Two days ago I endured, but thankfully overcame, the three most incredibly difficult, unpleasant hours of my life. Take a breath folks for I have entered the Holy Land. I have entered Israel, by foot, via the most southerly land border.
The bus from Dahab was nearly 45 minutes late. Bloody Egypt. We arrive at the Taba (Egypt) bus station 1.5 hours later. The journey was slow and relentless in mountain scenery (this it the Sinai after all), but still, it was OK. We stopped at at least three checkpoints on route but these were all painless and swift. Taba is where I the rest of the handful of passengers were to go our separate ways and that itself was a memorable moment. You see all the Egyptians went one way (towards the town presumably) and I walked the opposite direction continuing the long straight road not exactly knowing how long it would be before Egypt ended and Israel begun. Thankfully the long road was no more than a 10 minute walk but it was a lonely walk with nobody else in sight. I shortly reached the Egyptian border control where I had to get an exit stamp and pay a small insignificant fee. That done, moments later, I was at the Israel border and this is where it began...
I first approached a young woman in a security booth who proceeds to ask me a couple of questions. No problem, or so I thought. She makes a call, speaks in Hebrew to the person on the other end before saying to me:
'Please leave all your belongings here and take a seat, somebody will be with you shortly'.
Again, no problem. I take a seat (still outdoors at this point) and here I catch another unforgettable able sight. A good looking young man (younger than me) dressed in the most casual clothes ever but with a massive machine gun hanging off his shoulder. Within a few more minutes, others just like him appeared. It was surreal cos of course this was not a movie, and these were not fake guns. This sh!t was real. In that moment I had a small lump moment as I begun to appreciate that being here wasn't in anyway something to take lightly.
Moments later another person, also young and attractive but a female this time takes up the questioning with a couple of young men casually positioned behind her. Now at this point I was still completely cool, relaxed, and even smiley in a willing, compliant way. After all, this person was just doing her job.
'Please stand'. 'We're just going to ask you so more questions'.
'Sure, of course'.
I stand and then proceed to politely answer her questions. This lasted somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. The questions weren't difficult because of course, I had nothing to hide, I'm just a 'tourist'. Picture the scene though, she asks a question, I have to answer it promptly and precisely trying to maintain eye contact. I just want to answer everything clearly and concisely and to comply so I could be on my way into the land of the unknown. So despite the questions not being difficult, they were somewhat testing but this folks, unlike the movies, was an actual real-life interrogation.
Going through the emotion range...
After this was over I felt a little relieved. Except of course, it wasn't over. This time we moved inside to the luggage scanners. This should have been a simple case of a luggage scan akin to strict airport security and that would be that but this was not the case. Before they scanned my luggage, they took me to a room to do a full body (manual) frisk. A frisk much more detailed than any airport scan which included a proper 'feel' of my body, my back area in particular.
When this finished I had more questions, although they were again largely the same and believe me, under this kind of pressure, this was really becoming quite tedious now and very draining. My positive, charming persona I'd exuded up until now was slowly beginning to diminish.
I was asked to take a seat close to the luggage scanners which was not in direct sight of where I was sat. A couple of minutes later I think to myself that this is taking a long time so I stand up, walk a few feet to discover the full team are now going through my luggage manually.
This hit me hard folks as they were taking out everything, item by item. Whilst one bag was being emptied, the other had a team of two were studying hard through the LCD monitors looking for whatever the f*** they were looking for. You know, I remember even the zip outline of my suitcase being inspected. I was feeling slightly nauseated at this point which was due to a mixture of anger, disbelief and confusion but anger being predominate.
At this point they see me standing incredulously looking over at what they are doing and one of them requests firmly, 'Please sit down'.
I respond immediately, 'No, I've sat enough, I want to stand'. I say this out loud and equally firm to a team of what is now nine! They did not argue back.
The next thirty minutes would prove to be really tough. You see my backpack is an extension of me and something very personal. I quite literally live out of it as the saying goes. These people proceeded to take out every single piece of matter and clothing (including my dirties) finding things that I had forgot even existed and they did so without any emotion and certainly no sympathy. At this point I remember feeling something I've never felt before, I felt violated and this was a crushingly devastating feeling. I was helpless with my mind spinning in utter disbelief at what was going on before my eyes. I spent the remainder of this part of the experience looking angrily at them from just several meters away, constantly shaking my head away whilst muttering obscene profanities. I must have done this for nearly 15 minutes whilst pacing around a few feet back and forth.
At the peak of my frustration, I honestly said the following to two separate security staff in a calm but disappointed tone
"I just want you to know that this has been the single worst experience of my life".
The worst was now over... thank God.
'Okay Sami, we're done here. Would you like help packing?'.
Wow, that was a humane response!
'No thank you' I said in a broken tone and head down to the ground. Well, head down to my stuff anyway.
'Can I get you a glass of water'?
Wow, and again!
Also at this point looking down at my stuff laid out in many large trays, I saw a card that I carry of my Nonna (Nan). Seeing this, and also this unexpected difference in attitude from them, nearly had me. I had to fight back the emotions here.
Except their niceties kept on coming, even from several of the faces from earlier.
'Do you need any information for how to get into the town?', for example. And most notably:
"I'm sorry for this Sami but you are entering Israel at a difficult time".
At this point, you'd be forgiven for almost being acceptant of what I'd been through. They were just doing their job, right? Though believe me folks, you'll not felt this in the slightest if you were in my shoes on that unforgettable afternoon.
Clearly this document, even as detailed as I've tried to make it, can't begin to convey even a small portion of how I felt. It also doesn't get across the different stages of security I had to pass or of course, the actual questions I was being asked. Speaking of which, they were pretty useless questions folks, I say now upon reflection.
Although unsurprisingly I wanted to leave this country in those first three hours, deciding to stay here might well prove to be one of the best decisions of the year.
Quite a statement, huh. You see, Israel is not going to be anything like you (and I) thought it to be...