‘Do you feel more Arab or more American?’: Two women’s story of being detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion
By Najwa Doughman and Sasha Al-Sarabi, June 2, 2012
I am an American citizen. I went to American schools my entire life, graduated from an American university and work as an architect in New York City. Why was this happening to me? It all started with a simple question. “What is your father’s name?”
“Okay, please wait a few moments in the waiting room over there.”
Little did I know that my father’s Arab name would make me guilty until proven innocent. A “few moments” would turn into a 14-hour nightmare at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
I was hoping they wouldn’t separate me from my friend Sasha, whom I was traveling with. We had been warned about possible interrogations and security checks but were reassured that since we were both young, female professionals from New York City with American passports, it wouldn’t be a problem to enter Israel. It was going be my third visit and Sasha’s first.
Sasha was called in to be interrogated by a bleach-blonde pregnant woman and was led into a small office to the left of our waiting room. Twenty minutes passed until Sasha came out, walking quickly back to her seat.
She attempted to reassure me. “It’s going to be fine. They just want to see if we’re lying about anything.” But she was obviously flustered.
Now it was my turn.
– – –
“Do you feel more Arab or more American?” she asked. I had answered the ten previous questions very calmly, but with this question I looked back at the security official confused and irritated. She couldn’t have been much older than me—her business attire and stern facial expressions did not mask her youth.
“I don’t know, I feel both. Why? Does this affect my ability to get in?”
She ignored my question. “Surely you must feel a little more Arab, you’ve lived in many Middle Eastern countries.”
I did not see the correlation. I have never felt the need to choose. “Yes I have but I also lived in the US for the past seven years, and was born there, so I feel both.” My response did nothing to convince her.
“Hm. Will you go to Al-Aqsa?”
“Will you go to Jewish sites as well?”
“Yes, why not? We want to see everything.”
“But you have been here two times already. Why are you coming now for the third time? You can go to Venezuela, to Mexico, to Canada. It is much closer to New York, and much less expensive!”
I realized the conversation was going nowhere. “Right, but I wanted to come back here again. Don’t you have tourists who come back more than once?”
“I’m asking the questions here,” she replied disgruntled.
“Okay, we are going to do something very interesting now!” Her face transformed from a harsh stare to a slight smirk. She proceeded to type “www.gmail.com” on her computer and then turned the keyboard toward me. “Log in,” she demanded.
“What? Really?” I was shocked.
I typed in my username and password in complete disbelief. She began her invasive search: “Israel,” “Palestine,” “West Bank,” “International Solidarity Movement.”
Looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have logged in. I should have known that nothing I did at this point would change my circumstances, and that this was an invasion of my privacy. Yet all the questions, the feeling that I had to defend myself for simply wanting to enter the country, and the unwavering eye contact of the security officers left me feeling like I had no choice. I was worried I would let Sasha down if I refused and that it would be the reason for both of our denials into the country.
She sifted through my inbox, reading every single email with those keywords. She read sentences out loud to her colleague, sarcastically reenacting and mocking old Google Chat conversations between Sasha and me about our future trip to Jerusalem. I squirmed in my seat.
The Israeli authorities have a notorious reputation for denying entry to Palestinians of all citizenships, and I had received all sorts of advice, solicited and unsolicited, on how to cope with the problem. The security officer opened an email from a friend living in Jerusalem who had advised me to remove myself from internet searches. “They are heavy on googling names at the airport recently,” he had written. “See if you can remove yourselves, not crucial but helpful.”
The security guard found this especially hilarious. With a laugh, she called her blonde colleague over and reread the sentence mockingly. “You can tell your friend, not only do we google you, we read your emails, too!”
I was beyond uncomfortable, uncertain of how else they would try to humiliate me. “Okay, I think you’ve read enough,” I said. “Is what you’re doing even legal? Can you please log out now?”
The guard became even more defensive. “You could ask me to log out, but you know what that would mean, right? Tell me to log out,” she dared me.
I was speechless. I felt completely helpless, furious, and exhausted; I was now entering my fourth hour of interrogation.
After reading several more emails, they wrote down every contact name, email, and phone number they could find. Finally, the interrogator said, “Okay you can go.” But before I could even feel the slightest sense of relief she added, “Good luck getting into Israel.”
Three more hours passed. A large bald man eventually approached us holding our passports. “Come with me,” he ordered. We walked straight across the hall to another waiting room, in front of two small offices.
“As of right now, you have been denied from entering Israel.” Despite the looming feeling I had after walking out of the interrogation room that my hours in this country were numbered, the words still stung with disappointment, frustration, and anger.
Sasha had had it. “Okay, I want a lawyer,” she said. “And I want to call the American embassy, now.”
The guard was not fazed by her requests. “Yes, yes, call whoever you want, after you do procedure.” He turned his back and walked away.
We peered into the office. A stout woman in uniform, about fifty years old, was taking pictures and fingerprints of a man sitting in front of her. Sasha was called in next. The woman told Sasha to sit in front of the camera.
“Wait, before you take my picture, can you tell me why we have to do this?” Sasha asked.
“This is procedure. This is how we do things in Israel,” the woman responded, looked back to her camera.
“You’re treating me like a criminal! I don’t want you to take my picture,” Sasha said. “We’ve already been denied. Why are you doing this?”
“You will take a picture and then wait in a facility until your flight.”
Sasha was persistent. “What facility? Our flight is in nine days! Why were we denied? We need to call the embassy now!”
“You will call after you take your picture. I don’t know why you were denied. My job is just to do procedure. When I go to America, the same happens to me. I get denied from America,” claimed the woman.
“No,” replied Sasha, “No, you don’t.”
After our pictures were taken, we officially felt like criminals. It didn’t help that two new female guards were now assigned to watch us at all times. The most humiliating thing was each guard couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Everywhere we went, they were right behind us. Even when Sasha went to the restroom, the security guard went with her. After about 30 minutes, six more security guards surrounded us to walk us to another room across the airport. It was as if all the shepherds had come to herd two small sheep.
We had not committed any crime. Our only sin was being born to Arab parents. It was then that we realized what a sheltered life we had lived. We had always read about racial profiling and heard accounts from family members and friends in college. We always sympathized and were infuriated by it, but never had we felt it first hand.
Sasha and I paced back and forth with anxiety while we were made to wait in the hallway. At one point I turned my head and noticed the female guards pointing at our attire and admiring Sasha’s pants. It hit me then, for the first time, that these guards were actually young girls, interested in fashion and trends, like we were. Under different circumstances, could we have actually been friends?
They led us into the next room, which was painted white and had an intimidating, large “Explosive Detection” machine. The guards proceeded to open our luggage. They picked through every single piece of clothing and every tube of makeup. They inspected my laptop and Sasha’s iPad, wiped each item with a cloth, and ran them through the machine. They x-rayed and scanned everything—twice.
After they had gone through every one of our belongings, they proceeded to the body search. I was taken to the back of the room with one male and two female security officers. The room was smaller and closed off with a curtain. The older woman seemed to be training the younger one. She would murmur directions in Hebrew as the younger officer patted me in different places. The man stood right outside the half-open curtain. They scanned my body with a metal detector, and it beeped at the button on my jeans. “Take off your pants,” said the older officer immediately.
I lost my last nerve. “NO,” I responded. “We’ve already been denied. You searched everything. Why do I need to take my pants off after you’ve denied me? I will not take my pants off.”
“This is how we do things in Israel,” the woman snapped back. “You have to take them off.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then someone will make you.” They all walked out of the room.
I began crying and shaking as my mind went through a million different nightmares. Were they going to get more people to hold me down? What the hell is going to happen to us? I wanted to see Sasha and not be alone for a minute longer, but was too afraid of the consequences of leaving the room.
The guards returned a few minutes later with shorts taken from my luggage. “Fine,” they said. “Wear these.”
I struggled into them with tears streaming down my face. I stood ashamed and mortified as she patted me down all over again. I had never felt so humiliated, so degraded, and so violated.
Once my “security search” was over, I changed back into my jeans and returned to the white room. It was Sasha’s turn to be searched.
When this was over, two men from immigration services approached us holding our passports.
“Now you will be taken to a facility.”
“A facility? You mean a jail? Are we arrested? How long are we going to be there?”
“This is not jail. It’s a facility. This is where everybody goes that is denied entry from the State of Israel.”
They took all of our luggage and our phones and drove us about five minutes away from the airport to a gated, white building. All of the windows had double bars on them, and none of the doors had doorknobs. We walked through the dark halls and passed by open rooms filled with bunk beds.
“You can call your parents from my phone, not yours. Leave your phones here. But if it is an international call, use yours. Your flight back is at 8 am tomorrow morning.”
We called our parents, and he took us to our room on the second floor. Inside were ten bunk beds, four sleeping women, a sink, a bathroom, and a shower.
We both stared at the beds for a minute before lying down. The mattresses looked like they were made of duct tape, the room smelled of urine, and there was a grey, furry sheet on each bed. We folded my sweater in half to use as a pillow, and lay in the three-foot-wide bed together, looking up at the bottom of the bunk above us. “FREE PALESTINE, I Shall Return—Maryam 2006” and “21 Gaza Peace Activists detained” were scribbled on the wood. Reading those sentences over and over gave me an odd sense of peace, and we drifted into a restless sleep.
At about 5 am, the guard came to wake the Spanish woman in the bed beside ours. “Wash your face,” he told her. She sprung up, splashed water on her face, and waited for him to come back and unlock the door. We sat up anxiously in the bed waiting for our turn to leave.
At 6:15, a guard came and told us that the US embassy was phoning for us. My parents had called them from Virginia after our two-minute conversation to inform them of what was happening. Sasha answered the phone. “Oh, thank God, we’ve been trying to get in touch with you! This is Sasha. We’ve been through a lot the past few hours.”
“As I told your friend’s parents yesterday, there is really nothing we can do. I’m just glad that you’re going to be able to get on the next flight.” the woman said dispassionately.
“This is ridiculous. They went through my friend’s email. Is that legal?”
“Well, they can do whatever they want. There is nothing we can do. They are their own country, and they make their own rules.”
“If only you could see the conditions we are in. I just wish you could come and smell the room.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry, but at least you’ll be getting on the next flight,” her voice was annoyingly monotonous.
“I can’t believe we are funding this system. I understand the special relationship between America and Israel, but there is clearly something wrong with the way we are being treated”.
“Well, there’s a lot of things wrong with a lot of systems.” She clearly wasn’t going to help us.
“You are right. We should all just sit here and be complacent like you. Well, thanks for your call.” And Sasha hung up.
We had been desperately waiting for this call, and the amount of frustration we felt after receiving it was overwhelming. We had demanded over and over to be able to talk to the American embassy, hoping that being American would give us some sort of protection or a little sense of security. There is no difference between every citizen in America, we thought naively. Surely the US Embassy would rescue us and demand that we be treated like human beings. Surely they would reprimand the Israelis for their appalling practices and demand that they act like the democracy they claim to be.
If we were two American citizens in a Syrian or Iranian “facility,” would the American embassy’s reaction be the same? Would Obama himself not have made a statement by now, demanding our release? If we were Americans of Polish or Chinese descent, would we have been treated this way? American citizens are usually given a three-month visa upon arrival. Why were we an exception? There are a lot of things wrong with a lot of systems, but when we are funding one with billions of our tax dollars, this means that we are supporting it.
An hour later, which seemed like an eternity, the guard showed up. It was now 7:30 am, which was only thirty minutes before our flight. This turned out to be no problem, as we were driven straight to the steps of the airplane. Our passports were given to the captain of the Air France flight. When we arrived in France, three policemen waited for us at the door of the plane, took our passports from the captain, and led us down the stairs of the airplane straight into their police car.
“Does this happen often?” Sasha asked.
“Every day,” replied the officer.
Najwa Doughman, 25, graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009 and currently works as an architect in New York City. Sasha Al-Sarabi, 24, graduated from the University of Virginia in 2010. She currently works in finance in New York City.
Photograph of Sasha Al-Sarabi and Najwa Doughman.