I wrote this post on my El Al flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv in an offline Google Doc.
I’m on the plane.
Getting to this point took a lot of work. Actual work was busy and stressful, especially because I wanted to get ahead for the week I get back. Then packing was interesting because I so strictly adhered to the luggage requirements for my fare: one carry-on bag. No personal item. Eight kilograms, or just about 17.5 pounds.
That was hard, and right before we walked out the door, I switched from a heavier suitcase to a lighter one. I was really worried about the weight of my stuff, but in the end, that didn’t matter in the slightest. What did matter was my 17-hour layover in Dubai in 2015. My friend there. But I wouldn’t find out until San Francisco.
First flight — easy. I was feeling good. Landed in San Francisco, found my gate number on a screen, then proceeded to switch terminals and stand in line for security. At two different points I was in close proximity to loud, laughing groups of people. A family trip with older kids for one, maybe, and a gaggle of girls for another. Their laughter was jarring for me, a person traveling alone and quiet.
I’ve been the loud laugher. I’ve been the person to say something just a little louder to let people outside my group know just how funny I am. I’ve been in loud groups. But the difference between that and getting to my gate today as a quiet, solo traveler was slightly off putting. I don’t know how. Maybe it’s just because seeing both ends of a spectrum of anything is uncomfortable.
I got to my gate. I knew to expect additional security — El Al is Israel’s official airline, and apparently also one of the most targeted. But also the safest. So each passenger gets interviewed by security before boarding the plane.
I got in line. The man interviewing us was apparently sorting us — those who checked in at SFO already got grilled, it seemed, so they were almost immediately allowed into the gate waiting area. Those of us from connecting flights were asked by the initial screener to sit and wait for our turns.
About 10 minutes later, another man called me up. We chatted briefly, and he had me sit again. Yet another eventually came to me and asked me a question. I looked up from my seat — I figured that by him standing and me sitting, I was putting him in a position of authority.
“Stand when I am asking you questions.”
Those weren’t his exact words, but they were tense. He read my sitting a different way. I stood and apologized. He found two stamps from Dubai, one clearly marked, the other just in Arabic. That seemed to be the biggest issue.
He asked me about my friend. My trip. My friendship with him. How often do I see him. Generally my life, even in its ridiculous moments, makes sense to me, but explaining things when you’re being interrogated makes you question everything and feel like every answer is stupid.
When I told him I bought my flight to Tel Aviv the month before, I thought about how ridiculous that sounded. When I told him I’ve been wanting to go to Jerusalem since I was 33, I thought about how ridiculous that sounded. When I told him I was a Christian and wanted to see The Place, even that sounded ridiculous. Everything did. I wasn’t nervous about the questions, per se, because I didn’t have anything to hide. But how do you convince someone else of that? That’s what made me nervous.
He walked away, my passport in his hand. That wasn’t the first time a man in a black suit walked away with my passport. He kept talking to his earpiece and hastily jabbing information into his smartphone.
Another man approached and started asking me about Dubai. He asked if I had a relationship with my friend, and I responded in a way that would normally be accompanied by a laugh. No no, I said. He’s married. The man lifted his eyebrows and stared me down. He responded seriously, to the effect of “I’m just asking because I need to know,” almost like he was worried I was getting hysterical.
I wasn’t. But as each man questioned me, I realized that my happy, “charming” self wasn’t doing me any good. These guys don’t want to know me or understand me. They want to keep their country safe. I can only imagine what would happen if they found out they missed something, and the airline’s safety reputation was tarnished, and people got hurt. Knowing the Israeli government, these men would be in deep trouble.
The last man to talk to me led me and another potential passenger back upstairs to the main concourse. He had us wait against a wall next to a few other people, like we were in line. He disappeared, came back. Disappeared, came back. Handed me my passport with a security sticker glaring up from my information page. Looped security stickers around my suitcase and purse strap. And disappeared.
Agents authoritatively walked back and forth in front of us. To my left, I could hear a door slam shut, so I assumed that just around the corner was a room where Israeli agents were on government laptops, hacking away. Learning everything they could about us. Dissecting our lives.
The time for boarding came and went.
The line finally moved enough for me to realize that each of us in line was going into the small room. I was about to be interrogated again, I thought.
I’m going to miss my flight, I thought. I started thinking through the repercussions. I needed to alert the driver and the hotel. I would miss my first tour. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but if I didn’t make my flight, it would be interesting.
Finally I was let inside a small, blank, white room. This time it was a smiling man in a suit. Still professional, but a hint of humanity. He took my purse and suitcase and told me he was going to go through it.
Fine. I let him know that was fine. He told me to take any cash out of my wallet, and that surprised me so much that I asked him to repeat his question. When I realized what he meant, I stammered that I didn’t have cash.
And as he went behind a curtain that divided the small space, I silently apologized to him for packing my camera in a fabric bag full of my most grandmotherly underwear. For cushion, but now for an embarrassing look into my least flattering undergarments.
He came out again and asked about my phone and wallet. I told him, a bit alarmed, they were in my purse. He said okay, then asked if I had anything in my pockets. I stood to show him I didn’t, and he cracked a smile. “No, no, it’s okay.” I sat back down, and he mentioned my shoes. I didn’t fully understand what he wanted and started pulling my pant leg up to reveal my socks (unicorns and rainbows, of course). He gently told me he just needed to scan my shoes with the security wand. Which he did, quickly and hardly touching them.
He looked at me apologetically. “Have you never been randomly selected before?” I told him that I had, but never this intensely. He smiled, and as he went back behind the curtain, he said, “I’m sorry if this has been too intense.”
I think he meant it genuinely, but through the whole process, I realized how lucky I’ve been in all my travels. I’ve been patted down, had agents go through my luggage, and singled out for additional pat-downs and screenings, but never interrogated. Not like this.
He probably goes through it every time he gets back to the States. A lot of people go through this every time they fly, at least to some degree.
I know a lot of people who would’ve been offended by the process. Some people in line — especially those who appeared privileged by wealth — acted annoyed. But as I sat there, wondering if the plane was waiting for me, I realized how hard interrogations like this are.
And this wasn’t even a bad one. Just confusing. I didn’t know what to say to convince them I was safe. That my friend in Dubai was safe.
I can’t imagine going through this when more than a flight is at stake.
I got to my seat on the plane. I had an aisle seat on the starboard side, and there was a man sitting in the window seat of the 3-3-3 configuration.
I watched the security video in Hebrew and English. We took off, and I tried napping. I tried watching a movie. I listened to a long podcast. I was thirsty — so thirsty — but didn’t have enough water. I ate a meal. But my anxiety was quietly making me uneasy. I was fidgeting, I couldn’t concentrate. I realized that my adrenaline was still going from the gate ordeal, and that it wouldn’t go away unless I made it.
I walked to the back of the plane. Stretched. I’d been on the flight three hours, and it was after 1am my time. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. I was stressing about this trip, my decision to travel alone.
Finally, I relaxed enough and slept hard. My estimation is that I was out for five hours, and I felt like myself again when I woke up — calm. I tried to go to the bathroom and realized I was dehydrated and constipated.
I asked a flight attendant if I could fill my water bottle. Mentally, I was fine. Physically, I still needed to take care of myself. A few more stretches and visits to the restroom and I’m good.
Americans are known for being loud, brash, overly friendly. I smile at people when I talk to them. I try to get to know them. I try to put us on even ground.
Sometimes this tactic feels dangerous for other cultures.
I just watched Brené Brown’s Netflix special. She says that vulnerability without boundaries isn’t true vulnerability. I think my boundaries look different than a lot of people’s, and it can make people think that I’m too close too soon. I get that, especially for people in some other cultures.
(Maybe that’s why the one flight attendant keeps eying me suspiciously. I was alarmingly nice to her.)
I’m not sure how it’ll be on this trip. So far I’ve seen a few other people, primarily older people, en route with me, and I don’t know if I want to be associated with them. I’ve seen pictures from the crowded streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, and there are baseball caps and Bermuda shorts and typical tourist attire. The people who can’t leave America at home and just be a global citizen. They bring their privilege with them like a chariot that they ride, doing the queen’s wave to those they deem worthy and looking down on those who don’t make the cut.
It’s embarrassing. I don’t want to be associated with that. With the unwillingness to visit another person’s home without demanding it be as similar to your own as possible. If only tourists would consider themselves house guests, I wonder if their attitudes would change.
11 minutes until we land.