Imagine you’re in Tel Aviv airport. As a spoilt, British national whose passport is considered gold dust (perhaps less so since Brexit), you think you’re going to sail through security like a regal swan.
I clutch my passport in my sweaty palms, thinking Her majesty, Queen Elizabeth will jump out from its thick pages, wave her hand in salutation to the security guards, beguile them with her stiff upper-lip English, and they’ll let me pass through.
Alas, that doesn’t happen.
The group that I’m in are suddenly diverted from the “normal”, overwhelmingly white looking cue, and into the brown, Muslim cue.
Suddenly, my brown privilege and even my Muslim privilege plays its double trump card. I find myself for the first time in my life, in the brown, Muslim cue.
I laugh at the token white guy standing behind me in his starched shirt, as he looks around in bewilderment, probably wondering what on earth he is doing with an army of brown folks suspected of hiding explosives and drugs in their hand luggage, beards ands hijabs. “I’m just a computer technician”, he says to those of us standing in ear shot.
I sigh to myself in exasperation, hoping, praying that my pilgrimage to Jerusalem isn’t marred by a nightmarish experience many have warned me about.
I gather my luggage, and push it into the conveyor belt so it can be scanned.
An Israeli woman with bronze, curly ringlets, not much older than I am, approaches me and takes me to the other side where she proceeds to empty the contents of my hand luggage, and scans each item of clothing with what looks like a plastic riding crop.
I want to get rid of the gnawing, growing feeling of fear and annoyance expanding in my stomach. I have some fresh knaffeh in one of the bags I’m holding, and I really, really want to get it past security.
So what do I do when I’m nervous? I talk.
As I watch her intently, brushing my clothes over with the plastic crop, I say to her: “It looks like a plastic rod, but I’m guessing you’re using that to scan my clothes for explosives.”
She looks up for a moment, almost surprised I’m engaging her in conversation, and says: “Yes, it looks like nothing. We use it to detect drugs and other things too.”
The feeling of fear in my stomach explodes momentarily, even though I know I’m not carrying any drugs. I’m still worried about getting my fresh knaffeh I picked up this morning past security.
I quickly look at her name badge to catch her name in an attempt to strike conversation and make this whole experience even a fraction more “normal”.
“Your name is Noa. Is that after the prophet Noah?” I ask, hoping she won’t deflect my attempt to engage her.
“No actually. It’s pronounced the same, but Noa was kind of the first Jewish feminist” she tells me.
Feminism. Now that’s a conversation I can hold. I know I’ve struck conversational gold, so I press her to tell me more, not to mention, I’m intrigued.
“Noa was basically one of a handful of sisters who fought to receive inheritance after her father died, at a time when women didn’t get inheritance. That’s patriarchy for you huh?”
“Don’t get me started on patriarchy!” I say bitterly.
She then takes me past the luggage area, and proceeds to pat me down; my arms, my legs, inside my fluorescent floral-print trousers.
I stand there, in an outstretched star-fish pose, acting as if I’ve been searched like this before. Is this what it’s like for my black brothers and sisters, or my Palestinian brothers and sisters, who go through this on a daily basis?
Afterwards, Noa directs me to the full body scanner. I cringe inwardly as I step in, knowing I’m going to see a digital, butt-naked outline of my body. I almost laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of it all, as I raise my arms above my heads in the “hands up” gesture. As I step out, I avoid eye contact with the outline of my naked body which appears on a screen in front of Noa.
After a few seconds, I pluck up the courage to have a quick look, and notice that my right butt-cheek is glowing red. Uh-oh.
Suddenly the phone next to Noa starts to shrill. I can hear some invisible, nameless face on the other end of the line speaking heatedly in Hebrew. The words “anomaly detected” flashes across the screen.
Noa looks at me, and at this point, I remember that I shoved a handful of Fox mints into my pocket before I came to the airport. I quickly reach inside, grab the sweets and I say “Is it the sweets that are causing the anomalies?”
She suppresses a smile, and probably says to the phantom on the other end of phone in Hebrew: “We’ve got a 24 year old child here who set the scanner off because of some sweets. She’s clear.”
She takes me back to the luggage area and we continue our conversation as she continues to look through my clothes.
She picks up from our conversation earlier: “I’m not religious. I don’t like religion. But in Israel, you need a rabbi to get married, even if you aren’t religious.”
I tell her I’m someone who considers them self as religious, spiritual even, and that I respect her right not to want a religious minister at her wedding.
“Are you a secular Jew? I mean do you consider yourself culturally Jewish, but not religiously?” I ask her.
She pauses and says “Culturally Jewish? Definitely.”
I tell her that I’ve been to a few Shabbat dinners, and how the Jewish people I’ve observed are surprisingly so musical. The only crude comparison I can make, is that it’s like being at one of those merry Hobbit feasts Tolkien wrote so much about.
“It’s sad you know. There are so many similarities between Islam and Judaism.”
“I know” I say grimly. I tell her how I’ve been told this by a handful of rabbis I’ve encountered in my work.
I wonder if our little conversation is a nice change of pace from her usual mundane routine.
Just as I say goodbye to her, and she offers to help me re-pack my luggage (my knaffeh, thank God was given the all clear too), she quickly adds:
“Eid Mubaghak”, her heavy Hebrew accent replacing the -r with a -gh.
I look up at her, surprised, and thank her, wishing her well. I really didn’t expect that.
I guess the moral of this story is, don’t shove Fox mints into your pockets if you’re flying from Tel Aviv airport. Their scanners don’t like boiled sweets, and they’re bad for your teeth anyway.
But more than anything, and perhaps most importantly, speak when you don’t want to speak. Exercise the privilege of your tongue if all else fails.
You really don’t know what you might learn, or what doors might open (literal or figurative) if you engage someone in conversation.