The border between Israel and Jordan is impossible to miss. A twenty meter mine field ending with a ten meter fence, covered with razor barbed wire from top to bottom. On both sides. After a first security check we got to passport control. I knew that evidence of travel to places like Iran and Lebanon could cause some delays. But I had no idea what was in store for me.
I Am Not Normal
The woman behind the desk immediately noticed my old visa for Pakistan. I was asked for all my email addresses and phone numbers, and directed to a small spartan office for an interview. Bad start.
For about half an hour, I was asked details about my last trips to the Middle East and Pakistan, and the names and phone numbers of any friends in Israel. The lady behind the desk wrote every detail on a big yellow note pad. Her gaze was ice cold. She didn’t notice the small sticker on the last page of my passport, lone proof of my last stay in Iran. I was nervous. Maybe I got lucky after all.
“Please wait outside while we carry out some security checks. This will take an hour or two. Please be patient”.
We waited well over an hour enjoying the sun in the waiting area, while various people walked in and out of buildings with my passport in hand. I was asked once more to confirm my mobile number. Finally, I got asked to go back to the initial security check.
“Take your phone”.
I got searched thoroughly. The metal button on my pants triggered the hand-held metal detector. And so I had to drop my pants as well. Satisfied with the absence of threat below the waist line, I got directed to a small office inside a container.
The officer, a young woman with black hair in her mid-twenties, opened hastily the door without knocking. Inside, an older woman, red hair, late thirties, was behind a thick, military type laptop. This was getting surreal, fast. Hastily, the door and the laptop were closed, with what sounded like a long string of apologies from the young officer. A few seconds later, we were allowed in.
I was seated in front of another spartan desk. A third woman, also in her twenties, curly red hair, joined us. I had to sign a paper in English, Arabic, Russian and Turkish that stated that I had to tell the truth or otherwise entry to Israel will be refused to me. I was asked orally to cooperate. The fun could begin!
The yellow notepad came out again. The young black-haired woman led the interview. We spoke a while about my previous career as a research scientist.
“Why did you leave your job that you qualified yourself as interesting?”
I started to relax. I felt like I was on trial for my life choices, a much more familiar situation. I calmly explained how I enjoyed the creative and inquisitive sides of academic research, and how with the ever-increasing amounts of admin, management and other boring tasks I wanted to explore other life styles.
The senior officer, in the back, my passport in hand, quizzed me about my sources of income. I noticed that the attitude of the young officer slowly changed. She listened carefully to the basic principles of financial independence. Maybe she too wants to find a way out of a shitty job. Can’t blame her.
I Don't Want To Climb Everest
The interview then shifted to my passion for climbing. Why did I go to Turkey several times? Why did I go to Oman? To Jordan? To Lebanon? I faced all the common clichés about the sport. The senior agent took over a few times, staring at me with her green eyes without blinking a single time.
I had to explain the difference between mountaineering and rock climbing. No I didn’t climb any big mountains in the Middle East, and frankly I don’t care. I prefer technical rock routes. The senior officer grinned. She thought briefly that she had framed me as a risk loving thrill seeker. No I don’t do it for the adrenaline. It’s more about the flow, living in the present, sharing a beautiful moment with friends. The young officer listened attentively. The third woman, sitting just behind the young officer, looked incredibly bored.
Pakistani Film Star
The young officer carried on.
“Why didn’t you say that you went to Pakistan?”
“Because you didn’t ask me.”
“I asked you to mention all the countries you went to in the Middle East”.
For the first and only time, I got a bit upset. I had hoped that the Mossad would know their geography better.
“Pakistan is part of the Indian subcontinent, not the Middle East!”.
And so we spoke a while about my trip to the mountains of Pakistan last summer. I took the lead.
“You probably won’t believe me, but I ended up being the pilot in a documentary about paragliding in Pakistan”.
The young officer smiled briefly, the senior agent frowned, the smile was immediately suppressed. I started to really enjoy this conversation. I was quizzed extensively about my itinerary, and if I felt unsafe at any point. I answered honestly that I always felt safe, and that the locals were exceedingly friendly and welcoming. The senior agent wasn’t satisfied.
“When did you feel the most in danger?”
I paused for a second. I remembered Mohammad-Ali’s motorbike, with the broken clutch lever. Windy, narrow mountain roads. A raging river 100 meters below.
“On the roads. Driving in the mountains is definitely the only really dangerous part of traveling in Gilgit-Baltistan”.
The senior agent had noticed the bar code sticker in my passport early on. We talked about my two trips a few times, but after an hour the conversation shifted fully to the arch enemy of Israel, Iran. The senior agent was now firmly in charge of the interview.
“Do you stay in touch with anyone in Iran?”
“What’s his name?”
A staring contest with the senior officer followed. I lost and laughed.
“Panda. He’s actually called Mammad, but since he is a bit fat and loves to eat copious amounts of food like Kung-Fu Panda, everyone calls him Panda. I actually don’t know his family name. “
I explained how we met, on Hormuz island. How he makes a living as an artist in Tehran. How we traveled with two of his female friends. The senior agent got restless.
“But it’s illegal to travel with a woman who’s not married or related to you!”
For the first time, she wanted to see pictures. I obliged.
“He has tattoos! The girls are not wearing a hijab in the train compartment!”
“Yeah, nobody really cares when you are not in public”.
I explained how Iran was one of my favorite countries, that the people I met were incredibly hospitable, friendly and generous. The senior officer asked a final question.
“So Iran is the only country you went back only for the people, not for climbing?”
I had to think. She was right, and I had never noticed it. She seemed satisfied with my answer. I felt like a strange ambassador for all the Iranian artists and weirdos.
The Green Sticker
I was told that I will be under surveillance, and that I can only be a tourist, whatever that means. I asked for clarification, but didn’t get an answer. The third woman seemed relieved that the interview was over. Realizing that this was the first time that I got interrogated at a border, the senior agent even sounded somewhat apologetic.
I got given a green sticker, which in Israel replaces the entry stamp. Except that normally it’s blue and white. The guard at the exit looked at it.
“Do you know what it means?”
“No. Do you?”
A few seconds later a van driven by a construction worker spontaneously offers us a ride to the bus stop on the highway.
“Welcome to Israel!”