I slunk into the chair next to Patrick and Paul, who turned to me expectantly but without speaking.
“Well,” I started in answer to their gaze, “on the bright side, looks like we might go back to Porto Rafti today.”
I barely had time to explain before I was called back in again. The pregnant woman still sat with fingers interlaced, but standing beside her was the first official who questioned us. Her arms were crossed and she watched me until I sat down. Suddenly she flew forward and slammed the door.
“You lied to me!” she yelled as she returned to the other side of the table. “You are a liar!”
I immediately started sweating. This was now going much worse than I anticipated. I took a deep breath to regain my composure.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I didn’t lie.”
“You did not tell me you were volunteering,” she retorted.
I countered, “You didn’t ask me if I was volunteering.”
Her jaw tightened and she slammed her fist on the table.
“You are a liar!” she cried and pointed her finger at me. “If you lie, you think you can get in to Israel? I am the authority and I get to decide to let you back in or not! If you want to get in to Israel you need to tell the truth!”
I assured her that I meant to do so. So the interrogation began.
“You did not tell me you have been volunteering,” she repeated. “Where have you been working?”
I said I wrote and edited with an NGO in Jerusalem.
Her tone seemed confident enough that I decided not to test her knowledge of my life.
“I have also worked with a center for youth and adults with developmental disabilities near Bethlehem.”
The woman from immigration now spoke: “You have to have a volunteer visa for this.”
This was news to me, and I told her so.
“You can’t do what you’re doing,” she persisted. “You can’t have a three-month visa and then leave and then come back and get another three-month visa.”
“Since when?” I answered with a furrowed brow. I was willing to concede that the policy may exist somewhere in fine print but it certainly wasn’t regularly enforced. “Everybody does this. When people leave to go to Jordan and come back, you just give them another three months. I’ve seen this.”
She seemed to ignore me.
“You’re only allowed one three-month visa per year.”
“Since when?” I said again. “I was here last March and then came back in September and then got another visa in November.”
“It’s always been this way.”
I pressed the issue and said, “Is there somewhere where I could read about this?”
She looked up in the air and shrugged.
“Uh, Ministry of Tourism, maybe.”
The first woman turned to face the wall behind her and continued her line of questioning.
“You did not tell me you have been to Hebron.”
“Well, I haven’t.”
She spun around with fierce alacrity.
“I’ve read your blog. You’ve been to Hebron.”
I remembered a story I wrote about an excursion to Hebron during the summer I worked as a journalist.
“But that was a year ago,” I objected. “You didn’t ask me where I went a year ago, you asked where I went on this trip.”
“That is a lie!” she maintained.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, and I think I said it sincerely.
She placed both palms on the edge of the table and leaned forward until she was halfway across to me. I leaned back as much as I could.
“I have every reason now to deport you,” she said. “If I do, you will be banned from reentry for ten years.”
I looked from face to face and wondered why Patrick and Paul hadn’t been invited to share in this experience with me.
“Tell me why I should let you back in to Israel,” she said, pacing beside my chair.
My mouth hung open as I scrambled for compelling reasons. I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Well, we, we help the economy, I mean, we’re, we’re buying things here.”
I bit my tongue, surprised that I used capitalism as an excuse for a visa. She almost laughed.
“A lot of people help the economy. You’re not that special. Give me another reason!”
“Umm, my dad is coming to do medical lectures at Ben Gurion University in a week, and so we are hoping to meet up with him.”
She clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth, unimpressed.
“That’s not good enough, give me another reason.”
I thought for a moment and said, “It’s going to cost a lot of money for us to change our flights from April to now and we don’t have much money.”
“I don’t care how much money it costs you,” she shrugged. “These are not good reasons.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, raising my hands in exasperation, “but you asked me to give you reasons, and I’m just trying to give you the reasons that you asked for.”
“How long have we been holding you now?” she asked, standing behind the woman from immigration who still sat with her stocky arms on the table.
“Three-and-a-half hours?” I guessed.
She smirked. “Well, it’s been a lot longer than that, and I don’t mind keeping you all night until you start talking.”
“I’m trying to answer the questions that you’re asking me!” I exclaimed.
“If you had told me the truth three-and-a-half hours ago, you would have had no problems and gotten out.”
She tried to continue but I interrupted.
“Wait, wait a minute,” I said confused. “You’re saying that if I had told you we had volunteered with Palestinians in the West Bank, you would have let us through, immediately, without any questions?”
Both of them looked at me and said, “Yes, of course.”
I laughed and said “Really?” I wanted to say, “How come I can’t lie, but you can lie?” I resisted that temptation.
The official pointed at the door and ordered, “Get out. Go wait outside.”
Patrick said they could hear her yelling at me, catching words like liar, deportation, ten years. He also said he was glad it was me and not him. Then, for the last time, I was called back in to the office. Only the pregnant woman from immigration sat there. She sat very still and spoke calmly.
“Even though you lied to us, and even though you have not told us what we have asked for at every turn, we will give each of you a one-month visa.”
“Is there any way that we could get two months?” I requested slowly and softly for fear of treading on thin ice. “Our flight is April 23rd and that’s all we want.”
“No, I can’t! I should actually deport you now because you lied, and you’ll be banned for ten years.”
“Well,” I gulped, “I guess we’ll take the one month.”
After four-and-a-half-hours we walked outside to a cool night, one I barely noticed. I numbly climbed into a transport van just outside the terminal. All I wanted was to sit by a fire in the house on the hill. Thinking could wait until later. I let my head smack against the window. The sun had already gone down across the Mediterranean and we drove to Jerusalem in darkness.