Tuesday morning started out with an encounter with the world’s most obnoxious taxi driver. He was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport at 7am. After a last check to make sure I had my passport and plane ticket and a few last squeezes and kisses for Moby, I was standing outside the gate at 7:02. The driver is fuming mad, yelling – literally yelling – at me for being late. He continues yelling as I get into the cab. “All right! I’m sorry”, I say. “I can’t go back in time now, so can you please just take me to the airport?!”
Along the way, his mood changes, and he is now sharing various details of his personal life with me. It’s early in the morning and I haven’t had much sleep the night before, and I desperately wish he would just shut up and drive. He throws photos at me – check these out! – photos of him and his wife kissing on the beach. She is 22 and he’s 60, he tells me. She has a Master’s degree in economy! She runs a bank! Isn’t she beautiful? Oh – and she’s pregnant! “Congratulations!”, I say. “That’s great!”
Things can only get better from here, I tell myself. Much better. Things are going to be great.
I sigh with relief when the Ben Gurion airport, with its big, blue El Al logo, finally shows up on the horizon. Things are going to be great.
There’s a cafe that I like in a distant, quiet corner of the airport. I always go there to have a goat cheese and tomato ciabatta and a diet coke with a wedge of lemon before flights; it’s become sort of a personal tradition. All is well. After that, I head to the gate and happily board the plane.
Then, the day continues to be obnoxious. I am seated at the window seat, next to an elderly couple. The man, who is sitting next to me, is one of those people who gets into your tiny airplane space, constantly elbowing you. Glaring and sighing loudly has no effect. Elbowing him back is useless; he doesn’t seem to notice. When you try to make yourself as small as possible, bunching into the corner of your seat so you don’t have to touch him, he assumes you are doing that because you wanted to make more room for him, and spreads himself over even more of your space. When you ask if he could please move a little, he stares at you, utterly amazed. “What do you want?!”
I consider asking a flight attendant if I can change seats, but I am incredibly tired, so eventually I fall asleep. Every once in a while, I am woken up by the elbow. I sigh – LOUDLY – look the other way and fall back asleep.
Things can only get better from here. Seriously. Everything is going to be great.
When I wake up, the plane has already landed in Heathrow (if I have developed one talent over the past few years, it’s for sleeping soundly on planes). They announce that there’s another plane at our gate, so we are waiting. The minutes go by and add up to half an hour. A voice on the speaker says we can unbuckle our seatbelts in the meantime. I desperately need to use the bathroom, so I leave my seat. When I get back, it appears that the people seated next to me have assumed I have found some secret way of disembarking the plane and I will not be coming back, so they have taken all their suitcases out of the overhead compartment and placed them on my seat. The plane has started moving again and everyone is being told to sit down.
“Can I please get back in?” I ask politely.
The woman just stares at me with another what-do-you-want look. “Can’t you just go sit somewhere else?”
“NO, I can’t. All my stuff is here. I want to get to my seat.” Can’t YOU just go sit somewhere else?
The man starts handling my bag. “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH MY THINGS”, I start to get really angry. “LET ME GET TO MY SEAT.”
A flight attendant tells me I need to sit. I tell him I can’t, pointing at the couple and shrugging. “Please tell them to let me in.” He tells me there isn’t enough time, and guides me to a different seat.
I will spend the next 24 hours cursing this couple and wishing them the most horrible, violent things I can imagine. When the doors finally open, I have to wait for everyone else to get off the plane before I can get back to my seat and take my stuff. If it weren’t for this unnecessary delay, I probably would have ended up at a different immigration officer’s desk at passport control, and there’s a good chance everything would have been different.
Things were about to get worse. Much, much worse than I could ever imagine.
Back in 2008, I taught a master class at an international glass festival in the UK. The night before my flight, I received a call from one of the festival’s organizers. Apparently, several other artists were being held in Immigrations (they eventually managed to get out; I have no idea how). “Don’t mention anything about the festival at passport control”, I was told. “Just say you are in the UK to visit a friend”. Grateful for the advice, I did just that, and got through with no problems. I did the same on several other visits the the UK over the past three years.
You may think doing this is wrong. You may think this actually does make me a criminal. According to the law, you might be right. It might make you angry, I am aware of that. After giving it much thought, I have decided to be honest in this blog post – so, this is what happened. I hope you understand that I never had any evil intentions; all I ever wanted was to get through passport control as quickly as possible. The UK has always been one of my favorite places to visit, for many reasons. I absolutely never meant to cause any harm.
“What is the purpose of your visit to the UK?” asked the immigration officer.
“I’m visiting a friend”, I said.
“What’s your friend’s name?”
I gave him the name and address of someone I know in the UK. I wasn’t worried. They always ask these questions.
Instead of letting me through, he continued to question me. How do you know this person? How many times have you visited them since? What do they do for a living? What do you do for a living? Who paid for your flight? How much cash do you have with you? Can you show me your wallet please? How much credit do you have on your credit cards? Where do you live? Do you own property or do you rent? How much is your rent?
It went on and on, for what felt like hours. I answered all the questions, hoping that at some point he was just going to stamp my passport and say “okay, enjoy your visit”, but slowly getting the feeling that wasn’t going to happen.
He asked me to shut off my cellphone and sit on a bench in the corner. “I’m going to make some inquiries”, he said. “Please wait here. I’ll be back.” He took my passport with him.
I sat down, covered in cold sweat, my heart racing. I shouldn’t have lied. I shouldn’t have lied. I have to fix this before it’s too late. I got up and walked over to a different officer. “I have withheld some information about my visit to the UK”, I said. “I’d like to come forth and clear that up please.” The officer said she’d call the first guy, and I should go back to the bench and wait.
Things are going to be okay, I told myself. I’ll just apologize, cooperate and be honest, and this will all sort itself out.
Seated next to me on the bench was an Arabic-speaking man with two small boys. He told me he’d arrived with a tour group, and he and his children had been separated from the group; he had no idea why. When an officer arrived for them, the two boys, who had seemed perfectly happy until that moment, suddenly both burst into tears and loud sobbing, as if on cue. “Look – my poor boys are crying because they want to get back to the group”, the man told the officer. They were all taken away.
Whatever the hell is going on there, they will see that I am different, I quietly assume. They will easily see that I’m not some terrorist or criminal and determine that this whole thing is no big deal. I can get through this. I will get through this. Everything is going to be okay.
A few minutes later, my officer returned. “I understand there is something you want to tell me.”
I told him I was going to demonstrate at Art in Action and teach a couple of classes. He knew that already. Fuck you, Google.
He told me my bags were going to be searched and I was going to be detained.
“Detained? What does that mean? I’m a visiting artist. I’m not a criminal. I never meant to cause any harm.” I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my cheeks.
“It will be okay”, he said. “We’re not taking you to jail.”
“Your bags will be searched and then you will be taken to a holding room. You’ll just have to wait there until I have the time to interview you, and then we will decide what to do about this. I’m busy now, so it will be a couple of hours.”
A couple of friendly officers arrive to take me to collect my suitcase. They let me buy a diet coke from the vending machine on the way, so I decide to like them. They put on rubber gloves, open my bags and go through everything, asking questions about everything from my socks to my organ donor card. I have decided my best bet is to be as cooperative as possible, so I answer all their questions truthfully, thoroughly explaining everything that I can. They confiscate my business cards and my promotional material for Art in Action, but leave my boxes of jewelry and everything else in the suitcase. They take me to be fingerprinted. Then they take me to the holding room.
We have to get through two locked doors to get to the room, which is equipped with half a dozen security cameras. At first glance around, I can’t help but wonder if I was brought there as the token fair-skinned person. There are several people sitting in the room; most are just staring into space, a couple are crying and one woman is frantically talking on the payphone in a language I don’t recognize. I am told there are free drinks – coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water and juice – and shown a couple of baskets containing free food; one has apples and oranges and the other is full of biscuits (which taste like cardboard, as I will learn later). They ask if I want a sandwich, but I have no appetite. They ask if I want to pray, and show me a bookshelf full of various bibles, Qurans and other religious literature. “No, thanks”. I realize they are trying to cover their asses from any possible type of lawsuit.
After I am asked to check my wallet and sign a form declaring that none of my cash or credit cards were stolen, my bags are taken away and placed in a locked room by a female employee with a heavy lisp. I ask if I can use my cellphone.
“No”, she says, “It hath a camera and taking pictures ith not allowed. You can uthe the payphone.” I ask if I can write down some numbers from my contact list; this is allowed. Fortunately, just before my trip I finally decided to sort out the huge mountain of loose change I’ve accumulated from all my travels, so I had a small change purse chock-full of UK currency; these coins would be my life saver, enabling me to use the payphone.
I ask if I can take my Kindle out of my bag, so I can read while I’m waiting.
Apologetically, she tells me she knows nothing about Jewish traditions.
I explain that a Kindle isn’t a Jewish tradition, it’s an e-book reader. I show it to her. It has to stay in the bag in the locked room. I am taken back into the holding room. There is nothing to do there but sit and stare and hope for the best. Things are going to be okay. The guy will come back, he’ll interview me and realize that I’m no kind of dangerous criminal, and he’ll let me go.
The walls in the holding room are painted a pale mint green, brightly lit with fluorescent lighting. They remind me of a very different nightmare in my life, 13 years ago, when I was very ill and had to spend a night in the intensive care unit at the hospital. I was all alone and completely frantic. A kind nurse came by, trying to calm me, pointing out the pale green walls, which were the same color as her pale green uniform. “Green is a calming color”, she told me, “that’s why everything here is painted green. See my uniform? Just look at the walls, and you will feel calmer.”
Now, you all know how much appreciation I have for the psychological effects of color, but let me tell you this – when you are in a highly stressful situation, IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER WHAT COLOR THE WALLS ARE.
Don’t worry, I try to console myself. It’s all out of your control now. Just be cooperative and hope for the best. There’s nothing else you can do.
I sit there, clutching what’s left of my diet coke and staring at the green walls, waiting for the officer to come back. I have made a few phone calls; the organizers of Art in Action have somehow already heard about what’s going on and they’re doing their best to help me. Some are already on their way to the airport. They tell me to just try my best to keep my spirits up; everything will be okay. They’ll see me really soon, when I am coming out of those doors.
Eventually, the officer arrives and asks me to follow him into one of the interview rooms. He gives me back my business cards and promo material. Okay. He asks a million questions, all of which I answer completely truthfully. He writes my answers down on a sheet of paper. He asks why I lied at first. I tell him I had no bad intentions and was just trying to get through as quickly as possible. He asks if I did not know I needed a permit to demonstrate and teach in the UK. No, I honestly didn’t, nobody ever told me that I did. He says he doesn’t believe me; he thinks I was trying to be deceptive. I say I was not. He asks if I am aware that ignorance of the law is no protection against punishment. Yes. I am.
He tells me that many immigration officers aren’t doing their jobs, that’s the only reason I got through on previous visits. Not him. He sees things others don’t, he says. He knows how to do his job. It must be my lucky day.
I remember that couple from the airplane and hope they burn in hell.
He tells me he is now going to talk with his supervisor, and he is going to recommend that I get put on the next plane back to Israel, so that is most likely what is going to happen. I cry, beg and plead. I ask if there is anything at all I can do to change his decision. He says it is too late for me to get a permit – it’s ten to five and all the government offices close at five. There isn’t enough time. I ask if I can stay overnight and apply for an expedited permit the next day. The law says I must be put on the next flight; there is no way I can wait.
He says he has the power to ban me from the country for the next three years, but because he feels sorry for me, he isn’t going to recommend that. I stare at him in awe, wondering if he is expecting me to thank him. As if I’d ever want to come back here again anyway, I think to myself. I don’t fucking care.
He tells me he knows exactly what I’m thinking right now. And what might that be? He warns me not to try to reenter the UK using my American passport, because they will know who I am and then I will be banned. The thought actually hadn’t even occurred to me until he said that. I guess I am an amateur criminal.
The next flight is at 10pm. I have to stay in the holding room till then. I am given an egg mayo sandwich.
Sitting in the green room, utterly devastated and crying my eyes out, I realize a few things. I watch people being taken into interview rooms. Everyone – everyone – comes out of those rooms in tears. I realize that this is all just a formality; nobody is brought here to hear the words “sorry, this is all a big mistake, you will be granted entrance to the UK now”. Another Israeli girl comes out of one of the rooms sobbing; she is only 18. She tells me she came to the UK to volunteer at an animal rescue farm for a few weeks, and is being sent back on the same flight as me because she doesn’t have the appropriate papers. Being able to speak to someone in Hebrew, a language no one else there understands, is somewhat comforting for both of us.
I don’t really feel like talking to anyone, but I observe, and I listen to bits and pieces of conversation around the room. I realize that we are probably the more fortunate people in the room. Some of the others are being separated from their families, some are being sent back to the third-world countries they came from. Everyone has a story to tell; everyone is miserable. The holding room is not a pleasant place to be. I wonder if all the worst places in the world are painted green.
I use the payphone to communicate with my contact at Art in Action. They are already at the airport, explaining things to the officer who interviewed me and his supervisors, begging and pleading on my behalf. It seems that it is all up to that one officer. He has the ability to reverse his decision, but he just doesn’t want to. “We’re hitting brick walls”, they say. Even the Israeli embassy has gotten involved. Nothing is working.
At nine o’ clock, two officers show up to take me and the other girl to our flight. They take us all the way to the boarding gate and into the plane. They give our passports to a flight attendant; they are not to be returned to us before the plane takes off. As if there were some way we could escape the plane, run through the airport without getting caught – managing to get through passport control this time – and disappear into the UK, never to be found again, off to commit our heinous acts of volunteering at animal shelters and showing people how to make glass beads.
The Israeli security officer at the gate is kind and understanding. “I see this happening every day – it happens to the best”, he tries to console us. “It’s just a stroke of bad luck. That’s all it is. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
I feel like my whole world has been crushed. At this moment, there is nothing else left – nothing. Everyone else on the plane is in a good mood – Israelis returning from a great vacation in London, Brits on their way to catch a break of warm sunlight on Tel Aviv’s beaches, business people with suits and laptops on their way to important meetings. I feel like an outsider, humiliated, as if everyone else on the plane can tell I have been marked as a criminal and forbidden to enter one of my favorite countries. I think about the huge financial blow I have to deal with when I get home. I think about the miserable summer heat I wanted to get away from so badly. I think about all the people who would be going to Art in Action to learn I wasn’t there and all the students I wasn’t going to be able to teach. Crushed. Nobody asks about the tears running down my cheeks, and I don’t want to talk to anyone anyway.
This is as bad as it gets. Things could not possibly get any worse.
It’s been a while, and the plane isn’t moving. “There’s been a short delay”, says a voice on the speaker. “Please be patient”. All the passengers collectively sigh.
Whatever. Who gives a crap at this point.
On the bright side, my possessions have been returned to me and I can now use my iPhone, so I distract myself by reading all the nice comments people have posted on Facebook. The support is so overwhelming, it brings more tears to my eyes – but the good kind. I am incredibly exhausted and I just want to get home.
The voice returns after a while. “We think there is a problem with one of the plane’s engines”, it announces. “We are currently checking if the problem can be solved and if we can still take off tonight. If not, hotel arrangements will be made for everyone.”
Now, there is a collective “woohoo!” Everyone is excited to get a free night at a London hotel, who wouldn’t be? Hey, there have been flights back home where I’d wished something like this would happen, but it never has. It dawns on me that whatever happens, I’m not getting a free hotel stay. If the plane doesn’t take off, I’m going to be taken back to the holding room. I start to panic. “What’s going to happen to me?” I ask a flight attendant. “Don’t worry”, she says, “there’s still a chance they can fix the problem.”
Two and a half long, long hours later, it appears that they can’t. A woman shows up at my seat. “Please take your things and come with me.”
“Where are you taking me?!” I demand to know.
“You need to come with me.”
“I want to know what’s going on. I’m not leaving this plane. I want to speak to someone from the Israeli embassy. I want a lawyer. Get me a lawyer. NOW.”
“I need to take you back to the holding room, and you can ask to speak to whomever you want there”, she says. I contemplate throwing a fit. I feel like throwing a fit. I am majorly exhausted and depressed and seriously about to lose it. I wonder what would happen – would they take me to a psychiatric hospital instead of that holding room? Afraid that might be even worse and figuring it wouldn’t bring me any closer to Art in Action, I use my last bit of strength to keep it together as our belongings are taken from us again. We are put in a car and driven back to the room.
Once there, I am kicking and screaming. “I WILL NOT STAY HERE”, I tell the officers in charge. “GET ME A LAWYER. I WANT TO TALK TO SOMEONE FROM THE EMBASSY. I AM NOT A CRIMINAL. YOU CANNOT MAKE ME STAY HERE. I CANNOT TAKE THIS ANYMORE. THERE’S A LIMIT TO WHAT A PERSON CAN GO THROUGH IN ONE DAY.”
Two more officers show up. I cannot talk to the embassy because it’s 3 in the morning; everyone is sleeping. They can’t get me a lawyer. It’s not in their job description. All I can do is use the freaking payphone. They point to a list of phone numbers on the wall. There’a a 24-hour legal advice hotline. I dial the number. A 24-hour answering machine advises me to leave my name and phone number and they’ll get back to me as soon as they can. “Fuck!” I want to throw something, but there’s nothing in the room to throw. I stomp around the floor. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK.”
A friend of mine back home has contacted the Israeli Foreign Ministry; there’s nothing they can do until the morning.
I am given a smelly pillow and blanket. There are two beds in the room, but they are both taken. I stretch out on a row of hard plastic chairs. The bright fluorescent lights never get shut off; detainees must be supervised at all times. Fuck. My mind is racing and I see no possible way I can just fall asleep after all of this. However, at some point I do.
I wake up a couple of hours later. The next flight to Israel is at 3pm. We will have to wait here all day. The hours go by like weeks. I contact Art in Action to let them know I am still in the UK. They immediately continue their efforts to enable me to stay. There is a lot of time now, so maybe there is still a chance. Maybe the plane malfunction was the miracle I’d been hoping for. Maybe things could work out now. I begin to feel a little better.
But no. Nothing is working. After a miserably long and stressful wait, I ask if I can take a shower before the flight. I have been wearing the same clothes since the previous morning and I stink. They say we’ll be taken to the showers on the way to the boarding gate. I sigh with relief. It’s 2pm. “Is there going to be enough time?” I ask. “Shouldn’t we be leaving pretty soon?”
“Don’t worry”, they say, “the room with the showers is close to the gate. There will be plenty of time.”
Ten minutes later, they apologize and tell us there isn’t going to be enough time for a shower. We can change our clothes if we like. The other girl asks for her makeup bag. I don’t ask for mine. At this point, my appearance is the least of my concerns. I am still at the payphone, making calls to Art in Action. They’ve tried everything. Nothing is working. It’s over.
Once again, we are taken to the boarding gate. At the gate, the Israeli security officer hands us our passports back. The UK officers glare in protest. Once again, they escort us to our seats, making sure we can’t escape. They leave. The doors close behind them. The plane takes off.
A dear friend is waiting for me at the arrival hall in Israel. On the drive home, I begin to tell her the whole story. “So, yesterday… wait… YESTERDAY? Have I only been gone for one day? It couldn’t have been yesterday. No way. My sense of time is all screwed up.”
“It was yesterday”, she confirms.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot wrap my mind around this. I still can’t. It feels like I have been gone for a month.
I have learned that when your freedom is taken away for 24 hours and you finally get it back, it really puts everything into a different perspective. I am free, and nothing is more important than that. You begin to appreciate all the little things in life. I can walk out of the room and go outside if I want. I can take a shower (hallelujah). I can sleep in my own bed. I can use my phone and my computer and get online whenever I want. Hell, I can even read non-religious books on my Kindle. Nobody can tell me what to do. There are so many people in this world who are not so fortunate.
My glorious freedom aside – as previously mentioned, and as you can imagine, my business has suffered a terrible blow – one that I currently have no idea how to recover from. I have spent the last few months preparing for Art in Action. Never imagining anything like this would happen, I’ve invested lots of money in materials and endless amounts of time in preparation, and I now have a huge inventory of jewelry. It needs to sell, somehow. At least some of it.
I don’t like to use a sob story for my own financial gain, but I am desperate. Can you help?
You can use the coupon code
NOPLACELIKEHOME to get the discount (same code for both shops). I haven’t decided yet how long this will be running for, probably at least a few days.
If you can’t buy anything right now, maybe you could share the link to my shops or tell a friend about the sale? Any help I can get right now would be greatly, greatly appreciated.
UPDATE: The sale has ended. Thanks so much to everyone who took part in it. I am overwhelmed by your kindness and generosity.
Thanks to everyone for supporting me over the past couple of days. It means more to me than you can imagine.
Thanks to the organizers of Art in Action for inviting me back this year, and for making such a huge effort to help me stay. I know you did the best you could.