Somewhere between five and six months, my stomach popped. I found out I was having a boy. Back in New York for an assignment, I started breaking the news to a few select people. Kathy Ryan, with whom I had worked for a decade at the New York Times Magazine, was one of the first. She immediately offered to throw me a baby shower. Did I really have to have a baby shower? There was no turning back. Kathy’s generosity to host a party at her place was overwhelming, but I hadn’t even told anyone else I was pregnant yet.
That night I broke the news to Michele McNally and David Furst, my editors at the Times. The next morning my cell phone rang. It was David. I was hoping he had been too drunk to remember what I had told him the night before.
“Good morning,” David said, rather seriously.
“Morning, what’s up?” I asked.
“Listen, I want to be clear: I will give you work until the day you tell me you are ready to stop shooting, and I will start giving you work again after the baby is born, the day you tell me you are ready to go back to work. I am so happy for you. This is going to be great. Don’t worry about your career. It will be fine. I will personally give you as a little or as much work as you want. I’m just really happy for you both.”
I was shocked by his reaction. I assumed I would be looked at differently as soon as they heard I was pregnant. My editor’s reaction gave me pause, made me think that perhaps the industry was changing a little. Was it possible I had finally proved myself enough?
All the men around me momentarily paused, and the man beside me looked at my face and down at my rounded stomach and instinctively made a human gate around me
Throughout my pregnancy, though, I remained terrified that my editors would write me off with childbirth and stop hiring me because the assignments were perceived as too rigorous or dangerous for a “mother”. These were decisions I wanted to make for myself; I didn’t want to surrender those choices as a woman and as a professional. Photojournalism, journalism as a whole, is brutally competitive. I knew that at the end of the day it didn’t matter that I had won a MacArthur fellowship or been part of the New York Times Pulitzer team or won numerous other accolades along the way. After all, I was a freelance photographer, with no professional security other than the reputation I had built over the years. I had no guarantee of future assignments and a future paycheck. And I was haunted by the maxim, “You’re only as good as your last story.” Too often I had seen that it was true. It was still possible that motherhood could bring me down the professional ladder.
Two weeks later Furst sent me to Gaza for a prisoner exchange between the Israelis and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The Israelis announced that they would trade 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier: Sergeant First Class Gilad Shalit, 25, who had been abducted by Hamas in a cross-border raid in 2006. It seemed like a pretty straightforward assignment, even while pregnant, and I was to team up once again with my colleague Steve Farrell.
I spent almost two weeks in Gaza, photographing relatives and bedrooms of prisoners due home after years away, and Hamas’s parade of weapons for the cameras in their ominous black attire and balaclavas. The prisoner exchange came at the end. As the buses full of prisoners streamed across the Egyptian border into Gaza, men, women and children – relatives and friends – threw themselves at the prisoners as they exited the buses. Tasting their first steps of freedom in years, they looked half-shocked by the crush of loved ones. Momentarily forgetting I was pregnant, I jockeyed for a position close enough to capture the initial moments of euphoria with my cameras, throwing myself into the mix of hundreds of frenzied relatives. As the weight of men around me started to push me to and fro, pressing against my body in the natural hysteria of the moment, I recalled my fragile state. But my stomach and I were so deep in the crowd, I couldn’t extricate myself. What if someone pushed my stomach? What if I miscarried right then and there at the prisoner release? I panicked.
In the Muslim world, women and children were often put on a safety pedestal – and pregnant women were slightly higher up that pedestal. Naturally, no pregnant woman in Gaza would voluntarily be in that mix of madness, but it was too late to lament my stupidity. I had an idea: I threw my arms up in the air and screamed “Baby!” and pointed down at my very round stomach with my index fingers. “Baby!” I screamed again, pointing down.
All the men around me momentarily paused, and the man beside me looked at my face and down at my stomach and instinctively made a human gate around me, cocooning me from the crowd. It was as if the seas parted. And I continued shooting the madness, with my spontaneous bodyguards keeping watch over my unborn son.
Before heading back to Erez Crossing to make my way home, I called Shlomo in Israel and expressed a gnawing concern: I was 27 weeks pregnant and concerned that the full-body scanners at Erez Crossing might harm my pregnancy. Shlomo reassured me that he would notify the soldiers in advance of my arrival. The crossing back into Israel from Gaza entailed an intensive security procedure in anticipation of suicide attacks. The entire border crossing is partitioned into cubes of bulletproof glass, with a series of heavy electronic doors that the Israelis open and close once the passerby’s identity has been confirmed. There is a traditional luggage belt for luggage, which is handled by a Palestinian. All Israeli soldiers monitoring the movement of people passing from Gaza into Israel are standing out of harm’s way, on a glassed-in balcony overlooking the entire security area. They communicate through an intercom system as they watch from above. You can see them, and they can see you, and you could potentially shout up to them in a raised voice, but the intercom stands in for any personal contact. Everyone must cross through the first metal detector and bulletproof gate and into an advanced full-body scanner; once a red light turns green, you eventually pass through a final gate and on to collect luggage off the belt, then through immigration on the other side of the security area. An American AP photographer based in Jerusalem had warned me of a tiny room off to the side where suspicious crossers were routed after the scan: it had a metal grate for a floor, so if one detonated himself, the body parts and the brunt of the explosion would fall down through the grates rather than outward. I had that image in the back of my mind as I pressed the first intercom button at the entrance of the security labyrinth.
“Hi, we are with the New York Times. I called Shlomo this morning and explained that I am 27 weeks pregnant and wondered if you could do a manual body check rather than have me pass through the scanner? I am worried about my baby and the radiation.”
A snarky voice wafted from the intercom on the door: “Well. You can strip down to your underwear and we do a strip search, or you can just pass through the scanner.”
I turned to Steve, who was married to a Palestinian Christian and had been living in Jerusalem for several years.
“Steve, what should I do? I’m worried about passing through the scanner.”
“Well, I think if you opt out of the scanner, they’re going to keep you here all day. You might as well pass through once. It probably won’t harm the baby to pass through once.”
I pressed the intercom button again, looking up at the gaggle of Israeli soldiers at a distance above, and let them know that I opted for the scanner.
I went back to the scanner and raised my arms above my head. I held my breath as the scanner moved again around my body careful not to move. The light turned from red to green, and I moved forward into the next cubicle, where I waited for that light to also turn green to pass me through after two full-body scans. But the light turned red again. It must have been a mistake. I looked up to the glassed-in balcony, now with a handful of soldiers looking down on me in my little glass prison. They were laughing and smiling as they debated whether to continue radiating me and my stomach.
“Whoops” – the arrogant voice returned – “you moved. Can you please pass back to the scanner?”
Are you kidding me? I asked myself. It took every inch of self-restraint to not lose my mind. “I did not move. I have been through these scanners before. I know I did not move.”
“Go back to the scanner.”
“I am sure my baby will be born with three heads after this,” I offered.
“Go back,” he said. The other soldiers were still laughing.
After the third time in the full-body scanner, they finally passed me though to the next cubicle. But instead of directing me straight toward the exit and luggage belt, they had me go to a cavernous room with a metal-grated floor off to the right: the suicide-bomber room. A light flicked on across from me, and a female Israeli soldier who was perched behind the thick bulletproof glass leaned forward and said, “Take off your pants.”
“Take off you pants, and lift up your shirt. I need to see your body.”
“Is your scanner not working? The one you just made me pass through three times?”
“Please take off your clothes.”
I took off my pants and lifted up my shirt to reveal my perfectly shaped basketball of a stomach and the red lacy underwear I don’t know what possessed me to wear that day.
“Are all the men in the glass box watching this from above?” I asked.
“No, they are not.”
I wondered if the women staring at my pregnant, naked body was at all ashamed of their behaviour.
“OK, you can get dressed again.”
I was confused, appalled, and angry until I suddenly had this moment of clarity: If the Israeli soldiers were doing this to me, a New York Times journalist accredited by the Israeli government itself, who had called the press office in advance to graciously ask to be manually searched, how on earth did they treat a poor, Palestinian pregnant woman? Or a non pregnant Palestinian woman? Or a Palestinian man? The thought terrified me.