Friday, August 3, 2007

Pick a Border, Pick an Identity.


It was 4 AM when we got to the Syrian border. I was with Mike Mallah, his sister, cousin and his friend. Four Jordanians and a Pakistani.

I exited Jordan with my American passport and nervously entered the Syrian border security with my American passport carefully tucked away in my wallet, with my green Pakistani passport in my hand.

"Pakistani?" the tall syrian asked.


It was a reunion. A happy one. Syrians love Pakistanis apparently. They especially love the ones that speak broken Arabic.

"How long for a visa?" I asked.

The Syrian smiled and waved his hand.

Five minutes.

I glanced over at my Jordanian friends who were still in line.
Could it be? Could I really enter Syria without letting them know that I also had a blue passport?

Five syrian soldiers crowded around the window. A thin glass window seperated me and a group of Syrians. I felt warm, welcome and if there had been no window, I would have even expected a hug.

Yalla Ya Pakistan, they exclaimed.

"Where is your exit stamp from Jordan?"

Oh no. My heart dropped. I smiled. Gingerly taking out my American passport, I handed it to the Syrian and said, "Here."


He took my Pakistani passport and threw it at the window.

"You are American."

It wasn't a question.

No. I'm Pakistani. I'm not American. I dont live in America. My family lives in Pakistan. We might be going for Umrah (the smaller Hajj) in Ramadan to Saudi Arabia. I am Muslim. I am Pakistani.

"You are American."

"How long for a visa?" The American Pakistani asked.

"We dont know. Possibly 6 hours. 7 hours. 8. A day. Two days. Damascus has to give us clearance."

"How long for a visa?" the Pakistani had asked 5 minutes before.

"Five minutes."

I decided to wait for the visa. I watched as my American passport was put aside, forgotten and my Pakistani was given back to me.

I waited for 2 hours. I got up and went to the window that said "foreigners" and asked for my passport. I decided to go back to Amman. It wasn't worth it.

"Wait," the sympathetic Syrian said, "just wait a little while longer."

Im Pakistani, I told him. Im American, I told him. Im not shit, I told him.
Give me back my passport.

The cab driver who was driving me back to Amman asked me where I was from.

I am American, I replied.

Tomorrow I am going to Israel. I've been there before. Last year I was at the border for a very, very long time.

"You're Pakistani?" the Israelis asked.

"Im American," I said, "I'm not Pakistani."

I live in America. My family lives in America. I've come to see Jerusalem. I know very few Pakistanis. I dont live in Pakistan. I am American.

"How long will it take?" I asked the Israelis.
"We dont know. 6 hours, 7 hours, a day. We dont know."

But I'm American.

"You were born in a terrorist country." they replied.

Im American. Not Pakistani.
Im Pakistani. Not American.
In this world I can't be both.
Pick one.
Or just lie.


outspokenarab said...

oh mariam, i only know too much how you feel. you can never be either one, nor can you ever be both.

it's an identity problem that doesn't just make problems for you at borders. It vibrates in our souls where for every action you have to decide who you are.

i'm sorry you didn't get to go to syria mariam. the only reason they let me in syria with my american passport is because i have a stamp on the very last page of it declaring that my dad was born in syria, therefore i am also syriam.

and with an arab style hijab on my head, I am rarely thought of as having irish/german roots, or that i come from an army family (mom's side) or that as an aspiring law student i know the constitution better than i do the qur'an.

and everyday i have to decide which aspect of these identities i want to be. the hard part is not that i have multiple callings for identity but that they are so completely opposite and nearly impossible for the two to live together.

but i am american
i am arab
i am also irish/german
i am muslim

i am a human being and when i sleep at night, that is all i can remember. we are all human beings.

QuiQui said...

Ha ha... great post. Can I interview you for my dissertation? LOL

Lauren Jill Hatshepsut said...

Azazati [my dear] Marium, I am saddened by your post. There are tears in my eyes. (At least there's a good part in that I get to hear something about Mohanen and his sister.)
I haven't read the intervening posts since my large faux pas of a week or 2 ago (nor if any other comments followed it). I think so many of us are living in 2 worlds, and it is surely *more* so for you-all who have mixed ethnicities. I, too, feel I'm in 2 worlds, and that's what I was trying to say in a comment to 1 of your previous posts.
Last night I heard a small choral concert in Duke Chapel, extremely "Western" music, and I was so deeply moved, tears, crying. This is me. Being so moved by Egyptians playing music and singing is me. The unintentional phrase "go native" (which I won't use, because it can offend) has also been done by so many people who have moved to the States (or elsewhere), perhaps more so in the past(?). I think many felt they were better off to try to eradicate what indicated Who they were, Where they came from. Ah me, what can I say? We are all God's children, Allah's children, even people who don't believe in god. And we love--places, people, peoples. Salaam.

Marium said...

Man Mariam, dont worry. I will InshAllah get into syria..well atleast someday..right now im battling with Identity in Jerusalem..and Hebron..will write about it soon...and quiqui it will be a pleasure :p
i can also tell u about what other stuff i said to the syrians..and how lucky i am that im not sitting in a syrian jail right now.
take care everyone!

Kashan said...

THat is soooo funny. Syrians turn you into an American and Israelis into a Pakistani. You can't choose, they choose. I hope I am successful on the trip to Israel on the Pakistani passport. I'll have to apply for a visa, hopefully, that'll help things at Ben Gurion Airport.