In the Middle East, it’s sometimes the small moments that stay with you longest. Not the bombs, the injuries, the deaths – the things that make the headlines – but almost inconsequential moments, so small that they slip past the mind’s defenses and haunt you.
It happened one evening in the fall of 2005, at the Qalandia crossing between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. I’d spent the day traveling in the West Bank with two Palestinian archeologists and a German NGO worker, whose car we used. We drove on ‘Arab’ roads (as distinct from ‘Jewish’ ones, which are reserved solely for Israeli settlers – in this part of the world, even roads have ethnicity) and went through so many military checkpoints I lost count. Since the car had a large German flag painted on the hood, we were waved to the front of the line to wait a mere ten or twenty minutes at each checkpoint instead of three or four hours like everyone else. As we eased with bad consciences past the long lines of ‘Arab’ cars and trucks, companiable talk gave way to a tight-lipped, eyes-straight-ahead silence.
The language of guns is a language all its own. Israeli soldiers with mirrored sunglasses hardly speak. They just gesture this way or that with their guns. You don’t look at their eyes; you look at the guns. The guns do all the speaking.
Since I was in the front passenger seat, it fell to me to hand our passports and papers through the open window. When he saw my American passport, one soldier broke his silence. “Why you go with them?” he asked me in English, pointing his gun at my companions. He dragged his finger across his throat: “They do this to you.” When another asked where we were heading and I said Nablus, he leaned in to me with a loud stage whisper: “Nablus? You want to die?”
I swallowed hard and kept my mouth shut, knowing that if I opened it, it wasn’t me who would pay, but the Palestinians I was with. It struck me how hard it must be to keep your mouth shut under this kind of provocation every day, and yet the two archeologists seemed more embarrassed than anything – for me, and for the soldiers.
Now, as the sun was setting, I approached Qalandia, the largest checkpoint of all, on foot. My companions had dropped me off from Ramallah, but could not cross. I’d pick up a shared taxi to Jerusalem on the other side.
Two tunnels formed of wire-mesh and barbed-wire ran the length of the crossing, with well-guarded turnstiles either end. I was halfway through when I heard a gun being cocked just a few yards away. I looked over in alarm and through the wire saw two soldiers, a boy and a girl. She was holding the gun, and he was pressed up against her from behind, his arms around her and his hands over hers on the gun. They were both flushed and laughing.
She looked directly at me, and I could see the arousal in her eyes. And then scorn as she registered my existence as what she doubtless called “an Arab-lover.” She didn’t look away; still in the embrace of the boy behind her, still cradling the gun, she held my eyes as though defying me to say a word. “Look all you like,” she seemed to be saying. “There’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
I felt demeaned, dehumanized, even as I realized I was over-reacting. It was such a little thing, after all. Nothing really, not compared with everything else that was happening. Just horny kids horsing around. In public. With loaded guns. In a position of absolute power.
I wanted to break the moment, to shout something in protest, but I felt a gentle hand in the small of my back — a head-scarved Palestinian woman behind me gesturing me onward. “Quietly,” her eyes indicated. “Don’t start an incident that’ll only make trouble for us all.” And I walked on with my mouth shut, full of the bitter taste, for just a moment, of the sheer, god-awful insult of life under occupation.