Crossing into Israel from Jordan was one of the most [insert adjective of choice here] experiences of my journey so far. By far.
My friend took me to the north bus station where I caught a shared taxi to the King Hussein Bridge crossing to Israel. I arrived and had no idea where to go. I could have gone with the flow, but I knew there was a separate processing area for foreigners (non-Palestinians and non-Jordanians). No one seemed to speak English.
A porter understood what I wanted and took me to a room with a passport control window. After a few minutes the guy told me I wasn’t in the right area. But the porter didn’t understand where to go. I found a young guy who seemed to work there and asked him for help. He asked around and finally led me to the area foreigners go to. I thanked him heartily for his help. In the end, he was just a random guy helping me, not someone who worked there. Another angel I’ve found on this journey.
Jordan doesn’t stamp your passport on the way out. Stamping it there would indicate you left and went to Israel, which can make entry to other Arab countries impossible – Lebanon being one which is why I went there before Israel.
I paid the exit tax, which was 10 Jordanian Dinars instead of the 8 I thought it would be ($13 instead of $10). I then put my bag on a bus, paid the 5 Dinars (I thought it was 2) for my seat on the bus and 1.5 Dinars for my bag. Luckily I had enough Dinars for the journey.
The bus didn’t leave for a while. When it did leave it took about 10 minutes of driving to get to the Israeli side. Then we sat and waited another half an hour on the bus.
When you get off the bus you stop at a building where you present your passport. They issue you a baggage tag identical to what see at an airport. You put it on your bag and put it in one of the holes that conveys it into the building. I presume they x-ray the bag for security and customs.
After this you wait in line to see someone who asks some questions. I was asked a series of questions such as “What is your name, is this your first trip to Israel, what is the purpose of your visit, do you know anyone in Israel, what are you planning to see, etc.” She put a sticker on the back of my passport and circled the number 4. I didn’t answer her questions very well as I never plan my touristy activities. I arrive and figure things out on the ground. I fumbled through my answers, mentioning a visit to Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank (the Palestinian Territories). 4 was the highest number, so presumably it let the immigration official know I should be questioned.
I entered the overly-cooled building and snaked my way to the x-ray machine. My backpack was x-rayed and I passed through a metal detector. My passport was held and I was told to sit down. A lady called me and I had to hand over my backpack for her to swab and put into a machine (presumably for explosives). Once it was determined there was no bomb, I was allowed to proceed to immigration.
By the time I got to the front of the immigration line, at least an hour had passed since I arrived to the Israeli side, and it was at least 2 or 2.5 hours since arriving at the border on the Jordanian side.
The lady at immigration was nice. She asked me a few simple questions like if it was my first visit, what my profession is (I always say engineer), how long I planned to stay (one week), my exit plan for Israel (I showed her my printed airline reservation from Tel Aviv airport to Ankara, Turkey), how Ukraine was (she has some family there and I told her how I froze my butt off in Kiev at the end of August when it the high temperature was only 12C/54F) and then the conversation stopped. She flipped through my passport and presumably she found the Lebanese stamps in there. A couple minutes later, she said something into her two-way radio, handed me a paper to fill out, and told me to sit down until someone calls me. She kept my passport.
I filled out the form realizing that I was being subjected to extra questioning as I had read happens sometimes. Ok. Patience..
The form asked for my name, my father’s name, my address, countries visited prior to Israel on this trip, and any one I know in Israel.
For the address, the first prompt was for “state.” I wrote Ohio. Then I realized I don’t remember where my parents live. They recently moved back from North Carolina to Ohio and are staying with my uncle until they find a house. I knew the street they live on, but forgot the number. But if I scratched out Ohio and wrote North Carolina at this point, what could be more suspicious than screwing up your address in such a big way? So I left Ohio and wrote my parents’ old number and street in the address field. I have no permanent cell phone number so I left that blank. They also ask for email address, which I left blank.
As for the prior countries visited before Israel, I had my choice of dozens to pick from. I decided to write down India, Cyprus, Turkey, and Jordan. The people I knew in Israel were my couchsurfing hosts, so I wrote their names down and their address for the “do you know anyone in Israel” prompt.
After at least 30 minutes of waiting, my name was called. A young Israeli woman of maybe 25 years of age met me and we walked toward a row of chairs to conduct the questioning. Before we even got to the seats she asked my dad’s name. I told her I just wrote it on the form and pointed to it. She then asked my grandpa’s last name, which I answered “Abdul Hameed” at which point she could tell for sure that at least my dad’s roots originate in a Muslim country.
Thus began the worst welcoming I’ve ever had in entering a country, Israel being the 76th country I’ve entered.
She asked where my dad was from and I answered with Pakistan. She asked if I have any relatives there, but I only have one uncle and his family there. She asked how many times I’ve been there and what the years were that I visited. My last time was in 2007.
She asked where I live, to which I replied nowhere. I don’t think she’d ever heard that before, at which point she gave me the disclaimer “I can tell you aren’t happy with this questioning. We have to do this for security and your compliance is necessary to enter the State of Israel.”
I explained that I really don’t live anywhere, that I’ve been completely truthful up until now, and that yes, I wasn’t pleased with the way this was going. I pointed to the number 75, which she wrote down at the top of the paper representing the number of countries I’ve been to. I told her I’ve entered many countries so far, none with any hassle like this. She said “Welcome to Israel,” but in a sarcastic way, not a “we’re done, welcome and go on your merry way to Jerusalem.” She probably wasn’t any happier asking these questions than I was answering them.
We then went through all the places I’ve lived my entire adult life and where I’ve visited (just the areas of the world). She then asked where I’ve visited in the Middle East. The Middle East has many definitions so I asked her to clarify her definition of the Middle East (which probably fueled her suspicion that I was being a jerk, but there is more than one way to define the Middle East). Her reply was unabashedly biased as her reply “Anywhere Arabic is spoken and all those -stan countries.” I replied with Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Pakistan.
She asked if I’ve been to Iran. I said “No, but I really want to [for the record, this is the wrong answer to give. I temporarily suspended my disbelief in how stupid the whole situation was since we were talking about traveling and got excited for a minute]. I told her that as an American it’s very hard to get a visa and even then it’s very expensive to go there for us.
I then had to explain what I’ve studied (MBA and computer engineering). I should note that during such a questioning, even though I know I have done nothing wrong, you can’t help but be hyper sensitive about your answers. For example, when I said I studied computer engineering I couldn’t help but think “maybe she thinks I’d be good at making bomb electronics since I studied electrical and computer engineering.” I know nothing about such electronics, but you never know what the other party is thinking or how he/she may misconstrue your answers. I learned that paranoia is contagious and I had caught it from her.
I explained why I gave up my life in Denmark, what I’ve done on this trip, gave her my business card, etc. In most countries they’d be happy to hear I’m a volunteer. Not here. I was questioned several times about my volunteering activities, heaven forbid I was an activist of some kind. Nope, I’m the kind of volunteer that cleans poop and pee from dog cages. She asked if I planned to volunteer in Israel. I said no.
She asked me what my religion was. This really caught me off guard as I felt it was quite inappropriate to ask, but in all fairness other countries ask you to disclose your religion when applying for a visa (India for example). Still, considering that I was entering an allied country, one I don’t require a visa for, I felt this was too invasive. It’s also a question I don’t have a black and white answer to. My parents belong to two different faiths, I wasn’t raised belong to either one as my parents felt it was my and my brother’s choice what to believe. I’ve spent more time in Buddhist Temples than I have in mosques or churches. So, once again I didn’t have a straight answer for her. I just said I was spiritual and left it at that.
She asked me what I did in Lebanon for a month. I wondered if this was a test or trick question. I was only there for 8 days so I don’t know why she said a month. I told her I was only there for a week. She looked again and realized she made a mistake, thinking the stamp immediately beside the Lebanon entry stamp was its exit stamp. It wasn’t though. Still. I had to explain that I visited a friend from my business school, that I went to the monastery of St. Charabel and other monasteries, to Byblos (the Phoenician capital city), and I even helped my friend’s dad take his olives to get pressed into olive oil.
She then asked my friend’s name in Lebanon and what his phone number was. She asked what my phone number was in Lebanon and Jordan. I didn’t have them. I told her it was in my email. So then we went to her office, making me leave my backpack in an open area for some unexplained reason, and I had to sign into my email to get the phone numbers I used in Jordan and Lebanon knowing full well that they probably recorded my keystrokes when typing in my password.
The absurdity of the situation wasn’t lost on me. I was completely frustrated and almost said “If our countries are so close [I’m feeling the love, by the way], why don’t you just ask the NSA?” but I held back.
After she got my phone numbers, she then went through a prescribed script asking if I was an activist, if I had any connections to Palestine, if I’m an activist for Palestine, if I’ve ever written something on the internet about Palestine, etc. I told her that my only connection to Palestine was a friend I worked with in Qatar. She asked where he was from, if he asked me to deliver any messages to his family, etc. I told her I haven’t talked to him in 7 years.
I must admit that she was very nice and seemed to enjoy interviewing me. I don’t know if the charm offensive was to keep me comfortable or if it was because my story is more interesting than the average person she deals with. I don’t know.
At this point she offered me water or coffee since she’d need a lot of time to “check things.” I refused and sat down in the waiting area.
After about an hour she came back and I assumed we were done. Instead she asked me to write down my uncle’s name who still lives in Pakistan. My dad has 9 brothers and sisters. My grandpa gave all ten kids different last names. In a split second I realized I wasn’t sure what my uncle’s last name was. Then I thought how stupid it would look and how “incriminating” it would seem if I didn’t know. Then I remembered his last name. I wrote it down. She also asked if I had my phone number from Iraq. I didn’t and she said I may have to go back into my email for it. She told me to sit down again.
As I sat down, pacing back and forth as the border closing time approached and the hall emptied, I realized the last name I gave was in fact that of another uncle, not the one she asked for. I also remembered that my original plan was to stay 3 nights in Ramallah, Palestine and then spend the next 4 nights in Jerusalem, Israel. This changed though, and I found two couchsurfing hosts to host me in Jerusalem. So I wouldn’t spend any nights in Palestine, but on my website it said I was currently in Jordan and my next destination was Ramallah, Palestine. This conflicted with my story. More paranoia despite being more prepared for this border than any of the others I have crossed.
As I paced, I walked over to a sign and some pictures on a wall. A security guard dressed in normal clothes yelled at me to go and sit down in the waiting area 3m/10ft away. I later went to the bathroom, which is in the same area as where I went through the x-ray a few hours before. It was empty besides the people working there. They also yelled at me, asking where I was going. I was standing in front of the bathroom, so it should have been obvious. Given that I had passed through airport-level security, you’d think people would be calm. Nope. It seemed when given the chance people were giving me a hard time. I then wondered if this was because I’m a young male, with brown skin, and could easily pass as a Palestinian. I know life is difficult for the Palestinians, but this was the first time I could sort of walk a mile in their shoes. Luckily, I was just held for a few hours in trying to enter the country. So maybe it was more like walking a few inches in their shoes. I don’t know.
As time went on, I wondered if I’d find a bus to Jerusalem if and when I did get through. If not, I wondered how I’d get back to Jordan. If I hadn’t had a plane ticket from Tel Aviv airport I would have just gone back to Jordan from the beginning.
I later realized that in crossing from Jordan to Israel the clock moved backward an hour. I knew the border closed at 2pm, and my watch showed 2:45pm. It was really 1:45pm but I assumed I’d have to take a very expensive taxi to Jerusalem.
Finally, a guy came out, yelled my name, and handed me my passport and the blue card Israel issues that serves as your visa/passport stamp. I collected my bag from the next section and proceeded to the exit. There was a money changer who gave about half the official rate. Instead I paid $15 for the bus to Jerusalem (about $1.50 more than if I had paid in Israeli Shekels) and we left.
It was a Friday so everything would shut down at sunset, public transportation shutting down an hour before sunset. I arrived at Damascus Gate and found a place to exchange money since I had no Israeli Shekels. I hustled to the bus stop that would take me to where my couchsurfing hosts would stay. As I got to the stop, I saw one of the buses I could take making a turn. I had just missed it. I waited 20 minutes. My watch showed 4:15pm. I was told sunset was 4:45 so it seemed impossible I’d get a bus. Again, my watch was an hour ahead since I still hadn’t realized the clock changed.
I waited 20 minutes. I only saw a couple buses go by and all were out of service. I assumed I missed the last bus. I caught a taxi and he quoted me 50 Shekels ($15), which was what my couchsurfing hosts said would be the normal price. It was my introduction to how expensive Israel is, since the taxi ride was really only about 5-6km, but much of it was uphill and that wouldn’t have been very enjoyable with my bag.
As the taxi left, he did a U-turn and I saw a bus I could have caught coming. Oh well. It was one of those kinds of days… and the worst was yet to come as I tried to leave via the airport, but that’s a story for another day.