As I was transported to Iowa’s Polk County jail, my hands zip-tied behind my back and eyes burning with pepper spray, I thought about my mother’s experience being strip searched and thrown in an Israeli detention cell.
Traveling to Palestine for her brother’s wedding in July 2009. My mother was born and raised in Palestine. Her homeland has been occupied by Israel for more than half a century.
Reporting on the protests that erupted in Des Moines in May 2020, after George Floyd was murdered under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. I was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, and later taken to trial. (I was acquitted by a jury in March.)
I almost let out a laugh in the back of the Des Moines police van. Like mother, like daughter, I thought to myself.
Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri is arrested by Des Moines police May 31 while covering a protest near Merle Hay Mall. (Photo: Provided photo/Special to the Register)
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Witnessing my mother’s trauma
Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri photographed in Bethlehem with her brother, Alex Sahouri, and mother, Muna Tareh-Sahouri, during a childhood visit to Palestine. (Photo: Photo provided/USA Today)
In July 2009, my mother, brother, and I were interrogated by Israeli authorities upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Having spent my childhood summers in Palestine, I was used to the interrogations— they happened every time.
We were sent to a room we sarcastically call “the VIP room.” There, Palestinians like my family are grilled for hours about our expected travel and activity in the country, our family members, political affiliations, and even our social media.
In previous years, we were then allowed to enter Israel and make our way to Beit Jala, a village in Palestine’s West Bank where my family lives.
This time was different.
My brother and I were told we could go through Ben Gurion because we were born in the United States. As for my mother, she was told her luck “ran out,” despite being a U.S. citizen who has traveled to Palestine via Ben Gurion numerous times before.
“Don’t you know you’re Palestinian?” an Israeli soldier said to my mother before she was strip searched.
“Take off your clothes.”
I could tell my mother tried hard not to cry in front of her children. But as she was ushered to another room, I saw black streaks of mascara run down her face.
Then the door shut.
While my brother and I reunited with my grandfather outside of the airport, my mother was taken to a building surrounded by a tall wall topped with barbed wire, she later told me. Armed guards were posted outside.
She suspected it was Israeli prison, but she was never told where she was, only where she had to go: First a detention cell, then back to the United States.
The cell was dark, cold, and filthy, she said. Without knowing if her children were safe, she could not sleep.
After begging Israeli soldiers not to deport her back to the U.S., they agreed to send her to neighboring Jordan if she had cash to pay for the flight. She did.
There, Israeli authorities allowed her enter Palestine-Israel with a warning never to go through Ben Gurion again.
Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri and her brother, Alex Sahouri, photographed in Jerusalem during a childhood visit to Palestine. (Photo: Photo provided/USA Today)
Like mother, like daughter
At the Polk County Jail, I had to strip down and shower in front of female correctional officers to wash away the pepper spray that had spread all over my body like poison ivy.
It was May 31, 2020, nearly 11 years since my mother was detained in Israel. But when an officer told me to undress, I heard the soldier’s voice directing my mother to do the same.
Everything was cold in jail: the water from the shower, the handcuffs around my wrists, the cell I was detained in. But hearing that voice again – it gave me chills.
After my shower, I was dressed in correctional clothing and sent to a cell littered with food, trash, and dirt. There was no bed, so I tried to map out sections of the floor remotely clean enough to sleep on. There were none. (Thankfully, I was released after a little over an hour in jail).
I wondered how this cell compared with the one my mother was detained in years ago, but I had a feeling where she was held was worse. If she could make it through Israeli detention overnight, I could survive a night in Polk County Jail, I told myself.
My mother has always been my guiding light. My strength.
I gathered the courage to look at my reflection through the cell door’s glass windows, but looking back at me was my mother, black mascara running down her cheeks.
Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri photographed with her mother, Muna Tareh-Sahouri, at her graduation from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2019. (Photo: Photo provided/USA Today)
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