Palestine has been a forbidden fruit of sorts for Jeremy and me since 2000. We were dating at the time and Jeremy was planning on an intensive Arabic study abroad at BYU’s Jerusalem Center in the winter semester of 2001. Unfortunately, that program was canceled due to the Second Intifada. Fortunately, BYU sent all the Arabic students to Damascus, Syria that semester anyway.
When we were married and living in Syria in 2004 and 2005, we didn’t dare visit Jerusalem. An Israeli stamp in our passports would have barred us from re-entering Syria, and that was simply not an option. Last year in Jordan, the war between Israel and Lebanon made a visit there impractical, to say the least.
So it was with great excitement – and trepidation – that we joined our group of 16 BYU students on a week-long trip to the West Bank and Galilee.
We started out, as almost all traveling does, waaaaay too early in the morning for my taste. Jeremy waited outside our apartment for 10 minutes, trying to catch a taxi to the meeting place. Have I mentioned how hard it is to get a taxi in Amman these days, especially at 6.15 in the morning? Finally, a dude in a kefiyye driving a van pulled up and said he’d give us a ride. On the way, he was asking all about our trip. Most of it was just general interest questions, including the standard, “how long will you stay there?” Just in case – this was just a random guy in a van, remember – Jeremy told him we wouldn’t be gone very long.
A Jordanian bus and guide picked us up at the main gates of the university. They took us to the King Hussein border but were not allowed to cross with us. So after a few formalities on the Jordanian side, during which we technically left Jordan, we headed through no-man’s-land to the Israeli border facility.
Our greatest challenge lay inside that building. We really, really, really didn’t want our passports stamped. Jordan had complied without a problem (a Jordanian exit stamp at King Hussein bridge is evidence of travel to Occupied Palestine). But we’d heard all sorts of horror stories from friends who’d had their passports stamped by a peevish border guard, even after asking her (it’s always a her) not to.
We filed in the building and our professor explained to the border official – a young female soldier - that none of us wanted our passports stamped. She seemed mildly ticked off by this, but got over it enough to ask for more details about the group. Then she asked if anyone had been to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, or a few other countries. When she found out that we lived in Syria for a year and had visited Lebanon several times, she was suddenly very interested in us. While everyone else was getting their passports fairly efficiently processed, Jeremy, me, and Miriam stood by nervously while a second female border official looked very concerned and busy with our passports at her desk. At one point, she left the room with them and disappeared into a corridor. I thought we were done for. I was also hoping that they somehow wouldn't notice that my daughter's middle name is Damascus.
But at last, at last, when almost everyone else had already gotten through, we were cleared to enter Israel. And we even managed to do it without getting a stamp!
The Israeli border facility is staffed almost entirely by young women. We came up with three theories why that might be the case.
First, being interrogated by a mildly attractive young woman is very disarming. Perhaps female border agents are better at extracting truthful answers from shifty travelers.
The second possibility is more practical. Maybe working at the border fulfills their military service obligation, and they jump at the chance to spend their two years in a relatively calm, air-conditioned environment.Finally, maybe the Israelis plan it that way just to stick it to the Arab countries, all of whose border crossings (at least the ones I've been to) are staffed exclusively by males.Having escaped from the border area, we pressed on towards Masada, Qumran, and Jericho.