“Is this all of the luggage you have?” the security guard asked me.
“Yes, it is.” I replied
“Is this your only passport?” she asked.
“Yes.” I said, a little confused.
The guard told me to wait because security needed to ask some questions. I was in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, and was about to fly solo to Israel for six days during my Easter break. I knew security was going to be a little more thorough this time, but I didn’t expect to have problems.
A man who could be no more than 35-years-old with a bald head and a full beard asked me to come with him. I followed him to a small desk in the check-in area. He started flipping through the pages of my passport, looking at stamps from Romania, Belgium, Portugal, and about twelve other countries.
“What is your purpose for going to Israel,” he asked.
“Touristic reasons, I am going to be in Jerusalem for six days.” I said with a smile.
“Are you alone?” he said.
“Yes” I replied.
“Do you know anybody there, or are you meeting anybody?” he asked.
“No” I replied.
“Well, Gabrielle, I think your story is quite strange. You are going to Israel alone for six days with only two small bags, and you don’t know anybody there,” he said questioningly.
I stared at him blankly, not sure what to say. I have traveled alone to places like Morocco and Turkey without anybody looking twice. I understood how bad this all looked. I was 20-year-old girl, going alone, and only packed two bags.
“Why do you want to go to Israel? Why not go someplace where the other students go, like Barcelona?” my interrogator asked in a patronizing tone.
“I like interesting places with not as many tourists. Besides, I’ve already been to most of Europe,” I said.
“I can see that, even Eastern Europe.” he said while he flipped through my passport.
He asked for my hostel reservation and I pulled it up on my phone. My hands started to shake and I was started to get the sense this man was not going to let me on my plane.
“Why are you so nervous?” he asked.
“I feel very uncomfortable right now,” I said.
My interrogator asked how long I have been in Italy and for what purpose. I explained how I was a study abroad student and I have been here since January. When he asked which university I went to I replied with John Cabot in Trastevere.
“Why do you go to such an expensive school?” he asked.
“It was one of the programs my university in the United States offered. Would you like to see my permit to stay?” I offered.
He took my document and examined it, still looking unconvinced.
“Don’t you have homework to do? When are your exams?” he questioned.
I explained that I did my homework in advance and that exams were in about two weeks. Then I would leave Italy in May to go back to the United States.
“Do you know any Middle Eastern people at your university?” he asked.
I told him I did not.
My interrogator said they needed to search my bags. He took me to a small room a table and a giant machine. Another man with a friendlier face came into the room and put on some blue latex gloves. He started with my small suitcase that only had clothes, towels, and shower shoes. He took everything out and swabbed the inside and all of my stuff to search for bomb residue. When he finished, he tried to repack my suitcase, I offered to do it myself.
Next, I helped him unpack my backpack. I laid out all of its contents and told him about my camera and iPad. “Are you a student?” he asked as he pulled out two books, by Orhan Pamuk and Suzy Hanson, and two notebooks. I said yes and that I was studying journalism. He flipped through the books, and notebooks until he came across some Arabic letters in one.
“What is this?” he asked.
“One of my friends was teaching me some Arabic,” I replied.
The man called my interrogator who came in and examined the Arabic in my notebook. “Who taught you this?” he said angrily. I said the same answer I told the last guy.
“So you lied to me knowing the consequences?” he said.
“No, you asked me if I knew any Middle Eastern people from my university. This one does not go to John Cabot,” I said.
“I didn’t ask about only your university, I asked about Rome.” he said.
“That is not what I heard, I’m sorry for misunderstanding your question.” I said.
I explained I met this friend through Hummustown, and organization that helps Syrian refugees. I also had to describe how my graphic design class is working with Hummustown on branding their company. My interrogator asked why I picked Hummustown for my project.
“My professor picked it, I had nothing to do with the choice.” I said.
Then he left the room and I went back to helping the man searching through my stuff. When my interrogator came back, he said,
“I can let you get on the plane, but since you lied to us, you have to check all of your things. You can only carry your purse and cell phone.”
I asked about my camera equipment since it was worth a couple thousand dollars. He said I would have to check that too. Along with checking my things, I also had to go through a full pat down which might have to include taking my clothes off. He said I had to decide quickly because my plane was going to take off in 20 minutes.
I went to the check-in counter and asked about getting on the next flight so I could have time to safely secure my camera in my checked luggage. The employee said it depended on what kind of insurance I had and they couldn’t tell me if I would get on the next flight or not. My interrogator pressured me to make a decision. I spent a lot of money on this flight and I didn’t want to lose it. “Okay, I’ll go,” I said. I wanted to be on that plane.
I dropped to the ground and started putting the contents of my backpack into my suitcase. I was going to have to throw away my towels, shower shoes, soap, books, and notebooks. When I felt that my camera and iPad were safe in my suitcase, I looked up. There was nobody there. The check-in area was completely empty. No security guards or employees at the check-in desks.
My plane was about to depart and I waited in the check-in room. I thought someone was going to get a female security guard to do the pat down. Time kept passing and nobody came for me. While I waited, I packed and re-packed my suitcase to see if I could fit in anything else. It pained me to have to throw away Pamuk, Hanson, and my notebooks with my drawings and thoughts.
Forty minutes had passed, and my flight had long since taken off. An employee for the airline came into the waiting area, she had just arrived to work. I asked her if my flight had taken off. She replied that it had.
“How long have you been waiting here?” she asked.
“About forty minutes, I was suppose to go through some extra security but nobody came back,” I replied.
She looked at me in horror and pulled out her phone to call someone. “They said you declined to be searched, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.” she said.
I walked back to my suitcase, feeling defeated. I unpacked everything and put it back in its designated spot. Then, I picked up all of my stuff and made my way back to Trastevere. On the bright side, at least I got to keep Pamuk.