A diary written under occupation: about neighbourhood talk to the dog with an Israeli passport
This book is sharply, gloriously different. This is a book about life under occupation, vivid and immediate enough to make you share what is ludicrous, brutal, ordinary and fantastical about the situation of Palestinians in Palestine; and it's warm, human, sometimes funny. -The Scotsman
Surprisingly funny, and refreshingly different from any other writings on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law describes Suad Amiry's experience of living on the West Bank from the early eighties to the present.
Amiry tells us about the life and gossip of her neighbourhood in Ramallah, her moving family history and the struggle to live a normal life in an insane situation; from the impossibility of acquiring gas masks during the first Gulf War to her dog acquiring a Jerusalem Passport when thousands of Palestinians couldn't.
The book contains a diary Amiry kept during the Israeli invasion of Ramallah in March 2002, when her feisty 92-year-old mother-in-law came to live with them and we learn how daily chores such as buying food and visiting friends and relatives become Herculean tasks for anyone living in a state of siege. With a wickedly sharp ear for dialogue, and an eye for telling details of human behavior, Suad Amiry has written a wonderful and very funny book about the absurdity (and agony) of life in the Occupied Territories. (from the Granta website)
ISBN: 1 86207 803 3
Subtitle: Ramallah Diaries
Author: Suad Amiry
Publisher: Granta Books
Print: McPherson's Printing Group
Subject: Personal Memoirs
Subject: Palestinian Arabs
Subject: Social aspects
Publication Date: October 2005
Dimensions: 195 x 130 x 16 mm
About the publication Suad Amiry, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries (2005): This book is now out of stock, and we no longer supply it to our members or to the wider public. We suggest you could search for online new or second-hand bookshops to secure your copy.
LISTEN to the author ... on ABC's Radio National Big Ideas Program: You can read the transcript of an interview, and listen to the audio file about the book with Suad Amiry on our website - she discussed the book at the 2005 Sydney Writers' Festival. Follow this link to the page.
Suad Amiry is an architect and the founder and director of the RIWAQ Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah. She grew up in Amman, Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo, and studied architecture at the American University of Beirut and at the universities of Michigan and Edinburgh. Amiry participated in the 1991-1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington, D.C., and from 1994 to 1996 was assistant deputy minister and director general of the Ministry of Culture in Palestine. She is the author of several books on architecture and was awarded Italy's Viareggio-Versilia Prize in 2004 for this book. She lives in Ramallah.
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Read Suad Amiry's Interview with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope (13 June 2005)
"Perhaps one day I may forgive you for putting us under curfew for forty-two days, but I will never forgive you for making us live with my mother-in-law for what seemed, then, more like forty-two years."
Irreverent, darkly funny, unexpected, and very unlike any other writing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law describes Palestinian architect Suad Amiry's experience of living in the Occupied Territories.
Based on diaries and e-mail correspondence that Amiry kept to maintain her sanity from 1981 to 2004, the book evokes, through a series of vignettes, the frustrations, cabin fever, and downright misery of daily life in the West Bank town of Ramallah, with its curfews, roadblocks, house-to-house searches, and violence. Amiry writes about the enormous difficulty of moving from one place to another, the torture of falling in love with someone from another town, the absurdity of her dog receiving a Jerusalem identity card when thousands of Palestinians could not do so, and the impossibility of acquiring a gas mask from the Israeli Civil Administration during the first Gulf War in 1991. There are also the challenges of shopping during curfew breaks, the trials of having her ninety-two-year-old mother-in-law living in her house during a forty-two-day curfew, and thoughts on Israel's Separation Wall.
With a wickedly sharp ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the most telling details, Amiry gives us an original, ironic, and firsthand glimpse into the absurdity -- and agony -- of life in the Occupied Territories.
from the Sydney Morning Herald
by Antony Loewenstein
May 22, 2005
The second longest military occupation in modern times (after China's occupation of Tibet) is Israel's 38-year stranglehold of West Bank and Gaza. Despite Israel's proposed "disengagement" of Gaza later in the year, Israeli human rights group B'tselem recently issued a report explaining the devastating ramifications of the impending withdrawal. It illustrated "the extent to which Israel treats many human rights among them the right to freedom of movement, family life, health, education, and work as 'humanitarian gestures' that it grants or denies at will", especially in relation to the movement of goods and people to and from Gaza.
Writer Suad Amiry has experienced a life under occupation for too many years. Based in the West Bank town of Ramallah, she treats with contempt the Israeli soldiers who view Palestinians as second-class citizens in their own land. This is a compelling, sad, moving and highly political interpretation of a world many in the West prefer to ignore.
Opening with the difficulties and harassment at Tel Aviv airport while trying to enter Israel, Amiry shows us a world where simply being Palestinian is enough to incur the wrath of the authorities.
Consider the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein threatened to cover Israel with chemical and biological weapons. Israelis were given gas masks to protect themselves but Palestinians weren't so lucky. Ramallah was constantly under curfew, making movement around the town virtually impossible. Amiry explains how Israeli soldiers ordered her around, making her wait needlessly for hours. A friend couldn't understand why: "I don't know what it is with Israeli soldiers. They all have a fetish for making Palestinians stand in an orderly line. They complicate our lives with all sorts of permits, make them unbearably chaotic, then insist we stand in straight lines." During the war, the Israeli army kept more than two million Palestinians under curfew for 42 days, as Amiry recalls, "in anticipation of the unknown or, as the Israeli army claimed then, for 'security' reasons."
Life for Palestinians in the occupied territories is frequently about patience; waiting at military checkpoints, waiting under curfew. Reading about Amiry's experiences, one is reminded of the infamous 1983 comment by Raphael Eitan, then chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces: "When we have settled the land [in the territories], all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle."
The book is separated into two sections. The first details the background of Palestinian displacement from a personal perspective. The second catalogues Amiry's personal war diaries of the "terrible" 2001-02 period, during which freedom of movement was virtually impossibile. Taken together, we glimpse the true face of the ongoing occupation.
Amiry is the founder and director of the RIWAQ Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah. Reading her description of Israel's bombing of historical buildings in the West Bank town of Nablus is heartbreaking. "When will they stop erasing our cultural heritage?" she asks. Having recently returned from the occupied territories, I found Amiry's diary all too familiar, reminding me of stories I heard from many Palestinians across numerous towns, including Jenin and Hebron.
A female architect's poignant and witty dispatches about living with her mother-in-law in the West Bank have become a surprise publishing success, revealing the absurdity and adversity of everyday Palestinian life.
Sunday January 16, 2005
Somewhat to her daughter-in-law's relief, 93-year old Marie Jabaji is blissfully unaware of her new-found celebrity status. In her flat in Ramallah, where she has a view television crews and newspaper reporters alike would kill for - Mrs Jabaji's balcony directly overlooks the sombre black tomb of Yasser Arafat - the talk is all of her beloved hobby: embroidery. 'Regardez,' she says, in her ancient French, a language she must have learned during an enforced exile in Beirut. 'Les fleurs du Palestine.' She shows me some beautiful tapestries of orchids and lilies, of cornflowers and roses. Her daughter-in-law, biting on an almond sweet, laughs. 'She is very proud of her flowers,' she says. Her voice is fond, and a little bit protective.
Marie Jabaji has been a refugee for more than half her life. She left her home in Jaffa, which is on the coast of what is now Israel, in 1948, for what she thought was a holiday. Unfortunately, while she was away, the Israelis moved in, and took her house. Marie found herself homeless and stateless. At first, she remained in Beirut. A few years later, she made it to Ramallah, on the West Bank, where she has lived ever since. Unsurprisingly, she has never been able to forget her loss. 'This is how we do it in Jaffa,' she'll say, serving dinner. Under fire, her instinct is always to stay put, because who knows what will happen if she doesn't? In 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah and began reducing the compound of the PLO leader to so much rubble, it took her worried family a while to winkle Mrs Jabaji out, in spite of the tanks that were lined up in front of her house. 'Shall I bring my purple dress?' she dithered, quietly. 'Shall we take the lemons? Shall we water the plants?'
It was during this dark time - I mean this literally; the electricity lines were often cut - that the seeds of Mrs Jabaji's unlikely fame were sown. Marie went to stay with her daughter-in-law, Suad Amiry, an architect. Trapped in the house together during the long curfew hours, Marie spent her days making marmalade. Her daughter-in-law, meanwhile, began writing emails - funny, bleak emails - to her relatives and friends. She wanted them to know what life was like in a city that was effectively a giant prison. Her friends loved these emails, and began to look forward to them.
One, an Israeli, even asked if she might show them to a publisher. 'I was amazed,' says Amiry. 'I didn't really understand. I'm dyslexic. I have never thought of myself as a writer.' Soon after, however, her Ramallah diaries duly appeared between hard covers, in a Hebrew edition. Entitled Sharon and My Mother-in-Law they were a critical and commercial success.
Sharon and My Mother-in-Law has since been translated into 11 languages (it is ironic that no edition in Arabic is yet available - though at least this means that the mother-in-law has not yet read the book). It is published in Britain this month, and was the subject of a recent bidding war in the US. In France, it is a bestseller. In Italy, its author won the prestigious Viareggio prize (former recipients: Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco). That there is such an appetite for a book about this most serious of issues, the occupation, is something of a surprise - until, that is, you pick it up and start reading. Ordinarily, books about Palestine fall into one of two camps: the boringly political (unless, of course, you are into dates and accords and UN resolutions), or the highly lyrical (and to many western ears, these existential accounts of the diaspora, however beautiful, however rich, are hard going - like wading through jelly). But Sharon and My Mother-in-Law is different. In a place where the absurd is a feature of daily life, it takes a particularly sane sensibility to delineate it - and, for all that those around her may be losing their heads, I have rarely met anyone as sane as Suad Amiry.
She was born in Damascus in 1951, her own family having fled Jaffa at about the same time as Marie Jabaji. Her mother ran a printing press; her father was later the Jordanian ambassador to Egypt. After studying for a degree in architecture in Beirut, in 1981 she accepted a job at Birzeit University, a position that was all part of her 'grandiose plan' to live in Ramallah (it was in Ramallah that she met her husband, Salim, sociologist and Mrs Jabaji's adored only son). In 1991, she was a member of the Palestinian delegation at the Washington peace negotiations, and in 1996, she was made deputy minister of culture in the first Palestinian government. These days, she runs a remarkable (and unlikely, given the destruction that surrounds her) organisation called Riwaq: the Centre for Architectural Conservation. In 2002, Riwaq's work on the market in the old town of Hebron received the Aga Khan Prize for Architectural Restoration - a triumph it took the Israeli army just two days to dismantle. She is also the author of several esoteric architectural volumes.
Amiry is the antithesis of what most in the West imagine to be a 'typical' Palestinian woman. She drinks, she smokes, she does not cover her hair. She does not have children - 'I never felt strongly about it' - though her tiny terrier, Nura, travels with her wherever she goes. Of course, travel is not something in which one can indulge overmuch should one happen to be a resident of Ramallah. After years of battling - seven to be precise - Amiry was finally awarded Palestinian identity. These papers, however, will not allow her to visit Jerusalem, which is only 10 kilometres away, and excursions to other West Bank towns such as Nablus or Bethlehem are all but impossible (thanks to the Israeli checkpoints that now stud the area, each West Bank town is an isolated unit; journeys that should take 40 minutes can last up to three hours, and even then there is always the risk of gunfire, from soldiers or from Israeli settlers). 'You know there will be hassle somewhere, and you are not always up to it,' she says. 'You acquire the psychology of the prisoner. Many times, I end up happier to sit at home and do nothing. Even young people feel the same.'
As a writer, Amiry is adept at conveying this particular psychology: apathy, lethargy and mild anxiety creep in first, to be followed, periodically, by anger, frustration and depression. Occasionally, however, something else bubbles up: a kind of hysteria. In one section of the book, Amiry and Salim are caught driving their car during the curfew. Made to stand in the rain while the soldier examines the contents of their shopping bags, Amiry decides to stare at him, unblinkingly, like some psychotic camel. Unnerved, the soldier takes Salim to see his superior. 'His wife was staring at me,' he announces, a complaint that sounds ridiculous even to a highly nervous Israeli commanding officer. On the way home, Amiry is rendered almost insensible by laughter. 'I laugh, but these things are not funny,' she says. 'This is a tragedy we have here. There is a disaster going on in this part of the world.'
On a prosaic level, Amiry despises the things any of us might object to were we living with an invading army: the restriction of movement, the uncertainty, the sheer impossibility - sometimes - of getting the groceries in. In a city of 70,000 people, an hour-long lifting of a curfew does not for easy shopping make. And then, of course, there is the problem of her mother-in-law, who will eat only at certain times, and off certain-sized plates. 'Perhaps one day I may forgive you for putting us under curfew for 42 days,' she writes to her tormentors at one point. 'But I will never forgive you for obliging us to have my mother-in-law for what seemed, then, more like 42 years.'
The prosaic, however, is often strangely elusive in Palestine. Amiry tells how her friendly neighbourhood collaborator makes her a present of a huge, electrified tableau of Mecca. She falls deeply in love with this gift: with its glittering red and green lights, it is too kitsch to resist. Later, though, she becomes convinced - who knows why? - that it has been bugged by Mossad. She ends up by hiding it in the attic; not even a leftist like her feels able to put out Mecca with the garbage.
She is aware that, in terms of both style and content, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law is in a minority of one, and it delights her. 'Salim loves the book now, but at the beginning, he was nervous about exposing our private lives, about telling people that we have a cappuccino machine, and a dog. "Our friends," he said. "Maybe you don't have the right to write about them in this way." But I felt that, either I write it, or not. I'm not here as a historian to write one more book about Palestine.' Does she feel that she is bringing her world to a new audience? 'Yes, and it's exciting. When you live here, it's easy to feel hopeless. You wonder how you can resist the occupation [she is entirely opposed to violence on the part of civilians]. Then this book comes along, and I think: ah, so this is how I resist the occupation. I have never felt so happy in all my life.' She flashes me her dazzling smile. Then, before we venture out into the teeming, pot-holed Ramallah streets, she gets up to make me yet another dainty cup of sweet, scented Turkish coffee.
Amiry likes to remind people that things always look worse from afar - and so it is with Ramallah. Last week, as Mahmoud Abbas was elected president, the city was in the newspapers every day and, as usual, it looked grim, all rubble and graffiti and young men with guns. The reality is a bit different, though there are big piles of stones absolutely everywhere - Suad often jokes that she dreams of being made the Palestinian 'Minister of Rubble'.
For one thing, the town, which used to be 60 per cent Christian (this figure is now down to 30 per cent), is the most liberal in the West Bank by far. 'Never a masculine or a solemn city,' writes the great Palestinian poet, Mourid Barhouti. 'Always the first to catch on to some new craze.' (Or, as one of Riwaq's energetic young architects puts it: 'This is a city where you can have lunch in a restaurant with a woman who is not your wife.')
For another, there is a certain amount of money sloshing around it. A severe shortage of land - for obvious reasons, the city cannot expand - has pushed the cost of housing sky high. While many still live in abject poverty, and in refugee camps, the smartest new houses in Ramallah cost as much as $500,000. Such places are, I gather, snapped up by entrepreneurs who believe the city to be firmly on the up. (I went to see one; it had been bought by a man from Jaffa, a town he can see from the window of his elegant new home, but which he can never visit.)
With its cypress trees and pleasantly cool mountain climate, Ramallah was once considered one of the most beautiful towns in Palestine, and was much visited by both Gulf Arabs and Palestinian honeymooners. Today, it is congested and run down. 'I am not upset with the Palestinian authority that they did not beat Sharon,' says Amiry, 'I'm upset with them that they did not manage schools, jobs, hospitals.'
Still, vestiges of the old style remain. Riwaq, for instance, is housed in an elegant turn-of-the-century building of rose stone and wrought iron. Are there restaurants and cafes and bars? Is there culture? Do tourists care to visit? The answer to all these questions is: yes. You can have fajitas and cocktails at a new place called Frescoes or, for traditional Arab food, you can visit the town's smartest restaurant, Darna, the refurbishment of which is rumoured to have cost its owner $800,000. The Khalil Sakakini cultural centre, meanwhile, which houses the office of the poet, Mahmoud Darwish, has also been restored (it was destroyed by the Israelis). As for visitors, Ramallah has always been a popular destination for political tourists; and, right now, the place is full of journalists, election observers and the usual NGO people.
Amiry lives in a book-stuffed, single-storey house in the al-Irsal area of Ramallah, and drives a battered Golf (thanks to the potholes, most people do not invest in new cars, though there are still a significant number of shiny Mercedes to be seen). In the street outside, you can see the marks left by the Israeli tanks. She says that her attitude to the soldiers is gradually changing.
'Maybe this is middle age, but before, I never, never looked at their faces, even when they were checking my identity. If you're upset with someone - even your mother or your brother - you can't look at them. It's a way of showing that you're not happy. Now, I've started looking at their faces. You think, "You're so young. Dammit, you could be my son." I talk to them. If I get the chance, I make a comment. "Are you enjoying your work?" I'll say. One time, I was crossing the bridge [the Allenby Bridge into Jordan - the only way she can leave the country]. They take all your shoes and they put them into a bag. Then you have to look for them. Of course you get annoyed, humiliated. So I said to this woman, "Do you enjoy this?" She freaked out. "Do you think I enjoy it?" she said.'
Does Amiry believe there will be a lasting peace? Strangely, she does. She thinks people - on both sides - are tired of fighting, and that those involved are aware of the price that they pay in other aspects of their lives. 'I don't believe that you can be violent to people that you don't know and be nice to your family. It can't be done. No, if the solution is not yesterday, it will be today; if it is not today, it will have to be tomorrow. You do feel there will be a solution. It will have to come.'
Her hope is that the West will be supportive of Mahmoud Abbas in the coming months; if not, a vacuum will appear, one that might easily be filled by Hamas. 'We have worked very hard to try and convince people that the two-state solution is the right solution. But if your house is being demolished, it's hard to be told to negotiate. If the West doesn't give Abbas a chance, support for Hamas will grow. It's difficult to hold on to your morals if you are under continuous attack.'
It is time for me to leave now: the poor woman has been making me hot drinks and feeding me kanafe - cheesecake - for two days. This time, I must brave the Qalandia checkpoint alone, on foot (I arrived in a car, driven by the only one of Amiry's colleagues who has the right papers for Jerusalem - though as she takes great delight in pointing out, Nura, her dog, has Jerusalem papers; if only dogs could drive, eh?). She drops me in the chaos, and shoves a box of sticky pastries into my hand, picked up last night in the incongruously named Eiffel Tower sweet shop. Off I troop, in the cold and the rain, horns honking loudly in my ears. My bag is heavy, and the queue is long; women and children must form one line, men another, and only so many are allowed through at a time, for apparently arbitrary reasons. Is it scary, all this being shouted at by men with guns? Not really. Mostly, it is just bloody maddening. Soon, I am in a very bad mood.
If I lived here, I think to myself, I would emigrate, and fast. But, of course, things are not quite that straightforward. Before we set off down the world's worst road - it makes your bones ache just thinking about traversing the route out of Ramallah, which closely resembles the surface of the moon - I had asked Amiry if she'd ever thought of leaving the city. After all, before 1981, all she knew of Palestine was what she had dredged from the memories of her parents. She laughed at this, though she admits that she now summers in Italy, so as to enjoy a little visual respite from all the concrete. 'No, I never think of leaving,' she said. 'It is who I am. I have a certain sensibility, a certain sense of humour. I belong to Palestine culturally. I'm like a flower in its natural habitat, or an indigenous tree.' In any case, if she were to leave, who would keep an eye on her mother-in-law?
'You kick us out of Jaffa, then wonder how come we're born elsewhere!'
These were the first words to gush out of my mouth when I opened it to answer the first in a long list of questions asked by the Israeli security officer at Lod (Tel Aviv) airport.
I was certainly not in the mood. It was 4.30 in the morning on a hot summer day in 1995. The almost five-hour flight from London had fatigued me and all I wanted to do was rush out of the airport to meet Ibrahim, who had sweetly come all the way from Ramallah to pick me up at this very early hour.
My anxiety and irritation increased as the young woman at passport control slipped a pink tag into my Palestinian passport. I, of course, have no problems either with pink, or with being Palestinian. But at that very moment, all I wanted was a white tag. As I had experienced many times before, pink automatically meant at least an extra hour with security officers at the airport. Oh, how I wanted a white tag this time! I was simply not in the mood.
'How come you were born in Damascus?' The officer repeated, obviously neither pleased nor satisfied with my impulsive reply.
I was not in the mood to tell the security officer that in 1940 my father, who had come to Beirut from Jaffa, was overwhelmed the minute he saw my Damascene mother. She was eighteen, he was thirty-three. He had graduated from the American University of Beirut some twelve years before, while she was still a student at the British Syrian Training College. The minute he stepped inside the grandiose courtyard of her family mansion in Damascus old town, and realized how rich her merchant father was, his dream of marrying this dashingly beautiful, tall woman with greenish-grey eyes started to fade. In the end, this particular dream was fulfilled, but many others were shattered, and my father and mother lived a tormented life together.
In December 1978 my father died of a heart attack in Prague while attending a writers' conference. The well-known Palestinian writer Emile Habibi was the last person to see my father alive and spend the evening with him. I was not in the mood to inform the Israeli security officer that every time my mother got pregnant, she went back to Damascus to give birth. In 1943, 1944 and 1949, she travelled between Jerusalem and Damascus to give birth to my sisters, Arwa (now a psychologist living in Amman) and Anan (a sociologist now living in America), and, much later, to my brother, Ayman (a diplomat). She also travelled between Amman and Damascus where I was born two years after that. I did not want to admit to this as it would only complicate matters and would certainly increase the security officer's fears for Israel's security, thus prolonging the interrogation.
'Have you ever lived in Damascus?' he asked.
'No,' came my brief answer.
I was not in the mood to tell the officer that until the age of eighteen, when I left Amman to study architecture at the American University of Beirut, my workaholic mother, who owned a publishing and printing firm, looked forward to getting rid of her four children every summer.
The very first week of our summer vacation, she sent us off to her parents' house in Damascus or to her relatives in Beirut. My brother Ayman and I were more than happy to spend part of the summer vacation with our unmarried aunts, Nahida and Suad (after whom I was called), who totally spoiled us and my two teenage sisters. They took us to pick cherries at my Aunt Farizeh's summer house in the Syrian resort town of Zabadani. On Fridays we helped my aunts pack food and watermelons, in preparation for a picnic in one of the many restaurants along the Barada river (which became filled with chilled watermelons), in the lush neighbourhood of Dummar.
One of the highlights of our summer vacation was the Damascus International Fair, where Aunt Nahida always bought us what she thought were the newest Russian products: a set of Russian wooden dolls (matryoshka) for me, and wooden cars and planes for Ayman. When she ran out of ideas, Aunt Nahida took us for a stroll in the busy Suq el-hamadiyyeh, where we quenched our thirst with sticky pistachio and gum arabic ice-cream from the Bukdash icecream parlour. Some forty years later, I can still remember the taste of gum arabic.
In the afternoons, while my aunts were having their siesta, we played and ran around the huge water fountain in the middle of the ed-dyar (courtyard) with our many cousins. But our summer vacation would not have been complete without a visit to Beirut. After a few days of continuous nagging, my two aunts always agreed to accompany us, or sometimes sent us alone, to stay with Uncle Mamduh and Aunt Firdaus, in the neighbourhood of Zqaq al-Balat. To avoid our bad-tempered Uncle Mamduh, we spent most of the day swimming off the crowded beaches of humid and hot Beirut.
At the end of our three-month vacation, and just a day or two before school started, we arrived in Amman and the first thing my mother did was complain about our dark complexions. The Damascenes had an obsession with whiteness, and did not appreciate the concept of a fashionable tan.
'Do you have relatives in Syria?'
'No.' End of conversation.
I was not in the mood to tell the security officer at Tel Aviv airport that my mother was the youngest in a family of eleven, and that was just her nuclear family. I did not want to scare him by saying that I had four aunts and four uncles, and over twenty cousins. They and their families all lived in Damascus.
From 1950 until today, my mother's groceries were delivered weekly from Damascus. It was impossible to convince my mother that Amman had good meat, vegetables or fruit. This was also the case when she lived in Salt and Jerusalem. The only time she bought local produce was in 1968, when we lived in Cairo. She often complained that the Egyptian airlines pilots were not as co-operative as the taxi drivers between Damascus and Amman.
I was not in the mood to tell the Israeli officer that Damascus is not, as he seemed to imagine, a huge military base filled with Sam-1 and Sam-2 missiles, but rather a vibrant city, especially our neighbourhood in the old town where my grandfather's house still stands.
It would have been difficult for me to explain to him that I have always envied my parents, and even my grandparents, for living at a time when residing in, or travelling between, the beautiful cities of the region was not such a big deal and did not call for security checks. I was always intrigued when my father described his trips between Jaffa and Beirut, which included lunch at a seaside restaurant in Sidon. I was even more intrigued when my mother described to me how in 1926, as a child of four, she had visited her mother's family, the Abdulhadis, in the village of 'Arrabeh in Palestine. I have always been enchanted by their route between Damascus and 'Arrabeh, which took them down the Yarmouk valley through the beautiful plains of Marj Ibin 'Amer and Sahel Jenin. 'First we went to our relatives in Nablus, and a few days later we went on horses to the village of 'Arrabeh,'my mother would say. It was the horse ride which fascinated my mother, whereas it was the impossibility of taking such a trip between 'Arrabeh and Damasus now which bothered me more.
The security man handed me and my passport over to a security woman sitting in a room behind a desk, then disappeared, leaving me alone with her. She flipped through my passport, and asked assertively,
'And what were you doing in London?'
'I went dancing,' I answered, looking her straight in the eye, with an expressionless, tired face, and a voice even more assertive than hers.
'Do you think you're being funny?' she said, her voice louder and more serious.
'No. And do YOU have any problem with dancing?' My voice now much lower and more sarcastic.
'What was the purpose of your visit to London?'
'Dancing,' I insisted.
As we went back and forth, she started to lose her temper and I started to lose my sleepiness. A few minutes later, she picked up the phone and started talking in Hebrew, a language I do not understand.
'Dancing . . . Dancing . . . Dancing . . .' - the English word jumped out of her Hebrew sentences.
I was not in the mood to tell the Israeli security woman that I had been on vacation in Scotland with friends, friends I had not seen since 1983, when I had been working on my thesis at the University of Edinburgh.
I did not want to explain to her who these friends were. Going through their names one by one would only complicate matters and make the interrogation unbearably long.
My friendships with some of these people went back to the 1970s and my golden university days in Beirut. Even though I was totally exhausted, I had enough common sense to realize that Beirut was a buzz word for the security officers of Israel. Some of these friendships, such as those with Amal, Ata and Salwa, went back to the fifties and sixties, during my childhood and adolescence, growing up in Amman. As a tall and hugely built security man (obviously her superior) entered the interrogation room, I was more certain than ever that one should never take the risk of mixing friendship with security issues, especially if it concerns the security of the State of Israel. As the two officers exchanged a few words in Hebrew, my anxiety increased.
'What were you doing in London?' asked the male officer, extremely aggressively, while looking me straight in the eye.
'Dancing', I insisted.
'You know that failing to cooperate with us on security matters will result in your arrest?' 'Fine', I replied, quickly resigned to this ridiculous verdict, 'but I need to go out and inform poor Ibrahim, who has been waiting outside the airport for hours to pick me up.'
'No, you are not permitted to go; and who is Ibrahim? Is he a relative?'
I was not in the mood and I did not want to tell the two security officers that Ibrahim was not exactly a relative, as none of my relatives, and neither my husband nor any of my friends from Ramallah, are allowed to come pick me up from the airport. I wondered if the officers knew that I, like many other Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, needed many types of permits to move about: a permit to enter Jerusalem, another to go out to Jordan, a third to enter Israel, a fourth to work in Israel, an impossible one to enter Gaza, and a four-hour permit to use the airport, which gives you just enough time to get there with no flat tyres or accidents, lasamahallah (God forbid). Ibrahim is one of two or three taxi drivers in Ramallah who happen to have a car with a yellow licence plate, which allows him to pick up passengers from the airport.
I was not exactly in the mood to tell the officer that one of my dreams is simply for my husband to be able to pick me up from the airport or from Allenby Bridge when I come back from a trip. But that is a privilege no Palestinian has.
'You cannot prevent me from going out to tell Ibrahim to leave. It is not fair to make him wait any more, especially now that I am going to be kept here for much longer.'
'No, you cannot leave!' screamed the male officer, losing his temper.
'Watch me do it', I said, as I turned around and started walking out of the interrogation room into an arrivals hall filled with passengers, many of them coming to enjoy the sun and beautiful, relaxing shores of Israel. My heart was pumping as I walked towards the exit; by then, two security men were walking very close to me, one on each side. One of them kept repeating, 'Don't make us do things we don't like doing.'
'Yes, arresting me in front of these tourists will create a scene which is not favourable for tourism in Israel,' I screamed back. 'Why can't I be treated just like any of these tourists?'
By that time, the three of us were standing outside the arrivals hall, right in front of Ibrahim, the driver.
'Elhamdullah 'ala es-salameh Suad khir inshallah shoo fi?' (Welcome home, Suad, what is the matter, I hope all is well?) he said, as he formally shook my hand, his eyes fixed on the two security officers.
'Where is your luggage?' he added, busy trying to figure out the story of me and the two men in civilian clothes with the hostile faces accompanying me.
'Ibrahim, these are security officers. It is a long story. In short, I am under arrest and I just came out to let you know that you should not wait for me any longer - please call Salim and tell him that I have been arrested at the airport.'
'Arrested?' enquired Ibrahim, shocked.
'Don't worry, Ibrahim. It is not a big deal,' I reassured him. 'I have been arrested because I told them I went dancing in London,' I added.
'Dancing? Did you say dancing?' Ibrahim was now in total shock. Oh God, that was all I needed. It seemed that Ibrahim was even more troubled by my dancing in London than the Israeli security officers. What can I say? I have always believed that the occupation ruined the spirit of both Israelis and Palestinians.
These were the last words Ibrahim and I exchanged before one of the officers approached Ibrahim and asked him to accompany them. The three anti-dancing men disappeared inside while I stood there outside the airport with no passport and no luggage.
So much for being frivolous, Suad, I started castigating myself. Less than half an hour later, Ibrahim appeared through the big gates of the arrivals hall, pushing my luggage trolley with one hand and waving my passport in the other. With a victorious expression on his face he said, 'Come on, let's go, Suad.'
'What happened, Ibrahim? Tell me.'
'It takes a man to talk to men,' he bragged. 'Come on, Suad, let's get out of here. I just assured them that you are a bit strange.'
'Ibrahim!' I bellowed.
'But I also told them that you were an important professor at the department of architecture at Birzeit University, and . . . and . . . and . . . and what else did I tell them?'
'Stop it Ibrahim. Khalas (Enough)!' I suddenly realized how much Ibrahim knew about everyone who lived in Ramallah!
Listening to Ramallah's gossip was the only way he could make his daily and nightly shuttles between Ramallah and Tel Aviv airport bearable. What worried me most was whether Ibrahim had spoiled things for me, by assuring the security men at the airport that I had not really been dancing in London.