I left very early from Jerusalem to go to Ben Gurion Airport with a nasty cold in tow. I was heavily questioned on the way in and expected the same on the way out. I caught a shared taxi at 6:30am and arrived at the airport at 8am for my 11:50am departure.
I arrived about 20 minutes before the check-in desk opened. Once it opened, I entered and was met by a brigade of young people in blue polo shirts. I was told these people ask mundane questions and based on your responses may pass you on for further questioning. In the airport it happens out in the open while at the land border there was a small booth that served the same purpose.
I was met by two of them. One had trainee written on his badge, the other “inspector.” He took my passport and asked me my name. I told him and then he asked where Pervez originates. I told him Pakistan and asked where Malek, his last name, originates from. He said “Kurdish, we are the same” as he pointed between himself and me. Malek means king in Arabic/Kurdish/Turkish and nothing could have been further from the truth. I told him “Yes, we are the same but you are on that side and I’m on this side.” He replied “Wait here for a minute.” It seemed that saying “Pakistan” and engaging the interrogator in conversation are grounds for instant escalation of one’s security risk.
Ten minutes later he came back and the “inspector” told me to follow him. I was given to an inspector 2.0 and she grilled me with several questions. She asked what I saw in Israel, interestingly not asking about the West Bank at all. I told her some of the sites I had seen and she asked if I was a Christian, echoing the religion question I was asked when I entered Israel. Maybe my life would have been easier if I said yes, but I have nothing to hide. I said “I’m human.” She asked then if I was an atheist and I replied, “No, I believe in everything.”
She then led me to an area where normal people subjected to extra screening put their stuff out for inspection. I waited another 10 minutes and then they asked me to open my bags. I did and they started going through them. They asked me to go with them to get x-rayed, but that meant leaving my open bags. So I refused and they took me and my bags to a back room in the airport.
I left my bags on the table inside this room, stocked with an x-ray machine, bag screening machine, inspection table, and what amounts to a clothes changing room in a department store. I put my bags on the table and they asked me to go to that clothes changing room. I emptied out all the things in my pockets. They took all the cash out of my wallet, inspecting each bill thoroughly, and I had to put the rest of the non-monetary items in a bin.
While that stuff was screened, they did a full inspection of me. First it was hands all over my body, next it was a metal detector. They asked me to unbutton my pants and they stuck the metal detector down inside my pants in the front and back. It didn’t beep of course.
They told me to button my pants up. They waved the wand in front of my groin and of course it beeped. There is a metal zipper and a metal button there. So they asked me to pull my pants down and they waved the metal wand everywhere around my groin and in between my legs. The guy doing the check got down to wave the wand around my ankles and his face was inches from my groin. To say I wasn’t happy is the understatement of this 27-month-to-date journey.
To make matters worse, I was wearing my Adventure Underwear. They could tell it wasn’t ordinary underwear and I had to explain it has special pockets to keep things waterproof. On one hand they were intrigued by the ingenuity and usefulness, but on the other they were poking and probing the pockets close to my groin for absolutely no reason.
Looking back, if I had complied in the beginning with being x-rayed while my bags remained out in the open at the airport perhaps none of this would have happened. I felt it was my right to be with my belongings at all times. Maybe their order to drop my pants was their way of slapping my wrist for not conforming to authority. But I have no idea. Others I’ve talked to have suggested such humiliation is standard practice for those they’d prefer not return – leaving a sour taste so you never want to come back.
I then went out of the closet, opened my bags, and six security people took out all the stuff in my bags. Each item was inspected and subjected to screening in some back room. During this time I was asked to go back to the clothes changing room again and take off my shoes. They checked my ankles once again. Not sure what that was all about but I didn’t like being away from my stuff.
One of the security guys made small talk with me while I waited for the stuff to be screened. He used to live in Chicago and he seemed nice.
They seemed fascinated by my Amazon Kindle. I have it in a case and it’s a bit broken. The Kindle doesn’t rest properly inside and instead juts out at a 30 degree angle when flat. So this caused about 5 minutes of study as did my lactose intolerance pills.
When they brought back the stuff that was in my pockets my dual purpose wallet/cell phone holder was missing. It got stuck in the machine somehow, but I then wondered what else this ridculous screening would cost me. Though I can name exactly everything that is in my bag, when everything is spilled out in front of me I wouldn’t recognize if something is missing. In the end I lost a pack of gum, my 16gb USB stick, my computer’s AC adapter was bent though is still usable with some force, and a bit of faith in humanity.
I repacked all my belongings. One of the security guys inspected my passport as I repacked everything and accompanied me back to the check-in area. He told me “I wish I could switch passports with you.” He likes to travel and we were in Colombia at the same time two years ago. He was a nice guy and I began to understand Stockholm Syndrome a bit. 30 minutes earlier he was inches from my groin and the path of least resistance was to focus my anger at the situation on him. Now he’s a nice guy, perhaps a potential friend if we met under different circumstances. But talking to him about South America helped calm me down. He was just doing his job, not that I think what they did was appropriate or ok.
Once I got my boarding pass he led me to the security area. He let me pass through the back door given that I had been screened much more severely than anyone else going through regular security. I then ended up at Israeli immigration, where no words were exchanged at all, and then I was out into the airport to wait for my flight in seconds.
I had heard of people having all their electronics confiscated at the airport and they mail them back to you at a later time. This was my biggest fear, as I’d be in Turkey for 10 days and then in Ethiopia. I had an address for where I’d be in Turkey, but nothing for Ethiopia. Plus I didn’t want them to take my stuff or copy and analyze everything. I have nothing to hide, but I also have some minimal expectation of privacy.
I wouldn’t describe what happened as traumatic. It was just frustrating and inappropriate. All such experiences let you walk a mile in other shoes, stripping me of the privilege I am used to as a Western traveler and seeing what life is like for the other half. I advocate going outside your comfort zone if you want to grow. In this case I was forced outside my comfort zone, but deepening my compassion and empathy was still the end result realizing full well that my own country subjects people to similar ridiculousness on a daily basis.