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Monday, 24 September 2007

Ahmed Namazi & Me

Written by Steve Bramucci
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Ahmed Namazi.

That's the name that nearly ended my first trip to Israel before it could get off the ground.

Ahmed—“Excuse me sir, please come this way, yes right over here, and please take of your sandals…”—Namazi.

Mr. Namazi, for your edification, is a bathtub and pipe fitter in Seattle, Washington.  He is Iranian and the cousin of one of my closest friends.  He’s a great guy.  But unfortunately, he has the type of name that makes Israeli airport security guards uncomfortable.

A little background: I met Ahmed (who goes by Al) at a pot-luck two days before I left for Israel, and he handed me his business card in an act of hospitality:

“You can stay with my family if you’re ever up in Seattle,” he said. He circled the phone number.

I happily accepted the card, because I’m the just the type to take people up on their generous offers.  And for safe-keeping I stuck the card inside my passport, because I’m also the type whose passport doubles as a wallet and triples as a personal organizer. (I call it my Palm Pilot.)

And there, tucked snugly into my passport, was where the security official from El Al Airlines found Mr. Namazi’s business card when I arrived at the front of his line, to check-in for my flight to Tel-Aviv.  The card was wedged neatly between passport pages 10 (declaring my entrance to the United Arab Emirates) and 11 (covered with a visa allowing me 30 days in Indonesia).  It was, to understate things, a tangled bit of unfortunate luck, considering the circumstances. And that was all it took: Ahmed Namazi's business card, (with the phone number circled) and the UAE and Indonesian Visas—for me to lose my sandals.   You see, none of it looked good to the security agent.  At which point I was ushered off to meet the boss—barefoot.

As you might imagine, the security chief for El Al – his shaved dome gleaming, earpiece in, suit cut tight enough to broadcast the presence of two guns – had a few questions for me.

 


 

“Hello, Mr. Bramucci,” he pronounced clearly, “I see you are planning to head to Israel today.”

You will note that he didn’t say “heading” but “planning to head” – there was obviously a possibility that my plan wouldn’t come to fruition. I nodded.

israel“And why do you want to go to Israel?” he asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No,” I said almost apologetically.

“I didn’t think so,” he said, his suspicions affirmed, “but why then?”

Here, it is important that I add that the Chief of Security spoke softly, in calm, measured tones.  In truth, he was undeniably friendly. But make no mistake; he was listening to every syllable that I spoke, studying every twitch. Taking mental notes.

Soon the questions were coming at a rapid pace:

“Who is Ahmed Namazi?”

“Why were you in Dubai?”

“Are you aware that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world?”

“And why were you planning on visiting Israel?”

Now it had become “were planning” – my trip was already sitting off somewhere in the past tense.

A nod from the chief brought more security over. More men with earpieces.  More gun bulges. My SCUBA card, my bank cards, my magazine articles, everything was inspected.  There were questions about my travel particulars and every habit that they had ascertained from my luggage:

 


 

“How often do you surf?”

“Did you SCUBA dive in Indonesia?”

“Where did you stay in Dubai?”

Each question loaded like a coiled spring.

Then there was a conference in Hebrew to which I was not privy.  A ticket agent my age, who I had assumed would be the most favorable to my cause, began to shake her head in a way that made me start internally debating the most economical method of getting back to my apartment in Orange County from Los Angeles.

Finally, the security chief returned from the fray.  He smiled at me again and read the entirety of a travel article that I had written about Komodo Dragons.  And of course:

"What are your plans in Israel?"

"How long will you be there?"

“Where are you staying?”

"Why?"

But my new answers were consistent with the old ones, and eventually I was given my passport back.  But before I could ask about my flip-flops or my carry-on, the security chief put a sticker on the passport and circled the fourth bubble on a scale of five. Four out of five.  I assumed this was a bad thing and made a clever quip.  The security chief responded by telling me plainly that I was lucky: at least he hadn’t circled bubble 5.  That would’ve meant a cavity search. 

As it was, I was politely ushered to a small room.  There I was asked:

“What were you doing in Dubai?”

“Did you surf in Indonesia?”

"Why are you going to Israel?"

 


 

As a dog paced circles around me.  After answering the same questions at least five times, to a different inquisitor every time, I was finally allowed to head to the gate.  The flip-flops came back.  The carry-on didn't.  "You can pick it up at the gate," I was told politely "we'll take it from here."

As you might imagine, I was feeling a little edgy and when the security agent at the gate asked for my flip-flops again for scanning the sentiment had grown.  By the time my carry-on was reluctantly returned to me (after the entire plane had boarded) I was actually starting to wonder if maybe I was a security threat.

Finally, after two hours of questioning, screening and detecting, I boarded the plane.  My adrenaline was racing as I sat down in seat 32a. Where exactly was it I was heading?  I have reported from war-zones in Uganda, lived with Komodo Dragons on the island of Rinca, and stalked crocodiles with an aboriginal family in Australia—and this was shaking me up?  Had I not done my research? Was this trip a bad idea?

israel and west bankMental order wasn’t restored until I noticed that I was surrounded on all sides by men and women from a retirement community in Thousand Oaks on their way to the holy city.  Eventually, reasoning kicked in: if the woman next to me, who spent the better part of the 14-hour flight trying to get her tray table set 'just so', was heading to Israel—I was sure I would get along okay.

 

 

israel and west bankAnd I did.  I traveled through Israel and Palestine and always felt safe and welcome.  And of course the airport guys were just doing their jobs (well) by revoking my sandals.  But when I entered Ben Gurion International Airport two weeks later, ready to return to the states, I took a second to stroll through Duty Free and purchase a certain item which I felt I could put to use.  A wallet. And Ahmed Namazi’s business card was the first item transferred into it.

© Steve Bramucci

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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