During my trip, I had been using google.com to occasionally browse the map of the area, since the English pages of google.ps and google.co.il don’t have map tabs at the top of the screen. I would have to go home, to google.com, where even if you type in “Ramallah” they show you a map of the United States, and if you type in “Bethlehem” you get a town in Pennsylvania. I would fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, then zoom in to see the road from Beit Sahour into Bethlehem, or to look for the abandoned military camp at the edge of town or Shepherd’s Field.
One day, I got fed up with this situation and complained to Google on a user’s forum: why don’t you have maps on google.ps? It seemed discriminatory, as if they didn’t want people to find their way around in the West Bank and were content to let them wander around lost forever (as I seemingly had done).
A couple of mornings later, I met a wonderful doctor who had been coming to Beit Sahour every year for 15 years to work with deaf children. She warned me to not have any of my Palestinian pictures, maps, gifts and books on me when I left Ben Gurion airport two weeks later, and told me that everything should be backed up, erased on my laptop, and sent by mail or FedEx. She told me that once, when she left Tel Aviv, the passport control officer looked her in the eye and told her that they knew where she had gone to elementary school.
Already a little uneasy, I went back to my room to research my itinerary for the day. I tried to visit google.com and found Firefox redirecting me to google.ps. I tried again and again, typing google.com carefully into the browser window and watching with a mounting sense of panic as the letters would change before my very eyes and send me to the map-less local site.
With pounding heart I started changing my browser settings, getting rid of cookies and histories, but that only made things worse, because I wasn’t thinking through what I was doing anymore and some of the changes I made rendered my browsing experience even more alien.
From then on, I experienced about 24 hours of stomach churning paranoia. I emailed friends who were also traveling in the area to ask them what they were going to do with their pictures, and then immediately regretted it, worrying that I had just set my invisible hackers on their trail as well. I had visions of being stopped at Ben Gurion Airport and separated from my son, who would be left to wait for me alone in some cold office while I was questioned and my suitcase torn apart.
I stopped taking pictures that day and the next, and found excuses to just be a tourist in downtown Bethlehem instead of driving around at night and photograph the incredibly curvy road to Ramallah with a tripod as I had originally planned. The everyday bustle of the market was reassuring to me, and I finally visited the museum to look at old lace and pots and pans.
I skyped with JC and he said, more or less, “it’s certainly possible, so what else is new?” He reminded me of the day DEA agents knocked on our door on Canal Street several years ago because he had taken some photographs of a Federal parking lot and a desolate-looking oil refinery in New Jersey, and the fact that for several years, customs officers stopped him every time he entered the US with a fictional visa overstay story which mysteriously materialized shortly after 9/11.
Paradoxically, the notion that my paranoia could be true helped me to calm down. Since I had done nothing wrong, I pictured Mossad agents spending long, boring days drowning in irrelevant information about harmless travelers, and remembered Jane and Louise Wilson’s pictures of surveillance files gathering dust in Stasi archives.
With time, I gradually understood that this was one of the most important events of my trip, because for a little while I had been occupied, too.