My Name is Ahmad

So I’m taking the 4 pm bus into Jerusalem from Abu Dis. There are maybe ten people on a bus that probably fits 70 or 80. We’re approaching the Ma’ale Adumim checkpoint, and I’m thinking, “This is going to be a breeze.”

We stop at the checkpoint. There’s yelling. Nothing happens. There’s more yelling–in Hebrew. I have no idea what’s being said.

The younger people get off the bus and stand in the “cage.” The cage is my name for a steel enclosure a few yards away that looks a lot like…a cage. In the past, I’ve sometimes voluntarily gone into the cage, but then, sometimes I haven’t. I’ve taken this bus dozens of times before and never been asked to stand in it, so I decide not to do so today. I just don’t feel like getting up. I’m comfy. It’s hot out. It’s my Rosa Parks moment.

Anyway, I have no idea what the rule is supposed to be concerning who stands in the cage, or when. One possibility I’ve imagined is that the cage is intended for standing room passengers, the point being to clear the way for the soldiers to board the bus, check IDs, and conduct searches. Well, the bus is usually standing room only when I ride it (typically in the morning), but there are no standees today, and people are clearing out anyway. So my first supposition can’t be right. Is it the younger people who are supposed to stand in the cage? The younger men? How young is cage-worthy? I don’t know. I’m an American. Cages aren’t part of my daily commute back home.

The soldiers get on, yelling. They point at a couple of little kids. Clearly, they’re asking the parents, “Why are these little kids still on the bus? Get them in the cage!” The kids in question are maybe seven or eight years old. They skitter out of the way and run to the cage. One kid looks afraid and on the verge of sniffles. I’ve never been particularly good with (or about) kids, so one part of me thinks, “Come on, what’s the big deal? Get in the cage. When I was your age, we all lived in cages…” Another part of me wonders why a seven year old has to be separated from her parents and herded into a cage like a convict. But whatever.

The most pissed-off soldier looks straight at me and starts yelling. It now occurs to me that I probably shouldn’t have sat here generating interesting hypotheses about what makes for candidacy for the cage. I probably should have gotten up and gotten into the cage several minutes ago. The soldier continues to roar at me in Hebrew. I don’t respond. I don’t speak a word of Hebrew, but I sit there like a complete idiot, trying to parse each unintelligible syllable, as though I’ll decipher a totally unfamiliar language by slow and careful inferences while I’m yelled at by an angry guy with a machine gun. It doesn’t work. Unhelpfully, the somewhat frightened bus riders try to explain the soldier’s Hebrew jeremiad in Arabic, which doesn’t really help either, inasmuch as (a) they’re all speaking at once, and (b) I don’t speak Arabic.

It suddenly occurs to me that he’s probably saying, “Get the fuck off the bus, you idiot”!

Soldier (yelling): English?

Me: Yes.

Soldier: How old you are?

Me: 47.

Soldier: Get off the bus!

My Hebrew is definitely improving.

So I sit there in the cage with the other bad kids. It’s like being in detention, except in the sun. We stand there. And stand there. And stand there. And stand there. How long does it take three heavily armed Israeli soldiers to check five Palestinian IDs on a half-empty bus? A long time, apparently.

Another soldier, a nicer one, eventually motions us out of the cage to stand in the shade of the bus. We do, except that I’m the last guy in line, and not only is there no more shade left, but I end up standing next to the exhaust pipe of the bus, which is worse than standing in the cage. I know it’s totally melodramatic and inappropriate, but I can’t help thinking of Ghassan Kanafani’s short story, “Men in the Sun.” I stand there, and with nothing better to do, I start coming up with variations on Kanafani’s title, just to pass the time, each iteration stupider than the last one, as my imagination starts to wither and bake in the sun. “Bus Riders in the Sun.” “Bus Riders in the Cage.” “Bus Riders on the Storm.” “Men in the Bus.” “Men and Women in the Cage.” “Kids in the Cage.” “The Kids Are Alright, but in the Cage.” “Cat on the Hot Tin Roof of the Cage.” “Baby Please Don’t Go (into the Cage).” Etc.

Suddenly Mean Soldier is right behind me and snaps me out of my reverie. He grabs my passport and visa out of my hands and scrutinizes them. He seems to take a real relish in the fact that he has my travel documents and I don’t.

Soldier: Where are you going?

He’s asking this question of a guy on a bus to Jerusalem, stopped at a checkpoint half a mile from Jerusalem, on a road that only leads to Jerusalem.

Me: Jerusalem.

Soldier: Where you are coming from?

He’s just ordered me off of a Palestinian bus (the buses are segregated) that originates in Abu Dis, passes through Eizariya (Palestinian towns), passes by Ma’ale Adumim (a Jewish settlement) and heads straight to the Ma’ale Adumum checkpoint. So the answer has to be either “Abu Dis” or “Eizariya,” not that either answer would make any difference to anything. What does he expect me to answer? Ma’ale Adumim? Beirut? The moon?

Me: Abu Dis.

Soldier: Why you are in Abu Dis?

Me: I teach at the university there.

Soldier (rapid fire, without pauses for an answer between questions): What you teach? Who you teach?

I decide to tackle the second question. Thank God he didn’t ask me why I teach. I’d still be in the cage.

Me: I teach students. I teach the students at the university.

I know, it sounds like something out of an ESL textbook. Someone ought to write something on the erotetics of security interrogations, specifically, on the semantic indeterminacy of the questions you get asked at them. What kind of question is “Who do you teach?” Who would I teach? Farm animals? I can’t think of a single answer to the guy’s question that answers the question without lapsing into triviality–not that I have time to think.

Soldier: You are Arab?

Me: No, American.

He’s holding my American passport in his hand.

Soldier (with finality): You are Arab.

Me: No,  I’m American.

Soldier: What Arab country you are from?

Me: I’m an American.

Soldier: What country you were born in?

My passport specifies that I was born in New Jersey.

Me: USA.

Soldier: No.

“No”? How do I respond to that? It’s like we’re enacting a half-assed theatrical performance of Descartes’ Meditations in the afternoon heat.

Me: I was born in the United States. I don’t speak Arabic. I’m not an Arab. I’m an American.

Soldier: Mmm. You have Palestinian nationality.

Me: I don’t.

Soldier: You are Palestinian.

Me: No.

Soldier: You are Palestinian national. Your name is “Ahmad.”

Oh, well that settles it. Yes, my middle name is “Ahmad”–not that it would matter to this guy if my name was “Ashley,” “Muffy,” or “Barrington.” No matter how you slice it, he thinks I’m a Palestinian with a fake American passport trying to do an end-run around the pass laws. Just imagine the magnitude of the problem the Israelis would face if everyone named “Ahmad” was a Palestinian.

Me: I’m still not a Palestinian.

Soldier (gesturing at my bag): What is in the bag?

I open the bag to reveal a package of baklava intended for post-dinner dessert tonight.

Soldier: Where you get this?

I’m tempted to say, “It was a gift from Hassan Nasrallah.” But that would be stupid, even by my standards.

Me: I got it in Abu Dis.

Soldier: You got it in Abu Dis?

Me: I got it in Abu Dis.

Soldier: Get on the bus.

I get on the bus. We wait another five or ten minutes. Eventually, another soldier climbs on the bus (all of them were armed with machine guns, by the way), gets in one Palestinian guy’s face and starts haranguing him, putting his hands and face in the guy’s personal space, and getting increasingly loud and belligerent. The Palestinian just sits there, like a zombie, not reacting.

Eventually, the whole thing starts to look like a grotesque sort of pantomime, and I have to work at not bursting into inappropriate laughter at it. Having  just been mistreated myself, it occurs to me that this guy’s mistreatment at the hands of a different soldier seems oddly unrelated to what just happened to me. What happened to me was infuriating, but this is totally different. What happened to me happened to me. It was right in front of my face, happening to me. This is a whole three yards away, and it’s happening to that funny-looking guy over there (who is not me–and by the way, unlike me, is Palestinian, so why not leave me alone and bother him?). That makes it a perversely hilarious spectacle. I know I ought to feel righteous indignation at what I’m watching, but I save the indignation for later, and opt for comic relief in the present. “I’ll get mad when I blog it,” I think. “Right now–look at this shit! It’s actually kind of funny.” I enjoy the moment. Bad things are happening inside me, but I’ll deal with that later.

At last we get started. Five minutes later, we’re in Jerusalem. Can’t wait to do this again on Tuesday.

PS, June 21, 2016: One of the better articles I’ve seen about West Bank life in The New York Times.

9 thoughts on “My Name is Ahmad

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