By Daniel Wirtheim, Features Editor
Published in print Oct.8, 2014
She glared at me as if I was supposed to be startled, realize my wrongdoing and suddenly give up my plans to dissolve the state of Israel.
“Why not Egypt, Lebanon, Syrian, why did you choose Israel?” she said to me, flipping through my passport. My friend Dara and I were at Ben-Gurion International airport, on our way back to Istanbul from a two-week excursion in the holy land.
“Because, all of those places you mentioned are in political unrest,” I said. “My country has always supported Israel, so I wanted to come and see what it was like.”
At this she nodded, almost as if I had muttered a secret password that dissolved my conspicuous manner. We moved a few spaces forward in line before another security agent, a young man, approached us.
“Mr. Wirtheim, please follow me,” he said, escorting me to a special security booth that seemed especially made for Arabs and politically conscious American backpackers. I watched as they took out every single thing in my bag. They unwrapped gifts, inspected magnets and smelled a bag of sunflower seeds. They moved some strange plastic wand around my clothes and magnets, looking for bombs.
When I saw a white head wrap that I had bought from a Palestinian merchant, I knew they would have to interview and search me until my plane was about to leave. As I watched them take apart my camera, my mind thought of what I had seen two days before.
We left from Jerusalem’s Damascus gate, three of us in total. There was Ameer, an Arab-Israeli, Dara, a Ukrainian student, and myself, an exchange student on Christmas break.
The dirt road to Bethlehem unfolded in front of us. Large settlements and apartment buildings rose up over the hills of olives and dirt. There was no checkpoint going into Palestinian territory. It felt abrupt without the usual ritual, and before I knew it, I was on the streets of Bethlehem.
My first reaction was to treat it like an American ghetto, just mind my own business and don’t look anyone in the eyes. These people have to be angry, I thought.
I had grown up watching an ongoing war between the PLO and the forces of Israel. With each car passing by I thought to myself, “This might be the one that explodes,” a completely irrational thought, but rational to the mind of someone who grew up with television in an American suburb.
We followed Ameer to meet a friend of his. Lora was her name. She was small and fashionable, spoke great English and had studied all around the world. Now, she was our guide.
We spent the day seeing historic sites. They’re the same everywhere, and I really wanted to see the graffiti on the wall. I told Lora this, and at twilight we took a taxi to the wall, I can’t remember which part.
I do remember that we were able to find some New York style cheesecake at a little bakery nearby. I remember taking pictures, sitting on a car and eating cheesecake, laughing at Ameer. Then I heard a resonating boom.
The boom that sounded too far off in the distance to show immediate danger, but enough for a kid who grew up with the Andy Griffith show to shit his pants. My stomach grew tense and my mind went in frames as I imagined one of the bombs coming and landing right on the car, splattering my guts on the ground before I had the time to utter some meaningful phrase of goodbye. I was shaking and needed to leave. Lora was laughing at me.
“Honey, this is something that what we grow up with,” she said. “I don’t even think it’s a bomb. I think it was a noise bomb.”
I thought of how completely depressing that sounded.
I saw my own childhood in Dayton, Ohio flash before my eyes and she knew I was scared. She led us down the road to a spot further from the “bombs.” I focused on the graffiti, and I took a few shaky photos, knowing that if death were coming I would rather be doing something peaceful and for the sake of beauty.
I wasn’t sure what had brought me out here. Surely I wanted to come and had not stumbled into this nightmare unknowingly. I thought of the fundamental part of the human psyche that asks for these situations.
I thought of “The Odyssey.” Somehow, Homer had gotten it all wrong. Odysseys’ twenty years of sea-faring adventure wasn’t driven by determination to see Penelope. It was some kind of manic feeling of hopelessness, wanting to see every bit a person can see before it’s too late. Now, I was on the siren’s shore and the last bus was going to leave in thirty minutes.
When we got to the bus station, we were in a rush. We ran through a tunnel of metal cages to an Israeli checkpoint. A Palestinian commuter handed me his watch. I took it, not thinking. Then, realizing I had just taken a mysterious object from a total stranger, threw it through the x-ray conveyer belt.
The man looked betrayed and a little angry with me, but I knew there was nothing I could do. The fact was that I was American. All I would do was flash my passport, no questions asked. Why risk that?
We rode quietly back to Jerusalem, Ameer trying to break the silence with his jokes that were probably funnier in Arabic.
I thought of Lora, who had wanted to come with us, but could not, due to her being a Palestinian citizen and needing permission to be in Jerusalem. It was a somber and bouncy ride to the top of the Damascus gate.
They were finishing up their security check now. The young security agent approached me again.
“Mr. Wirtheim,” he said, handing me my unpacked bag and belongings. “When you have packed your bag, please follow me for a full-body search in the room adjacent.”
I moved forward, tired from lack of coffee and not sure how to feel about the whole trip.