Stuart doesn’t want to leave, but he doesn’t want to stay either. He gazes around him – passengers coming and going, creating a turbulence that sweeps him to the side, paralyzed, drowning. A confusion of swirling colors, pastel sandals and navy-blue winter jackets, giving ambiguous clues about people’s destinations. Stuart’s anxiety about what’s coming next overtakes him, and he’s afraid his attempt to hide it makes it even more visible. It is finally his turn to go through passport control. He is a horrible liar at the best of times.
“What was your purpose of travel?”
“Have a good flight.”
Crossing that threshold should bring him relief, as he has heard horror stories of strip searches and detainments, but instead this episode heightens the images of what he is leaving behind. The bad decision to start smoking again taunts him as he soberly waits to board his 12-hour flight back home. The departure gate still is not posted on the screens as he receives yet another text saying his flight is delayed. He once heard someone say they wait until the last minute to post the gate number for flights to and from Tel Aviv, to thwart would-be terrorist attacks.
Stuart closes his eyes to relax but as usual, the images of the last two months’ events immediately emerge from the darkness. He repositions himself on the vinyl airport bench, suffocated by a graveyard of black suitcases, restless, sleep-deprived travellers, and overstuffed designer shopping bags serving as carry-ons. Coffee breath emanates from people entangled in charging cables. Stuart can’t get comfortable. He habitually checks his phone for a message from Hassan, but just like every other time in the past six days, there is nothing.
Stuart closes his eyes and finds a memory of his first day with Hassan, when he met him along with the rest of the team of activists in Hebron in the West Bank, at the beginning of his two-month human rights internship.
The team was so welcoming, which eased his fears. The Turkish coffee they served was warm and strong, coddling him in the cocoon of their low-ceilinged office, dusty certificates in yellowed frames, and a stack of obsolete, never used computers lining the far wall, donated by a well-intentioned humanitarian organization. A sticker on a door caught Stuart’s attention: “No one is free when others are oppressed.” Stuart understood again why he was there.
He was paired with Hassan for orientation. The day was Rosh Hashanah, celebration of the Jewish New Year, and they would be confronting the Occupation through nonviolent means. People throughout Israel would be celebrating and reflecting in this time of repentance and renewal. For Palestinians living in the old city of Hebron, a zone heavily militarized by the Israeli army, Rosh Hashanah did not feel like a celebration.
Stuart’s orientation began in earnest as he accompanied Hassan on school patrol, monitoring Israeli military checkpoints throughout Hebron’s old quarter, ensuring the Palestinian children who must pass through on the way to school were not subjected to dehumanizing searches, detainments, and arrests. But that day the checkpoints around the Israeli Settlements were shut, which meant the Palestinian children had to take a taxi and a long detour if they wanted to go to school.
Hassan and Stuart jumped into a taxi themselves and snaked up the steep and narrow unmarked streets. The taxicab was stopped by armed soldiers, who gave monosyllabic commands to the driver— “Off!” “Keys!” “Trunk!” No one made eye contact. When Stuart and Hassan finally got to the checkpoints, things were calm. Fewer students made it out that day, as parents were fearful of repeats of past violence by settlers on Rosh Hashanah. They watched a 12-year-old boy being turned away at the checkpoint. He had a bicycle and was told he could not pass with a bicycle on a holiday. He relayed this information to Hassan. Stuart watched, feeling helpless and angry – the boy easily held back the tears, as this was certainly not his worst experience under the Occupation, but his face betrayed his sadness. He rode back home and missed another day at school.
A teacher whom Hassan knew well passed through the checkpoint on his way to his nearly empty class. Hassan told Stuart later that this teacher lost two of his teenage cousins a few years ago. They were shot by soldiers at a checkpoint during a similar holiday. They were fleeing a crowd of angry settlers and the fact that they were running (fleeing actually) made them suspicious. Soldiers opened fire. They both died on the spot.
Stuart and Hassan completed the checkpoint monitoring after about an hour – school was now in full session – and took a taxi back to the office. The driver navigated the chaotic traffic, starting and stopping in the congestion as if the car was hesitating for what was waiting around the next sharp turn. The taxi driver traversed a street pocked with abandoned washing machines while watching a video clip on his phone showing Israeli settlers harassing Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest in the South Hebron Hills. He made small talk with Hassan – the price of petrol, the lack of rain, their friend who was arrested by soldiers the night before. An explanation for the arrest was not given because there never seemed to be one.
Stuart is brought back to the airport waiting lounge by a soft but heavy bump on the back of his head. He turns around.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” A young woman presses her backpack against her body as if to rein in its unruly behavior.
Stuart manages to blurt “No worries,” while offering a smile, but quickly shuts his phone screen. Was she monitoring his messages to Hassan? Stuart gets up and walks about, wanting to see where the young woman has gone. He sees her sitting with several others, chatting, laughing. A plausible front. What are they talking about? Do they know where Hassan is? He walks close to them, trying to act inconspicuous, but their conversation suddenly stops. He panics and runs to the bathroom feeling ill. While resting his head against the bathroom stall divider, he remembers a particular patrol run with Hassan.
“You don’t need to be afraid, Stuart,” Hassan said that day. While Stuart’s western passport protected him from the worst of abuse, Hassan lived out the “sumud”, or steadfastness: patience, calm and a strict adherence to the nonviolent teachings of King and Gandhi, while being at risk for detainment, imprisonment without trial, torture, or worse.
Stuart and Hassan were patrolling the old city of Hebron when they received a frantic call to come to the Akka Primary Boys’ School at Al Masharqa, where a soldier was throwing tear gas canisters into a grade three classroom through open windows. As the two of them approached the commotion, they saw a crowd gathering and an angry confrontation between the principal and a soldier. While the principal shook his fists, the soldier stood still, a Tavor X95 slung on one shoulder, one last tear gas canister in the other hand. Hassan approached as if on safari, crouching slightly, slowly and calmly making his way to stand between the two, facing the soldier. Hassan was trying his best to remain calm, eyes wide, smiling, arms open at his sides. Stuart guessed he was desperately trying to think of something to say.
Hassan slowly opened his mouth while the crowd watched silently, anticipating his words, when his phone suddenly rang. Stuart cringed. The soldier stared; the principal stopped talking. Hassan was frozen. Not from fear but from calm deliberation. He slowly brought the phone to his ear, hesitated, and then answered it. Hassan spoke quietly. From where he was standing, Stuart could hear a woman’s voice on other the end. Hassan lifted his eyes to the soldier.
“It’s for you,” Hassan said to the soldier in English.
“Fuck off.” The soldier shouted.
“It’s your mother,” Hassan continued, “she’s asking what you are doing.”
Hassan looked straight at the solider and put a friendly smile on his face, relaxed his body and handed the phone to the soldier. The soldier backed away as if the phone were a bomb.
“Get out of my way!” the soldier shouted. “There are boys in the school who threw stones at the soldiers! We are going to find them and bring them to the station!”
“Please. Just talk to your mother. She wants to know what you are doing. She wants to know.”
“Fuck off! That’s not my mother! My mother wouldn’t call you! Get out of the way or I’ll arrest you too.”
Hassan continued to stand between the principal and the soldier. The principal, wide-eyed and frozen, was silent now, holding his breath. Hassan was close enough to feel the soldier’s breath on his face. His eyes were shouting a million words which Hassan could not decipher.
“Your son is right here.” Hassan was speaking loudly into his phone while nodding his head. He covered his other ear with his free hand, even though the gathering crowd was silent. “He’s a bit busy right now but let me pass the phone to him.” Hassan again offered the phone to the soldier.
Stuart couldn’t say how long they stared at each other, motionless and tense, and can no longer recall what exactly happened next. He remembered another soldier approaching, then the two soldiers walking away. The soldier with the tear gas looked back, his eyes wild with meaning, trying to convey power and control but betrayed by boy-like rage. After a few more moments, when the two soldiers were far enough away, the crowd exploded with chatter and the principal collapsed. Several men rushed over and helped him up and walked him back to inside the school, an eerie calm in the middle of a boisterous city. The crowd combusted; a million words in Arabic tumbled out, from which Stuart gleaned relief and victory. The confrontation was over. No one was hurt. School continued.
At the departure gate, Stuart waits, eyes open, and he bristles when he sees two soldiers talking to the airline counter staff. Are they looking for him? Did the young woman tell them about his texts to Hassan? One soldier scans the waiting area and briefly makes eye contact with Stuart. Stuart’s anger wells up. Where’s Hassan! What did you do to him?
After the school incident, Stuart was shaken but Hassan appeared calm. They were walking back to the office where they passed the first checkpoint.
A soldier they didn’t recognize called out “Excuse me. What is your religion?” Even though Hassan prepared him for this, Stuart didn’t want to play their game. He hesitated, wanting to yell, to hell with your Apartheid! But he felt Hassan’s gentle nudge. “Just answer the question. This isn’t the time for a confrontation.” Stuart had come to understand that the question was meant to keep groups separate. Jews on one side, Muslims on the other. Tourists were all considered to be Christians and were warned of the dangers of spending time with the Arabs. Stuart glanced down the narrow alley to the left: Shuhada Street, now forbidden to Arab Muslims. Settlers can feel safe now, so they’re told. The former Palestinian market street was home to Hassan’s uncle’s tailor shop, with his two-floor flat on top, where at any given time of the day or evening, giggling boisterous children spilled out onto the narrow iron balcony.
Hassan responded that he was Muslim, but just to be sure, the soldier demanded to see his identity papers and finally motioned for him to go down the road meant for Arabs, without making eye contact. Only one more checkpoint to cross before they got back to the office.
The flight announcement brings Stuart back to his vinyl airport bench. His flight is about to board. If I get on the plane…, Stuart thinks, but shuts down that train of thought. He doesn’t want to even say the words to himself: he’s abandoning his friend. He takes his place in the long line to board, mind blurring between this line and the checkpoints. No barbed wire or assault rifles here. The young adults ahead of him, drunk from lack of sleep, are singing folk songs, swaying, mixing up the words.
As he approaches the agent, she asks him while still looking at her screen, “What is your religion?”
The agent looks up from her screen and repeats: “What is your zone?”
Stuart’s heart sputters. “Zone 3.”
“Your zone has not actually been called yet, but no worries – go ahead. Have a nice flight.”
They’re on to me, Stuart suspects. They know I was with Hassan! His steps on the hard steel echo through the narrow, stiff loading bridge. He’d be worried about his sanity if he wasn’t so certain he was being followed. Through the narrow tunnel, he slowly walks past a series of identical posters, repetitive, like an old cartoon. Some international bank promising prosperity and salvation. The crowding and the tightness bring him back to the narrow streets of old Hebron.
Nabeel, the shopkeeper around the corner from the team’s office, who sold malban, qatayef and Turkish delight, all seasoned with cashews and pistachios and rose water syrup, said good morning to Stuart in English. After 2000 years of vibrant history, Hebron was just barely still alive. Its inner city was now a war zone, abandoned, full of garbage heaps guarded by feral cats. Weary vegetable vendors stared into nowhere as their battery-powered loudspeakers took over their task of enticing customers, a simple message looping over and over. “Eggplant three kilos for ten shekels.” The vendors could now smoke even more Marlborough’s since they didn’t have to waste their lungs calling out prices. Teenage boys played on their phones, leaning against cardboard boxes, with burlap hung above to block out the sun.
Stuart finds his seat on the plane; the weight of his knapsack makes him sweat as he heaves it into the overhead bin. He collapses into his seat. The overhead announcements start, so muddled and fuzzy he can’t even discern the language.
As he and Hassan approached the checkpoint again, they were giddy from what happened at the school. Who will you vote for in the elections next month? Stuart asked. They both emitted a belly laugh, because, of course, Hassan couldn’t vote. The regime that determined which roads he could and could not drive on, the regime that made him travel to a foreign country to reach an airport, the regime that refused his uncle’s building permit six times and then bulldozed his new house because he didn’t have permission, would not let him vote. Death doesn’t come via mass killings or forced starvation, but by a thousand daily assaults. But don’t worry, Hassan said, not even this will last forever. I may not see freedom myself, but that’s why I need to get married and have a bunch of kids! My soul will see freedom through the eyes of my children or maybe my children’s children.
“You gotta tell me” Stuart asked, “who was actually on the phone?”
“It was my sister, reminding me that we are going to my grandmother’s this evening. I have a lot of explaining to do! But she’ll love the story when I tell her. She had no idea what was happening at that moment!
“Oh, that reminds me” Hassan continued, “we can’t go for hookah tonight. Maybe tomorrow night. I’ll take you to Café Fayrouz, where they have a special mint hookah you haven’t tried before. You’ll love it! Very strong, it’ll knock you out! It’s literally 11 out of 10!”
Stuart rolled his eyes at Hassan as he went first through the checkpoint, flashing his passport at the soldier without making eye contact. “Have a nice day” The soldier said to him. Hassan passed through the checkpoint next, but it took much longer. They exited and continued to banter about their favorite flavors of the hookah tobacco when the solider called “Hey you!” motioning to Hassan. “I think you dropped something.”
As Hassan walked back into the checkpoint, Stuart checked his phone while he waited and saw a new photo sent by his dad – a photo with him, his mom and sister. A smile crossed Stuart’s face, remembering he’d be home in less than a week. He wanted to show the photo to Hassan and tease him that his sister was single. He looked back at the checkpoint. Hassan had not returned. He waited patiently, his eyes running along the barbed wire separating the Israeli settlement playground from where he was standing. The slide and the jungle gym were brand new, while only 50 meters away on the other side of the wire, the rusty metal gates of the Palestinian school were covered with graffiti. In one corner someone had scrolled Death to Arabs.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. Stuart tried to practice steadfastness, but the heat of the day was too oppressive.
That was the last time Stuart saw Hassan.
Stuart wakes up with a startle. He’s not sure if he just imagined his scream or if it actually happened. Keep still, he thinks, while slowly shifting his eyes to the woman sitting beside him. She looks like she’s sleeping but Stuart wonders if she’s pretending. The duel between his stress and exhaustion ends victoriously. He closes his eyes, giving in to the sleep he’s resisted for so long.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent. Our estimated landing time is 45 minutes.”
Stuart first sees the soldiers towards the front of economy class as they speak with the flight attendant. There’s a commotion. A struggle. Stuart jumps up and sees Hassan, eyes blackened, wearing the same button shirt and brown pants that he wore six days ago, now ornamented with blood and vomit. Stuart looks around him again. He tries to get up but can’t. The woman beside him is holding him down. She has managed to grab both his wrists, her ring pressing, pain pulsating as he rhythmically tugs away from her. His dinner tray crashes in the commotion and cold coffee spills on his jeans.
“That’s Hassan! Help him! He’s my friend!” No one turns to look. He continues, shouting louder. “We worked together! He’s innocent! He’s a human rights worker! He’s done nothing wrong!” The woman beside him is talking, her lips are in motion, but he can’t make out her words. He looks up at Hassan again, but Hassan doesn’t appear to have noticed his yells. His head is down.
The soldiers take Hassan, who is still struggling, out of his view. The flight attendant is standing a metre away, laughing with a passenger at an old joke. The passengers around the scene are calm and carry on as if nothing is happening. A woman calmly stacks her meal tray along with her aisle mates, creating a small tower of plastic, half-eaten buns and unopened cookie packs. Hassan’s screams fade like a siren veering into the distance. Stuart’s shouting is now silent, his throat stuffed with cotton.
Suddenly Stuart is jolted by a tap on his shoulder. The flight attendant motions for his food tray. He passes it to him, hands trembling, almost spilling his half-full cup of coffee on his neighbour who appears to be sleeping.
“Please ensure that your seat and tray table are in the upright position.”
Stuart looks around but there are no signs of Hassan. No soldiers in sight. The woman at the front of economy sits peacefully, earphones in, video screen showing a map of a plane reaching its destination. Her eyes are closed. The stack of trays is still piled on her tray table.
Hassan must be somewhere on the plane, Stuart thinks. But how is that possible? The two women across the aisle are speaking Arabic in low tones. He can make out a few words only, but enough to wonder whether they are talking about him. He thinks he’s picking out words – are they saying he abandoned his friend?
The plane lands with not one but two thuds that send Stuart forward, seatbelt pinching his hip. Deplaning is painfully slow, but Stuart doesn’t leave until everyone else is off. Somehow that feels safer. As he passes the front of Economy, he looks for any signs that Hassan was there. He’s not even sure what he is looking for. He keeps his head pointed forward and veers his eyes only, so as not to raise suspicion. The flight attendant seems to be watching. Stuart tries to stay calm and walks at a normal pace as he passes her, trying his best not to make contact despite the narrowness of the aisle, then picks up speed once past.
“Excuse me!” Stuart hears the flight attendant’s voice.
He doesn’t want to look back.
“Excuse me! I think you dropped something.”
Stuart is frozen. He turns just his head around, keeping the rest of his body in flight mode. She hands him his phone.
“Have a nice day,” she says.
About the Author
Randy Janzen was a Selkirk College instructor who, upon retirement, finally had the time to pursue his passion of creative writing. Randy lives in Nelson, but continues to teach and volunteer in a number of international settings (Africa, Asia, Central America), and explores the themes of human rights and social justice in his writing.
About the Artist
“Leaving On A Jet Plane” by peasap is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.