John Safran on his way to the promised land.
Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas leader who spied for Israel for a decade, was in Australia a few months ago on a speaking tour. I sat in the venue, a hotel banquet room, imagining the waiters were Mossad agents, ready to pull guns from behind their aprons at any moment.
It brought to mind my own run-in with the Israeli secret service, 21 years ago. It began at Sydney Airport. The ABC was sending eight unknowns around the globe to shoot a series of short documentaries. Our work would be screened each week on a program called Race Around The World.
A crew was filming our departure and, for the cameras, I dropped gold coins into a business-card machine at the airport and printed a stack of smart-alec cards.
A month or so later I touched down in Athens, an hour-long stopover on my way from Lebanon to Israel. Yet again I would have to flash my passport, and this made me nervous. We’d been sent off without the visas required for filming a television show. Apparently that was too complicated to organise. So I, like the other “racers”, had to lie that I was merely a tourist, despite the film gear
I was lugging.
I was surprised, but not that surprised, when two men in suits blocked me as I made my way through the terminal. Oddly, since this was Athens, they weren’t Greek – they were Israeli. They led me to a poorly lit back room, and I launched into my story about being a humble tourist and certainly not a filmmaker.
It became clear they weren’t worried about visas. Terrorism was on their minds. There was a direct flight from Lebanon to Israel so why, one of the men asked, had I taken this wholly unnecessary one-hour stopover in Athens?
Damn. A genius in the production office had decided I might draw attention to myself – and thus the absence of a filming visa – if I flew into Israel directly from one of its enemy nations. So she’d added a stop in Athens.
And why, the besuited man continued, was my flight to Israel the only first-class flight in my worldwide tour? In another genius move, my pal in the production office had thought a first-class ticket would also draw less attention. Only riffraff in economy will be considered terrorism suspects, she’d reasoned.
With millions f lying to Israel each year, I was impressed that they’d spotted these details. They spooled through the tape in my video camera. I’d been staying in an apartment building in Lebanon and had noticed tanks rolling by below; for no particular reason,
I’d pointed the camera. But it suddenly looked like surveillance. I just found tanks interesting, I stammered.
They asked if I was Jewish. When
I said yes, they started asking questions about Shabbat, Hanukkah and other Jewish rituals. They were trying to trip me up, expose me as an undercover gentile who didn’t know what a dreidel was.
The men left the room, one wheeling my luggage behind him.
Twenty minutes later, one of the men returned. He was gripping the stack of business cards I’d printed at Sydney Airport. Ah, I’d forgotten about those. He held one up, and even though the lighting wasn’t great, I could read it clearly: John Safran. International Terrorist and Heroin Trafficker. My phone number and address were printed below. In my defence, this was before 9/11.
“This is humour?” the man asked, as serious as can be. I squeaked yes, yes it was.
He left and returned five minutes later with my luggage. With a face that revealed nothing, he told me I could go.
I mumbled my thanks and headed towards my gate. What had saved my arse? My best guess was reverse psychology. A person with a business card declaring himself a terrorist was unlikely to be one.
I learnt an important lesson that day. Sarcasm and inappropriate humour will always serve you well. I went on to streak naked through Jerusalem for my short doco in Israel. The Race Around The World judges awarded it first place that week. ●