Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Arabic Language is the New C4

Going through Israeli security is always an adventure. Entering the airport, the first security official asks you a few questions about your stay in Israel, makes some judgments about your responses, your appearance, and gives you a sticker with a number. I got number a 5 (a 5 out of 6 -- 6 being the most 'risky' passenger). Here we go again, I think, hours of questioning and getting a personal escort onto the airplane. As I move into the level 5 security area, three security officials are assigned to me and immediately begin opening up my bags. Every item in my bags are swabbed. My toiletries bag is opened and given the full treatment: deodorant, Q-tips, toothpaste, razor, lotion, everything. I am asked to put my feet on the rail one at a time, in order for my shoes to be swabbed, checking for dangerous or suspicious chemicals.

“Sir, it appears you have a computer in your bag, please take it out.”

I take out my computer and lay it on the table. The official swabs the exterior of the computer, opens the computer to swab the screen, mousepad, and keyboard. The keyboard. He pauses on the keyboard, and takes a good look. His demeanor stiffens as he turns to his college and utters something in Hebrew, all of which I can make out is the Hebrew word for “Arabic.”

“Sir, why do you have Arabic letters on your keyboard?”

“I am learning the language.”

The official briskly walks away from the area where I am being examined. Those previously questioning me were wearing black slacks and white collared shirts. The official who was questioning me returns with a man in a black suit. I am guessing he is the boss, I mean come on, it's a suit. As the suit approaches, the woman who was continuing to search my bag finds some papers with Arabic text. With a look of urgency, she turns to the suit and fans out the papers in order for him to see. Ironically these are vocabulary sheets. The paper which I can see most clearly has clothing vocabulary. The Arabic words for underwear, bra, suit, swimming suit.

“Sir why are you learning Arabic?”

“Arabic is an interesting language and is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. So I decided to learn it.”

The man in the black suit reaches below the desk and pulls into view a roll of stickers, the same stickers that initially identified me as security level 5. The man pulls off several level 6 stickers, placing them on my passport and my luggage.

I have been upgraded to level 6. Maybe level 6 is reserved for Arabs, people who look Arab, or people who speak Arabic. They almost made a big mistake identifying me as level 5, geez, someone is getting fired for not giving me a 6 from the beginning.


The questioning continues about my time spent in Israel and about my Arabic studies. Where have I studied, with whom, and why. I have a Jordanian stamp in my passport so I am asked whether I know anyone “from there. Any friends, any family, anyone?”

“No. No one.”

My insides are boiling by this point, but I cope by laughing out loud. It's the only thing I can do to keep from yelling at the top of my lungs and aggressively shortening the distance between myself and the officials.

“Is learning Arabic a crime? It's a fucking language, people. It's how people communicate. Language is communication. It's how you order bread, or understand a newspaper, or tell someone you love them. And also, is it a problem if I know someone from Jordan? What would happen if I said I had family there? What would happen if I led you to believe I had 'connections' in the Arab world? What if I told you the truth about what I do: that I live in a Palestinian village in area C, under full Israeli military occupation. Schoolchildren, farmers, and shepherds are attacked by Israeli settlers and illegally chased off their land by soldiers and police. I try to help people in their fight to retain their land, their rights, and their dignity. That's why I am here.” I would like to say those things, but unfortunately that might get me blacklisted, and thus unable to enter the country for 5-10 years. Working for human rights is not a respected line of work here at airport security.

The fact that learning Arabic raises suspicions and that it gets you promoted from level 5 to level 6 is troubling. I am just an American with Arabic letters on his keyboard. What does this say about the place of Israel Arabs within Israeli society? They are Israeli citizens and their first language is Arabic. What does this say about the future of a two-state solution, one-state solution, or any solution at all? In any agreement, will Israeli Arabs be forever terror suspects, because of their language? According to Israeli security efforts, an entire people, culture, and language are suspicious by definition.

Sometimes I don't know what else to do. Sometimes I just laugh.