Allenby Border Crossing waiting area
So for my writing task today, I had to pick a day to write about (all 24 hours 😉 ). Didn’t really know which one to pick. I guess there are many days that I can focus on, but then I decided to pick a day that I’d never want to repeat.
In all of my travels, the most interesting experience that I’ve had with customs was four years ago. Never had I ever experienced such interrogations and counter interrogations in my life. But hey, it is these life experiences that give us great anecdotes at parties.
So, my day began quite early Thursday morning, April 14, 2011. I had to be ready by 7:00am to catch my ride with my friend Rahma and her nephew, Ali, to head to the airport.
Once we reached Dubai International Airport, we met up with our friend Danielle, and we all checked in. We weren’t sure what to expect from this trip, but we were just as equally excited as we were apprehensive. It was going to be our first time going to Palestine (to the rest of the world, known as Israel).
The easiest way to get into Palestine would be to catch a flight into Tel Aviv. But due to the political situation in the Middle East, there aren’t any direct flights from Dubai. Moreover, the UAE restricts entry into its country if you have visited Israel. So, the best way for us to get in would be to catch a flight to Amman, take a taxi from the airport there to take us to the Allenby border crossing between Amman, Jordan and Palestine/Israel. And once the Israeli border officials clear us to be able to enter, then we’ d have to request for the entry stamp not to be placed in our passports but on a piece of paper, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get back into Dubai, and thus jeopardized our jobs there.
The Allenby Border Crossing isn’t the best place to enter, as many people are turned away on a daily basis or held at the border for hours on end. As a Westerner, your best bet is to get in from Tel Aviv. Well, on the plus side, at least we get to see what Palestinians and other Arab countries have to go through to get into Palestine.
On the flight, we discussed our travel itinerary. We were heading there to go see Masjid Al-Aqsa (one of the three holiest mosques in Islam), Masjid Al-Quds, Jerusalem and the Old Souq (market), Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity, Ramallah, Hebron, and see first hand how the refugee camps were. We were also going to attend TedX Ramallah, first of it’s kind there with Alice Walker – the author of The Color Purple – as one of the key note speakers. We decided not to mention to the border officials that we were going to TedX Ramallah as well as the refugee camps, but just to say that we were going sightseeing, to visit Masjid Al-Aqsa (one of the three holiest mosques for Muslims), and the cities we were going to visit. We had already booked the hotels we were staying in, and done all our due diligence, so we figured, it shouldn’t be bad at the border. Should be pretty much straightforward.
We arrived at Queen Alia International Airport just after 11am. Once we paid for our Jordanian visas and picked up our checked-in bags, we headed out of the airport and got a taxi from the taxi stand. Luckily, we didn’t have to negotiate since it was a fixed fee and off we went to the Allenby Border Crossing.
The drive to the border took about 45 minutes through the Jordanian desert. It was quite harsh yet a beautiful landscape.
When the driver dropped us off at the Jordanian side of the Bridge, we entered this building to go through Jordanian customs. We found it quite interesting that we didn’t have to get an exit visa, as apparently, the Jordanian side does not officially recognize Allenby as a border crossing. It was good for us though, since we wouldn’t have to pay for another visa upon our return. Once we all went through Jordanian customs, which was a quick and easy process, they had us board a bus to cross the bridge on to the “Israeli” side of the border.
Now this is where all the delays tend to take place, especially if you are a Palestinian, an Arab, a Westerner who has visited the Middle East, or a human rights activist of any sorts. Upon arriving at the building, there were about three different lines beginning at the doors and extending all the way to the side of the building. The best way to describe the lines was Black Friday, except people were lugging their bags with them and surrounded by fully armed IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers.
They say it can take a minimum of 35 – 45 minutes. Looking at the lines, we figured it may take an hour, give or take. After all, they usually give a hard time to Arabs, and none of us were Arabs, by passport nor ethnicity. We figured they wouldn’t make much of a fuss with two Canadian and two American tourists.
So my friends and I joined one of the lines and waited. As we were queuing, Israeli border authorities with their AK-47 were walking through the lines examining everyone. As they approached our line, they pulled Ali aside and asked him for his passport, which he gave them. Then, they pulled my friend Danielle out of the line demanding to see her passport as well. The soldiers then told them to walk to the front of the building, with their passports in hand. My friend Rahma and I are now looking at each other with an expression of both amusement and concern, wondering what was gong on. As she’s being walked to the front of the building, Danielle looks back at us with a puzzled look on her face.
I shrugged my shoulders and told her we’d meet her inside. At that point, another IDF soldier asked us if we were with them, and when we replied in the affirmative, they ordered us to step out of the line as well, took our passports from us, and told us to go join our friends.
We were ushered inside the building and told to go through the security check. We weren’t told why we were asked to leave the line, but we figured, hey, we no longer have to wait in those long lines, so it’s all good. Or so we thought. We put our bags on the belt and walked through the metal detector. All was good. As we were picking up our bags, they told us to put them back down and to give them any cellphones/mobile phones that we were carrying which we complied to.
The IDF soldiers separated us and put us in different holding areas where we were individually interrogated by officers who looked no older than 22. They asked us the usual questions, who we were, were we lived, what we did, etc. and a whole bunch of mundane, repetitive and irrelevant questions like if I thought my friend Danielle converted to Islam because of her husband, or why out of all the countries in the world that I could travel to, I wanted to come here, etc. So for the first question, I informed them that Dani became Muslim before she met her husband, then got married years after, then got divorced, and now, even after the divorce a year later, she’s still Muslim. So hopefully, that answered their question. But then again, tourism didn’t satisfy the officer’s queries about the purpose of my visit. With my fully-stamped passport in his hand (and by then, I had at lest 15 different countries stamped on my passport), I advised him to check my passport and see all the other countries I’ve visited, 8 within the last year alone; he finally conceded.
I was asked to leave the holding room, and was given my passport phone and bag and told to go sit in the waiting area. One by one, my friends joined me. Two hours passed, and we’re still sitting in the waiting area. By this time, we’ve seen loads of people come and go. There were others also in the same predicament we were in. To pass time, we munched on the snacks that we brought, thankfully paying heed to the suggestion of one lady who told us to have some snacks and refreshments just in case they held us, as they didn’t have any place to buy any refreshments there.
One by one, people were being called up. The fortunate ones were given a paper clearing them, ending this useless wait. They called my friend Rahma, and just when we thought it was all over, they took her back into the holding room to be further interrogated. She was gone for a good 30 minutes. When she came back, we asked her what they were asking her, and she said, “The same questions as before. What’s your grandfather’s name? Are you a Muslim? How do you and your friends know each other? Etc.”
Honestly, all we could do was laugh at the sheer stupidity of the situation. Clearly, we were being held for no reason at all. We weren’t posing any threat. They’ve already called the hotels we said we were staying at and verified everything, so why keep us here still? It was already 5 pm now, and we figured we wouldn’t be able to get much sightseeing done on our first day anymore, which was quite upsetting considering we only had 5 days including our travel days. But then it got me thinking. We were just coming here to visit. What about all those who live here and have family here who have to go through this every single time? Like the mother and daughter who were sitting across from us, Palestinians, who were going through this just to get back home. I definitely started to count my blessings and started to make light of the whole situation. I would hate to have to go through this every time I was going home.
Another half hour passed and then Danielle was called in again to be further interrogated. She took longer than Rahma. Ali and I figured we’d be called in next so we braced ourselves. Danielle finally came back, and it seemed that her interrogation was focused on her conversion, as a Canadian, why she would want to become a Muslim, who inspired her, and why she wore the hijab.
Time continued to pass. At one point, the alarms went off and the whole place went on high alert. Apparently there was a bomb threat so they shut the whole place down. We were told to stay put and just watched as they closed everything off and went running – walked actually – around the facility. When it was cleared, they opened it back up and were back in business. Personally, I think it was more of a drill than a real threat, as we would’ve been asked to leave the building if it was. It helped pass time though.
Ali and I were wondering which one of us they’d call first. They called Rahma and Danielle in again (separately of course) for further interrogations, while Ali and I sat there counting the tiles. I started to clap every time someone received that piece of paper, and then it became a thing we all did in the waiting room. The IDF soldiers weren’t too pleased with it, but hey, with not knowing how long we’d be there and whether we’d even get in anymore, we had to have something to look forward to and make the time passing a little more enjoyable.
It seems like the whole purpose of these interrogations was to kill time really, demoralize and intimidate us in the hopes of us not wanting to return to Palestine. If it was something serious, I’m sorry, but you’d have older and more experienced officials interrogating us, not 18 – 22 year old kids who have yet to experience life.
Nine tedious hours and three rounds of cross-examinations later, we were finally permitted to enter Palestine. We were the last ones to be let through, and by then, it was 11pm. We nearly missed the last bus into the city, and had to run for it.
When the bus dropped us off, we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, and crashed in our rooms. What an end to a long and tiring day. But thankfully, I will never have to go through this again, unlike the many Palestinians who do.