“Stand aside, m’am,” the woman behind the glass said.
A short, serious looking man walked over, spoke to her then looked at me.
“Come with me,” he said. He had the paper copy of my passport in his hand. He directed me to a sectioned off part of the large room with a sign that said Border Control. There were a lot of people waiting. They looked sad and frustrated. There were two adjacent offices with doors open and a lobby of sorts. The short man started to walk off. I looked at him as if to say, “What now?”
“Someone will call you,” he said and left.
At first I thought it was rather amusing and kind of cool. “I’m going to be questioned by Border Control. This will make a great story, the beginning of my Jerusalem stories.”
Then 30 minutes turned into an hour. An hour turned into two. I sat and watched the Border Control officer, a very gruff, loud woman, as she shuffled through passports and called people into the office. Everyone was tense and unhappy. There was no rhyme or reason to who she called in. No first come, first serve. She kept picking up passports randomly, looking at them and deciding whether she wanted to deal with that case or not. There seemed to be a lot of Russians waiting. One of them was getting increasingly frustrated. He paced back and forth gesturing with his hands and speaking in Russian.
My amusement had quickly dissolved into a rising frustration and impending fear. I saw the woman pick up my papers, look at them with a huff and put them back down in a bin on her desk.
I thought about my friend who had been detained and questioned in Houston upon his return from India. They had put him in handcuffs for eight hours. “Ok, if he could deal with that, I can get through this,” I thought. I texted him. “I lost my passport. I’m stuck in Border Control. They’re not very nice.”
I texted my airbnb host. She seemed alarmed.
I tried to ask other people for help. If I could just get to a Lufthansa ticket office or lost and found. My passport could be there now, I naively conjectured. No one could help. “Sit and wait.” I was directed.
I watched as others were questioned. I didn’t understand what anyone was saying but the woman’s tone of voice was accusational. She often laughed at people and asked to see their phones. Sometimes people would leave with their passports and a smile of relief on their faces. But many remained, their issues unresolved.
The woman finally got up and left, closing her door and all of our documents behind her. I got up and asked another woman in the other office, “Excuse me m’am, I’m very hungry and tired and I don’t understand how this process works. Can I go find something to eat?”
“Sit and wait,” she said.
I sat back down and finally let myself cry, not caring who saw or heard me. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
A man came in and took the woman’s place. He was starting from scratch. He too, picked up passports from a stack. People crowded around the entrance of his office. I realized he didn’t even know my papers were there waiting. I walked through the group, poked my head in his office and said, “Excuse me sir, but this is me,” pointing to the papers in the bin. “I just wanted to tell you that. I’m going to go try to find something to eat.” It’s funny that I said that twice because there was no way they were going to let me roam around and find something to eat on my own.
“You don’t even have your passport?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I dropped it in Germany.”
He directed me to sit down. “Thank God,” I thought. I told him the story. I told him that Lufthansa said they had it. He helped me call Lufthansa. They promised to call right back. He told me to “sit and wait,” and that he would get me some food.
Another hour or more and nothing. The man called me into the office. Lufthansa didn’t know anything about the passport.
“Why are you in Israel?” This was the first of many times I would be asked that question, as an accusation. It’s more like they were asking, “What the hell are you doing here and why should I believe you?”
“I’m a tourist. I always wanted to see Jerusalem.”
“Where are you staying?”
“An airbnb host. Here’s her name. I have her number in my phone.”
“Is she Israeli?”
“Yes. She lives in the German Colony in Jerusalem.”
“Is she Jewish?”
“I don’t know what religion she is.”
“Why do you want to see Jerusalem?”
“I love history and I’ve read so much about it and I wanted to see all these amazing places.”
“What do you want to see in Jerusalem?”
“The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Old City, the Mount of Olives.” I skipped the Temple Mount.
“Do you know anyone in Israel?”
“Just my airbnb host and a professor I met online. We are supposed to have coffee and talk about history and politics.”
“Where else have you traveled?”
“I went to Jakarta and Bali once.”
“Why did you go there?”
“It was a State Department funded cultural exchange program.”
“Where did you get that Hamsa?”
I was wearing a small Hamsa symbol on a chain. I knew it as the Eye of Fatima, a symbol of protection.
“I got it at Target.”
“Let me see your phone.” I handed him my phone.
“Who’s Mohammad Zubair?”
“Aww shit,” I thought. That’s the only time I think I allowed a smirk on my face.
“He’s a friend of mine in the U.S. He’s Indian.” I said, defending my friend’s nationality. “He is Muslim,” I said, stating the obvious.
“He’s not Palestinian or Arab?” he asked accusationally.
“No, he’s Indian.”
The rebel inside of me was screaming in my head. Is it a crime to have a Muslim friend? What if he was Arab? Am I a threat because one of my friends has one of the most common names on the planet? I have friends named John and Mark, too. Is that a problem? But I kept that inside. I knew to expect this. I’m the one who wanted to go to Israel. I’m the one who dropped my passport.
“Do you plan on visiting the West Bank?”
“No. I didn’t think that would be a good idea.”
“Where did you say you traveled before?”
“Indonesia? I thought you said Bali and Jakarta.”
Trying very hard not to come off like a smart ass, which is difficult for me in the best of circumstances, I said, “Yeah. It’s a group of islands. Jakarta and Bali are part of….it’s an archipelago. Indonesia.”
“What do you think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he asked.
“Oh, Jesus,” I thought. I can’t lie. I’m a terrible liar when I’m not exhausted and scared.
“Well, I think it’s a complicated issue that has a long history and a complex future and it’s not black and white and it’s difficult to understand….,” I rambled for a minute. Not exactly the pro-Israel stance he was looking for.
Of course I had been following the war with Gaza. Of course I had been following news feeds from various sources. Of course I had opinions about the conflict. I was well versed in its history. I had been reading books and watching documentaries not just in recent weeks but for years. I could quote Thomas Friedman. I read From Beirut to Jerusalem twice. I was hoping to see the house in Ramle from The Lemon Tree. In that moment, that vague answer was all I could muster. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say but I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull off a lie. I also knew he could tell I wasn’t a die hard Zionist.
“I can’t let you in the country. You don’t have a passport. You could be Russian, for all I know.”
“What happens now?” I asked.
“You’ll be deported back to Germany. Sit and wait.”
I sat down and cried again.
There’s a moment in the movie Apollo 13 when Jim Lovell realizes they won’t be landing on the moon. “We just lost the moon,” he says. At some point I realized, I lost Jerusalem. The sadness of the fact was overwhelming, followed closely by the shame of having ruined this opportunity.
I was asked to follow someone to a secondary holding area. No offices, just chairs and a venting machine.
Enter Crazy Eyes: A woman was sitting there wearing matching aqua shirt and capri pants, with disheveled curly hair, velcro sandals, white socks with pink polka dots and a face that looked like she had been to hell and back. (She didn’t really have crazy eyes and I am stealing that nickname.)
Still very hungry, I used my debit card to buy a coke from the vending machine. I noticed there were a lot more people guarding the entrance to this lobby. When I had to go to the restroom, I was escorted and watched.
They were all so young. All of the guards and security people. Except for the ones in the offices, making judgment calls about who gets to enter the country or not, the rest of them all looked like they were in their 20s. I remembered that all Israeli citizens serve in the military. They seemed rough. Seasoned. They were not messing around.
There was a young, Russian man sitting nearby. He had been in the Border Control office as long as I had. The woman had yelled at him and laughed at him. He didn’t say a word the entire time I was around him. He looked very sad.
By then it was around 10pm. I put my head down on my jacket and backpack and closed my eyes. I was startled by the sound of Crazy Eyes yelling at the short security guy. I looked to see that he had coffee down the front of his shirt. He was pissed. He approached her, yelling in another language. Not Hebrew. Maybe German. She kicked him. He took no time at all to pin her to the ground. She resisted. A group stepped in, confronting her and making sure things were kept under control. They yelled at each other.
“Holy Shit,” I thought. I looked at the guards hoping they were going to take her away. Clearly she was disturbed. “Why are you not bringing her somewhere else,” I thought. “Surely there’s a padded cell around here somewhere.”
The short man told her to shut up and sit down in English. He went off to change his shirt. While she sat there, she would periodically kick out her legs into the air, like she was doing a Sally O’Malley impression. I half expected her to exclaim, “IIII’mmm fifty! Fifty year’s old!”
They took me to get my checked bag at baggage claim, then took me to yet another room. My bags were searched again. Very. Thoroughly. They removed everything, using wands with some kind of substance on cotton ends and rubbing it overeverything. They asked me to take a picture with my camera.
When I was preparing for this trip several of my friends teased me, telling me I should pack condoms. I refused. “You never know,” they had said. “There is no way I’m going to sleep with a stranger on this trip,” I assured them. As the very serious security people searched my bags I was very grateful that I had not headed their advice. I smiled to myself as I imagined them pulling out condoms and saying, “I thought you didn’t know anybody in Israel.” Then again, maybe that would have got me into the country.
A woman took me into a small room and searched my person. She was very thorough (not prison-thorough but close). As she passed the metal detecting wand over my body repeatedly and ran her fingers over my arms, legs, waist and feet, I thought about all the dangers, all the fear that let to this level of security. These guys don’t mess around because they’re afraid. I thought about the U.S. after 9/11. We reacted with fear, too. We treat people just like this every day. Worse than I can ever know, I’m sure. I wasn’t angry about what they were doing. I understood. They were protecting themselves. But it was still sad. I knew who to be angry with. I’m the one who dropped my damned passport. I started to cry again. I apologized. “I’m just tired,” I said.
“It’s ok,” she said.
I sat back down in a chair while my things continued to be searched.
“I don’t understand where I’m going now.” I said to the security person next to me.
“You’re going back to Germany,” she said. “If you find your passport in Germany, you can come back and get into the country.”
“Can you guarantee that?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
I didn’t believe her.
Crazy Eyes and I were led out a door by another young woman with a heavy Russian accent who spoke little English.
We went outside and there was a van waiting.
“Get in here please. We’re taking you to an Immigration Facility,” someone said.
“I’m sorry—what now,” I thought in my head. I had no idea what that meant. I thought, “You’re going back to Germany,” meant getting on a flight right away or at worst, sleeping in an airport terminal.
The Russian girl started asking us questions.
“If…… you…… allergy?”
“You…… feel good now?”
The van drove into a fenced in area. There was barbed wire on top.
“Holy shit-cakes,” I thought.
to be continued…
next: Being Held