Detained in Tel Aviv: A Most Unwelcome Welcome

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Detained in Tel Aviv, A Most Unwelcome Welcome is part of the #NoCollusion, No Albania for TPOL where I break my 100 country count mark. See the World Map for where I’ve been.


I had a great nap aboard Iberia from MAD-TLV. Rested, I was ready for a night out in Tel Aviv. Instead of going straight to the bar, I found myself playing twenty questions with Israel’s Immigration. Before I get into that process, let me start by saying that I expected to get stopped. Based on everything I read online and anecdotal accounts from other people of Arab descent who had traveled to Israel, being detained is the norm. What I didn’t expect is to stay in the airport for two hours and to be asked nonsensical questions.

Here’s how it went down:

I got off the plane and hastily made my way to immigration. The line was moving quickly, and for a second I thought that I would go right through. The officer motioned for me to step forward. I presented him my US Passport and stood solemnly as he perused the pages of where I had been. He arrived at the page with my picture then looked up and asked, “What is your father’s name?” Immediately, I knew that a quick exit was not in the cards. I responded, “Ghassan.” Then he asked, “What is your grandfather’s name?” I responded, “Iskender.” “I see,” he said. After typing a novel into the computer, I was told to go have a seat and that my passport would be returned to me later.

I sat down and quickly noticed that just about everyone in the waiting area was Arab. This was confirmed when the immigration officer announced each person’s name, a roll-call of every typical Arab name. “Ahkmed, is there an Ahkmed here?” I waited and waited and wondered if I should’ve used the ‘Americanized’ version of my father’s name (‘Gus'( and the American version of my grandfather’s name (‘Alexander’) instead of their given names. Since my birthplace is the United States, maybe that wouldn’t have given away that my parents are from the Middle East, and maybe I would’ve been allowed to enter the country. My last name, Bachuwa, is not a typical Arabic surname and based on my research, it is probably Turkish. Besides my distinct Arab nose, how else would he have known my background? That’s when a scene from My Cousin Vinny went through my head:

Hey, Stan, you’re in Ala-fuckin’-bama. You come from New York. You killed a good ol’ boy. There is no way this is not going to trial!

Finally, my name was announced and unlike in the US, it was actually pronounced correctly. That was nice. I stood up thinking that they had Googled my name, came across my blog, and that I would be allowed to leave. No such luck. I was told to sit down and wait. Sometime between then and later, my name was announced (correctly again) and I was taken to an office for a mild interrogation.

Here were the questions for fellow Arabs that want to prep like it’s the SATs:

  • What is your father’s name?
  • What is your grandfather’s name?
  • Are you traveling by yourself?
  • Have you been here before?
  • Where were your parents born? (Expect a long pause if you say Iraq or anywhere in the vicinity.)

Understand that the agent is being dead serious when he asks these questions:

  • Do you know anyone in the PLO?
  • Are you visiting Gaza?
  • Are you meeting anyone here?

Now is not the time to say that you aren’t particularly religious when he asks this question:

  • Are you Christian?

Unlike St. Peter, I accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior and said that I was Chaldean, Iraqi Catholic. I am not sure what would have happened if I said I was Muslim, but the the officer was visibly satisfied with that answer and said that’s all the questions he had. I was told that I could go back to the waiting room.

More time passed and I watched as dozens of people proceed through immigration without incident. The occasional person was sent to the detainment area, and I didn’t need to ask what that person’s father name was in order to know the country of origin. I also noticed that many people who finally were allowed to leave also had American passports. Clearly, Israel’s immigration was not heeding the words on page one of our passports which states, “The Secretary of the State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

Finally, after two hours, an immigration officer called out my name and handed me my passport. Before she did, she joked if I wanted to leave or wait longer.

When I travel to a foreign country, I understand that I’m no longer in the US and that I have to abide by the rules of that country. In Singapore, that means no chewing gum. In Thailand that means not disrespecting the monarchy. In Israel that means understanding the need for strict security. However, I would have liked to have seen some common sense in their screening techniques or at least some efficiency. Could a mother in a hijab with an infant be a terrorist? Possibly. Does she have to wait for hours late into the night for this to be proven otherwise? Definitely not. Could a travel blogger and NY attorney be a spy looking to cause trouble? Is that person TPOL?

In the words of Chris Carter, “Come on man!”

Guesses on who will get stopped? A ducked up version of Where’s Waldo.
I’m still waiting.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Same thing happened to me two years ago in Tel Aviv. Arrived at midnight, re-interrogated several times, and finally permitted passage about 3 hours later. I was traveling with wife and teenage daughter (they had no issues, but were stuck waiting with me). Unlike your description of yourself, I’m a typical Caucasian with green eyes. However, I do have Jewish relatives on my father’s side of the family. Once in the country, we had a great time. I hope this doesn’t happen again on our next visit to Israel.

  2. I am not Arab but I was stopped when leaving the country. I was partly strip searched to underwear but not asked to take off underwear (only unzip pants and open it wide, lift up shirt and t-shirt). I asked if they wanted to look inside my shoe but they declined and ended it after I asked that question. I had enough time for the flight so I thought it was hilarious. (I wouldn’t have thought so if they tried to search my anus with their finger).

    On the other hand, I don’t think I will ever visit Israel again. Too many places, too little time, chance of terrorist attack there.

    • Wait till my exit story! I won’t visit again not because of terrorist attacks which I believe they have on lock down but because I don’t need to deal with minimum wage employees profiling me because I’m of Arab descent.

    • All of it is unnecessary. Whatever anyone’s thoughts of the situation there, it should be checked at the door. I’m not there to debate politics, I’m there to party. They should get that too and stop thinking that visitors who fit the profile are there for anything beyond that.

  3. Profiling is the most effective tool in weeding out the potential risk. When I visited Israel in 1995, crossing the Jordanian border in the bus full of Japanese tourists, nobody was interrogated or searched. Looking across the street, I saw four buses full of Palestinians were turned upside down. Israel is surrounded and constantly attacked by Arabs and is entitled to self-defense, but I won”t condone its policy of settlement expansion, among others. The Palestinians were the backbone of the building and development of the entire Arab world in Middle East, especially the six wealthy Gulf states. They are now the “outcast” after Arafat supported Saddam Hussein.The Arabs will never have a stronger military than that of Israel but they should focus on building a more vibrant economy by diverting human and financial resources away from attacking each other and Israel. It is disappointing and sad to read your statement say you don’t want to deal with minimum wage employees profiling you when you are the very target group living in this country that is the victim of ICE, TSA, and law enforcement. Are you certain that they earn minimum wage working for the government, unless they work for the subcontractors? US overseas military also engages in this practice but you escape their wrath. Granted, they are adequately compensated for their work when they are public employees but the jobs don’t require college education, skill or culture knowledge. There are many things that we disagree and do not support but we must accept that it is the world we live in.

    • ICE? Why would ICE bother me? And TSA I’ve written about many times but with precheck and global entry there’s no problem except for my ‘random’ screening. And I’m a lawyer so law enforcement isn’t running bs on me.

      I’m not going to get into the stupidity of the US removing Saddam and the resulting chaos.

      This is a post about the stupidity of stopping me and asking stupid questions because they can and I can’t do anything about it. I hope you read my exit ordeal and comment.

  4. sometimes it is not about question but about your reaction on that question. Of you would hesitate they would be digging deeper. They very well trained on behavior detection so sometimes for you might seen strange question but it is not

    • That, to quote Brennan, is hogwash. They want you to believe that they are trained to detect any subtle movement. Having been through immigration hundreds of times in countries all over the world, I know the drill. Go up there, present your passport, maintain eye contact, answer yes/no, and hope for the best. If I they were so precise, they would let me go right away. This bs is just as precise as Mexico’s traffic light that goes green or red which my dad used to joke was based on fingerprint technology.

  5. I almost never comment on posts like this, but wanted to chime in. Background: I’m a 20 year old Caucasian college student with a US passport, travel extensively (no stamps from other middle eastern countries though), and am Jewish although I consider myself fairly secular. I’ve flown through Israeli airports at least 4-6 times. I’ve never been asked more than three questions on arrival. (I.e what are you doing in Israel? How long are you here for? Where are you staying?)

    The most recent time, I was extremely tired, (6am flight, got to airport at 2:45) and nervous about questioning leaving TLV. Apparently I didn’t hold my phone still when showing my reservation to the security agent, and he asked why I was so nervous. I told him I was tired, stressed out by the crowds at the airport, and suffer from anxiety (all true). I was left for 30 minutes while he talked to a supervisor. The supervisor asked me why I was so nervous. I told her I was suffering from anxiety, had been away from home for 6 weeks, and just wanted to get back. I was asked how long I’ve been diagnosed, if I take medication, what medication I take, and what dosage. Then asked for my doctors phone number. All given to her satisfaction. Then asked where I stayed, I told her the David intercontinental. Her response “how can you afford that? Let me see your receipts, what did you pay for that and where does your money come from?” I explained I was an IHG employee on an employee rate and he to demonstrate that I was an employee to her by showing my email. Then got a “5” sticker slapped on my passport and was directed to the very slow security line where everything came out of your bag and was swabbed. Took about 2 hours total.

    Definitely disappointing considering I am Jewish and a staunch supporter of Israel, but no other country faces the same security threat as Israel, and I respect the thoroughness of the search. Knowing that everyone is kept extremely safe is refreshing, given the joke of security that is the TSA. Personally, I didn’t think I would go back to Israel after this incident, but have ultimately decided that it’s a part of traveling there, and a small price to pay for knowing you are incredibly safe.

    • I don’t accept your conclusion but appreciate your incident. You’ll see a similar thing happened to me on the way out with an extreme twist.

  6. Israel’s Zionism and land grab(funded from Rothschild’s banking $$)/occupying create the “security” problem and then complains why everyone hates them and want to harm them and they need to take these extreme measures and hand down collective punishment! It is not wrong or taboo to criticize their inhuman practices/behavior!

  7. Not surprising this happened. The Israelis have profiled extensively for years. And keeping in mind cases like David Headley, who scouted the Taj Mahal Palace, & Oberoi hotels for the 26/11 attacks, I think they are justified in this.
    It sucks when it happens to you, but it has kept them safe till now.

    • It’s their country and they can do as they please but I firmly believe that the ends do not justify the means and they never should. As Americans we have (despite actions to the contrary) principles that say we will never profile, torture, or deprive anyone of due process.

      • Agree with you about Israel. Unfortunately the current administration enables Netanyahu’s worst instincts (domestically and internationally) with a total carte blanche. Netanyahu’s corruption doesn’t bother Trump one iota, either, as Trump and his cronies practice basically the same thing in the U.S. But if anyone suggest that we learn something from Israel’s universal health care system? No that’s socialism!

        • Lol how many times can he be indicted for corruption and blame the newspaper? Second question: who am I talking about? Trump or Benjamin lol

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