“Sorry for the inconvenience,” said the young women at the security check at the Eilot crossing into Israel. They had just repacked my bags for me, after carefully removing and handling everything in the kind of clear plastic gloves you see at the deli counter. They had sent everything I’d brought one at a time through the detector, oohing and aahing over my Jordanian jewelry and hair accessories. “No problem,” I said, thinking, Better inconvenient than insecure. They’d already asked me how long I’d been in Jordan, what I do there, why I’d chosen to study Arabic (“It seemed like an interesting challenge” seemed the safest of my many reasons), and why I was going to Israel. They were very cheerful about it, clearly very comfortable in each other’s company, and I was feeling really good about crossing the border. Plus, Jordan didn’t charge me the exit tax, or for the days I’d overstayed my visa.
Of course it wasn’t that simple. I hadn’t gotten to passport control yet. They flipped through my passport and saw its many Arab stamps: 3 for each Jordanian tourist visa, 3 more for my residency, plus every other entry and exit, half a dozen from Egypt, and a trip to Syria. They sent me to my own special window with my own special official. “We’re going to do a background check. I’m going to ask you some questions, and then it’ll take an hour, maybe more.”
She was very friendly, meticulous but pleasant. The whole time, a voice in my head was critiquing every answer: Oh, yeah, tell her again how the U.S. government has financed all your trips to Jordan. Oh, no! “I don’t actually know the French girl I’m staying with. I don’t know what she does in Ramallah….” Way to look like a terrorist! Good point about how Peace Corps doesn’t let volunteers choose their destinations. Be sure to mention how your best friend in Jordan works for the U.N. and was sent to the States by the U.S. government. (Crap! How could you forget that the Israeli embassy held her passport for months!) Don’t forget to mention how your other friend became an Israeli citizen and lives on a kibbutz!
Then I sat with Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and waited. An hour passed. I started to make contingency plans for how I’d spend my vacation if Israel turned me away.
But in the end, as I suspected, blundering honesty was the best policy, and they let me in. In the end, it took half as long and was far more pleasant than crossing the border into Syria. Where, by the way, I won’t be going again on this passport. I needed the stamps from my crossing to renew my visa for my last 6 weeks in Jordan, and Syria won’t let people in who have Israeli stamps.