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!”