The violence of denied entry

‘Can I exchange these Israeli shekels into British pounds please?’

I’m at the Bureau de Change in Marks and Spencer. ‘Yeah sure’, the guy working there replies, ‘but you know the buy back rate isn’t so good – I’ll have a look.’ He looks. ‘Ok it’s bad – you’re going to lose about £80 by exchanging them back, that’s quite a lot.’ His colleague walks over; she agrees. ‘It’s quite a lot.’ I chip in, ‘yeah it is quite a lot.’ He thinks. ‘Are you sure you’re not going to go back to Israel soon, you could use them again there perhaps?’ I think. ‘I don’t think I will be going back to Israel soon, in fact I can one hundred percent guarantee to you that I won’t.’ ‘Oh OK’ – he’s intrigued but I’m not going into that, ‘maybe you could sell them to someone else going, do you know anyone else going?’ ‘OK I’ll have a think’. My mind races to images of me standing on the Durham University campus flogging Israeli shekels to students. ‘I’ll leave it today then. Right now though can I exchange some pounds into Jordanian dinar?’

Since being denied entry to Israel and banned for an indeterminate amount of time [I tried to enter Israel twice and was denied entry both times, I wrote about the first time in this post [1]]; moving again, really moving, has taken longer than I ever imagined. My decision to spend this summer in Amman was aided and encouraged only by the receiving of an Arabic language scholarship from the Centre for British Research in the Levant[2], a prediction of quite rainy weather in Scotland and North East England, and a determination not to let the violence of my denial of entry beat me. Ghazi-Walid Falah, a prominent Palestinian academic who now resides in Canada, on writing about his far more brutal experiences of imprisonment by Israeli forces[3] suggests that writing can be therapy and, in this post, I want to use my experiences in the months following being denied entry as a form of therapeutic writing but also to situate my experiences of denied entry as an example of state violence.

Getting going, getting moving is always hard (just think of all the unused gym memberships there must be this far from January). Travelling to the Middle East felt impossible, and even 6 (!) months on it felt scary. I felt surrounded by the memories of last time I tried to travel to the Middle East. The girl I sit beside on the plane from Edinburgh to Istanbul is transferring to Israel, spending a holiday with friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. ‘Lucky her’ I think. I stand in Istanbul airport looking up at the departure board: flights to all over the world, countless countries, yet the four flights on the board to Tel Aviv glare back at me. Last time I was in this airport, taking far too many free samples of Turkish delight, that’s where I was going. I was going there.

Being denied entry at first felt like a restriction on my physical movement only, alongside the sadness that I could not access somewhere, that I could not enter a country. At times this felt childish, a throwing my toys out the pram moment: ‘but I really want to go there!’ In fact, I can’t even really say that I am not able to visit many places. With a British passport, I can travel to 156 countries visa free, whereas a Bangladeshi passport would gain me access to just 37. If I had a Pakistani passport, I would only gain access visa free to 27 countries and Israel would never be an option[4]. I felt incredibly guilty: what about the large Palestinian diasporas across the world with families, homes, histories, heritages in Palestine who can never enter again. This turned to anger, anger that so many can never enter Palestine; all those who can never see Palestine, its beauty, understand its politics, its struggle, what the occupation really means. I hear that my University, Durham, has now stopped sending students to Israel. I feel awful. This is what they wanted, a dearth of research and scholarship to the region that might be critical.

Yet, in the months that followed being denied entry, I began to realize that the violence of this act had greater consequences on me than the physical restrictions. It was the way in which states stop movement so brutally and violently that is often the bigger issue and consequence on the individual.

I have had quite an agonising few days trying to decide what to do about the AAG [I am referring to the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographies held once a year in U.S. city]. I am now having to accept I am doing something different from my original PhD idea as well as dealing with the implications of my denied entry continually extending beyond the initial trauma. The AAG just seems like another blow and something I was really looking forward to amongst it all. This all said, when the question becomes ‘could you deal with being denied entry?’ – the answer I know myself is No. Everyone keeps telling me there is no way I won’t get in, which makes me feel even more silly for not going, but no one knows this for certain therefore I think my only answer is not to go.’

 Written above is an extract from an email I sent to my supervisors about my decision not to attend a conference in the U.S. [there are suggestions that the U.S. and Israel share information especially with regards to border security]. Thinking back to that decision now, it seems simultaneously extremely silly, inconsequential, and yet incredibly upsetting and pivotal. Especially when the process of being denied entry becomes personal and visceral, it’s hard to know how we will ever deal with it. On entering the U.S., I was worried less that I might not get in and more that the process of not getting in might be violent.

Violence is always present at borders, in the form of protests, imprisonment, murder even[5]. Borders are where movement is restricted everyday, always violently. This violence doesn’t even have to be particularly overt, as many Palestinians know; it can be as simple as a ‘No’ or as brutal as needs be. Yet what makes the violence of denied entry so violent for me, is the way it affects my movement in a splintering effect, immobilising me beyond the single act. I now have a ‘clean’ passport to travel with but passing through immigration sends a rush of blood and sweat round my body. The interrogation, the eight hour questioning throughout the night, I faced at Ben Gurion airport and the resulting imprisonment in a detention centre before deportation is still an experience I find hard to recall, or else recall with manic laughter. It seems unreal yet it was real.

Being denied entry can be discussed logistically, pragmatically, and practically. Yet the violence transcends this; it can’t really be dealt with. There is no easy way to move on, no solution, because there is always a violence associated with denying someone entry, whether emotional, physical, psychological. Yet this state violence is so often ignored, washed under the carpet, erased under the mantra of State Security. The state and its many arms such as the military can get away with a lot when security is at stake[6]. Falah writes of the politics of doing geography after his detainment in an Israeli jail and the hell he experienced there[7]. Upon attempting to enter Israel, months after his 23 day detainment, his wife and twelve-year-old son were subjected to prolonged interrogation: the border being used once again as an important and easy avenue for state violence, always behind closed doors. It is unseen and therefore harder to comprehend. After being denied entry the first time, I was told by the Israeli embassy I could re-enter Israel through Ben Gurion Airport – clearly not true. A friend of mine was told the same.

The border is an easy site in which the state can gather intelligence about us by any means possible, construct us as a dangerous other, and inflict violence on us. And how little we must do wrong to be subjected to this – we can just be doing geography.

image1
Olive trees in Jordan

Olive trees in Jordan

[1] https://motioningtourism.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/emptying-palestine/

[2] http://cbrl.org.uk/

[3] Falah, GW. (2008) Geography in ominous intersection with interrogation and torture: Reflections on detention in Israel. Third World Quarterly 29 (4): 749-766.

[4] https://www.passportindex.org/byRank.php

[5] Chacón, J.A., Davis, M. and Cardona, J. (2006) No one is illegal: Fighting violence and state repression on the US-Mexico border. Haymarket Books. Tawil-Souri, H. (2012) Uneven Borders, Coloured (Im) mobilities: ID Cards in Palestine/Israel. Geopolitics 17 (1): 153-176.

[6] Woodward, R. (2001) Khaki conservation: an examination of military environmentalist discourses in the British Army. Journal of Rural Studies 17 (2): 201-217. Woodward, R. and Winter, P. (2004) Discourses of gender in the contemporary British Army. Armed Forces & Society 30 (2): 279-301.

[7] Falah, GW. (2007) The politics of doing geography: 23 days in the hell of Israeli detention. Environment and Planning D 25 (4): 587-593.

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