Egyptian-American Stand Up Comedian Detained at Tel Aviv Airport
By Sherif Hedayat
As I sit here on the patio at my hotel in Jerusalem, I reflect on my trip from Dayton, Ohio to Tel Aviv, Israel yesterday. Sometimes one doesn’t realize the complexities of the world until they leave the comfort of their home. We see the stories of conflict in Israel and Palestine on television all the time. This week the Israeli’s and Palestinians are meeting with President Bush in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss the future.
I didn’t realize how naïve I was to the situation until I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv. I walked up to the security check and the young girl asked for my passport. She asked “what is the purpose of your visit?” I smiled and said “i’m a stand up comedian here to perform for the Israelis and Palestinians in hopes of bringing them together through comedy.” She said “that’s great, you can explain it to the airport police.”
I went into a small makeshift police department at the airport. She asked me questions about my father’s name, my grandfather’s name and the purpose of my trip. This was the second time I had to explain why I was here. She took my passport and scanned it into the computer. I was sent into a waiting area where I was to wait for the background check to be completed. I thought this was standard procedure until I noticed everyone in there was of Arab origin. I quickly realized I was being singled out because of where my my family was from. Even though I am an American citizen and I’ve lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years, it didn’t seem to matter.
I talked to several people waiting with me and they all said they were from Rammalah and they were here visiting family. Some of them were here for the third time this year and still they were being detained. I say detained because one older gentleman got up to walk around and security asked him to stay in the waiting area. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong so I began walking around. I looked at the security guard straight in the eyes and said “are you going to tell me I can’t walk around?” he had no response. They were obviously trying to bully people around.
Two hours had passed and I had already been awake and traveling for about 26 hours. I was losing my patience so I went into the room where all the officers were sitting around chatting and laughing. I had a hard time getting anyone to listen to me. I finally raised my voice and said “can someone please tell me why I’m here?!” to which the response was a vague “security check, please wait in the other room.” Another hour went by and I I went in for the third time finally stating “if you don’t have a legitimate reason for keeping me here then you need to send me on my way.” This time the response was “we have sent your information to the station and we are waiting for a response. I told them they could pull up my website and see my videos of me performing if they had any questions as to who I was. It fell on deaf ears.
Soon after, a detective came out and said “are you Sherif Hedayat?” I said yes. He took me into another room and asked me a series of questions about my name, my father’s name and my grandfather’s name. This aggrevated me because I had already told two other people and he had the information right in front of him. The questions turned to me proving that I was there for that reason. I was asked if I had an itinerary for the show. I told him I didn’t but he could go to my website and see the schedule. He began asking irrelevant questions such as “do you have any Jewish friends?” and “do you have any Palestinian friends?” to which I answered yes. Next he asked what I planned on doing when I wasn’t performing. I said sightseeing. He asked where are you planning on going. The first place that came to mind was Bethlehem because one of the other comedians had family there. The detective looked surprised. He said “why Bethlehem? That seems odd.” I didn’t understand why it would be odd. I began getting aggrevated with the line of questioning. The last straw was when he asked about my last name Hedayat. He asked if I was of Iranian origin. I said no I wasn’t. He continued to press the issue by asking if I was sure. Maybe a distant relative or grandparent. I said no since he didn’t seem to hear me the first time. Finally I told him I was annoyed with the line of questioning and I didn’t think it was pertinent to the situation. I told him I was tired and he could either let me in or send me home because either way I was going to go to sleep. He sent me out of the room and shortly after he came out and handed me my passport and said I was free to go.
I told him he could have saved us both a lot of time and aggrevation by going to my website and watching my videos. He said he knew because he had watched my Youtube videos. I couldn’t help but laugh. He went on to explain that the last five suicide bombers were lawyers and doctors. I understood but didn’t understand what that had to do with me as I was neither.
I thought I was done and I could pick up my luggage and go to my hotel. I went through the checkpoint and another girl asked for my passport as for the 200th time I was asked why I was there. Once again I told her to ask the police. She then asked me to get my luggage and then I was taken to a room where they put my suitcases in an x-ray machine then opened them. They asked what was in one of the boxes. I told her it was my promo material. They would have seen it in the x-ray machine and yet they still felt the need to open the box. I was sent on my way once again thinking I was done.
My last hurdle was the customs check before the exit of the airport. The woman asked me my name and the purpose of my trip. I said “are you serious?! They just asked me that 20 seconds ago!” she went on to tell me that she was with customs not airport security to which I responded “maybe you should all get on the same page with your information.” She made me put my suitcases on another x-ray machine. I was outraged because I had 18 high definition DV tapes and I was worried they would be ruined. She assured me they wouldn’t. After putting both suitcases through I was taken to a table where, once again, I had to open one of the suitcases and show her a camera. She said what do I have in the other bag? I was fed up with this so I told her if she wanted to see it she could get the suitcase herself because I was done. She said ok you can go.
Finally, I was outside the airport waiting for a taxicab. As I’m about to get in line for the cab the police are running around screaming at everyone to get back in the airport because they found a suspicious package in the area. After almost 4 hours of interrogating me they find a suspicious package right outside the airport! I finally get in a cab and head to my hotel.
This adventure made me realize that something needed to happen because this was happening to Arabs at that airport every day. It makes you appreciate living in a country like America where there is a better system of security. It’s not perfect but it’s also not redundant.
I still have another 9 days here. If that was the first day then I wonder what the rest of the trip holds.
(Sherif is a widely acclaimed standup comedian and satirist whose topics include family, education, religion, careers, dating, television, stereotypes, racism and growing up in the Middle East. Reach Sherif at http://www.FunnySherif.com Copyr.ight Arab Writers Group Syndicate, http://www.ArabWritersGroup.com).