27 January 2011

"Security" everywhere

You can’t go anywhere in Israel without being searched – your bag, your car, your body. Security guards lurk everywhere – coffee shops, shopping malls, schools, buses, businesses. Their metal detecting machines are ready to slide down your body ever so slowly, revealing those hidden secrets in the folds of your dress.

I try to avoid shopping malls as much as possible. But today I had an errand – Ziyad’s phone was dead and the cell-phone company’s service center is located in the Haifa shopping mall. So I had no choice.

We passed the first security guard – he was sitting on a chair, looking decidedly bored. He thought we were not worth a second glance. A young woman behind the wheel with an unshaved man sitting next to her. Ziyad’s unshaven beard has become his unequivocal stamp: his statement to the world. Not that he needs it, with his dark complexion he undoubtedly looks the part. Now if he were driving, the security guard wouldn’t let us pass so easily. But I guess he only saw me, it was already getting dark, and it was probably the end of his shift and all he wanted was to get the hell out of there – out of his security guard role for the day.

The second security guard stopped us. He opened the back door, making small talk. The “good evening how are you” is meant to identify the distinctive Arabic accent. We had some papers strewn on the back seat, and the guard asked if they were business papers. He then asked me to open the trunk of the car. And that’s where it all began. For some reason, I couldn’t open the trunk. Ziyad came out of the car, tried to open it, but still it wouldn’t budge. Ziyad’s irritation began to surface as he talked to me in Arabic. The guard studied us, still calm. But when Ziyad told him “the trunk won’t open, what’s the problem just let us go,” he began showing signs of distress. He got on his communication radio and reported to a more senior guard “come quickly, there’s a man here who won’t open the trunk for inspection.” I knew that was what Ziyad needed to hear to lose control. “Why did you lie?! Can’t you see I’m trying to open the trunk?! What do you want me to do, it won’t open!!” They exchanged some words, all the while ignoring me. I said to the guard, “listen, friend, the car is mine; I’m responsible for opening the trunk, so you deal with me. And you, Ziyad, get in the car and be quiet.” Ziyad shot me a dark look, telling me “get inside the car and shut up!”

Then another guard appeared, the one summoned. He was calm, I could even see a trace of a smile on his face. “What’s the problem?” “The problem is that your guard here is a liar. The trunk won’t open, and he says that I refuse to open it for inspection.” I tried to make myself visible again, “the car is mine, I’m responsible for it being opened for inspection. The trunk won’t open.” “Shut up,” Ziyad shot at me, this time with a wicked smile. “See how he talks to her? She is so polite, and look how he is behaving,” the first guard tells the second guard. The second guard smiled at me and asked to see my ID card. I handed him my driver’s license instead. “Have a good day,” and he let us go.

Looking back at the incident, I see at least three levels of interaction:
(1) The most obvious one is the “security” issue. Ziyad looks the “terrorist” part: his heavily-accented Hebrew, his agitated mood, unshaven beard and dark skin. He fits the profile security guards are trained to immediately identify. An all too familiar scenario must have run through the guard’s mind: Ziyad was using a “clean-looking” woman as a distraction; the bomb was hidden in the trunk. At a certain point I could see the flash of horror in the guard’s eyes – the bomb would go off, killing us all on the spot. A scenario he got drilled about during his training period, but he never actually imagined he would have to cope with it in real life. Until this moment, it was just theoretical matter he had to study in order to get his gun.
(2) The second level has to do with the politics of identities and ethnicities. The security guard was an Ethiopian immigrant. Ethiopians have been placed by Israeli society at the bottom of the social ladder, even below Arabs. So this was a contest between the two men, each making an effort to make himself look superior by crushing the other into that low inferiority.
(3) The raw, primitive form of male dominance. Each of them tried to prove that he is the “man” and has the final word. I don’t need to go into this – it’s the same old battle of men since the beginning of history.

I’m sure this list is incomplete, and upon deeper examination, additional layers can be revealed. But this was my own personal-political experience, yet again proving that the personal is indeed political.

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