'My Husband Is 67, He Can't Be a Terrorist'

Arrivals / Departures: A Christian family on a pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank expects, and gets, the infamous Ben-Gurion Airport treatment; the man behind the Israeli answer to 'This American Life' reveals the secret to storytelling.

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Yvette Khalaf.
Yvette Khalaf.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Yvette Khalaf, 57, lives in Boston, arriving from Toronto

Hello, can I ask you what you are planning to do in Israel?

We have come here for the wedding of my husband’s niece, and also to visit family.

Congratulations. Are you from here originally?

I was born in Jerusalem and moved to the United States after I was married. My husband, who is originally from Ramallah, was already living in the United States. He left in 1967. We tried to get papers for him, so that he could live here, but of course he was refused and it all got very complicated, so we had no choice, and I moved.

What do you do in the United States?

I worked in a business with my husband. We do photomontaging, which is now called digital imaging. But these days I’m at home. I have six grandchildren and I am with them.

When did you leave Israel?

In 1977.

And you haven’t been back since?

My first visit here was in 1984, and then I returned again in 2010. I went via Jordan.

Apart from the wedding, do you have other plans?

I have a cousin in Israel and my husband still has family in Ramallah. We’ll stay in a hotel and go with our cousins to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and we will visit Tiberias. As for the rest, it depends on where my cousin takes us.

Is there any place you miss especially?

Of course. I miss going to the Old City of Jerusalem, where my grandmother had a house. I attended a Catholic school in Jerusalem where there were big celebrations during the religious holidays. I also asked my cousin to take us to Rosh Hanikra, a place I remember well from when I was 10. It was so beautiful there, and I want to go back. 

You look worried.

Just now, when we landed, I was asked for my ID card. I did have the blue Jerusalem ID card when I left, but I don’t have it now. I must have left it at Allenby Bridge when I crossed there. And I don’t remember the number. Anyway, they found me in the system and let me through, but my husband and my daughter are still stuck inside. I’ve been waiting for them for two hours.

Are you angry?

I’m not angry, I just want the same freedom as everyone else. I was born here, I should have the right to go through the border without all this happening. We were taken for questioning, but everyone else who was on the plane went through easily. We just came to visit family and the holy places, like everybody. I understand that they have to be careful and that this is their job. It’s not that I don’t understand: I just don’t like being treated like a second-class citizen. We travel everywhere and never have a problem. My husband is 67 – have you ever heard of a terrorist that old? I haven’t. And my daughter? She’s 31, and she has American citizenship, but they’re interrogating her anyway. I can’t justify that. She doesn’t even look like an Arab, my daughter. 

Did you want your daughter to come here?

Of course, it’s a beautiful country, and I hoped she would see a traditional wedding and visit the holy places. I am disappointed that all this happened again. We might visit more often if things flowed more easily. I am just starting the trip and there’s already this annoyance. And I told my husband to expect the worst and not to get upset, because I remembered how we were treated in 2010. Naturally we hear what’s going on here, but to be honest with you, I don’t follow the events 100 percent of the time, because I don’t think I will see peace in my lifetime.

Neither do I. Do you think you’ll come back again?

They make things so hard for us that it’s no wonder we don’t visit more often. We have the right just to come and tour around here. We came here to visit and spend money. We will keep coming back to see our family – they can’t get to the United States, it’s too expensive for them.

Federica Sasso, Mishy Harman and Nomi Harman (the dog).Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Federica Sasso, 37; Mishy Harman, 32; and Nomi Harman (the dog), 7; live in Jerusalem; Mishy is flying to New York

Hello, can I ask whom the dog belongs to?

Federica: It’s Mishy’s, I’m just looking after her while he’s away.

Are you staying in Israel?

Federica: Yes. I’m a journalist. I came to Israel a year ago from New York. I’m Italian by origin.

Are you Jewish?

No, but I always wanted to come here and never had a good reason. After all, there are already too many journalists here. But at some point I just came. I’m a freelancer who does radio. That’s how I met Mishy: networking for radio people.

You’re also a broadcaster?

Mishy: I host a program called “Israel Story” on Army Radio, and we also have a podcast.

What’s the program about?

Daily features about regular people. The program also has an English-language version. We are four childhood friends who wanted to do an Israeli version of the show “This American Life,” and now we also do live – like “Herzl 48,” which is based on an episode from the podcast.

How does a podcast become a show?

We have concept episodes with a theme. For Independence Day we interviewed people in decade-long leaps – 1948, 1958, 1968 – about stories that happened that day, small stories that say something big about the country. We had a story about the 1968 military parade in Jerusalem – through the eyes of a soldier who was in the parade and through the eyes of East Jerusalem Palestinians. Generally we hear about a story and interview everyone connected with it. But in this case there was an idea. For “Herzl 48,” we found that there are 54 Herzl Streets in Israel, from Kiryat Shmona to Dimona. We went to number 48 on every one and spoke to whoever lives or works there. For the show, we chose 10 stories of people from the podcast. When we do appear locally, the interviewees join sometimes. In this case we filmed, in video and stills, the podcast interviewees and added original music, which we write ourselves.

Sounds like a lot of work.

We have a large crew now. We started with four and today we have 13. We are supported by foundations – a Steven Spielberg foundation, for example. We sell the content to other radio programs and also collaborate with other programs. In the U.S., it’s become a very big podcast with tens of thousands of listeners, and the show is also doing well – this is our third or fourth tour in the U.S. We’ve been to New York, Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans. Everything about this program surprises us. The third season in Hebrew is now on the air.

How do you get people to talk?

It’s like being on a first date. The truth is, the moment you share something from your own life, it works. Over time, you sense whether people are good storytellers.

You’re a good storyteller, that’s your job. So tell me a story.

The story that opens “Herzl 48” is from Kiryat Shmona. We had a very pleasant conversation of about two hours with a woman there, and then she suddenly tells us that in 1982, on the day her first child was born, her brother died. The whole story became about her naming the boy after her brother, and then her grandmother being unable to bring herself to call the boy by his name: She had lost a son and gained a grandson the same day.

Every person has a story.

We also had an episode – and this is right up your alley – about airports, with a British couple who are left-wing activists, non-Jews, who were denied entry to Israel. The man wanted to propose marriage to his girlfriend during their visit to Israel, and it happened that during the questioning the interrogator took the engagement ring out of his pocket.

How long will you do this?

As long as there are stories – so forever, I suppose.

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