April 5, 2009

Miserable Border Crossing: Amman to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Bus - Part II
Tel Aviv, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Previously: Part One

Flirtatious Immigration Interview

I decided against handing over my backpack just to see if I could get away with it. I hate being separated from my belongings, and after dozens upon dozens of flights I've yet to check my bag under a plane. It didn't seem to be an issue as a few others with carry-on-sized bags happily sidestepped the baggage line a proceeded directly to the line queuing for the x-ray, metal detector and chemical-puffing/sniffing processing station. (yeesh)

A turn of the corner and the buzz of conversation and the shuffling of paperwork filled the large rectangular hall, with me (any many others) at the long end of things. In front of me were the gatekeepers—about a half dozen booths with young Israeli female soldiers, interviewing/profiling and occasionally stamping paperwork.

I'd read how invasive and time-consuming some of the interviews could be, and decided long before the day started that, should I get a female interviewer, I'd be laying on the charm extra thick to hopefully expedite the process.

Luckily for me, all the booth officers were women. Terribly young women (maybe 19 years old, if that). In uniform. …Hot.

Now, any successful womanizer worth his salt knows exactly what to look for in a room full opportunity when he absolutely needs results. It might not even be something she's doing, but just a type he's been consistently successful with before. He knows what works for him.

Some of his approaches are spoken, some are physically felt, and others are just visually absorbed. Be it the casual manipulation of the subject of focus or the speed of conversation, he's got an agenda and knows how to push it using levity, alcohol or whatever else he might have in his personal toolbox.

I took five or ten seconds to size up the length of the lines and the women working in them before I made my choice—a little prospective profiling of my own.

As I waited patiently in the slowly moving line, I peripherally observed just how rough a time people were having with the women at the windows. Regardless of gender, age or social traveler class, people were scrambling to produce information from pockets or from within folders busting with documents. Even those that looked quite prepared were being asked to produce bank account information, onward flight tickets and all sorts of paperwork that I could only guess at the nature of. Several people were visually distressed at the situation.

Americans, Europeans—everyone—was getting meticulously grilled.

So I turned it on, and then really cranked it up when she responded the way I'd hoped she would. Her coworker in the shared booth practically stopped processing the person she was interacting with to get in on the conversation. Periodically, she'd force herself to fill out the little bits of information she was required to ask.

Ultimately I relinquished my passport and received some paperwork to fill out in return. I seemed to get off much easier than anyone else I saw around me, but even still, there were several questions asked that needed to have quick and competent answers given in return.

Another Middle Eastern Immigration Waiting Game

It was 12:50 p.m. by the time all was said and done with my initial profiling interview. I idled patiently, with absolutely nothing to do but sit on a hard plastic seat and watch the ebb and flow of people as the buses dropped off wave after wave of passengers to process—perking up like a puppy chained in front of a restaurant every time a guard came wandering around with a stack of passports to match to people.

I nibbled on the pita bread and cheese that I'd brought and slowly counted minutes as they turned into hours…

The only people I recognized around me were a few young travelers who'd arrived about the same time as me, also with Arab stamps in their passports to explain.

I was growing annoyed with the lack of time it took for the green passport holders—the Palestinians—to receive their clearance and cross through the barrier of booths that I'd interviewed at so long ago.

Over 90% of the people transiting through the checkpoint were clearly Islamic Arabs. If their clothing, speech, behavior and aroma didn't give them away, then certainly the giant water jugs filled to the brim each was carrying certainly was.

Rather perplexed at the steady stream of Muslims with containers of water, I finally got up and stopped a passing Israeli soldier to ask what the deal was with the water (after taking a very discreet snapshot of the spectacle).

She replied that it was "Islamic holy water from Zamzam. All these people are coming from Mecca," she quickly elaborated in a thick accent before walking off.

The Well of Zamzam is a well located within Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. According to Islamic belief, it was a miraculously-generated source of water from Allah (God) which began thousands of years ago when Ibrahim's infant son Ismael was thirsty and kept crying for water and was kicking at the ground when water gushed out. Millions of pilgrims visit the well each year while performing pilgrimages in order to drink its water. Sodium chloride (common salt) is in excess in Zamzam making it taste salty. Muslims believe that Zamzam is beneficial for health. By Saudi law, the water cannot be sold outside of the kingdom, but because of strong demand there is a thriving market in fake Zamzam water in other countries.

Immigration Interrogation

I could identify my battered blue passport in the hands of the Israeli before he even got close enough to announce my name. It was 3:20. Two and a half hours had passed in an uncomfortable chair, ever so slowly.

"Thank you!" I said with restrained delight, as I walked over to the rather geeky-looking mid-twenties guy dressed in civilian clothes.

"Don't thank me yet," he said with a straight face in a rather serious, ominous tone, as he escorted me to another area with benches of plastic blue chairs, just beyond the illusive imaginary line drawn by the booths.

We sat down at a corner formed by a pair of benches and started what was easily the most uncomfortable, invasive immigration interview I've ever had. Basically, the experience was akin to some of the worst crap I've heard Tatiana describe regarding Latin-Americans when entering the U.S., and/or applying for a visa.

It was 15 long minutes that the guy was digging into my reasons for visiting Israel; where I'd go in the country; how I supported myself financially; where I was intended on staying; why I selected that hostel; if I had a reservation for the hostel that I could show him; where I was traveling after Israel and how I was getting there; about my time in Syria and Lebanon; what Arabs I'd met; if there were any names or addresses of people who I knew in Israel; if I planned on making contact with anyone in Israel; etc, etc, etc.

You couldn't offer up short yes and no statements to the man, he wanted lengthy explanations for his open-ended questions.

More than anything, I was afraid that the interrogation would uncover the lies that I'd officially told and signed my name (to several times over), and getting a swift boot from the border shortly thereafter.

Absolutely no mention of Tatiana or Aidric was made, or their arrival in a week, as such things would've only complicated the situation (and kept me from effectively talking up the first interviewer in the first place).

Questions focusing on my financial situation casually blended with inquires about how I managed to travel in Eastern Europe for so long… which lead me to reveal my CouchSurfing—something I instantly regretted. Now that he knew I was CouchSurfing he grew suspicious about my stated lack of contacts or correspondence with Israelis living in the country, and just how much contact I'd made with the people living in Syria and Lebanon.

I was also concerned that he'd call me out on my stated 'student' status that I'd indicated on all the forms. Merely asking me to show him something related to the university that I was "attending" (be it online or otherwise) or looking up my CouchSurfing profile (oh so easily done—just a matter of seconds) would've instantly revealed that yes, I'd made contact with lots of Israelis on CouchSurfing and was intending on staying at their homes, not at the hostel that I'd indicated.

Tip: When asked about hostel reservations, say that you never make them ahead of time, because once you give them your money online you're basically assured the worst room in the place when you arrive.

Waiting Tensely

The interrogator excused himself after our 15-minute grilling session and disappeared behind a closed door on the wall opposite me.

For sure, I thought, this guy's looking up my CouchSurfing profile and I'm gonna have some lengthy explaining to do. Shit. Shit. Shit.

You see, above everything else, I strive to protect the identities of my future hosts from government agents as much as possible (especially in this region of the world). I'll never willing divulge the names, address and phone numbers of the people I'm about to see on the other side of the border, only to have their information put on some list. I'd expect the very same from anyone staying with me. It's a matter of courtesy and respect.

After a long ten-minute wait the same man reappeared, and asked me to go back and wait in the same area I'd just spent nearly three hours in for my name to be called. Shit. I was back in front of the booths again. 3:45 p.m.—it was getting late. I wondered if there'd be a third "interview".

While I idled yet again, the female soldier that I'd flirted up stopped in front of me as she was running paperwork around. "Are you still here?" she gasped. …Yeah. clearly. Maybe making me wait and watching how I reacted was part of the screening process.

Finally, 40 minutes later, my name was called out—and to my delight, it was for a stamp in my passport, not another interview.

Continued…

Comments:

The United States

Anil

July 23rd, 2009

I've been fascinated by this immigration routine I've heard so much about in Israel. Seems excessive - I thought they heavily profiled?

Greece

Anastassia

July 23rd, 2009

Great writing style.!
Hope to see this travelogue published as a book!
Would be interesting and good selling!

Australia

sam

November 12th, 2010

so is that an israeli stamp in your passport?

Peru

Craig | travelvice.com

November 12th, 2010

Yup, it is indeed. Inconsequential, as the passport's due for replacement in 2011.

India

paduh

March 24th, 2011

Boy oh boy, I went through the same processed. Flirtatious good looking, beautiful young women immigration officers just wanted to dig into your personal life. I was standing in the queue to get my passport stamp. But, lo and behold, I was the only one picked up by a lone beautiful young officer for interrogation. I was dumb struck, was not prepared for so many irrelevant questions. I could,nt answer straight…and that landed me in more trouble. She came and question then she went away laughing and smiling with her back turning against me. After a minute she came again and repeat the same. I guess she gets the kick in doing so. Anyway in the end they just grant me permission and allow me to enter. There is a password that I said that stops all their non-official gimmicks.
Shalom.

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