WELCOME TO ISRAEL
Tel Aviv - It's 130 miles from Beirut to Tel Aviv, about the distance between Washington and Philadelphia. But there's no peace agreement between these two Middle East hubs, so the journey takes a full day by air with a stopover in Amman, Jordan.
But for this American visitor, the real challenge doesn't begin until arriving in Tel Aviv.
The ceilings, walls and walkways of Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport are disconcertingly large. Towering sheets of glass around a long, slanted walkway segment the arrival concourse, making the planeloads of passengers look and feel small.
The walkway opens up to over a dozen passport controllers who ensure that the wait for the inspection is uncommonly brief. It also enables each controller to be thorough.
A woman with large, green eyes reviews my passport, once, twice. She looks up. I smile. She doesn’t. She says I must submit to further questioning in the back.
So I’m led to a waiting room where a Jordanian woman is leaning her head against the beige stone wall, and a Syrian businessman is snapping his briefcase open, closed, open. An Israeli-American student glances up at them as she turns pages in her textbook.
“Bakshi!” a firm female voice calls. “Come with me.”
Behind the waiting area is a row of spare offices, staffed by young women in their twenties wearing beige-colored uniforms.
I’m seated before one of them, who eyes me and a form on her computer screen.
Then questions begin. “What is your father’s name? What is your grandfather’s name? Where are they from? Where were you born? Why are you here? Who do you know in Israel?” And then “What did you do in Pakistan? In Turkey? In Lebanon?”
I explain the project. “Show me the website.” I do. She clicks through it.
Good, more page clicks for me! I think to myself.
“Go back and wait.”
Another twenty minutes pass by and I jump up this time when I hear my name called again. “We have more questions.” I’m led to another office. This time two women younger than me interrupt their gossip when I’m led in. “Journalist?” they ask. “Can we see your website?” I happily oblige, and ask her to spread the links among her friends.
As she clicks, she asks, “How is America perceived?”
“Well, it depends who you ask,” I say rather unimaginatively, and then solicit her views.
The conversation stops. “I don’t want to talk politics,” she says abruptly, and then laughs, leading me back to the waiting room.
Another twenty minutes tick by. I watch my watch.
And a third woman appears saying, “We have a few more questions.”
It feels like a round of speed dating, I think to myself. Except slow, repetitive, and a bit kinky since they’re all uniformed women ordering me around.
The same questions come. I give the same answers.
“OK,” she says. It’s over. I’m lead now to customs.
Dozens of people shove their way through a narrow gateway into the baggage terminal, which is guarded by one lone woman collecting their customs papers.
“Stop,” she says to me, “Go over there.”
Another waiting area. What is it about me? I wonder. She didn’t even see my passport! Is it because I’m a young man alone with a big black bag on my back?
“I’ve been through this three times before!” I protest.
“Those were border security,” she explains. “We are internal security.”
To my astonishment, I’m asked the same list of questions a fourth time. I watch my lonely luggage sitting at the far end of the vast collection hall.
It’s a bizarre routine, I keep telling myself as I wait, bored. Inefficient, stupid.
But I grow increasingly on edge this time. So close and yet so far away, after a long day. And I grow insecure.
What might I have done wrong? I didn’t think I needed any visa as an American. Maybe my name is the same as someone on their lists.
As I stew, the fourth woman comes back and says perfunctorily, “I apologize for the inconvenience. You may go.”
Was it really a silly inconvenience, or was there something at work there? It's a reminder to this American journalist that no matter where I come from, I am now in the state of Israel.
The large sign above me drives home the point. In huge neon letters it reads: "WELCOME TO ISRAEL.”