On June 3 this year, I boarded a plane at Newark International Airport in the US headed to Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel for a reporting trip. There were 22 other journalists from my graduate programme along on the journey.
With a blue scarf loosely wrapped around my head and my blue American passport in-hand, I confidently marched up to an immigration window at Ben Gurion Airport upon arrival, expecting to get through with no hindrances.
“Ala-who? How do you say it?”
“Alabi” I said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a journalist, here for a reporting trip with my graduate programme,” I said with gusto.
He pointed to my head and asked, “What is that scarf on your head?”
“It’s just a scarf,” I replied, as I began to realize that something as innocuous as a scarf had great significance for this Israeli immigration officer.
“Are you a Muslim?” he asked.
“No.” I replied with shock at how blatant and discriminatory the question was.
“Are you here to see religious sights?” he asked.
“No, I’m here on a reporting trip,” I repeated, beginning to feel defeated.
“What is your religion?” he asked.
“I’m Christian,” I responded surprised that I actually had to answer a question of the sort. I’m definitely not in the States anymore, I thought to myself, this would never fly in America! Except it does. Muslims entering the US are routinely questioned and detained in the same manner.
“What is your father’s name? What does he do? What is your grandfather’s name? What did he do?” And on and on. The officer then called a colleague over to come help him make sense of who I am and why I was standing in front of him requesting passage into the country of Israel.
“Are you Muslim?” she asked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here with a group of journalists for a 10-day trip to report on Israel. Here is my letter.” I handed her the invitation letter from my sponsors which explained my purpose there. The officers both took another long look at me, and I could see they weren’t convinced with my story.
A black woman with a surname that sounds like Allah, who was wearing a scarf and claimed to be a Christian but was not in Israel for a religious pilgrimage, and was there as a journalist on a reporting trip?
Guilty. By syllabic association.
I’d experienced that level of suspicion once before at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport in 2011. But then I was travelling with a Nigerian passport, long before I became a citizen of the United States. That time, I was singled out for further inspection out of a group of American students who were on a week-long cultural exchange programme in Istanbul. My affinity to America did not help me avoid the indignities of travelling with a passport from a developing nation.
Sadly, this time my American passport could not save me from being detained with Israeli immigration either. They seized my American passport and sent me to a room with various other recently passport-less souls.
Bewildered and amused, I asked fellow detainees how long they’d been waiting. A German couple said they’d been in the room for about three hours. When an immigration officer finally called on them, he first asked them why they’d visited Turkey, a Muslim country in 2014. They told him they’d been there on vacation. I was so glad that my American passport didn’t have a Turkish visa inside it so I wouldn’t have to answer further unnecessary questions.
I imagined how much more precarious my situation would have been had I been able to attend a wedding I was invited to in Pakistan earlier this year and had I a Pakistani stamp in my passport (Pakistan doesn’t recognize the state of Israel, and the two nations have a well-documented ongoing nuclear level stand-off).
Five minutes later, the officer came back, handed the German couple their passports and wished them a fun time with their visit to Israel. Moments after, I was pulled aside and again asked the same set of questions. This time with additional ones about my Nigerian citizenship.
“How old were you when you left Nigeria? What is your mother’s name?” I answered as cheerfully as I could, knowing the worst they could do was send me back from whence I came.
I wasn’t the only one of my colleagues that was detained on that day. My Palestinian-American and Indian-American colleagues with proper Arabic names, like Mohammed, in their lineage were also in the detention room with me.
They were detained for nearly four hours while my own detention at Ben Gurion airport only lasted about 30 minutes. My Palestinian-American colleague friend has accepted detention at the airport as normal when travelling to and from Israel.
On my way out of Israel 10 days later, myself and an African man with an Arabic name were “randomly” selected to experience what I can only describe as a full-body massage. Every bit of my body and carry-on luggage were patted down and inspected. I nearly missed my flight because of this send-off ritual.
As a Christian with a Yoruba name and an American passport, this experience with Israel’s border control honestly caught me by surprise. I found myself feeling ashamed at why I never expected this kind of discrimination to touch me. Because I should never have presumed that I would be immune. There is hardly rhyme or reason for an experience like that. It is as random and as arbitrary as the borders we’ve drawn.