Welcome to the Holy Land

Pamela Olson
15 June 2004

I made it safe to Israel and will head to the West Bank in about a week. If you would like to get email updates while I am working in Ramallah, please reply and let me know so I can put you on the list.

I flew from SFO into London on a red-eye and had a seven-hour layover, so I caught the Tube into the center of town and saw the Tower Bridge and the Parliament building and the Thames. I walked by a park across from Parliament where people were holding long vigils protesting the war and occupation in Iraq. There was a city block of anti-war signs, some of them political, some of them graphically showing the effects of sanctions and depleted uranium fall-out on children. If you remember Gulf War Syndrome, that's what the guys get who are on the giving end of the weapons. In April of 2003, Dr. Doug Rokke, former director of the Army's depleted uranium project, said:

"People [in the US armed services] are sick over there already. It's not just uranium. You've got all the complex organics and inorganics [compounds] that are released in those fires and detonations. And they're sucking this in.... You've got the whole toxic wasteland."

The effects have been much worse for the people on the receiving end, especially children. Birth defects and cancer have increased alarmingly in Iraq since the first Gulf War, and evidence increasingly suggests it is due to the depleted uranium weapons used by the US. One photo that struck me particularly was a smiling little bald girl with childhood leukemia, recently released from a hospital not because she was cured but because they had run out of medicine.

It was heartening anyway to see grassroots resistance to the war so strong in this "democratic" headliner of the Coalition of the "Willing."

I stopped off at a hole-in-the-wall tea shop for lunch, and the menu read:

    egg and chips
    bacon and chips
    egg and bacon
    egg, bacon, and chips
    egg, bacon, sausage, and chips
    egg and tomato
    egg, tomato, and chips
    egg, sausage, and bacon
    ham, egg, bacon, and spam
    egg, bacon, sausage, and spam
    spam, egg, bacon, and spam...

Not precisely that, but close enough to make me giggle.

After a second red-eye to Tel Aviv, I arrived at 1:00 a.m. at Ben Gurion airport, where I made the mistake of answering the questions at passport control semi-honestly. (Yes, I was staying for more than a month, and yes, I had been to non-Israel Middle Eastern countries before). Red flags were raised and I was asked to wait until everyone else had been waved through. Then I was asked to wait some more next to the security office.

There were at least twenty security people wandering around looking extremely bored, drinking coffee, gossiping, vacantly watching the arrivals screen as it blinked and changed every five minutes, and very occasionally questioning people.

There were never more than five people waiting around to be checked, and most of them came and went while I and a French man who had been born in Algeria, taught math in Turkey, and now was planning to tutor math in Israel for ten days, were held, our baggage and documents confiscated. We were never told what the problem was or what we were waiting for, we were not questioned, we were just held. After half an hour, the French man was already complaining. I'd been expecting it, so it took me until the two-hour mark to get frustrated.

I finally asked them if there was a problem, if I could do anything to speed things up.

"Just wait," they answered,

"Is it my baggage? Can I help in any way?"

"Just wait."

"It's been two hours already."

"Just wait."

After that they came every twenty minutes or so to ask me a couple of inane questions.

"How long did you spend in Egypt?"

"About a month."

"OK, and what did you do there?"

"I visited Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and Dahab."

"Do you have any friends there?"

"I know one person there from university."

"OK, thank you."

Twenty minutes later: "What was the nature of your visit to Syria?"

"Just as a tourist."

"And where did you visit?"

"Damascus, Palmyra, and Aleppo."

"And do you know anyone there?"

"A friend of mine has family there."

"And did they ask you to deliver anything to friends or family members in Israel?"

"Yes, they gave me some bulky belts and mysterious cannisters and tubes to deliver to the Gaza Strip. Can you point me in the right direction please?"

Actually I said, "No."

"Do they have family members in Israel?"

"Not that I know of."

"OK, thank you."

Half an hour later, "So are you a student, do you work?"

"I graduated a couple of years ago and have worked since then."

"Who replaced you when you left your work?"

"Er... I don't know."

"So did you just quit?"


"Why didn't you just take a long vacation from it?"

"Um... I can find another job."

"OK, thank you."

Twenty minutes later: "How long did you spend in Egypt?"

"About a month."

"OK, thank you."

The French guy was already getting apoplectic when another woman approached him and asked him the same insinuating questions for the fifth time.

He said, "I already told you! I already told someone over zere! I am here as a teacher, not a terrorist! I am just a teacher, why do you do zis to me?"

The woman said, "You told the police, but I am security. I don't know what you told them. I want you to tell me."

"Zis is ridiculous!"

"Sir, it is not helping for you to be upset. Just do what I say and we can finish."

"It has been two hours! Everyone else is through, you hold only me! Why? Just because I have been to Arabic countries?"

It took ages to calm him down, and any minute I expected him to walk out and catch a plane back to Turkey.

After nearly four hours, the French man and I were cleared simultaneously for passage, and we grabbed our documents and passed through the gates, only to be met by yet another layer of 'security' who took our passports again.

"I am head of security," she said, "and I want to ask you a few questions. Sir, what is the nature of your visit to Israel?"

He was simply stunned. Meanwhile someone had carted his baggage to him and he saw that it had been ripped open, the zipper broken. He stared and said flatly, "I told security already everything. Why is my bag like zis? I want to complain."

"Sir, which airline did you come on?"

"What? Turkish Airlines. Why?"

"OK, you can complain to them at their desk later. First I must ask you a few questions."

I winced, figuring the veins in his head would finally explode. After more quiet bursts of outrage, he was waved aside and detained some more while I got my last interrogation.

"What is the nature of your visit to Israel?"

"What was the purpose of your visit to Syria?"

"Why did you go to Lebanon? It is not a normal touristy place like Spain or Italy."

"Why did you travel in the Middle East? What is interesting to you?"

"How long did you stay in Syria?"

"What was the nature of your visit to Egypt?"

"Did you make any friends in the Middle East? Do you keep in contact with any of them? Do any of them have family in Israel?"

I was so relieved I was actually being talked to and given a chance to explain myself that I felt almost grateful. I answered as inanely and politely as possible. I told her I came to the Middle East because I like history and deserts, and I don't speak any Arabic, so it was hard to make any friends in the Middle East. I had met some nice tourists, though. She seemed pleased, gave me my passport back, and waved me through.

I found my baggage and discovered that at least one had been unpacked and repacked, which surely didn't take four hours. Meanwhile they never asked me even to open my heavy, bulky carry-on. It passed through the whole song and dance unchecked.

Anyway I was just grateful they didn't freak out about my Arabic textbook or discover the Palestinian scarf I had stuffed in some folded wool socks. A very nice woman at the information desk let me borrow her phone and call my Russian-Israeli friend Dan, and he came to pick me up at about 5:20 a.m., God bless him. We'll travel to Eilat, hang out for a few days, and then I'll head to Palestine.

Again, please reply if you would like updates from Ramallah. If you know anyone else who might like to get the updates, feel free to pass this on. Have a great summer everyone.


P.S. Anyone in Israel or Palestine or Jordan this summer, I'd love to visit you or invite you to the West Bank some time. Please keep in touch!

Next: Sinai Lite

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