Passing Through the Middle East

Passing Through the Middle East

An American student chronicles her travels–and her fluid identity–as she visits the Middle East.


This article was originally published at

Shira Tevah

May 19, 2008

I arrived at the JFK airport in New York from Damascus after a layover in Istanbul. The official behind the passport and immigration desk had taken one look at the countries I’d visited and slashed my customs form with a yellow highlighter. I was standing now before a second official. “It’s definitely not Israel. It’s not Turkey. It’s probably not Jordan,” he said, speculating about the reason I was flagged for interrogation. “It’s gotta be Syria.”

He handed me the paper marked by the yellow slash. “Take this to the end of the corridor,” he said. I followed his instructions, and after some minutes of tapping my foot anxiously in a nondescript office, I was called to a different booth.

“What was this, some kind of religious pilgrimage?” the third customs official asked me. From August to December last year, I studied Arabic in the Palestinian territories and Israel, and vacationed to Jordan and Syria. Life in the Middle East is a game of identity, and my own identity had become flexible during my time there. It wasn’t who I was–it was what I was, and where. In the Middle East, the situation determines if it’s better to label yourself as an American, a student, a religious traveler, an Israeli, a Canadian, or an Arab. Guess wrong and a cabbie might overcharge you, a country may refuse you entrance, or a friend could turn his or her back on you. With every border and checkpoint I crossed, I assumed new facets of identity and concealed others.

“No,” I replied. “I was on a leave of absence from university, just traveling. I’m studying the Middle East.”

He typed some things into the computer in front of him and sighed. “Well, they sent you over here for a reason,” he said. “Where are your parents from?”

“Both American,” I told him.

“I mean, where are they from?”

“How far do you want me go back? I think my mom’s parents are British or Scottish and my dad’s family are mostly Jews from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe.” He looked puzzled.

“Let me explain something to you,” he said, his voice taking on a lecturing tone.

“When I come back into the United States after a trip, I get a hard time. People even ask me if my parents were slaves. And I’m an officer in the U.S. Navy. Now why do you think they do that?” he asked me, gesturing to his black skin. “Look at you, and your name, and this list of countries. It’s not right they sent you down here. But now that your name’s been flagged, I just have to put some information into the computer to de-flag it.”

Something dawned on my sleepless, addled mind: He meant I’d been profiled as an Arab. Though singling people out for questioning at airports on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion is illegal, it is widely recognized to be a continuing practice. Apparently the four months I’d spent in the Arab world trying to experience life as a Palestinian had worked better than I’d imagined. It wasn’t the fact alone that I’d been to Syria that the first official noticed; it was the fact that I’d been to Syria and look like I might be Syrian.

* * *

Ajnabiyeh!” shouted a little boy darting between me and the friend I’d come to meet at Al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. The Arabic word means “foreigner.” I glared down my nose reprovingly and replied: “Ana mish ajnabiyeh“– “I am not a foreigner.” The child’s face sobered mid-taunt. “Aasef, aasef,” he apologized, backing away respectfully.

In Jerusalem, Hassidic men stepped on my toes in their fervent rush to the Wailing Wall and Palestinian women pushed me out of their way to the vegetable stands. But it wasn’t the force of the Hassids’ toes or the women’s hands that hurt; it was the Palestinian hawkers’ cries of “Shalom!” in my direction. Sometimes I got English and sometimes Arabic, but most often Hebrew. The fact that the Palestinians assumed I was Israeli was distressing. I wanted to tell them that I was not Zionist, but all I could do was respond with an emphatic Arabic hello, “Marhaba!” and hope they understood what I meant.

“We knew you were Jewish as soon as you said you didn’t have an Arab parent,” my friend from Birzeit said, laughing. “Who else could look like you?” I thought back to all the times upon meeting Palestinians I had insisted I had no Arab heritage, and I wondered if they had come to the same conclusion. Most Palestinians know that Judaism is matrilineal, but I am the daughter of a WASP mother who converted to Judaism and an ethnically Jewish father whose family couldn’t care less about the future of Israel. My heritage was so genuinely confusing that it left me some space to maneuver. “I’m half-Jewish,” I said sometimes, or “I have Jewish family.” I’d launch immediately into a guilty rationalization of the distinction between Jew and Israeli, between an Israeli and a soldier, or simply between a Jew and a Zionist. I didn’t mind distancing myself from my Jewish heritage to ease my interactions with Palestinians.

* * *

In November, I visited Jordan after spending a few months in the Palestinian territories. I expected Jordan to look like Palestine geographically, reflect it demographically, and Jordanian politics to sympathize with the Palestinians. I was only crossing a river, after all, and I knew that huge numbers of Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. Most Palestinians living in the West Bank even hold Jordanian passports. I thought Jordan would resemble a Palestine free from Israeli occupation, without restrictions on movement and a decimated economy. I was excited to tell locals that I studied in Palestine. But I was surprised. Though there were Palestinian flags at every tourist shop, people had little reaction when I told them where I had been. They didn’t seem to care. Cab drivers gushed in Arabic about the great relations between Jordan and Israel, and Israeli backpackers abounded. Some Jordanian faces registered only confusion when I said Palestine, or the West Bank. It was as though they hadn’t heard of either.

Dizzied by the sun among the Roman ruins at Jerash, I sought air conditioning. “Mathaf hunak?” I pointed, asking a guard, “Is that a museum?” in Arabic. “The tourist center,” he replied, adding a string of Arabic I didn’t catch. I admitted as much and he accompanied me indoors and explained the small plastic model of Jerash, all the while proclaiming his surprise that I wasn’t Jordanian. He took out paper and a pen and tested my penmanship. Satisfied with my results, he suggested I tell everyone in Jordan that I was an American of Jordanian heritage, and he gave me his family name, Al-Fayoumi, to give if anyone doubted me.

Experience with Israelis led Palestinians to assume I was Israeli, but Jordan was far enough removed that it didn’t occur to anyone. The Arab identity I sought unsuccessfully in Palestinian lands was attributed to me almost automatically in Jordan.

* * *

Crossing back into Israel, I faced the Israeli border patrol agents and prayed they wouldn’t see “Ramallah” written in tiny Arabic letters in my passport. The female officer in the booth, Michelle Cohen, looked down at me. Like me, she had dark, curly hair and a stud in her nose. “What are you doing in Israel?” she asked, sounding disgruntled.

“Just traveling around,” I said. “College in the United States doesn’t start until January, and I’d rather be in Israel until then than at home.”

“What parts of Israel are you visiting?” she asked.

“Oh, you know, all of it,” I hedged vaguely.

“Where?” she insisted.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Haifa, a lot of time in Tel Aviv. I love the beach there. Been to Jerusalem a couple times,” I told her. I was hoping she would assume I was a secular youth group alumnus.

“All of it?” she asked suspiciously. “Have you been to the West Bank? Are you going to the West Bank?”

“No” I said, wishing I was already home in my cozy Ramallah apartment.

“Tell me the names and phone numbers of some of your friends here,” she demanded.

“I move around a lot between different hostels, so I don’t really have any permanent friends,” I lied, envisioning her looking through the five Mohammeds, three Mahmouds, and several Shirins and Sharifas in my phone. I was beginning to worry. I’d heard this crossing was difficult, and my responses seemed too obviously bogus.

She stared at my passport. “What is this last name, Tevah?”

“It’s Hebrew,” I explained, and I spelled it for her, “tet, vet, ayin.”

“Oh,” she said, “are you Jewish?”

“Of course,” I told her, and she promptly stamped my passport with a new three-month visa.

* * *

When I went to Syria on vacation in December, I fidgeted nervously while Syrian officials took their time with my passport. My old passport with two Israeli stamps was on its way home in the Turkish mail, and the fresh passport was clean but for an entrance stamp into Turkey. I had obtained a second temporary U.S. passport through the embassy in Jerusalem specifically for the purpose of traveling into Syria.

On the bus ride to the Syrian checkpoint, I was foolishly conversing in colloquial Arabic with the passengers on the bus from Antakya, in Southern Turkey. I told them I learned the language in the United States.

It took all my willpower to refrain from whispering the truth to the boy who sat next to me, a Lebanese Palestinian refugee studying at Turkish university. He was hot headed and argued with the other passengers, defending his decision to sit next to me, a young woman, on the usually segregated bus. I appreciated his conscious effort to include me in the discussion, but he gave me an awful choice: I would lose no matter what I said. I had to choose to betray my new friend, and my feminist principles, and to an extent myself–or to scandalize my fellow passengers.

The boy and I talked politics, and he asked me what I thought of Israel. I wished I could be honest. I’m on your side more than you know, I wanted to say. I’m fighting for your cause! But I didn’t–couldn’t–say that. He must have understood my silence, because he volunteered to be my translator to the customs officials even though he knew I spoke Arabic. To the officials I spoke only English because I feared my Palestinian accent would betray me. I had already acted the secular Jew, the Jordanian, and the Palestinian, but none of these identities would help me at the Syrian border. The only one that could help me here was that of the ignorant, secular American.

* * *

My experience coming home to New York and being profiled as an Arab strangely thrilling. It proved the suspicion I’d had for months: that the differences weren’t so great between all the things I pretended to be–I could be any of them, and all of them.

“But I’m Jewish. My name is Hebrew,” I wondered out loud when the customs official finished the lecture on racial profiling.

“The average Joe doesn’t know that though, does he?” he responded. He hit a few more keys. “You’re all set,” he said. “But for one more thing.”

“Yeah?” Anxiety had stolen my patience. My connecting flight was scheduled to depart within minutes.

“Don’t let them keep you from having adventures, and doing the interesting things you want to do,” he said.

“I won’t,” I told him.

I began to wonder about the adventures my bus companion into Syria could have, and what interesting things he could do with the special Lebanese passport marked “refugee” he’d shown me. He would never see his family’s old village west of Israel’s separation wall. He would probably never visit his homeland east of the wall, either. He might never see New York. I’m an American, and I had the luxury to assume and discard identities as it suited me during my travels, but there are many like my Palestinian companion who will never be able to shake his identity.

Shira Tevah is a junior at the University of Chicago. An earlier version of this article appeared in Diskord, part of the Campus Publications Network.

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