TRAVEL MEM­OIR

John Safran on his way to the promised land.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News -

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. ●

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