walk through Syria) Why not walk through Syria? (Uh, well, there's a war, and the visa...) Who did you stay with in Iskenderun? (uh, uh, a Couchsurfing host...) Did anyone in Turkey give you any presents to bring to Israel? (Uh, well... no)(I interpreted present to mean something to harm Israelis)(Of course there were presents! A tambourine, for example) Do you have friends in Morocco? (yes I have friends in Morocco) Do you know what this Arabic comment means in your book? (It's, uh, about peace... I, uh, someone always translated what was written) You had it translated? (Uh, it says things about peace in Israel and Palestine. Uh, not everyone wanted to sign, so the people who signed said only good things) What did the people who didn't sign say? (Uh, they didn't always think Hamas should resist non-violently) What did you tell them? (That Israel has a right to exist, and...) Why Egypt? (I'm also walking for an NGO... YELLOW FLAG... called Masterpeace, they're going to have a peace concert in 2014 there) You're staying in Egypt until 2014? (No, I'll only have a month there) Who are you staying with? (Well, I don't know yet, haven't Couchsurfed there yet) Where are you going after Egypt? (No idea, heh heh, uh, well, I'd like to see my daughter in America, but...) Do you know anyone in Israel? (I, uh, there's this Israeli guy I met and his friend's mother, I met her, and...) Do you know any of the people you'll be staying with? (Just, uh, this guys friend's mother in Negev) What's the name of your contact in Ramallah? (It's just a second, it's here in my book) Are there Quakers in Israel? (I,  uh, don't think so, I don't know) What did you do in Portugal? (I was an English teacher, also I sold hot dogs, see, I made more money selling...) It doesn't seem like that would earn you enough money to walk from Portugal to Egypt. ( I get donations) From who? (From people who support my peace walk) How do you get donations? (Mostly by asking on my blog... look, I'll give you my blog address, I'll write it down...) Find it on this (his smart phone)
"Okay", I say, but I'm really terrified now. I'm shaking, and two or three of them are observing me carefully. Why am I terrified? Because I know they're watching me tremble, and because I am so inept with tiny smart phones or any modern technology for that matter. Even the computer I'm writing on now intimidates me.
So shaking badly, I fumble with his tiny phone with its tiny keys, pressing the wrong keys because only a little monkey could possibly hit one key at a time. I somehow lose the search page, and I hand it to him. He refinds the search page and hands it back. Then I lose the page again. He hands it back again, but is now distracted by another security man's questions. As no one seems to be observing my fumbling, I calm down a bit and find my blog. I hand the phone to him. "Here it is!" I say triumphantly.
He scrolls down.
"Where does it talk about donations?"
I look. My blog looks different on a tiny smart phone.
"It's, uh, on a regular computer it looks different. The donation part is off to the side, and on this there is no side, but..."
"Okay, wait." he says. I wait, scratching something on my back. I've been scratching this thing on my back probably throughout the whole interrogation. I see the security man at the door watching me scratch my back. I stop scratching my back.
Then, a new line of questioning, surely based on what they've seen on my blog.
Why doesn't your family support you with money? (Uh, well, my brother sent me some money when I was in Morocco, see, he's with a big company...) Why doesn't he support you now? (He, uh, I don't want to ask him, I'd ask in an emergency) Why doesn't you daughter help? (She's offered, I don't want to take money from my daughter) I have to ask you a personal question, I'm sorry but it's necessary (I completely understand) Why did your wife leave you? (Well, uh, pfff, you know, maybe she thought I'd left her, I didn't see it that way...) Wait. (okay)
In the interval I am given a chair to sit in. I fidget in the chair. I am observed fidgeting in the chair. I force myself to stop fidgeting. It's very difficult. Facial muscles start contracting involuntarily.
Another man begins asking questions.
What are you going to do after you get to Egypt? (Uh, maybe go to Spain or Greece to work to get money to visit my daughter, get back to a normal life, I think I already answered that)
What's a normal life? (Well, you know, a house, a regular job, I mean I'm working now for peace but...)
Why Israel? (Huh?) Why Israel? How long have you been planning on coming to Israel? (Well, I decided on the walk just six weeks before I left, but I've wanted to come to Israel for a long time) Why? ( I love Israel. I love Judaism. Thirty years ago I wanted to convert to Judaism but a rabbi talked me out of it)
I'm chuckling now but he isn't. Also, another security guy nearby is leaning to hear better.
"Why Judaism?"
"I'm a spiritual person. I was dissatisfied with the Christianity I encountered at the time. I wanted to work on a kibbutz..."
"Are you going to convert to Judaism now? Or to Islam?"
"No, " I say, surprising myself with the first words I've said with a little firmness. "I'm a Christian, a Quaker now."
"Wait," he says, and walks to an unidentifiable briefcase sized silver technological device manned by a woman in the back where the other security guys have congregated. All but the guy near the door. He's observing me. Nice guy, no hard looks, but observing.
The second man returns.
"You said you have maps of your walk?"
"Yes, but only since Italy because I was sending them back to my daughter because of weight, you know"
But he doesn't know or care about weight in a backpack.
"Show me your maps."
I give him the map of Turkey. I show him where I walked with Buddhists for three days.
"Where did you meet them?"
I show him where the village was that I met Thomas.
I show him my route, which leads to Gaziantep, Antakya, and Iskenderun, all around the Syrian border.
"I was only in Gaziantep because of this Japanese guy I was travelling with, he investigates sweets and the baklava there..."
"Okay, wait."

Of course there were many, many other questions, and I did have a few chances to clarify, but I never really had a chance to coherently explain what I was doing. Answers were followed by more questions that led to other answers in a different direction. Many questions were asked in a different way, but I sometimes answered differently because I heard a different question. Real clarification was impossible. The truth was never discovered by these guys. I am certain of that.

I was later told by the man who'd asked the most questions that I would now have to pass a security interview (What had I just gone through?) by a uniformed woman who had been chatting with her colleagues for most of the time I'd been there.Then, if I passed the security interview, I'd have my bag searched, then I'd be in Haifa once the bag had been checked. I saw this as a positive sign. I'd satisfactorily gotten through the most difficult part. I was in!
As I sat waiting for the next security interview, the other passenger couple that had been hidden away in first class was having its interrogation. They sat at a table. Their interrogator was laughing with them, then after a few more minutes of amiable chatting, off they went to Haifa.
The uniformed woman then approached. My interrogators had been firm and a bit scary with their questions that implied the worst of me, but they'd also had amiable qualities. This woman, however, was a block of ice.
"How much many have you got?" she asked.
"Three hundred dollars."
"That doesn't sound like enough for three months in Israel, does it?"
"Well, as I've explained, I've had donations and hosts get me this far, and...."
"I'll ask."
And off she walked. She chatted and laughed with her colleagues. After some twenty minutes, she said from a distance, "You're refused."
I thought I was going to collapse.
"Refused. You're refused."
I sat for awhile, trying to think. She chatted and laughed with her colleagues.
"I really didn't have a chance to explain about money..."
"You explained enough, I'm sorry, you're refused."
More chatting and laughing.
"Isn't there anything else I can do?"
One of her colleagues shook his head, 'no'. I appreciated the look of sympathy on his face.
"Nothing, sorry," said the uniformed woman. No sympathy there.

What never really came out was that kind, peace oriented people have taken me into their homes for the past year and a half, and that the same kinds of people were going to do the same in Israel; that people continued to send donations, and these donations, ranging from less than a euro to 400 euros, kept supporting me; that I was getting by on a tight budget and that the 300 dollars I had would last me for a month; that my Vipassana course was free and that in itself gave me two weeks in Israel.
I personally know two Catholic religious pilgrims who walked through Syria and Jordan, and into Palestine and Israel, with absolutely no money.
So, money?  No. I believe I was just too much of a naive peace freak wanderer for the Israeli authorities. "One to three months, depending..." Too much time to wander around finding trouble, joining undesireable NGO's or worse, they must have thought.

I was very surprised they had no interest in who my peace books were addressed to, and what I intended to do with them. It was only the comments inside that they took an interest in.

I wish I could have had an audience with them; twenty minutes of uninterrupted speaking, followed by questions. I know that isn't the way it is, but they would have learned the truth that way; that Quakers are not their enemy, but worked to save persecuted Jews during the Second World War. They would have heard that in my talks about my peace books, I have much more often spoken the case for Israel than otherwise. Nearly all of those who have signed only one petition have signed for Israelis to stop building settlements, but not for Hamas to use non violent resistance. I have repeatedly argued for non violence on the part of those Palestinians fighting for justice in the Palestinian Territories. I have repeatedly argued that Israel has a right to exist, and that choosing sides has nothing to do with peace. They would have learned that I stay with all people who give me a sincere invitation; that I do not choose sides, and that I believe peaceful dialogue is an important step in peacemaking. Indeed, one of my Israeli hosts was a settler in Palestinian Territory. My time from Portugal to Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and now Egypt (where I disembarked) hasn't been spent nodding yes to anti-Israeli sentiment or anti-Muslim sentiment. I know about the Inner Light in all of us, and I do love Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism. I understand the better part of communism and anarchism. I understand the better part of capitalism.

Accepting hospitality from, and having dialogue with those who oppose Israel doesn't make me Israel's enemy. In Egypt, I will often find myself trying to convince people that Israel is not their enemy, just as, I suppose, I would have been trying to convince many Israelis that Palestinians and Muslims are not their enemy. The enemy is fear.
Shalom, salaam , peace.

1 comment:

  1. Of course there were many, many other questions, and I did have a few chances to clarify, but I never really had a chance to coherently explain what I was doing. ferry almeria nador