After 5 years of taking time off the anxieties that come with visa applications, I just applied for one to Tunisia, taking a heavy toll on me. We need to speak more those anxieties and the microaggression that underlines the whole process, which is not only underestimated but normalised. My travel partner Vilius found all the information he needs online in a matter of a quick search, reassuring him of the visa-free privilege he gets for being from Lithuania. But as a Palestinian holder of a UK travel document, it wasn’t straight forward for me. It consumed me.
In a nutshell, the visa process is an unequal system based on the hierarchy of human rights. This hierarchy is rooted in an imperial structure that classifies some as more superior than others. Indeed, it gets more complicated when you put the intersections of race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation in consideration. But you can safely say that it all depends on the documents one acquires by birth, and somehow these documents dictate your life, you’re either lucky or doomed. In historic Palestine, for instance, those documents decide at which side of Israeli apartheid you stand. While the Israeli apartheid regime systematically violates Palestinians’ human rights, it creates a parallel, privileged life for Israeli citizens and settlers, from which Palestinian citizens of Israel remain excluded in many ways. Similarly, these apartheid policies are reproduced by western and some non-western border agencies based on the imperial premise of ‘shared values’ between Israel and the EU.
When I think of visa, my body becomes overburdened with countless traumas. For most Palestinians, visas represent uncertainty. You’re held in limbo until a further notice. If you’re from Gaza, there are other uncertainties as visa could be obtained, but it could expire while you’re still trying cross to the other side of Rafah Border like what happened to my dad in 2017. And then when you’re out, you’re reminded of your inferiority, both explicitly and implicitly, as you present your document at any border control. You stand on the queue and watch people showing their passports and passing and everything is going smoothly until your turn comes. Then this smooth process is suddenly interrupted because the border police needs to ask you a few ‘casual’ questions that leaves you wondering: Why are you so curious about my life?!
Tunisia wasn’t the first holiday destination I had in mind. I contemplated Bali and invested a lot of effort to get an answer on how to proceed with a visa application- all in vain. The Indonesian embassy has nothing online on the process holders of refugee travel documents needs to undergo to obtain a visa. I called countless times and no one picks the phone, as if no one works there. Then finally someone replied only to tell us that they cannot advise on this issue. I gave up the idea and started contemplating Tunisia as an alternative. That’s when I realised this treatment is not limited to Indonesian embassy. I spent many hours trying to get hold of someone for advice. On the VisaHQ’s online chat, I asked for advice. “We don’t deal with travel documents,” a person replied. “This behaviour is discriminatory,” I replied with frustration, and that was the end of the chat. But I left them the worst review that was available in protest. Meanwhile, I was still spamming the London-based Tunisian embassy’s phone since Friday and literally no one picked the phone. This is probably due to the Eid season but this thought didn’t make it less frustrating. They did eventually reply on Facebook, and explained the documents I need to include with my application and the fees. But really the issues that a holder of a refugee travel document goes though are beyond unacceptable, and those examples are just few amongst many.
At the post office today, I spent nearly two hours trying to make sure that my application is complete. The postman revised the documents for me- I needed him to double check because I cannot afford any mistake. Between every interaction I had with the postman, a sigh would come out of me unintentionally. “Don’t forget to smile,” he said. “It will be fine and you will get the visa.” I smiled to him and said, visas take your smile away. He asked, “where are you from?” I said joking, “I’m a doomed Palestinian, and you?” He replied, “I’m from India but I feel for you. It took me a while to become British but I only needed to become British as my original documents have no value compared with an EU passport.” But the problem is documents of ‘higher value’ doesn’t suddenly turn your skin colour white nor does it protect you from racist policies or negative presumptions.
When I get the visa, I know I’ll be excited about travelling and exploring new places. However, it’s upsetting to be living in a world order that is inherently racist and treats people according to the documents they hold by birth, their skin colour, religion or sexual orientation. This shouldn’t be normalised. And those who are privileged enough to be born free of those anxieties and movement restrictions must not take their privileges for granted and fight with us for equality for all. The hierarchy of human rights should be abolished.
PS: I took the picture of my visa pictures in a hurry. Later I noticed the Arabic article headline of a recently-released Palestinian prisoner Bilal Odeh included in the picture, reading “Memories from prison.” Not to compare but it could be argued that such mechanisms are forms of imprisonments. Most of the traumatic memories I carry with me are attached to Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, where life was another synonym for uncertainty, not only when it comes to a travel visa but pretty much any serious or minimal issue you may encounter in your daily life. And even those of us who managed to break free of that prison, elements of that prison chases them wherever in one way or another. I cannot wait to be able to travel with my Palestinian passport wherever with dignity, free of all forms of violence. Until then I will continue to expose it, individually and collectively!
From the emergency room in Lewisham Hospital in London on Wednesday evening, I called my parents to inform them of a sudden allergic reaction I had to something that remains unknown.
I wanted to hear their voices which never fail to comfort me in exile whenever I experience moments of uncertainty – even though I know that they experience an extreme level of uncertainty at their end, in Gaza.
At that moment, around 11pm Palestine time, my parents would usually be asleep, but I called anyway, and to my surprise, my mom Halima answered quickly. She sounded troubled as she offered a list of instructions to avoid such allergic reactions.
The radio was playing in the background and my dad would interrupt the conversation, and both sounded distracted. Something was wrong.
“Bombings are everywhere. May God protect us and have mercy upon us. If you were here, you would have thought it was the beginning of another full-scale attack,” my mom said.
“The sky lights up and then a massive bombardment is heard, and within seconds another one, and another one, shaking the ground underneath us. The walls feel like they’re falling down.”
My parents just celebrated the arrival of their first grandchild. They called her Eliya, one of Jerusalem’s ancient names. Ever since, she’s been the focus of our conversations.
“Eliya, bless her, is crying non-stop as if she senses the danger. We can hear her screams from here as your brother Muhammad and Asma [his wife] are trying to comfort her,” my mom said in distressed tones. “We are panicking ourselves. Imagine how kids are feeling this terror.”
The anti-allergy injection given to me in the ambulance was making me drowsy, but the impact of her words made me switch back on.
This experience seemed to sum up the parallel realities I’ve lived since since I left Gaza.
Growing up in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, uncertainty defined everyday life. Death is always present, even as you do your most mundane activity in your most secure place.
And yet we learned to face our worst fears and continue to live without internalizing this horror as if it were normal.
That is why resistance was a necessity in the face of this life of uncertainty and dehumanization.
Gaza is only a part of a much larger system of violence, displacement and confinement designed by Israel, and funded and normalized by the so-called international community.
The reality in Gaza is the product of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, sadistic militarism, supremacist ideologies and moral hypocrisy. It is a showcase of not only Israel’s inhumanity, but that of the world as a whole.
Ever since I was old enough to understand the injustices that surrounded me as a child, I woke up every day questioning how despite its enchantment with human rights slogans, the world allowed this situation to continue.
Thursday morning, I called my family as soon as I woke up. My brother and his wife had a sleepless night with their 2-week old daughter.
My mom, who just got home from work, was eager to have a nap after a restless night. She works as a nurse in Beach refugee camp, at a children’s clinic run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
But instead she sat on the tiles by the garden door to let her body soak in the coolness, as the lack of electricity in Gaza, except for a few hours per day, means that the air conditioners my family had installed cannot be used.
As she sat there, she told me stories of the mothers who came to the clinic.
“Several women told me that they had a sleepless night with their children crying out of fear,” my mom recalled. “They were clinging to them.”
Others said their children, including older ones, wet their beds.
“May God help them,” my mom said shaking her head. “I raised you all in extraordinary situations, and I worry Eliya is going to grow up in similar conditions, if not worse.”
I was looking at my mom on the phone with one eye, the other glancing at London’s modern skyline from the 11th floor apartment of a friend that looked out on a city and world that seemed entirely undisturbed by what is happening in Palestine.
Our conversation was interrupted by a troubled silence that indicated there was more to be said.
I perfectly understood her without a word being spoken, however. I remember how we barely expressed our emotions as individuals when we were all in the same boat, experiencing the same violence.
We had no choice but to be strong for each other, and support one another to keep moving forward.
Then my mother spoke about how most families in Gaza had lost a loved one, or had someone suffer a permanent disability due to successive Israeli attacks. Amid the catastrophic humanitarian and economic situation caused by Israel’s siege, people are exhausted.
“Our situation is heaven in comparison to other families who are completely dependent on UN aid and do not have even one member with a regular income,” my mom observed.
“We did not stand idle”
My mother sounded agonized as she spoke about the overwhelming situation and reflected that the challenges of wartime seem almost bearable compared with the grinding aftermath.
“Precisely!” I said, in an effort to bring some hope into the conversation. “What makes people go to protest near the fence with Israel is that they have nothing to lose but a life of misery.”
“Confronting and throwing stones at Israeli snipers lined up behind the fence is a means of survival to escape this cycle of powerlessness,” I said. I told my mother I thought it was an act of defiance and dignity.
“If only the world outside knew how we experience life. If only they put themselves in our shoes for a second,” I added.
“The times when we lived under physical military occupation were much better,” my mom said, interrupting me. She was referring to the years from 1967 until 2005, when Israel maintained soldiers and settlers deep inside the Gaza Strip, instead of besieging it from the perimeter.
I was confused and asked her to explain.
“We had confrontations then, similar to what we have experienced at the Great March of Return, but from even closer,” she said. “They would use their military power on us but we would have a brief window to express resistance, which was somehow consoling.”
“We would stand in their faces without any fear, despite our knowledge that they would eventually do what they are indoctrinated to do – imposing roadblocks, curfews, house raids and detention campaigns,” my mother explained. “We would stand tall in front of them as they attempted to kidnap your father, or one of your uncles, scream at them and curse them, eye to eye.”
“The Tamimis were every family in Gaza, during the first intifada,” she said, referring to the West Bank family of the teenager Ahed Tamimi, renowned for its role in the village of Nabi Saleh’s unarmed resistanceto Israeli occupation and colonization.
“I remember when the army broke into our house in the middle of the night, soon after your birth, looking for your father. They turned everything upside down and stole your father’s pictures and notebooks,” my mom said. “We did not stand still as they ruined everything. We resisted. We pushed them and threw our belongings which they had broken back at them.”
“But now they just drop missiles at us from their warplanes, gunboats or tanks as we sit in our homes unable to confront them.”
My mother mentioned the pregnant mother and her young daughter killed in their home in an Israeli airstrike Wednesday night.
“They could have been any of us,” she said.
Whenever I talk anyone in my family, they say nothing much has changed, as if time has forgotten about their corner of world.
But time did not forget them completely. They experience time differently: through an innovative form of military occupation which has turned Gaza into a caged laboratory for lethal technologies to be sold later to other countries as “battle tested.”
They experience the progress of time as a regression, with resistance – not accepting their abnormal situation as normal – the only way to break free.
This article was first published on the Electronic Intifada
My 15-year old cousin Muhammad Abu Loz just got injured by gunfire from Israeli occupation forces at the Great March of Return, east of Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
He was among thousands of Palestinians from all generations who have joined these marches in commemoration of Land Day, protesting against the longstanding Israeli colonial occupation and the denial of our inalienable political rights. Israel met them with 100 military snipers.
My cousin survived, but my grandfather’s neighbor, Muhammad Kamal al-Najjar, 25, was shot dead. He is one of at least 12 people who had been killed by Friday evening.
More than 700, including 130 children, had been injured.
Since 30 March 1976, when Palestinian citizens of Israel led a popular uprising against Israel’s confiscation of huge swaths of their land in the Galilee, the anniversary has been marked as Land Day.
On that day in 1976, Israel also met civilian protesters with lethal gunfire, killing six and injuring and arresting many more.
Four decades later, Land Day remains one of the most significant dates in the Palestinian political calendar – a day commemorated by popular resistance to ongoing Israeli colonial oppression, land theft and systematic policies of erasure.
In Gaza, Land Day demonstrations are held near the Israeli-imposed buffer zone, a strip of land inside the Gaza boundary that eats up 30 percent of the small territory’s farmland.
This buffer zone only tightens the Israeli chokehold over Gaza’s two million residents who are besieged by the Israeli military from land, sea and air.
From the north and east, Gaza is surrounded by Israeli artillery, tanks, snipers and military checkpoints. From the sea it is blockaded by Israeli warships that constantly fire on Gaza’s fishers, and from the south, the Egyptian military collaborates with Israel to maintain the closure of the Rafah crossing, the only lifeline to the outside world for most people in Gaza.
Sick with worry as I followed the day’s events from a distance, I called my mom in Gaza. I knew she had been looking forward to this evening’s celebration of her nephew Abed’s wedding, with drums banging as people joyfully sing and dance dabke.
My mom sounded overwhelmed over the phone. When I asked if the wedding was still on, she said yes.
“But given our neighbor’s devastating loss and your cousin’s injury, the zaffa [the celebratory procession] is canceled and the wedding songs will be substituted with revolution songs celebrating freedom fighters,” she said.
My parents, like other Palestinians, anticipated Israel’s violence today, but for them Israeli violence is constant, so carrying on with the wedding is not as strange as it might sound. It’s a way to show that life goes on. Our daily lives are defined by paradoxes like this.
They also went to the place of protest in eastern Jabaliya yesterday to help set up the “return tents”, a recreation of 1948 Nakba Palestinian refugees’ tents which will remain rooted there until 15 May – Nakba Day – to call for our long-denied right of return to the lands from which we were expelled by Israel in 1948.
That right that remains at the core of our anti-colonial struggle.
This morning, they went to my grandfather’s house, where the wedding lunch was set to take place, not knowing that it would turn into a funeral.
Far from home
Our short conversation left me feeling further detached from my current place of residence in the UK, where the majority of people are spending Good Friday with their families in safety and happiness.
But in Palestine, Good Friday was stained with bloodshed and brutal violence, thanks to Israel.
There is no justification for Israel to open fire against protesters posing no threat whatsoever.
There is no justification for suppressing people whose right to resist colonial oppression is guaranteed by international law. The fact that Israel has been able to continue this brutal violence against Palestinians with total impunity for 70 years reflects a deep-seated moral problem in our world.
This article is first published at the Electronic Intifada.