Credit: Mohamad Torokman, Reuters via Alamy Stock Images
Helga Tawil-Souri: “A Confining and Asphyxiating Experience”
Palestinian American media scholar and documentary filmmaker Helga Tawil-Souri describes the experience of going through a checkpoint such as Qalandiya and what the checkpoint experience does to one’s sense of time, agency, and willingness to go to places that have checkpoints on the way.
“Despite there being no such thing as a generic checkpoint, they share a particular architecture, a logic, by which I mean that from the perspective of the Palestinian attempting to get ‘out,’ checkpoints are generally structured in a similar fashion . . . . I describe here the process of going through one.
“First, one knows that one is approaching the checkpoint because taxi services or bus lines abruptly end, enormous traffic jams erupt, and hundreds of people are suddenly making their way toward a particular place. Second, one encounters a large waiting area—sometimes covered with a corrugated roof, sometimes exposed to the open air and butting up against the wall—lined with metal barricades, surveillance cameras, and signs. People flood at a frenzied pace into this waiting area. People forge ahead, although there are always those who are waiting for someone to catch up, who pause to buy a coffee or a sesame roll from men who have set up stands over the years. Something like a set of queues forms, but it helps to visualize this as a triangular mass trying to make its way into a siphon. A set of turnstiles is the first contrivance through which people must pass, making their way from cramped chaos into a funnel. These first turnstiles—operated by remote control by an unseen Israeli soldier—lead toward a narrow corridor lined by metal barricades, above which are surveillance cameras, razor-barbed wire, and sharp metal arrows. People press into each other, suffocating those ‘ahead’ up against the metal barricades and against the turnstiles. There is no routinized tempo: the speed at which the turnstile unlocks and keeps rotating is determined by the unseen soldier. By virtue of the narrowness of the corridor (about 8 meters long by 60 centimeters wide), people are forced to squeeze into a (dis)orderly queue. At the other end of this corridor is another remote-controlled turnstile, most often unlocked at a slower tempo than the first: the barricaded corridor fills up at a faster rate than it is emptied, often forcing limbs or excess weight to bulge between the bars. It’s more the space (or lack thereof) that forces the formation of a queue than the people in it. At 55 centimeters wide, the turnstiles are extremely narrow (compared to 75- to 90-centimeter-wide turnstiles used at Israeli bus stations, for example). Only one person can fit at a time; heavier-set people, people holding infants, and pregnant women cannot, let alone those in wheelchairs. Once jammed inside the corridor, one slowly inches up to the second turnstile, constrained with the growing pressure from behind. When the second turnstile is remotely unlocked, a person enters what can be thought of as the main security hall, where bright fluorescent lights give the space a vapid, sinister feel. Directly in front is an X-ray conveyor belt on which to place bags and personal belongings. To the right is a thick, opaque, bulletproof Plexiglas window. The Plexiglas looks as if it were lined with a pasty film, making it difficult to see more than a few centimeters in to where Israeli soldiers sit; one is more likely to see one’s own reflection. At the bottom of the window is a tiny horizontal slit for identification cards, permits, and paperwork. Unlike at a bank, there are no perforations in the Plexiglas to allow for a direct auditory experience: the soldier speaks through a loudspeaker, the Palestinian speaks into the air teeming with microphones and video surveillance cameras. People now wait to be explicitly told—over the microphone—that they can move on. Then they are permitted to pass through a full-body scanner and pick up their belongings from the X-ray conveyor belt, where another soldier (or two or three) may conduct a more thorough search; ask them to step aside for a pat-down, to step inside the office for interrogation, to be sent back; or ignore them altogether. The wall to the right is lined with more opaque Plexiglas, behind which are more soldiers. All along the left side are barricades. If approved to pass, there is one last remote-controlled turnstile to pass through before being let out altogether. By this last turnstile, the flow has become a trickle—from a gush to a protracted drip—making one wonder if some, or how many, bodies disappeared along the way. The turnstile clicks; with this last push, one has made it out. There is usually no roof over the exit, which makes the sunlight beaming down jarring—it is more than a metaphoric light at the end of the tunnel.
“As a person going through the checkpoint, the next step is to proceed—until the next checkpoint.”
The Effect of the Checkpoint Experience on One’s Sense of Time and Temporality
“One’s first personal encounter is with a merchant: a bus driver, a taxi driver, a coffee seller, a peddler, a kid or old man selling gum. These merchants are located along what can be thought of as the periphery of the checkpoint—along the road where the traffic slows down, in the parking lots, outside the corrugated-roofed hallways or right inside them. Even if one buys a cup of coffee every day from the same merchant, interactions are based on monetary exchange. Communication is basic, contractual, although it does not mean it is not friendly. Given that many people must pass through the checkpoint day after day, those who are prone to purchase a coffee or a snack will usually, as in any recurring commercial exchange, know the merchant’s name and have a hurried chat before moving on. Ayman, for example, has been running a coffee/food stand at Qalandiya since 2002, and most people who must pass the checkpoint regularly recognize him as well as the changes he makes to his stand—over the years it has grown from a cart to a van to a metal container eventually painted bright yellow. Since this exchange does not yet technically take place ‘inside’ the checkpoint, I am only providing a cursory description.
“Palestinians are forced to go through a checkpoint—because rare are the people who pass through the checkpoint because they want to, and even rarer are those traveling through on a whim, as a permit to pass is needed. The primary reasons for going through are one’s job, school attendance, a doctor or hospital visit, or a family visit. By far the most people moving through checkpoints need to do so because of work. Collectively, all checkpoint passers face a politically unstable future and endless loss of rights and dignity at the hands of the Israeli regime; as workers, most of them are also exploited laborers inside Israel.
“The crowd of male laborers between 3 and 5 a.m. is a haunting scene. They arrive early because there is no knowing how long—or if—one will get through the checkpoint. They have no control over their time: they do not know if they will get to work on time (if at all) and must wait for their turn to come through the first turnstile, into the corridor, and through the next turnstiles. There is lots of shoving, pushing, cursing. Even if some workers are trying to get to the same factory, office, or construction site, there is no solidarity between them while here. The checkpoint might close or the turnstile be frozen for an inordinate amount of time. Every person wants to—needs to—make sure that he or she is ahead. There is no sense of togetherness: these atomized beings are a mass inevitably about to get fragmented by the turnstiles. They are all collectively trying to beat the clock, although the clock here is the click of the remote-controlled turnstile. There is a palpable corporeal frustration, especially during high-traffic times, that did not exist in previous years; before turnstiles, before tight corridors, before soldiers were hidden behind opaque windows and walls. From a bird’s-eye view it’s a constantly shifting crowd; from up close, it’s an ugly contest.
“One dark morning, standing with Ayman near his coffee stand, we watch a fight develop in the space leading to the first turnstile. A man is eventually dragged out from the crowd with a bloody nose and comes to rest in front of Ayman’s stand. Later, after the man leaves, Ayman declares: ‘There’s a brawl every morning! People fight each other even though they’re all in the same situation.’ People are put into competition with one another, and exchange becomes for the most part tense, competitive, angry, selfish. People punch or elbow each other, curse, spit, shove. Ayman expounds: ‘There is a perfectly logical way of explaining what is going on. People are taking their frustration out on each other because there is no other room for them to do so. Neither can they fight against the occupation forces, nor can they fight against the [Palestinian Authority].’ Notwithstanding the poignant critique against the Palestinian Authority, Ayman was alluding to the shrinking possibilities of where, when, and how ‘resistance,’ or even simply frustration, can be expressed. What he was also suggesting is how connection is structured through the regime of the checkpoint itself: disconnecting people, suspending the possibility for communal resistance, emptying their existence in a phenomenological sense by atomizing individuals and a larger collective from one another.
“People press into each other to form a line, funnel into the turnstile, compress into the barricaded corridor, and wedge into the next turnstile. At each passage one waits for an unknown period of time. This process is unpredictable and contingent: people never know whether they will get shut in one of the turnstiles (which happens often) or for how long; whether they will be stuck in the barricaded corridor, with how many others; and whether this ‘togetherness’ will last minutes or hours. As Julie Peteet points out, ‘Although closure attempts to routinize confinement and subdue resistance, it is equally about rule through the imposition of calibrated chaos.’ People are trained to listen for the ‘click’ of the turnstiles and to accept that their fate and time is not under their control. This kind of instituted (dis)order is suggestive of what Bourdieu refers to as absolute power, which ‘has no rules, or rather its rule is to have no rules—or, worse, to change the rules after each move, or whenever it pleases.’ Having made it through the turnstile, the corridor, and the next turnstile, people never know that they won’t be turned away at the checkpoint, or that if they make it through the checkpoint, they will make it through the next one, or this same checkpoint on their way back home later in the day, tomorrow, or the day after.
“This unpredictability denies one any reasonable anticipation, evoking Bourdieu’s explanation of absolute power as the power to place other people ‘in total uncertainty by offering no scope to their capacity to predict. . . . The all-powerful is he who does not wait but who makes others wait.’
“Power is not simply exerted in forcing people to wait; it is also in having them stay put. Entering the first turnstile through the corridor and then the second turnstile, people find that there is no way out. They are stuck inside, constrained in a space that is oppressive and dehumanizing: harsh, colorless, made of concrete and metal, with soldiers booming incomprehensible commands over loudspeakers, bone-chillingly cold in the winter, unbearably sweltering in the summer.
“It can take a minute to get through the checkpoint, or it can take hours. Deep inside the belly of the checkpoint, between the barricades and the turnstiles, the present remains motionless. Time becomes measurable, fragmented into a series of ‘nows’ relegated into spatial instants. These frozen ‘nows’—inside the turnstile, in the corridor, in the next turnstile, in front of a mirrored window—block the multiplicity of the future and suspend all possibilities. The checkpoint imposes the abstract ‘now’ over temporal possibility, freezing the moment on the edge of the tragedy. Henri Bergson calls ‘measurable time’ a sequence of ‘nows’ in which time remains spatially external to what determines it. Time becomes measurable only when it is made divisible—and it is divisible because it is space. To put it differently, time becomes measurable ‘because it surreptitiously relegates duration to spatial instants.’
“This disjunctive temporality produces deep ontological insecurity: there is no continuity, stability, or routine. There is no ability to plan ahead, no ordered sequence, no continuous narrative, no cause and effect. One’s present time is occupied with itself and overdetermined with the moment and its immediate consequences. Existence here does not plot itself on a chronological time line but collapses in on itself. People look down at their feet, stare at the back of the head of the person in front of them; there is no room to move or shift. Suspension in time is a crisis-ridden experience, suggesting powerlessness with respect to time as well as to the possibility of self-expression within time. Inside the barricade, between the two turnstiles, there is barely any communication. Whatever loudness existed in the shoving and pushing to enter this funnel has now turned into an eerie silence punctuated with the occasional curse, prayer, or grumble.
“Traveling through a checkpoint is a confining and asphyxiating experience. Each person is physically alone but further classified and separated as existentially alone by the soldier, or the entire apparatus, that renders a Palestinian a unit that can be separated from the others also attempting to get through the checkpoint. Whether people arrive at the checkpoint with their children in hand, their whole family, their coworkers, or an emergency medical team, they can pass through each mechanism only by themselves, at whatever tempo it happens to be. Each person is atomized. Solitude is the fundamental experience at the checkpoint: one is concerned only with the present task of waiting to maybe pass through and, it bears repeating, waiting without knowing how long the wait will be. The atomization is furthered by desocializing each person from others. There is nothing to do but wait, and wait alone. Undeniably, waiting has become a mode of Palestinian life. But it is not simply for those chopped up by checkpoints, for those under curfew . . . or even for the refugees for whom waiting has become permanent; it is for all Palestinians. Drawing on Palestinian cinema and literature, Nadia Yaqub declares that Palestinians are always on the road, but a road that leads nowhere. Palestinians are collectively in-waiting, and, as Darwish hints at, they are in-waiting for the waiting to end. This stuckness in waiting has been experienced since at least 1948, since the time at which ‘all Palestinians share an experience of suspended time that lacks normal continuity. All Palestinian communities everywhere confront the same temporality crisis: a festering sense of temporariness, the suspension and emptying of time, of waiting.’ Waiting is a permanent companion.
“Waiting, here, is less than waiting: akin to remission, quiescence, discharge, exemption. Prolonged and unpredictable waiting has become part of the structure of Israel’s rule. This kind of waiting is evocative of ‘prison time.’ As Hardt suggests, prison time, an ‘obvious form of punishment in our world,’ is a temporal nothingness that exists purely as a sentence, a punishment. . . .
“Whether individual people are stuck inside the turnstile, or the social structure more broadly is stuck between walls and checkpoints, universalized standards and tools of time measurement—such as hours, days, months, day and night, wristwatches, timers, clocks, and calendars—lose their relevance. When imprisonment goes on for so long and the days of one’s sentence cease to be numbered, time stops.
“The arbitrariness of what happens inside a checkpoint in terms of soldiers’ control of Palestinians’ time is further comparable to forms of solitary confinement. [As with solitary confinement,] the same is true of a checkpoint: there are no rules, and there is no way to know what a procedure is, if there is one at all. Checkpoints do not exist on official maps, but they do exist in different time zones. There is no crime that the Palestinians committed, nor is there an elaborate calculus for how much time their ‘crime’ equals. . . . Palestinians’ temporal experience is not simply arbitrary (albeit driven by a colonial logic) but also temporarily perpetual. The unpredictability and longevity of isolation and life sentences have parallels here: time is an unknown factor or too long to make much sense. In certain ways, checkpoints—like isolation cells—are empty informational spaces. . . .
“In 2003 I am standing with a taxi driver, staring at a queue of cars stretching for more than a kilometer in a rural area in the northern West Bank. We have already been waiting for hours. He erupts: ‘Wow!’ He whistles, staring at the long, immobile line, and continues: ‘Our national struggle is shrinking. It used to be fighting against the occupation. Now we feel victorious if all we do is get through the checkpoint!’
“If 30 years ago the dream was to overthrow the entire occupation, and 15 years ago it was to get from one part of the country to another without checkpoints, by 2005 it had contracted to simply getting through the checkpoint. In fact, only a tiny number of Palestinians are even given a permit to pass through a checkpoint, and those who can obtain a permit often do not bother.”