this is not a hotel: edited
March 1, 2009 § 3 Comments
so here is the edited version of this is not a hotel…i used to imagine on my blog i would show all of the different versions that a piece goes through while i am working on it…but i have barely done that…
but if you wanted you could go back to the january versions and compare.
this will be appearing in a couple of publications soon…woohoo! so excited…
This is Not a Hotel
The First Day
We arrive at the Tel Aviv, Israel airport in the early morning. After a couple of hours the airport security denies us entry into Israel and insists on returning us to the US. We ask to speak to the US embassy. The airport security says we have to go to detention if we want to talk to the embassy. And off we go.
First stop in the detention center, we meet the basement gremlin. Slick black hair, thick horn-rimmed glasses, he is no older than 30. His spine crooked like a jungle gym, he sits with the prisoners’ luggage, watching TV. His head jerks up as we enter like we caught him masturbating behind his desk and he’s not embarrassed.
Baby girl and I share a room with a blond Russian mama, Natasha, and her elementary school-age son, Maxime. Our husbands are sharing a separate room. Natasha cries and paces for hours. On their table, there is a grey-blue inhaler next to bottles of cough medicine, wrapped in Hebrew labels. She offers my daughter, Aza, a strawberry, a cookie, chocolate, corn chips, and potato chips. I gather the bits of food on our side of the table. Aza takes a quick interest in each and then returns to her games. She cries. She laughs. She dances. She climbs into my lap. She slides off. Natasha and her son huddle on their bunk bed.
A pregnant Black woman stops me in the hallway. We are from Austria. Our passports are Austrian. They think that they are fake passports because we are Black. They want to send us back to Austria but keep our passports. I told them fine. Send me to Austria but give us our passports. My husband told them this is the reason that the Arabs are bombing you. This is too much stress. I told them I am 8 months pregnant and if I give birth here they will have to pay the medical bills.
She says, they hate us because we are Black. You have to fight.
Habibi calls the US embassy. ‘Israel has the right to deny entry to anyone they would like’. They give us a list of Israeli lawyers. We ask the prison guards to let us call a lawyer. The guards tell us that we are allowed one phone call and we used it to call the embassy. We cannot call a lawyer.
The best food is the fresh fruit: apples and oranges, the partial loaf of bread, the packaged hummus, and the tea when it’s freshly brewed. I give Aza most of the fruit and bread, I strip the cheese and pressed meat from the sandwiches for her and throw away the soggy bread. She asks for chips, French fries, apple juice. The guards don’t have juice, so I give her the tea. Locked in this room with windows whose view is cluttered by tree strips, security vehicles, police cars, army tanks adorned in Hebrew, she is hopped up on caffeine.
Israel is bombing Gaza tonight. All of the television news is in Hebrew or Russian. I don’t see any landscape on the television screen that looks like the charred ruins of a firecracker fight writ on the night sky, like I have seen on CNN and the BBC. The only words I understand are Hamas. Gaza.
The guards keep the door ajar for us mothers.
That evening Aza starts shouting ‘Papa’, runs down the hallway and cries in front of his door. I ask the guards to let him out because she is crying. They accuse me of taking her to his door to make her cry and demand that I stay within a few feet in front my door.
They turn off the lights. Natasha speaks no English. I speak no Russian. Through mime and mimicry I learn that she is from St Petersburg and runs a salon. She has a big house in Russia. Her son has asthma. They have been in prison for seven days. Her husband’s mother is Israeli. They have a lawyer; every day the lawyer has no news for them.
5:30 am the guards announce that my plane is about to leave. In the basement, I look at the luggage tags and tickets. They are sending us to the wrong country on the wrong continent.
The guards tell us to go back upstairs to our cells.
Peewee fucktard guard looks down from the steel stairway and says: yes, well you will be spending your night in prison and I will be at home in my bed. And I say: yeah, well, I wouldn’t like your job either.
I return to my cell. My head bangs against Aza’s whimpers. My heart hangs on a vein like a grandfather clock.
Every time Aza starts to cry, Natasha says: shhh…Aza… Maxime is sleeping…
The Second Day
Natasha dresses in a red coat and slicks her son’s hair with water. She talks to the guards in Russian, returns to the cell, lays on the bed and cries, refusing to make eye contact with me or Aza. Soon after, a guard invites her and her son to hang out with her husband in the hall. They smoke cigarettes in between Maxime’s coughs for a couple of hours. She returns, takes a nap. While she is sleeping, her son starts flipping Aza off. Aza squeals, grins, and walks towards him slowly. He squirms in the plastic lawn chair and coughs. I swoop down and grab her before she hexes him. After Natasha’s nap the guards offer her another room. They don’t bother to say goodbye, just crouch out of the room.
I give the Austrians’ room a quick wave as a guard escorts me to my luggage in the basement. I find only a couple of diapers in my bags so I grab some of my panties and maxipads. The guards say that they do not have diapers and I can’t ask her papa if he has any and the guards can’t ask him either. I tie the panties tight to her pelvic bone and then slip in a pad. She looks at me and says ‘diaper?’
I turn the television to MTV. Aza claps and dances. I spread blankets onto the floor and place her on them. The menstrual pad only holds about a third of the urine. The rest slips down her leg and puddles on the floor and blankets. I press a dirty towel on the puddle and hang the towel on bed rail to dry. I change her pants, panties and sanitary pad and hang them on the rail. I pray the blankets don’t have fleas or worse, but urine is an anti-bacterial and anti-viral and anti-fungal agent. Gandhi drank and bathed his own urine. She runs around the room naked.
We stand in front of the locked door and watch everyone else flitter in the hallway, talk and smoke. We never see the Austrian couple in the hallway.
The guards don’t open our door for hours. Aza is screaming for food, for papa, for outside, trees, apple juice, music, dance, for an opening, a pin prick that creates a hole that connects her heart to someone on the other side of the metal locked door. A couple of times, while her papa is in the hallway smoking, he sneaks to our window. Always the guards yell at him to not talk to me.
Natasha, her son and husband spend most of the day together in the hallway.
Aza fumbles trying to open a bag. Shit, she says as it slips from her fingers once again.
A blond female guard knocks on my door that evening and asks if I’m okay. Yes. She unlocks the door. You can come out.
Habibi and I sit together for the first time that day. He has listened to Aza’s screams, above the television drone and stumbling babel-like conversation from two cells away.
Natasha, do not complain about my daughter crying when you cried more than she did. She is 20 months old, still wearing Huggies. These guards are sadists. And I am no masochist.
That night they turn off the lights in all the rooms except ours. I hang mattress covers from the bunk bed like thick mosquito netting. We both sleep well.
The Third Day
I am awakened by the Austrians muted voices through the walls.
As I am rocking Aza awake, a bullish man walks into the room, asks my name, and introduces himself, Yacob. He yells at me. I will get on a plane tomorrow no matter what. They will force me if they have to. He doesn’t care about the kid. He will handcuff me. Whatever happens to the kid will be my fault not his fault. I did this. Not him. I continue rocking Aza, telling him that I don’t want to be here. I am trying to leave. The guards fucked up my ticket and my luggage. And then refused to talk to me and so–
I don’t care, he says.
Later while Aza is watching cartoons, the guards attack the Austrian couple. I hear screaming: leave my wife! I am pregnant! The knocks of limbs against the wall. You have no right! The wail. I turn down the television and peeks out my window. There are 5 or 6 guards amassing in front of the door, one has a video camera. More yelling. Aza starts to whimper; I turn the cartoons back on. They drag the husband out of the room. I pray the Hail Mary for them and their unborn. They lock her in a different cell. As I am being escorted to Yacob’s office I hear her yell. You treat us like animals!
When we get to his office, Aza squeals. Fish! Pointing to his aquarium. He tells me this is not a hotel. No shit, I think. This is the war for your country’s soul as you drop illegal weapons on Gaza like a child playing with water balloons.
Tonight, you will get on a plane. I don’t care about the child. This is not a hotel. You cannot stay here. I am going to show you a video. It is of people getting on a plane smiling, shaking hands with prison guards and then a photo of a man on his back, his hands and ankles shackled, being pulled out of a van.
Why are you showing me this? There are two ways to get on the plane. The nice way. And then this way. See. See. You are going on the plane. I don’t ever want to see you again. Okay dude, trust me, I don’t ever want to see you again either. Good. I don’t want to be here. Then why didn’t you get on the plane before? Because you got the wrong–-I don’t want to hear it. Then why do you ask?
Aza, grins at me, fish! Fish! I don’t care about the child. You don’t need to threaten her. If something happens to her. It is your fault. Not mine. Not mine.
Yes, he says looking at her and his aquarium, fish.
I leave his office. Habibi is in the hallway. Honey, they think that we think that we are in a hotel. Yacob behind me bellows. Why else would you be here? I wave my hand. No, hon, don’t answer the question. It’s rhetorical. He doesn’t really want to know. I mean really, this isn’t a hotel? Cause I totally thought this was a hotel.
I’ll have to do a review of this place for Lonely Planet. This place is getting zero stars from me.
The janitor lady comes in and tells me to clean the room. I smile, I normally clean when Aza goes to sleep. I keep the blankets on the floor for her to piss on. Why didnt you ask for diapers? I did but they say they didn’t have any diapers. Of course they have diapers, you just have to ask. I did ask. Peewee fucktard guard pops his head through the doorway and demands, who did you ask? Who did you ask about diapers? I smile and say, anyone who would come to the door.
What are you? Her roomate? I mean her cellmate? Peewee fucktard jokes in English with the janitor. She replies in Hebrew, sends him limping to get diapers and apples because if they don’t then she has to clean up the mess.
She is a mother too. We talk about the best way to toilet train. And whether you should use bleach on the floor with a baby around. The door slips a bit more open and apples and diapers and a broom appear, and a mop, a bucket, an extra set of hands. Why didn’t you get on the plane?
Because they had agreed to send us to Scotland. But when we were about to get on the plane, we discovered that they were sending us to Washington, DC. We told the guards they had made a mistake with the ticket. They said that we could get off at Amsterdam and then pay to fly to Scotland. But our luggage was going to Washington, DC. And as we were trying to figure out what to do…they got mad and ordered us upstairs.
I just needed to make sure that we didn’t lose our luggage.
As she finishes mopping the floor for me, she hands me diapers. I tell her, you are the kindest person I have met here. She says, they are nice people here. It is just a tough job. They have a lot of pressure from the higher ups.
Later that afternoon Natasha returns to the room crying. Maxime shuffles behind her. The guard announces that she is moving back in and we had better get along. I can take one bunk bed and she, the other. He didn’t want to hear about us not getting along. I look at Natasha. Where would he have gotten the impression that we weren’t getting along?
Aza is sleeping. I move our stuff off one of the beds. Natasha stands by the sink, breaking into sobs and swallowing them. A half-hour later the guard returns. She and her son grab their stuff, without a goodbye.
I call the guard to the door and ask if she has moved out of the room. He says, yes…there is no problem with me. It is just because we both need privacy.
That evening the blond guard returns and lets Aza and me out of our room. Habibi, Aza and I sit facing the night window talking. From the adjoining bench Natasha’s eyes catches mine. Hers say: I’m sorry. I look away. There is no need for forgiveness.
When we return to the room Aza takes her baby doll, pats the baby on the back, says, shhh shhh, puts the baby on the floor, wraps her in blankets, pats her on the back to put her too sleep.
They come to get us around 4:30 am. We gather our bags and they escort us onto the rolling steps of the plane. On our way to Amsterdam.
A Letter to the Guards
I try to make a joke with you. But your English just isn’t that good. The American accent sounds like a lazy fold in the heart.
Did you choose this job? Or was this the only job left?
You lock the door from the inside with you still in it and yell at me for not leaving.
You have to be sandpaper to do this job.
You have to push your eyes into your hands and refuse to admit that you are blind.
This is not a hotel. It is a cemetery where the dead guard the living with cocked fingers.
Rickety bunk beds, rusted, rattling. The prison guards’ smiles are skeletal papier mache puppets and no one is allowed to burst the pinata. Inside there is poisoned candy, urine soaked blankets, plastic wrapped food.
The piñata is spinning, spinning, to find a center, a strain of human DNA in the midst of its monstrous facade. My daughter stares wide eyed.
You ask questions you won’t let me answer. The heart is always a lonely hunter here. My daughter and I refuse to be mute.
Like the tip of the knife, tip of the pen, tip of a bomb, the heart is dangerous in prison
In this broken version of hell, you won’t break me. I am a witch. Get burnt. Like the daughters in Gaza you are bombing with phosphorous clouds of light billowing into the sky like laundry on the line.
Just me and my baby girl locked in a room, bright lights always on. I drape mattress covers around the bunk bed like thick mosquito netting. We need an angel in this hell. You come back with dead food.
My jail baby patches wings together out of pale skin. She loves to fly and scream for heat and muscle, for a right to evolve out of this netherworld, out of this black home of lost luggage with no destination, scream for an eight month pregnant Black woman rocking on her hips. This blackness floats around my head like stars pulling open the center of the sky. Nothing here is breathing unless it has to. My hands are pulling my head to the floor. There is no place to rest the ribcage. It folds into an origami swan and lies on its right wing, cock eyed, with sharp edges.
13 Israelis dead
1300 Palestinians dead
You close down Gaza. Then open a cease fire as stable as a child’s paper plane in the wind
Keep yourselves hopped up on drugs because when you come down there is nothing but this job. Everyone is out to get you, who have been bitten by the light. Light a cigarette. Kill a fish. Everyone in a uniform heart is lonely. It’s all my fault.
I cross my chest and mouth the Hail Mary. You only let us out of the room to show us how locked in we really are. Baby girl spins between the bunk beds singing the alphabet to herself: a.b.r.q.s.z…
She climbs onto the bed, shuts her eyes, takes a couple of deep breaths, and then laughs hard into the belly of her stuffed doll, drags the doll to the floor, pats the doll’s back while whispering–shhh–then tucks the doll under the blankets.
It’s time to go to sleep.