When I was twenty years old I got my first tattoo—it says “We Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic. It is located on the back of my right shoulder—just small enough to be discreet and easily covered around family, but just large enough to start conversations were my sleeve or strap to slip slightly off of my shoulder.
It was first inspired by the semester that I spent in Paris, France. I was a college student at the time, aching to see and feel real dissent that felt more powerful than a sparse anti-war protest in front of an embassy that ultimately fell on deaf ears. It was 2010, and Paris was embroiled in strikes and massive street protests against raising the retirement age. Strikes and massive street protests were part of everyday life and culture. It wasn’t like the United States, where almost no one seemed to know what was going on and certainly did not see the point of marching in a demonstration. I spent most of the semester somewhere in the crowds between Place de la Bastille and Place de la Republique, celebrating and most likely romanticizing dissent en masse. Nevertheless, for the first time in my life I felt as if I might be part of a collective voice that was finally being heard.
Shortly thereafter, the Arab Spring began—a reverberating tremor that began in Tunisia and spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world. Hope seemed to emerge from the chaos, at least at that time. I was back in New York, watching the news unfold on the Internet, feeling the stereotypes around me breaking and the power of the streets of Egypt inspiring people half-way around the world.
But when I wasn’t dreaming of revolution I was working a terrible job with an awful boss who paid me far below minimum wage and called me out if I dared to leave early. One day I decided I had had enough, quit abruptly and proceeded to permanently ink “We Will Not Be Silent” onto my body.
With the fall came Occupy Wall Street. I spent many days and late nights in Liberty Plaza, learning far more about the ways that forces of power worked than I had at my University only a few blocks away. As a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer held me and several others against the wall of a bank with his crowbar the night of the eviction while I coughed out pepper spray, I felt the presence of the tattoo on my shoulder, the importance of what it stood for being far more than just a park, and refused to go home.
But I didn’t begin to understand the full meaning of the tattoo until two years after it had been inked into my skin, when I was being groped by an Israeli prison guard at Ofer Prison—while sneaking into its notorious military courtroom as a journalist when I wasn’t supposed to be there—praying, “Please, please don’t look under my shirt and ask me about my tattoo.”
I should back up and explain how I got to Israel—or rather, Palestine.
I am not quite sure when it started. It might have started when I was thirteen years old and Rachel Corrie—a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Gaza was killed with an IDF bulldozer. My mother was devastated and told me that she could see that happening to me. I am still not quite sure why, as I had no idea what Palestine was at the time.
It might have started when I was 15 and the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) launched an assault on the south of Lebanon—the country that part of my family is from. I was devastated and wrote letters to everyone in my neighborhood, and stuck them in the mailboxes, thinking that somehow awareness in a random suburb of California could stop the invasion.
It might have started when I was 17 or 18—a freshman in college, surrounded by Jewish student life that trumpeted the glories of Israel. Jewish students had the option to take a class—that paid them $500—to learn more about being Jewish and the land of Israel and several of my peers had returned from or were planning their Birthright trips. I wanted to make friends, so I shut up for the most part—but then Operation Cast Lead happened over winter break and I gave up on shutting up and became a student activist and discovered journalism. It was all over from there.
In a few months, I would get my tattoo. Because in a way it had always been about Palestine, I just didn’t know it yet.
I moved to Palestine.
It started at Ben Gurion International Airport’s Passport Control. Instead of waving me through and welcoming me to Israel, the Passport Control officer called her colleague who summoned me into a small, dark room and proceeded to interrogate me until I confessed I would be visiting the West Bank—something I had been specifically instructed not to do. I was interrogated for seven hours, given a two-week visa described as “punitive” and instructed not to take part in any pro-Palestine activities.
I remember arriving in Jerusalem, and seeing the Dome of the Rock for the first time—glistening golden in the January sunshine. I remember turning the corner to the Arab bus station—chaotic and disorganized, but filled with people who looked like they could be my family. I remember my first “Free Palestine” graffiti. I remember crossing the checkpoint, larger than life portraits of political prisoners painted on the Apartheid Wall, rubble from the Second Intifada still in the streets. I remember smelling the freshly baked bread for the first time and with it smelling home.
I remember the first time I was harassed at a checkpoint. I remember how the soldier refused to say “You must be from Palestine” and instead said “You must be from there!” while pointing to Ramallah. I remember the clashes, being terrified when Palestinian children dragged me to their corner to show off their slingshots and the army responded firing teargas. I remember seeing a woman who looked like my grandmother, just trying to get home needing a gas mask to pass through a teargas-choked checkpoint.
I remember how casually my friends showed me their battle scars and talked about their prison sentences. But most of all I remember when the conversations became raw and emotional.
I remember taking a trip to Jaffa—a privilege my Israeli visa afforded me that many of my Palestinian friends whose families are from there cannot enjoy—and feeling sick that there were almost no Palestinians enjoying the beautiful seaside that was rightfully theirs. I remember coming home and watching the sun set over the Apartheid Wall from Aida Refugee Camp instead of the Mediterranean Sea and thinking, that is what Israelis look at and this is what Palestinians look at.
I remember the dramatic hillsides and valleys, driving along narrow roads that hugged mountain sides with enormous drops. I remember their amazing beauty—and the amazing ugliness when Israeli flags and hilltop settlements marred their majesty.
But most of all I remember falling in love—in more ways than one.
Last Sunday, I attempted to return to Palestine. My purpose of visit was an Israeli conference—which I was legitimately attending—but I was mostly looking forward to sneaking into the West Bank afterwards. I was looking forward to long conversations with old friends over sweet-smelling argilah smoke and plastic cups of strong, syrup-like coffee. Friends that took me in like family, whose faces I had only known pixelated on Skype over the past few months. I was excited to see them three dimensional and in full focus in their homeland.
But I was turned away at the border and banned for ten years. This happens at Ben Gurion International Airport every day, but it is not every day that it happens to a journalist—a journalist who is going to go home and write about the totalitarian policies of the so-called only democracy in the Middle East.
As I was escorted by the Shin Bet through Ben Gurion International Airport, I tried to smile and be co-operative—I knew that would confuse them more than if I showed anger. But inside I was boiling with hatred and heartbreak. I pictured my friends’ pixelated faces on Skype, disappearing rather than coming into focus. I felt my heart break repeatedly, every time I imagined that the rolling dramatic hills and the sunshine would only be memories and treasured photographs. If I ever were to come back again, many of the places I knew and loved would have been bull-dozed and re-built with settlements making my memories as unrecognizable as my friends’ memories of the once thriving Palestinian cities of Jaffa and Haifa.
I wondered if my deportation was a sign that the Palestine chapter of my life was closing. Should I write about something else? God knows the world as it is provides plenty of fodder for journalists. But I have loved and cared for Palestine and justice for Palestinians since I barely knew what it was—I simply knew it was controversial to talk about, and that that didn’t make sense because justice shouldn’t be controversial. It is not a journalistic beat that I can put aside or outgrow. It is a core part of who I am and dozens of people that I love.
Being banned from Israel isn’t the closing of the Palestine chapter—it is merely the beginning. By banning me, they are trying to silence me, to make me forget about Palestine and focus on something else. And it isn’t going to work because then they win.
I will not be silent.