Heathrow airport

September 8, 2017

Standing in a long line, cursing myself for yet again forgetting to renew my Bulgarian passport that would have given me access to the Fast Track. A few steps away from me, the "Fast Track" for EU citizens was totally clear. It looked shiny clean, with all its high tech scanners and automatic glass doors, I could almost hear background music of heavenly angel singing, inviting me there, luring me in, the soundtrack abruptly disrupted by an imaginary electric guitar screech, "No fast track for you today!".
I was trying to calm myself with the thought that maybe all this would be irrelevant anyway when/if/how the UK completes Brexit, when I noticed the person in front of me had dropped his border control form. I picked it up for him. The man was from an Arab country, and here I am, an Arab too, but from a country he might consider the enemy. Or not. Here we all are, Israelis, Africans, Arabs, Asians, all in the same line, all minorities here, all asking to be let in. My turn arrives. I am herded, by an Indian elderly female officer, to one of the booths, and the British border person greets me, I extend my papers, including a working visa, sponsored by the festival I came here to participate in. The man now tells me he has to go confirm this visa, but that regulations prevent him from leaving me standing at his booth unsupervised, and he apologizes repeatedly for having to take me aside, to wait in what he humouristically called "The naughty room", which he hurried to clear up "It's not really the naughty room, ok? You've done nothing wrong!". I laughed heartedly "I know I haven't". Then he stood up, which made me laugh even harder "Oh my, aren't you tall?!". The man was over two meters for sure, I was just embarrassed to ask how much more. Huge huge guy! And now I am walking in front of all the lines, accompanied by the gentle giant in uniform, and we are laughing our way to the naughty room, where I now see is populated with everyone who you might label as immigrant. There was an Afghan family there, a Chinese old man, a black young man, an Eastern European young woman, and now, me. The officer kept apologizing for this, it was on the tip of my tongue to say that it was not the first time I'm considered naughty, or that while in the UK I'm a foreigner, I sometimes had to go through the same in my own country, but I decided it might not be that smart to joke around about these things at that moment. So here I am, together with all the other underdogs of the Western world -is it any wonder where my sympathy lies?-. I watched the worry on these people's faces, I tried to imagine their stories, are they living here? Working? Just visiting? Was it their life dream to see the Big Ben or the guard switch at Buckingham palace? I myself was not worried, what could be the worst to happen? A problem with my visa? Surely it would be cleared up, and if not, well, there's always a flight home. I have a home. What if this Afghan family doesn't? What about all the other people in all the other naughty rooms in all the other airports in the world, who are waiting to be let in? From afar I see my border officer, his head floating above all the other people, he is smiling, I am being let out before I even come up with a punch line for this story. We go back to his booth, and now we're trying to find a vacant page in my passport for all the stamps Mr Giant needs to punch my passport with. "So now I can say welcome to the UK, Shalom!", I laugh, "That's all I know in Hebrew unfortunately", he says. "That's the most important word", I reply, and add "Maybe your Arabic is better?", "Oh, you're an Arabic speaker? Salam then!", and then he throws all the Arabic words he knows at me, definitely a bigger vocabulary than his Hebrew, and surprisingly well pronounced. He even knew how to say "Put your thumb on the scanner please", the word Thumb not being one of the first words you'd learn in a new language. So I wondered if he had learned Arabic for the job, and he said no, he'd learned it in Jordan, where he had a wonderful time. He had asked someone to teach him a few sentences, in order to speak to his "customers" in their native language, he felt it put people at ease, when they hear their language. I felt I agreed, but I had that face, where I'm also sceptical, or when my brain is rendering. He noticed the rendering face, and asked "You don't agree?". "Well, it could be a double edged sword", "How so?", "It's like when some Israelis speak Arabic to me. Some of them learn the language out of curiosity and respect, and know it well, but some learn a few words during their military service and they feel an urge to flaunt them around when they meet Arabs. The problem is their vocabulary is quite limited to "Give me your ID", or "Hands up or I'll shoot!", and well, that does not put me at ease at all". I'm laughing hard, he's not, his eyes wide open, I felt he needed reassurance, "So, for example, when you ask for the thumb scan, add the fact that a Jordanian friend taught you how to say that, like you did with me, it makes it personal". He nodded, "Got a point there". He was so nice and pleasant, I wanted to give him a hug at the end of our border control encounter, but I think it wouldn't have been well received by border control superiors, so we parted as the strangers we met, and I crossed the yellow line symbolising the border. Welcome to the UK, Shalom, Salam

 

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