Asked to Strip by Security Guard, Palestinian Artist Refuses to Fly to Israel

Nasreen Abu Bakr was due to travel from Berlin to participate in an exhibition in Haifa, but suffered 'degrading' treatment and did not board her El Al flight

Palestinian artist Nasrin Abu Baker, who was born in the Zalafa village outside Haifa, Israel.
Nasser Khattab

After a series of humiliating incidents at the hands of Israeli security guards, Israeli-Palestinian artist Nasreen Abu Bakr, who was supposed to fly from Berlin to Tel Aviv last weekend, decided not to board the flight.

The artist, due to participate in an exhibition called “The Moon’s Reflection on the Asphalt,” at the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa, underwent what she called a “degrading, exhausting and bizarre interrogation” by El Al airlines security personnel at the Berlin airport.

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Abu Bakr, who has been living in Leipzig in recent months while pursuing a master’s degree, arrived last Friday at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport for an El Al flight to Ben-Gurion International Airport. She says she was asked to strip in the presence of a male security guard, and was also told that her carry-on luggage had to be checked in, among other things. She refused and decided not to board the plane.

The art show in question, due to open March 28, is the culmination of the months-long Women's Leadership in Culture project, involving groups of Jewish and Palestinian women artists working in Jerusalem, Haifa and Lod.

“I’ve been working on the project for the exhibition for a year,” Abu Bakr told Haaretz. “They [the organizers] ordered my plane ticket via El Al, and I brought with me two rolled-up paintings and a small knapsack that you are allowed to take onboard” – or so she hoped.

“Already when I arrived at the first security check, I underwent an interrogation, and was asked exhausting and strange questions. For example, they asked me: ‘Why did you renew your passport in Jerusalem, if you were born in the north?’ And, ‘Why did you bring a rug to Israel?’ – when they were actually referring to the rolled-up canvas. I showed them the invitation [to the art show], but they continued to disparage me.

"Later they asked me if I had electrical devices in my bag. I told them I had an electric brush and they asked me to have my carry-on bag checked in, and put in the luggage compartment of the plane. I thought that was strange but I agreed.”

"Woman, Prickly Pears, Fish, Red Crescent," by Palestinian artist Nasrin Abu Baker (2018)
Nasrin Abu Baker

Abu Bakr thought the humiliating questioning had ended, but when she arrived at the boarding gate, “they took me for another inspection and asked me to strip. Among those who asked me to undress was one of the male security guards.” She said he came into the room "to explain or stress that if I didn’t obey the security people, I couldn’t board the plane.

She said she was surprised that "the guard entered the room when there were already two women from security there. At that point I said I refused, and they told me that in that case I wouldn’t be able to get on the flight. I said I refused to board and they returned my bag, which had been carelessly closed.”

'Shocking and violent'

Abu Bakr, 42, grew up in the village of Zalafa, outside Haifa, and lived in Ramallah and Jerusalem in recent years. She was an art teacher for five years, and worked at the Israel Museum and the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. She told Haaretz that she still plans to participate in the Haifa exhibition in spite of what she went through and said the curators are trying to order another ticket for her – “but not with El Al,” she stresses.

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Have you ever undergone such a humiliating security check?

“No. I usually travel with other airlines. There’s often questioning, but I have never had such a tough experience. At a certain point in the inspection I asked the security guard if they were treating me like that because I have an Arab name. He asked, ‘Why did you choose to fly with us, if you knew that it’s like this?’

“He spoke very condescendingly to me and made me feel very small while he was the strong one. Friends had warned me not to fly with El Al. Everyone knows that flying with them ruins the whole experience. While I was waiting for my bag, the female security inspectors Googled me, and were seemingly excited to discover that I’m an artist. I didn’t understand whether it was a game, whether they were trying to be nice despite their job, or whether they were just trying to get additional information about me.”

Yeala Hazut-Yanuka, a co-founder of the Women’s Leadership in Culture project and head of the arts department at the British Council cultural and educational center, says that organizers of the three-month-long exhibition were shocked to hear about the incident. She said that they had checked in advance with a travel agency to ascertain that Abu Bakr could board the flight with her personal belongings.

“This is a shocking and violent story,” said Hazut-Yanuka. “The project, which was conducted throughout the past year, took place despite extreme social and political situations. We managed to create a profound connection among the participants, most of whom come from a traditional religious background.

“This is a project that was designed to create an alternative to the fraught and violent situation here. I’m sorry that after we’ve come such a long way with such impressive results, we’re being confronted by reality, which is training a spotlight on this injustice, and that there has been such great humiliation.”

Hazut-Yanuka added that the show in Hagefen's gallery will feature a summary of the activities held as part of the project and artwork created in different media.

“The works," she said, "touch on various issues touching on the shared challenges of Jewish and Arab society, which are related to breaking the glass ceiling.”

El Al said in response, "the passenger and her luggage were checked in accordance with the procedures and guidelines drawn up by governmental authorities."