I’m back home now and ought to post a few things about the return trip, but mostly this will end up being a rant about Israeli airport security. They apparently found me threatening (wtf?) and decided to waste two hours on a careful search of my possessions and person…
Okay. first things first. I left my remaining supplies and my oscillating fan with my Druze roommate, who had offered to look after the weakest of the cats I had been caring for. The food I left might help keep her alive a while; she is a very poor competitor and was half-starved when I first arrived. That last morning I was up at about 1.15 to get my final things packed and ready, which turned out to need only an hour, leaving me time to kill. I spent some of it downstairs with another of my cats, then managed to get my heavy bags out to the guard shack in the dormitories parking lot. I got to the kerb just as my cab pulled up.
The ride down to Tel Aviv took an hour and a half, and I arrived fully three hours before my flight time, exactly as planned. My original intent had been to ask about the weight of my largest bag, which I suspected was too great, and then if need be re-organise things or buy an extra piece of luggage. My time to do this was entirely eaten up by security. I passed the first set of scanners along with a line of others folks, but was individually directed to a large rectangular counter-area filled with security personnel. This is where the fun begins…
The first agents to meet me began to pick through the top layers of my luggage. Just as one agent was pulling out a Hebrew copy of Tom Segev’s recent book (1967), another came over to ask me about the origin of my surname. This question, combined with the reaction to the book (holding it up and commenting to colleagues) was my first clue that something was amiss.
After explaining that I came by the name through a convoluted set of circumstances that involved Irish ancestors picking a name at random to replace their own (thus evading job discrimination), that agent left but several more came over and my luggage was subjected to a rigorous examination. They pulled everything apart. My new Apple computer had to be dissected (the outer plastic case and battery removed) so that it could be scanned, again — it had already been opened, placed in a special case, and scanned at the first security station. They wasted a great deal of time fussing over the computer for some reason. Then, all of my books — and I had about a hundred in my luggage, many from home, many more purchased in country — were individually run over with what appeared to be a piece of gauze on the end of a plastic rod. Through careless handling they damaged several of my books in the process, which irritated me tremendously, especially as I could see no reasonable fear being attached to pocket dictionaries and Hebrew translations of Nietzsche. Of course, the fact that I had several books in Arabic might have raised an eyebrow, but this only brings us back to the ethnic profiling issue…
As this search was winding down and the agents were reduced to scanning systematically every single electronic device I had with their x-ray machine, another man came over to ask me about my surname. I had made the connexion that Maher is also an Arabic name, and I pointedly asked the agent if this was why he was bothering me with such an asinine question. He refused to answer, and after my explanation he wandered away. Meanwhile a pair of agents had stumbled upon the kippot I had in one of my bags, and a brief comment was made about them. These two agents proved significantly more pleasant for the rest of our encounter — a fact which only made me more angry.
Then, a pointless indignity — I was separated from my luggage (though of course, I’m not supposed to let it out of my sight!) and taken further into the airport, so that they could pass me through metal detectors in seclusion. Why this was not done in the main hall escapes me. I had, of course, to remove my belt and steel-toed boots, as well as my keys and assorted nonsense. The guard then took these things — my belt and boots, etc. — back to the x-ray machine, so that they could be scanned. I was left standing in my stocking feet for about fifteen minutes, before being sent for one last pass through the machine.
After all of this, they were good enough not to make me wait through the normal queues for check-in, but the process still took quite a while as several workers could not be bothered to help and we had to stand around for a while. As we waited for a person at the El-Al counter actually to give a shit and help, another security guard came by and asked me about my name! Fuck’s sake, that makes three times! Then, I had to field questions about why I was learning Arabic, and whether I already spoke the language. Some smart-arse asked me if I knew a particular word, repeating it twice so I would be sure to hear it. I said no, that I had a very basic reading and vocabulary level. He then neglected to tell me what the word was, but when pressed said that it was “not nice”. I took this to mean that he had said something insulting or offensive, perhaps as a way to provoke me. I questioned the other security guard about this, and he waffled — trying to explain that they only wanted to know if I really spoke Arabic. That cinched it for me; they had been trying to upset me by saying something cheeky. Bastards.
When my bag finally reached the scale it was, as expected, too heavy. I had to pay a $25 penalty but they did take it. El-Al would, however, fail to transfer the bag to my other ‘plane in Frankfurt and I had to wait three more days to get it, so that $25 seems to have bought me nothing. Finally on the other side of the security details with boarding pass in my hand, and with the security man who had been escorting me gone, I was able to scarf down a very quick breakfast and make one last telephone call before turning in my Israeli ‘phone. I had planned on being able to take a leisurely breakfast and actually digest something, but was instead left with only enough time to wolf down a slice of pizza and run for my terminal gate. As a finally good-bye insult, when boarding the ‘plane my ticket flagged something on their computer, and I was detained until someone came over and cleared it. Fucking lovely.
Now, as a basically ‘white’ European-American, I am accustomed to having been born armed to the teeth with the weapons of racial privilege. This, as a matter of principle, is a problem for me, and I try to steer myself in such a way as to mitigate their impact so far as possible. I do not approve of judgements being based upon tribal loyalties or kinship biases, and while I am helpless to prevent it, I still may consciously reject the notion. This experience has proven a perfect validation of my ethical position. My troubles with security appear to have been sparked by two simple factors: my surname having an Arabic equivalent, and my presence in Israel as a foreign student of Arabic (and Hebrew). An outsider who, not “knowing what it’s really like to be an Israeli”, might have some sympathy for the other half is nuisance enough; but one who might be an Arab himself, and therefore a clear sympathizer, ah, now there’s a person worth hassling!
Anyroad… the first leg of my return flight was miserable. The El-Al jet was cramped, and I had someone sitting beside me the whole way, and no freedom to do much of anything. By the time I got to Frankfurt I was truly miserable, and before leaving Germany had paid an extra fee to make sure that I would be left in peace for the much longer flight to California.
The time in Germany was very brief — quite unlike my strike-induced extended stay the first time, and I never had to pass customs or immigration. Unfortunately, since I was moving from an arrivals gate to a departures gate, I was never in the main area of the airport and thus had no place to get something proper to eat. I settled for a tolerable machiatto and a couple of muffins, and bought a couple more periodicals in a small shoppe. Leaving Germany was, by comparison to Israel, a simple and bitter-sweet affair — I would have been happier to stay longer, whereas in Ben Gurion Airport I was infuriated and eager to depart.
The return flight was, of course, interminably long — about 11 hours — and since I cannot sleep at all in public, I found plenty of things to occupy my time. I lucked into a Boeing 777, so I had the tiny screen in the back of the seat in front of me on which to watch my own choice of movies (from a group of eight). I saw the two kiddie films, Nim’s Island and Kung Fu Panda, both of which looked better than the other choices and proved to be quite enjoyable, as well as the mostly lousy Jack Black film Be Kind Rewind. That ate up close to half of the time; the rest I spent reading through the stack of periodicals I was carrying.
All right, enough of this boring trivia. You are free to go and find something more worthwhile to do with your time.