I have been traveling in and out of the Middle East quite a bit over the last couple of years, and I have become accustomed to the rigmarole. But on my latest trip, which took me to Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon, the level of ridiculousness reached record-breaking levels.
For starters, getting to Lebanon from the West Bank is no easy task. Palestine is an occupied territory, not officially considered a sovereign state, and Israel controls the boarders. So for most Palestinians (and for us on this occasion) Allenby Bridge in Jerusalem is the “easiest” way to go.
The Allenby crossing, goes from Israel to Jordan and then from there you can travel more freely in the Middle East. So we loaded into a taxi bright and early and began what would be a long, long day of travel.
First you have to get a Jordanian visa for $60, then once at Allenby you need to fork over another $50 for another visa and $10 to take the bus from the Israeli side to the Jordanian side. But despite the usual discomfort of maneuvering heavy bags onto conveyer belts, X-ray machines, pat downs, lots of suspicious questioning, outrageous disorganization, and an abundance of line cutters, this is the easy part.
From the Jordanian side it’s about an hour by car to the airport and then after what was by far the most thorough (up to that point) body search I have ever experienced, another hour or so by plane from Amman to Beirut.
My experiences with body searches in the Middle East, have taught me a few things:
- They are not optional.
- The female security officers are not shy when it comes to touching and squeezing breasts and other body parts.
Then, of course, there is the tightrope walk of saying where you’ve been and where you’re going. Israel doesn’t particularly like people going through them to places like Palestine and Lebanon, and the Lebanese simply will not let you enter the country if you’ve got an Israeli stamp in your passport. I find it’s best to keep things short and simple and not give too much information. And “Jordan” is usually the best answer.
Israeli customs officer: “Where are you going?”
Lebanese customs officer: “Where are you coming from?”
The Lebanese capital is stunning. If anything is capable of erasing the hassle of getting there, it’s the huge stretch of Mediterranean Sea along Beirut’s seaside promenade, and the staggering number of fantastic bars and restaurants that makeup the city’s heaving neighborhoods.
I often hear it described as the Paris of the Middle East and the Beirut I saw is an impossibly lively, thriving, cosmopolitan capital city. 15 years of a bloody civil war have no doubt left their mark and there are plenty of bombed out buildings, and bullet holes to show for it. But I have never seen a place pull off so many architectural contradictions quite so beautifully. There is an incredible amount of construction and development going on, with cranes, pits, and buildings in different stages of existence as far as the eye can see and in every direction.
The visual landscape is made up of a lovely mixture of wide sea views, beautifully refurbished old buildings, crumbling abandoned ones, new apartments and hotels and a never ending patchwork of upscale shops, trendy bars, fancy restaurants, dingy hummus shops, guys on bikes selling bread, immaculately coiffed and dressed people and ramshackle roads overcrowded with huge, luxury SUVs.
The city oozes wealth, and the closest to danger I felt was being nearly run over by one of the aforementioned Cadillac SUV’s, but it seems like the ongoing conflict next door in Syria has decimated the tourism industry for the time being. I felt a bit bad for our hotel whose staff spent the afternoon setting up a massive sound system for a New Years Eve party that seemed to draw about 4 people.
The headlines in the local papers while I was there were dominated by stories explaining that while Beirutis do love to go out, the local population alone cannot prop up the whole industry.
But the excitement of Beirut felt fleeting and a sense of foreboding crept in as we packed up and prepared for the journey back into Israel.
If the Israelis don’t really want you to go through them to Lebanon, they really don’t want you to come back if you have.
Coming back through Allenby was 10 times worse than going out. The suspicion level was drastically heightened and tensions across the board were very running high.
The stamp you get when entering Israel is a 3 month tourist visa, but when we came back though, the customs officer told me that because I had left the country, that was no longer valid, and since I was leaving the next day he was only going to give me a 24 hour visa. In theory this was okay – although the distinct implication that I was not wanted in the country was not lost on me – but in the not that off chance that my flight was delayed or cancelled I didn’t really like the idea of being there illegally, so after a lot of arguing he begrudgingly gave me a 1 week visa.
After all of this, the next day, when I actually did leave the country, was when the insanity ensued.
I am always filled with anxiety when I have to leave Israel. The security at Ben Gurion is dreadful and even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong, I can’t help feeling a little scared.
Every time, I seem to be categorized as some sort of threat, questioned endlessly, and treated with what feels like distain.
This time was no different. I knew the Jordanian visa would be an issue, but rather than getting mad and arguing with the guards like I have in the past, I vowed to myself to stay calm and use a charm offensive instead.
I had packed incredibly light, with just one small carry on bag and made sure I’d followed the rules to try to speed the process along.
As usual, I was asked to step aside, and drilled on everything under the sun: “What are you doing here?” “Who do you know here?” “Why did you go to Jordan?” “Who do you know there?” “Who packed your bags?” “We are asking you because we think there could be a bomb packed in your bag.” And on and on and on.
Then they searched my bag. Thoroughly. They X-rayed it, took out each item swiped it with an explosive sensing paper, ran individual items through the X-ray, examined each cell phone, computer cord, USB drive, pair of shoes, and item from my cosmetics bag, and then they told me I could not take a small tube of lemon scented Clipp lotion, that I had bought in Beirut.
I love finding odd little things when I travel. This lemon lotion was one of those things. It had really pretty old-fashioned packaging and it was made in Lebanon, which I thought was a cool novelty.
Anyway, they said it was too big and seemed to take pleasure in telling me they were going to take it. I tried explaining that it was not actually too big according to Air France’s rules and asked in vain if Israel has different rules regarding travel than every single other country in the world – of course their answer is always “yes.”
There was lots of back and forth and at one point they said I could squeeze some out on my hand and then there would be a small enough amount in the tube that I could take it. I said great, and then before I had a chance to unscrew the lid, they said no they changed their minds and I couldn’t take it. Finally I acquiesced.
Then I was told that I had to undergo further checks. I was led away from the main security area through a door into a different part of the airport and into a small curtained room where I was told by the female – I’d guess teenaged – guard to take off my coat and shoes and sweater.
She left and came back a few minutes later with a plastic tub, which she put all of my things in. She told me she needed to put them all through the X-ray machine again and then left.
I sat there for quite a while, and wondered if there was a camera watching me… if maybe someone was monitoring my facial expressions or something, and then she came back and the conversation went like this:
Teenaged Israeli airport security: “Okay so can you unbutton your jeans now?”
Teenaged Israeli airport security: Just unbutton your jeans and unzip them a little”
Me: “what? Are you serious?”
Teenaged Israeli airport security: “not the whole thing, just unzip them a little.”
Me: “why do you need me to unbutton my pants? I have already been though the X-ray machine and patted down, by you.”
Teenaged Israeli airport security: “you need to unbutton your pants.”
I finally caved, wondering what on earth they could possibly suspect me of other than wanting to keep my hands lemony fresh and moisturized.
She then proceeded to give me a head to toe body search that included running her hand around the inside of my pants and under my shirt and a feel of my socks and jeans hem that more closely resembled a foot massage than a search.
After it was all over, I collected my things and feeling annoyed and violated, proceeded to my gate. Once again, Israel had managed to overshadow all of the nice things about the country, like the sunny Tel Aviv beaches and cool bohemian café’s, by the over the top and accusatory airport security.
Sure there are real threats that Israel needs to contend with, but I do think there is also a level of kids drunk with power, and a lot of racism at play in these situations.
And the weirdest thing is, I actually had two tubes of Lebanese made, Clipp lotion in my bag, and after all that searching and X-raying, they only took one.