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www.welcome to israel.ill

August 8, 2007

by Nicolas Kosmatopoulos

“The young officer asks the taller officer if it’s OK by now. The latter murmurs something in Hebrew, the younger offers him a hidden smile and the show starts again: Please turn around Sir; stretch your arms Sir; wide open your legs Sir. The breaking in through the last intimate zones of my body is accompanied with the utmost verbal politeness. The humiliation bears a civilized mask; the blatant penetration comes together with a humble voice. Orwell is watching.”

The flight from Larnaca landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at 23.00 on Monday evening. I was excited, holding my breath; it was the very first time to lay foot, eye and heart on the Holy Land. I was nervous too, since I was planning to ask the Israeli passport authorities not to stamp my passport, since an Israeli “entry” stamp on it automatically means “entry denied” in many other countries of the region, like Lebanon, Syria, Iran etc. I caught myself walking fast towards the passport control, passing through the huge and wide corridors made of glass and luxury. On the left hand side, a huge NOKIA sign embroidered on the grass outside was announcing: CONNECTING PEOPLE. A familiar sign indeed, omnipresent at many airports of the planet, could even add an air of banality to this landing of mine: “take it easy, it’s just an airport like all others”. To no avail though…


The feeling of unease at Ben Gurion would not abandon me whatever familiar signs were laid throughout my way. Actually much of it has already been there since the check-in at Larnaca airport, on
Cyprus. First scene: a group of young Israeli men are going back to Tel Aviv after wild holidays on the island of Aphrodite. Together, me and they, we go through the ritualized, various phases of flying in our days: check-in, passport control, handbags check, duty-free, boarding gate. At the handbags check women have to go left, men have to stay on the right. No, its not a rehearsal for the landing on the Holy Divided Land, the Cypriots have only one policewoman for body-check this time of the day. We all smile away.


Gender segregation could be also due to very practical reasons, moral dressing comes pretty later. At the metal detector the group of Israeli men are stopped. Out of their handbags the Cypriot police reveals a battery of seduction: two Vodka, one Whiskey, three Rums. All bottles in the biggest size available. Without a word uttered, the control employee removes the bottles from the bag and places them in the basket behind him. He does it in a slow, almost torturing manner. He enjoys it, the young men explode out of protest, everyone else wonders if they are flying for the first time. “Where is it written?”, “Show me the law”, “I guess we will have them back after the flight”, the young Israelis demand the self-evident: their rights and that what is theirs should be returned back after the suspicion is over. On that sentence I prohibit myself from considering any historical parallels of any type, but the feeling of unease is already present. The next load for it is the boarding gate. Gate 7 for Tel Aviv, gate 8 for
Beirut. Israelis and Lebanese rub shoulders before they fly to their home countries. And the feeling of unease takes an unexpected turn towards the surreal, which will remain there for good.


I am standing in front of the passport control box at Ben Gurion. A wide area surrounded by walls made of stones followed the NOKIA-sponsored corridor. I proceed towards the lady in uniform behind the glass. I bend close to the glass and sigh: “excuse me, I have a short question. I read at the website of the Israeli Tourist Organization that it is possible to have the entry stamp on a separate paper. Could you please do that for me?”. She smiles: “just a second please”. Seconds later another uniformed lady stands next to me politely asking to follow her. She brings me to a room, 30 meters further. Practically it is the upper corner of the huge passport area, which has been turned into a spacey room by a rectangular placement of pressed wood walls.


I enter the room passing by the next uniformed lady, who guards it, having my passport been taken away from me. On the left hand side, a man in his early forties sits. He is well-dressed, carrying few luggages, looks like a businessman. On the right, a huge wall rises till it is lost in the upper floors of the building. On the wall, a TV set is pinned, currently showing Boxing matches, underneath it a Coca Cola automat. I sit. Against the wall. Silent. We all, the businessman, the lady in uniform and me, silently watch the top-10 Knock Outs from the last matches of the American Box Championship. Although enough stuff for surreal escapes is there, I prefer to remain focused on my narrative. I know that in any moment someone will come and ask me questions. I have heard of such “waiting rituals” by the Israeli authorities all too often, although sincerely, I could never imagine that I would be participating in one. Now, the possibility is becoming more than a certainty and I decide to speak the truth to all possible questions. Since I haven’t done anything wrong, I say to myself, the truth shall get me out of this situation fast.


Some moments later, another girl, not in uniform this time, dressed in plain black clothes, approaches me. She stands in front of me, while I remain seated. “Mister Nicolas”, she begins, “may I ask you some questions”. I accept, of course, and the police officer wants to know: is it your first time in
Israel? Why did you come here for? At your passport there are Lebanese stamps. Have you been to Lebanon before? How many times? For how long? Why, what did you do there exactly? Where did you stay in Lebanon? Did you travel throughout the country? Did you stay only in Beirut? Did you know some people there? Are they Lebanese? Did you know them from the first visit? Did you meet them again this time? What was the name of the place where you stayed this time? How long did you stay? When was it exactly that you visited Lebanon the last time?…


It was not until she uttered a rapid thank you that I could release the air in my lungs and breath out again. She left towards another room leaving me behind like a salt column. I felt naked. Puzzled. Surrendered. I felt that I couldn’t define what is that I shall say, what is the right thing, what is wrong, and more than anything where the boundary of my silence begins, which is the question that I can deny answering to. The box matches on the TV were long gone, but an intimate pain has just started taking place throughout my whole body. It was already half an hour gone since I have been here. Next to me the businessman breaths in and out loudly, clearly frustrated. He was “asked” before if he has a reservation at a hotel in Tel Aviv. “In Sheraton” he replies, boasting the 5-star-hotel’s name as a key to freedom. The girl in black asks him to show her the reservation.


She leaves, and in 10 minutes she comes back with another issue. The company that he is allegedly working at could not be found in Internet. “You should check under “
Middle East”” the man proposes, “it is all there”. She goes away again in order to come back in a while and “release” him holding his passport in her hands. He may enter Israel. The Arab businessman is angry. He preaches the girl in black that they should be treating people who want to do business in Israel better and with respect. That he has already lost his transfer to and even maybe his room in Sheraton. She apologises: “I will tell you sincerely where the problem was”, the girl in black goes. “You have the same name with someone else and who we would like to know if he is coming back to Israel. I am sorry, but YOU WERE BORN WITH THE WRONG NAME!”. The businessman explodes and I realise that this will be a long night.


I take my look away from the businessman. The TV is playing something else. Another girl in uniform has come and she has changed the channel. Now we are all watching a reality show, where a bunch of American overweight people are competing to each other on who can lose most kilos within 90 days of treatment by nutrition and body-building experts. At the end of the trial period, they stand in front of the tele-judges before stepping on a huge weighting machine. If they have managed to lose the necessary weight, they shall win prizes and the respect of their fellow overweights in studio. If not, they shall go home beaten and betrayed by their lack of self-discipline. I want to vomit. I shift the look again. Next to me, on the left, sits a young man. He has been brought in before by another police officer, who has called him by a Greek name.

I decide to socialize with real people instead of torturing myself with reality freaks and I ask him where he comes from. He is Cypriot. He was flying the same plane with me. He was in Israel before. He knows that stuff. He is a football player, member of the Cyprus National Team, by the way. He was invited by an Israeli football team in order to be tested for a possible cooperation. He was in Lebanon before this time, as his passport betrays him. When he comes back in the room for the second time, he announces to me that he was denied entry. He has to return to Cyprus with the morning flight at 8 o clock. He looks at his watch, “no problem”, he goes, “it’s in 6 hours only”. I realise that I am sitting here for three hours already, when another girl, in red this time, asks me to follow her inside the room.

Another room now, a descent one, where police officers in uniform or in plain clothes sit around computers, shelves, tables and papers. I sit in front of her at a desk. She would like to ask me some things. Of course, I reply. “Why did you come to Israel?”, “what do you do in your life”, “where do you work?”, “what is your PhD about?” “did you come alone”, “where are you going to stay in Tel Aviv”, “do you have a hotel reservation”, “who is going to pick you up at the airport”, “do you know any people here”, “who are they?”, “Where do you know them from?”. The first bundle of questions produces a full sheet of paper in front of the officer in red, containing among other things the names of three academic institutions, i.e. my current and previous universities, and of two real persons, an Israeli academic and a German-Palestinian employee of a German party foundation in Israel. These were the only persons I knew in the country. The officer in red asks me if I am going to visit the Israeli academic, I say I am not sure, she asks me why, I say because he is in holidays right now. No, I don’t have his phone number, but yes I do have his email address, and no, not with me right now, but at my mailbox.


She goes on asking me about the employee of the German foundation. When the officer realizes that I and the employee were on the same flight to Tel Aviv, another layer of excitement is drawn on her face. She asks me to tell her more about the employee and me. Where did we meet, how, how long we know each other, where did we meet again? Throughout the whole dialogue I try to remain calm and close to the truth. But the same time my very existence is shaking since this is going too far since a long time now.


I realise that I am revealing things very personal and very intimate and that this person in front of me records everything I say with the accuracy, the speed and the soullessness of a machine; using as template the photocopy of my passport. I feel like I am sitting in front of my personal psychologist, who does the most natural thing on the world with the most natural posture. She is asking me extremely personal questions and writes down my answers on a piece of paper in order to sketch my personality and help me.


I decide to interrupt the celebrative excurse towards intimacy when the officer asks me more about the employee’s studies, age, place of residence in
Israel and more. At that moment I state clearly to her that I wouldn’t like to talk about other people in this indiscrete manner, especially about people who I don’t know very well and with whom I maintain just a professional relationship. She turns her head decisively to her notes, whispering something like “we ll get the person ourselves then” and calling in the other officer, the one in black. She writes down the details of the employee, name, nationality and age, and hands it over. The woman in black shall bring the employee over here. I am shocked and I regret giving so much information, since I realise that there is no border of respect, no line of intimacy, everything can be questioned no matter how personal it is. I suddenly bring in my mind the gang of young Israeli men at the Larnaca airport asking to see the law that allows the policemen to take away from them the bottles of alcohol. I don’t think about laws anymore, I think of mere human dignity, but its respect is nowhere written.


The woman in black comes back and announces that the German employee has a diplomatic passport, which in plain officer’s language means “untouchable”. A wave of disappointment makes itself wide on the face of the officer in red. At the lack of an additional informant, she decides to dig harder in my personal data. Now she wants to have my phone number in
Switzerland, which I honestly can’t remember. “But you have been there since four months, how come you don’t remember?” the officer in red replies. She demonstrates how unique memory shall function since I have mentioned to her the time I first received my research position at the Zurich University some 10 minutes ago. I still couldn’t remember the phone, being sure that my memory is subdued to an automatic sense of civil rights and their protection that any other physical process, like exhaustion or hunger, which were also the case after so many hours.


Since I don’t remember the phone number in
Switzerland, I shall give them another one, such as the phone number of my parents in Greece. Her request, voiced through a calm, relaxed and natural tone, almost threw me against the wall with force. I feel stripped. My parents? What do my parents have to do with it? I am terrified. Terrible thoughts jump in my mind making ugly noises, the image of my parents getting involved into this almost makes me burst into tears. The officer in red in front of me doesn’t seem to follow, let alone understand, my unease. She keeps on asking her intimate questions with the confidence of a market researcher who wants to know what type of toothpaste I am using and how often. I hear my voice tremble, I imagine that my eyes are trying to tell her to stop right now, something that my tongue has long decided not to do. She throws the last bundle of questions on me; it is about the itinerary I chose to come to Israel and the one I will choose while in Israel. Am I planning to go to the West bank or Gaza? Do I have any relationships or contacts to other persons or NGOs in Israel? Why did I come here over Cyprus and not over Syria and Jordan?


When I tell her that I wanted to have some rest in
Cyprus before I come here, she shows she doesn’t understand, as if I am saying something extremely irrational, she asks me again, the same question. I am almost giving the same answer, she asks me again. I am rendered puzzled, I don’t know what she is looking for, what she has in mind, but I want to tell her that whatever it is, its only in her mind and nowhere else. I can’t say a word to this direction, I have decided not to provoke, and there is no reason for that. I will keep to the truth, whatever the officer thinks, but I realise that there are so many truths that I just don’t want to mention. There truths belong only to me, not to the State of Israel, they belong saved in the corners of my mind and my heart, not written down and noted to the photocopy of my passport.


I can leave the room, it will take some time to make the necessary controls, the officer in red announces to me. Back to the TV corner, the place looks like a kindergarten now. Three families have just arrived and placed in here. One from
Brazil, the other from France, the third from Chile. 5-year-old kids carried by their parents on their arms, knock their tiny, sleepy heads against the mother’s shoulder. It is 3.30 in the night and transatlantic flights have brought new loads of suspicious intruders. I am looking at this Brazilian family, then at the French family, puzzled. Have they been to Lebanon before too? What shall they be detained for? Why shall they wait here next to me?


The Brazilian family consists of three persons, somehow of three generations. An old woman, a woman in her early thirties and a young boy in his teens. He is sleeping as soon as he entered the room, although I stood up and found a football channel at the TV to keep him awake. The young lady has to answer the questions of the officer in red, who has just entered the room again, with her standard equipment, a mobile phone, a notebook and the unmoved look on her face. She wants to know if the sister of the older woman, that is the aunt of the younger one, is a Palestinian. Actually she wants to know if both of her sisters are Palestinian. Yes, the answer goes. Aha, now everything makes sense, I say to myself. The family is not just a Brazilian kin in holidays, it is an extended branch of a local Palestinian family group, who emigrated to
Brazil and now returns to visit the rest of the family who stayed back.


It looks like a primary case for the officer in red. She proceeds closer and asks the young woman the names and the “hawiyie”, the identity card numbers allocated by the state of
Israel to her Palestinian aunts as well as the rest of her peoples who remained in the country after 1967. The woman, in broken English, replies that she doesn’t know them and the officer in red suggests to call them in order to find out. She is even nice enough to offer her own mobile phone for this reason. The Brazilian niece calls her Palestinian aunt at 3.30 at night in order to ask for her identity card number requested by an Israeli officer. The woman talks in Arabic, while the aunt at the other end of the line struggles to wake up and realise what has happened. Both women at the room, sister and niece alike, struggle to communicate with the sleepy aunt under the patient look of the officer in red. At a desperate moment of misunderstanding, the younger one hands over the phone to the Israeli officer, who talks in English to the Palestinian aunt. There is no progress and the phone returns back to the older one. At the end, the Palestinian aunt manages to transmit her identity card number over the phone, while the older Brazilian dictates it to the younger Brazilian in broken English, or half Portuguese and other half Arabic, till the number is complete and is being handed over to the Israeli officer. Mission is accomplished, she can return back to her office and we all to our unknown future in the waiting room.

Moments later, my luggage arrives. Now, I have to follow two other girls in uniform to the X-Rays room. They are so small and tiny, they look like school girls. All elements tend to this image, except their decisive looks, they know where to take me. We cross through the passport control and we reach another room. The door opens. In front of me I see the X-Ray band. They tell me to put my stuff on the band and follow another young boy in blue uniform to another room next to this room. “We are going to body search you Sir”, he announces to me with all the formality that a long ritual dictates.

The room he puts me in is small, is like a box with walls. He turns me against the wall and starts by touching my arms. He goes over my arms three times, going back and forth. Then he repeats the same process on my back, on my shoulders, on my neck. He is proceeding slowly, softly, almost in a tender way. He goes over spots that he has just gone over many times again and again. He wants me to turn again and stretch my arms again. Now he wants me to take off my belt and place it in a box. He notices that I wear a leather band on the left arm. He asks me to take it off too. He has to give everything for scanning. He goes through the very curves of my body, through the most detailed strips of my shirt and my trouser. This whole process takes so long time and it repeats itself, I feel that the young officer is scanning even under my skin.


Then, in a short pause, he asks me if I carry any weapons with me, or any dangerous tools. I guess that this is the quintessence of his humour, or a desperate effort to make me laugh after being “assessed” for more than 4 hours. I realise that it is not the case. The young officer, not older than 22 years old, is just doing his job, his everyday job and all this is part of this job, just as the case was with the officer in black, the other in red or the girls in uniform outside the room. I am smiling out of the joy of experiencing such a scene. I even start enjoying the fact that a man has taken my body so seriously. I now try to trace any tiny bodily reactions to this touch, forcing my mind not to make any disturbing noise.


This intimate moment is distorted by another officer who enters the room. I realise that he is the one scanning my personal belongings next room. He is taller and a little older than my body searcher. They exchange some words in Hebrew and the younger announces to me that they have to check this metal thing on my trouser; “do you mean the button?” I am asking. They can’t know what this is, if it’s truly a button or something else, so I have to undress, to lower my pants. My intimate moment takes grotesque dimensions and the young officer places the lengthy metal detector around, under and on my genitals. He is doing it slowly and softly, while the older officer watches. By now, I know that this show, this circus is not about finding anything suspicious on my body; it is rather a well-learned process aiming in humiliating human beings by reaching their intimate zones.

The young officer’s metal detector is complementing the work initiated by the officer in red and her “innocent” questions about my life, my parents, and my friends. It is the absolute breach of intimacy that comes here into play. It is the deliberate transmission of the feeling that the state through its officers, procedures and machines can reach so deep into your soul, life and mind, that there is no space to hide anything anymore. As soon as you wished to enter the territory of the State of Israel, your intimate zones become object to its penetrating powers. There is nothing to hide for you, and moreover, there is nothing to be ashamed of for them.


The young officer asks the taller officer if it’s OK by now. The latter murmurs something in Hebrew, the younger offers him a hidden smile and the show starts again: Please turn around Sir; stretch your arms Sir; wide open your legs Sir. The breaking in through the last intimate zones of my body is accompanied with the utmost verbal politeness. The humiliation bears a civilized mask; the blatant penetration comes together with a humble voice. Orwell is watching.


I may leave the room now. I realise that my sense of humour hasn’t abandoned me. I thank the officer for one of the most comprehensive massages I have ever had in my life, for one of the most intimate bodily interactions with a complete stranger, and for a tender touch that no woman has offered me for a long time. “It’s just my job” he replies, rejecting any kind of compliments and brings me outside where the two young officers in blue wait for me in the room. My luggage and my handbag lie in front of them sealed. At first, they ask me what do I carry in them. Clothes and a bottle of wine, I reply. What kind of wine, they want to know, how big is the bottle, where is the wine from. All legitimate questions within the circus of Israeli surrealism. I reply with a stable, decisive voice to their questions, while the officer in red enters the room spelling out a shy “hi”.


They open all my bags, they search all pockets, they place all my belongings on the tables. The officer in red opens my wallet, she takes out all my cards, she counts my money. “Did you come to
Israel with only 140 USD in your wallet? How come do you have a press card? Why do you have two mobiles? Which is the number of the second one?”. The officer in red finds my golden little notebook. She looks in the pages. In the first pages the ten Arabic verb roots are written, in the next ones two transcribed interviews from my field research in Beirut, in the last one four personal telephone numbers. So why do you learn Arabic? She asks me. “I like it”, I reply. “Do you learn Hebrew too?”, no I don’t. Other languages? Yes, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish and French, but not Hebrew, I reply. Why Arabic? She asks again. “I feel it close to where I come from” I reply and at that moment all my body could not agree more to this utterance. “These numbers?” she looks at the last page. “What kind of phone numbers are these?” The first belong to an academic in Lebanon, the third to my father, the last one to a friend of mine. “In Lebanon?” She doubts, “they look like numbers in Israel.” “They are Lebanese”, I firmly reject her Israelocentric view on almost everything.


I can go back to the first waiting room. It will take some time to get out of here. The time is already 5 in the morning and the guards in the waiting room have long changed shift. Another schoolgirl in uniform lays her eyes on the suspects now. I go back and I decide to hear some music. I take out my small music player and put the headphones on. It’s Joan Baez, of course. The officer in red comes almost immediately as if she was placed in unrest by Dylan’s music and Baez’s voice. She wants to have my golden notebook once more. I give it to her with no expression in my face. This person is practically controlling my moves, my memories and my feelings the last 6 hours now. I am delivered to her. I feel helpless. Even when she scrolls through the small notebook, finds the last page and dictates the written phone numbers, digit by digit, as she is talking to her mobile phone in front of my ripped-off self. Digit by digit the phone numbers of innocent people, like an academic in Beirut, my parents in Greece and a dear friend hospitalized in Germany, become property of the Israeli state. I feel my knees broken, I want to scream. The officer in red absorbs all data with the decisiveness of a computer. A part of my personal life, including people I love and care about, are confronted with the machineries of the Israeli Police.


This was the last blow. Another officer comes and gives me my passport. I am free to go. To go where? I move towards the exit, crippling, exhausted, raped. Outside the first morning sun rays warm up my skin. It is
6 o’clock in the morning. A huge advertisement board next to my bare existence announces “Welcome to Israel”, signed by the following website: http://www.welcometoisrael.ill. I must be dreaming, I say. I read again, http://WWW.WELCOMETOISRAEL.ILL!!! My eyes are fuzzy, my mind shut down, my senses abandon me. Still, the suffix of the website seems to bear the sole message: ILL, ILL, ILL.


Creative Commons License

This
work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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2 comments

  1. First of all : sorry … And second: it’s an ILL world…


  2. Pretty Interesting.



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