The racist Airport Border Guard is a common comedy trope now, most recently lampooned with frightening accuracy by David Walliams in fake docusoap Come Fly With Me. It’s the only job in the world where being a shameless bigot is not just acceptable, but considered a pre-requisite for the position.
This week, professional controversialist and Neo-nazi favourite Katie Hopkins spewed forth her latest piece of faux-outrage. Her target this time was the passport control staff at Heathrow for having the temerity to delay her entry with questions about whether her children were actually hers.
I have a friend, Jayne, who faces a similar problem, albeit much more regularly than the Daily Mail’s newest troll columnist. It’s not an issue Jayne had to worry about for most of her life. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, attractive woman with a German passport, she got used to getting waved across every border crossing with a smile.
Having gotten married to a Nigerian, and been blessed with three beautiful children, Jayne’s regular trips to see her parents in Munich have changed somewhat. Now, instead of polite smiles, she faces accusations of people smuggling and long interrogations at the German border every visit.
It seems the Oberschütze at passport control refuse to believe that her German passport holding, and fluent German-speaking, mixed-race kids could possibly be anything but illegal immigrants.
Now, I’m not one to bandy claims of racism about lightly. I get frustrated at, what I see as, ethnic minorities cynically playing on white guilt to further narrowly selfish objectives. I despise the very idea of “positive” discrimination, as I abhor the idiotic belief that you can use discrimination to fight discrimination.
However, as a brown-skinned traveller with a Muslim name, who takes up to fifty flights a year, I’m painfully aware that unashamed bigotry by Border Guards is ubiquitous and thinly, if ever, concealed. To the point where I’ve even compiled myself a short mental list of the world’s most and least racist airports.
Holidaymaker hubs like Gatwick, Las Vegas, the Seychelles or Bali seem to welcome everyone with open arms. But visiting a vacation hotspot isn’t always a guarantee of colourblind evaluation at the airport. Especially if you’re travelling to a nation that has a culture steeped in racial supremacist ideas or has experienced conflicts between ethnic groups.
For example, on every visit to Morocco, the Border Guards insist on deleting the word “British” from the nationality line on my Landing Card and add some random Asian country instead. Last month they assumed I was from Afghanistan – a country to which I have zero connection – and it took a lot of berating and animated objection before they changed it back.
On every trip to Cyprus, I’m used to watching the Border Guards wordlessly wave through all the white people in the line in front of me. Their demeanour suddenly changes, however, when I step up to the desk, as it seems my British passport – which supposedly offers hassle-free travel across European borders – is suddenly a dubious document that needs careful review. Which then triggers an interrogation about my occupation, reasons for my visit, and queries about my accommodation plans. Last month, I demanded to know why I was being singled out for special treatment, and got the curt response: “Because you might be a terrorist.”
I’ve also experienced the exact same treatment when visiting Gibraltar, which is a British territory where I’m not even considered a foreign visitor. But, then, Gibraltar is basically a 1970s version of England so racism there is still de rigueur.
However, these were all minor inconveniences compared to the treatment I received during a recent trip to Jerusalem. As Palestine is occupied by Israel, the only way to see the Holy Land is to pass through a Zionist controlled checkpoint. And as I had no desire to make a land crossing via Jordan, my only realistic option was to fly into Tel Aviv and take a Nesher to the occupied Old City.
Since Israel is an entity built upon a several-thousand-year-old concept of Biblically sanctioned racial superiority, I was already braced for xenophobic profiling. After all, this is a government that systematically sterilized black women without their knowledge to stop the darkies from breeding. So it’s hardly surprising that even black Jews face racially motivated abuse from airport staff when trying to enter the country.
Google helpfully supplied me with a dozen accounts of Ben Gurion airport interrogations and abuse suffered by non-white travellers. Consequently, I had a fair idea of what to expect and prepared myself for the very real probability I’d be deported straight back on arrival. So I decided to travel there via Greece, hand luggage only, as any forced repatriation back to where I came from would be far less arduous that way. I’d also taken the precaution of taking my Twitter, Facebook and website offline in advance of my visit.
The journey didn’t start well. Instead of getting a green light like everyone else, a red flashing warning came up as my boarding pass was scanned at Athens airport. It was a near-empty flight. I subtly inspected the seven other passengers out of the corner of my eye to try and work out which one of them was the armed Air Marshal. Whoever it was would inevitably be seated quite deliberately close to me.
The 90-minute trip was uneventful and, just as I’d planned, I arrived in Tel Aviv at a quiet time for the Ben Gurion airport. I’d hoped this would make my transit across the border a little quicker. In hindsight, that was naïve.
On arrival at the “Israeli” border, I was immediately told to go and wait in the holding pen for risky passengers, an area that seemed exclusively reserved for brown people. Not long afterwards a tall, mousy-looking woman invited me to her office and asked the most pointlessly inane questions:
“What’s your nationality?”
“Where were you born?”
“Date of birth?”
All while she stared intently at my passport! She then asked for my mobile number and email address, and sent me back out to the holding pen. As I left I asked her name and she told me it was “Sarah”.
Thirty minutes later, I was called into the office of a thin mole-faced young guy, who appeared to have various uncontrollable facial ticks. I surmised pretty quickly he was putting these on, as part of some strategy to keep his victims uncomfortable. My research had told me these interrogations were always handled by an officer of the Shin Bet, a real-life Zionist version of the Obsidian Order.
I asked why I was being inconvenienced with this interrogation.
“Because it’s your first time here.” he lied.
“So next time I visit, this won’t happen?” I inquired.
“You know about our process. People must have told you.”
He said it partly as a query.
“No, I don’t.”
If he was going to lie, no need for me to be truthful. Of course, I knew all about the mind games he was about to throw my way, and the stock interrogation techniques they’ve devised for dusky looking airport arrivals.
He asked for the names of my immediate family. I gave them. He asked for their phone numbers, I told him I didn’t know them. He insisted I get them out of my phone. I refused. He told me he wanted to see my phone. I refused. He feigned anger.
“I have only just started with you!” he threatened.
“I could keep you here all day, so cooperate, and you will get out of here quicker.”
I told him adamantly, I would never show my phone to my own government, so there was no way I would show it to his.
“I am done with you. Wait outside.”
I smiled and went back to the holding pen. I’d earlier noticed a CCTV camera pointed directly at us, and knew they’d be monitoring. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me in any way discomforted. So I turned on my iPad and started watching South Park episodes for the next 90 minutes.
Eventually, the mole-faced Totenkopfverbänder came out and called me back into his interrogation room. He had a whole load of new questions.
“Do you know anyone in Israel?”
“No.” I lied.
I do know Israeli citizens. All of whom had implored me never to mention their names if under Shin Bet interrogation. It certainly wouldn’t help me, they insisted. And would only make life harder for them the next time they tried to leave or enter the country.
The angry questioning continued.
“Are you a member of any Islamic groups?”
“How often do you visit Pakistan? Lebanon? Syria?”
“Do you have any Arab friends?”
“If I looked in your phone, would there be Arabs in there? Or Pakistanis?”
I said I had thousands of numbers from people all over the world, and didn’t classify them according to race.
“Give it to me, and I will check for you.”
Again, I reiterated I would never be willing to compromise my privacy. Ever. His response was to use a Shin Bet ploy I’ve read about repeatedly in my online research.
“I’m giving you a second chance here. And I don’t like your attitude. Right now there is an 80% chance you will be refused entry. But cooperate and you still have a chance. And this will be your last chance!”
The questions became banal and factual again. Place and date of birth, nationality etc.
“Why are you asking me questions you already know the answer to?”
“You have an attitude. You don’t want to answer these questions?”
“I’ve already answered these questions, earlier, with Sarah.”
“I don’t know any Sarah.”
I paused. This was a weird tactic.
“Well in that case either she was lying about her name. Or you are lying to me right now.”
Silence. He wasn’t used to people throwing stuff back at him.
“Give me details of your flights.” he eventually demanded.
I showed him. He claimed he’d never heard of the airline! I’d read about this tactic too. The Oberführer tries to keep you unbalanced by making ludicrous claims, like they’ve never heard of your airline, your home town, or the city you’re planning to visit. (“Nazareth? What’s that??”) I wasn’t going to take this anymore. The game was up. I leaned back and said nothing.
“You want to show me your phone?” he asked, already knowing what my answer would be.
I was sent back to the holding pen, aware the cameras would be trained my way. I fired up the cartoons again, making sure to grin broadly at the antics of early-seasons Simpsons.
They must have been perplexed at my behaviour, as a yarmulke’d airport Staatspolizei eventually came over and sat down next to me. He watched over my shoulder for a while, but pretended he was busy reading something else. They were obviously puzzled about my nonchalant demeanour. This wasn’t how their victims usually behaved.
Another 90 minutes passed before, finally, my mole-faced tormentor commanded me back for more interrogation. Now he wanted to know what I planned to do on my visit. His questions were vague, and delivered in a kind of more broken English. So I made him repeat every question three times. I’d decided this should be as annoying for him as it was for me. I patronised him. Explained the meaning of basic English words to him. He was getting agitated.
“You think I don’t know English?!?”
Eventually, like a broken record…
“I think you have been lying to me. Why don’t you tell me the truth? And show me your phone!”
“Whatever I say, you’re going to accuse me of lying. So what does it matter anyway?”
I laughed again.
“This is not funny. And I am not laughing.”
“I think it’s very funny. And I will not answer any more pointless questions.”
“I want to know the names of the people you associate with!” he demanded angrily.
I’d had enough. It was time to pull out some big guns. I told him the people I associate with were senior members of the UK government and the British Royal Family, and gave him a list of names. I told him I would be bringing up this harassment with them on returning home. (A complete fabrication, but this Schwache Gefreite wasn’t to know that.)
He paused for a while…
“This is not Britain.” he eventually asserted, but it was obvious the racist little turd was worried. You could see the penny dropping behind his eyes. Suddenly my belligerence, the confident refusals to hand over personal data, my accusing him of being a liar, started to make a lot more sense.
“You can go back out.”
“What’s your name?” I queried.
He wouldn’t look me in the eye now. He mumbled an obviously fake name at me.
“That’s not a real name. What’s your real name?”
“David.” he said, using the Anglicised pronunciation.
I knew that was a lie too, and turned to walk away.
“You know we are going to refuse you entry?”
“That’s not something I control.” I responded.
“And if it happens, then it happens.”
I smiled. I knew this was a last ditch bluff, just from the half-hearted way he’d said it. This psychological game was over, and he hadn’t won. I went back outside and sat in the holding pen which, unusually, had a very miffed looking young Russian woman waiting with the rest of us. The first white face I’d seen in there in the last six hours.
Thanks to insomnia and some badly planned flight timings, I’d been awake now for almost 30 hours. It was time to get some shuteye but, before I could doze off, “Sarah” came over and handed me my passport with a visa ticket.
“Enjoy your visit.”
Her expression was halfway between a snarl and a smile.
This development wasn’t a huge surprise but definitely strange because, given what I’d read, the final handing back of the passport is usually done by the person who interrogated you, who would try and make friends before sending you on your way. I guess “David” wasn’t in the mood to face me again…
As much as this was an egregious, odious, and quite shameful, case of racial discrimination, at least I went into it knowing exactly what to expect and with a coping strategy at the ready. I also had the luxury of impressive-sounding (if not exactly truthful) social and political connections to speed things up. I know there are plenty of victims of the Israeli border Gestapo who suffer a lot worse than I did.
Am I being too hard on “David”? After all, he was “just doing his job” and is probably a really nice guy in his own world. Nonsense! You could just as validly say that about Apartheid-era police who randomly shot at unarmed black South Africans. Or the brutality of the Schutzstaffel at Auschwitz. “Just doing my job” is never a valid justification for racial profiling or bigotry. And you don’t get a free pass on morality just because you wear a uniform.
* (c) Comedy Central