“What’s the purpose of your visit?” the officer asked. The epaulets on his blue button-down shirt hung over his narrow shoulders. His eyebrows joined above the bridge of his nose.
“I’m here to give a reading.” I had come to Palestine with a group of poets and writers for a literary festival, with scheduled stops in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Haifa.
The officer glanced at the line behind me. “How many are in your group?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many US passports?”
“I don’t know.”
He raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Everything is ‘I don’t know’ ?”
But I really didn’t know. I had met the other writers at a hotel in Jordan the night before, and it hadn’t occurred to me to count their number while we were on the bus from Amman to the Allenby border crossing, nor to ask how many were American. He swiped my blue passport in the machine, then looked up at me with surprise. “You were born in Morocco?”
Here we go, I thought. It had taken me 20 hours to travel from California to Palestine. I dreaded being deported by Israeli immigration, as had happened to some of my Arab friends. “Yes, that’s right.”
“My grandparents were born in Morocco.”
“Whereabouts?” I asked, grateful for the diversion.
“Casablanca,” he said. Then he looked at the screen again. “How old were you when you moved to the United States?” he asked. “Did you move with your parents or by yourself?… Is your husband American?… Are your children American?… Do you miss your husband and children?”
Then it occurred to me that I could ask questions of my own. “Your grandparents are from Casablanca, you said. Do they go back to Morocco for Hiloula?”
His face lit up with a smile. “You know Hiloula?”
“Of course.” The veneration of saints is part of Jewish Moroccan culture.
“Do you know this song?” He sang a few words in Hebrew.
I took a wild guess: “‘Sami al-Maghribi’?”
I don’t think I got it right, but he nodded anyway. Then he typed a few words into a smartphone and held it up to the glass window. It was a YouTube video of Moroccan Jews dancing at a party. A minute later, he printed out my visa and handed me my passport.
Not a dozen steps behind me, another writer from our group stood waiting. His name was Ahmed Masoud, and he was traveling on a UK passport. But because he had been born in Gaza, he was taken to a special room where he was asked for his Palestinian ID and interrogated for several hours. There was no discussion of music for him, no YouTube videos or fond remembrances of distant lands, only more forms and more questions about the purpose of his visit. When he insisted that he was a UK citizen, like several other writers in our group who had been let through, he was told, “Enta Falesteeni, khabeebi.” You are Palestinian.