Yesterday, I reconnected with a former high school teacher of mine. Her name was Mary Doherty. Ms. Doherty was a mentor to me and instrumental in guiding me to where I am today. It took me years to locate her- and yesterday, finally, through the miracle of the Social Network, I did.
Now, this would not be a significant or blog-worthy event except that this story came full-circle yesterday. Our virtual re-union coincided with the remarkable events that unfolded in Egypt. And many years ago, 16 to be exact, Ms. Doherty single-handedly helped me stand up to the Mubarak Regime. I’m not saying this to be grandiose. I’m saying it because its true. I have always remembered this incident, which forever changed how I found myself dealing with situations of incomprehensible repression and overwhelming odds. Namely, the lesson I learned was to never allow the situation to own me, but to own the situation.
What happened was as follows: I was part of our highschool Model United Nations club in Bahrain. We were invited to participate in another school’s conference in Cairo (the Cairo American College). And so the necessary preparations were made, tickets were booked, and visas were issued. Except mine. It was 1995, and Cairo, still seething from Arafat’s poorly played decision to ally himself with Saddam Hussein, was as punishment still banning Palestinians from entering Egypt. Though I was not an American citizen, the American ambassador intervened on my behalf, our school being affiliated with the Department of Defense, and one of our club’s advisers being a formal naval officer. But the answer was always the same: impossible. There are orders-high ones-and nothing can change them, we were told. But Ms. Doherty, my economics teacher and head of the club, wouldn’t have it. It came down to 2 am the morning before our group’s scheduled departure.
After obtaining approval from the school-and my mother (who was well-aware of the consequences of her decision, but wanted me to try anyway), Ms. Doherty decided to take me with the class to Cairo-without a Visa. She stayed up to 4 o’clock in the morning finding a chaperon from the school that would agree to go with me in case I got stranded in Cairo Airport. And eventually she did. We left at 8 am and by some miracle, Bahraini airport officials did not notice I lacked an Egyptian visa. Eventually we made it to Cairo Airport. All of the students passed through unhindered, and then came my turn. We waited anxiously, as the customs officials flipped through my passport time and again, in search of the missing visa.
“You’ll have to come with us” came the stern response, after the official finally noticed the “Gaza” stamp in my passport. Ms. Doherty, a small, strong, woman in her 60s at least, and very close to retirement, would not take no for an answer, even when I thought we should throw the towel in. She stood-not sat-by my side in the face of the amn il dawla officials-the dreaded state security- to which my case was eventually referred for 14 hours straight, shift after shift, “no” after “no”, “go back” after “go back”. “Ms. Doherty, please, sit down and rest” I pleaded with her. “I will not. I will stay standing untl they recognize we are not going anywhere. You will get through” she stated as though it was an inevitable.
Eventually she had to continue on through with the students, and the chaperon remained with me. But she left with clear instructions to stand my ground until I got through. “But how? how can I stand up to such a system?” I asked, just 16 years old. “You have to show them you really want it, and that you won’t back down”.
The next day, bleary eyed and exhausted, I was brought into the security office for the 4rth or 5th time that night, and the question this time was completely unexpected: “You’re not backing down are you?” asked the official. “No sir, I’m not” I replied bluntly. “Well young girl you really do us proud” came the reply, in a rare moment of sincerity. He left his office without further comment and suddenly I was ushered through customs without even a stamp in my passport. I was stunned, and would be for days and years to come.
The story does not always end this way. Years later, in 2008, as many of my readers know, when facing a similar dilemma with my two young children, we were not allowed through and eventually deported back to the United States, without valid visas. And decades before this, my grandmother was held for hours as they screened her, in the same waiting hall. And after her, my mother, newly pregnant with my brother. “Why?? Why are you not letting us through? What is our crime except that we were born Palestinian” they told the officials.
I never thought anything of my own trial, as a young 16 year old-at least I didn’t think of it as more than a turning point in my own personal growth. Until yesterday. When in the day of triumph, the Egyptian people, banded together, and together, they overcame the repressive will of the regime, and overcame the fear and repression that regime had planted in their minds. And there was no turning back. They owned the situation-the situation no longer owned them. A situation that, as it affected 4 generations of my family-from my grandmother down to my children- has repressed them, mentally and physically. Now, it has come to an end. The people have spoken-the people have acted, and the people were heard.