Borders and Frames

One may have noticed that I have travelled a smidgeon in the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Jordan and Egypt over the course of the last few years, and politically mapped boundaries (set out by the English and French ages back without consideration to history or cultural traditions) must be hopped over multiple times in my job of leading tourists round these parts. Border crossings here can span the scope of easy as pie (Jordan: pay 10 Jordanian Dinar (JOD), get visa, head to Amman) to just damned obnoxious (Syria: file paperwork, pay 16 USD, sit at duty free and cafeteria for 3 to 8 hours, cross fingers that they remember you sitting there, eventually get visa, hitch ride to Damascus in cramped taxi full of smoking men). Let me just mention that I actually didn’t really mind the whole process at the Jordan to Syria crossing and, because I had become such a constant figure here, had made kindly acquaintances with a few of the border police and customs agents who had begun to laugh and say “you again?” upon seeing me. This was all well and good and gave me plenty of time to enjoy a strong coffee, munch upon hummus and bread and eyeball the fine selection of single malts stocking the shelves of the duty free shop … that is until President Obama decided to continue with the idiotic sanctions imposed during the Bush dynasty against Syria for another year. After many years of trying to prove to the West that they are not part of an “axis of evil” and that Americans have never been on their hit-list, Syria has now finally, and rightfully, retaliated, and now citizens of the United States can no longer get a visa “on the spot”. These new regulations, put in place to basically say “you make it difficult for us, we’ll make it a bitch for you”, mean I would have to go back to the US and apply in my country or origin for a Syrian visa, making things MUCH more annoying and costly for someone who now calls Poland home and hasn’t set foot on US soil in roughly five years.

But let’s move on, shall we?

Technically speaking, the border crossing from Jordan into Israel at the Sheikh Hussein / Jordan River Valley Crossing is as easy as getting Courtney Love to pop a few more prescription pills or snort one more line of coke. The average Joe would simply pay the 8 JOD exit fee from Jordan, hop a pointless bus that makes an entire 300 metre jaunt through no-man’s-land, get out to have your bags scanned in Israel, receive your passport stamp (on a separate piece of paper, mind you, if you ever want to gain entry into a few countries that do not recognise the state of Israel) and grab a ride to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or wherever else curiosity or your religious calling wishes to take you. All this can get as sloppy as a drunk staggering home through the snow whilst eating a kebab if you, like myself, have ever been in Syria before. Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last 60 or so years, Syria and Israel have not been snuggling under the bedsheets on cold nights or even been the least cordial of buddies for that matter. Ever since Israel captured most of the Golan Heights in 1967, the powers that be in Damascus refuse to sign any peace agreement until the land is handed back, which, of course, Israel refuses to do. For the last few decades they have not been lobbing explosives over to each other, but if international pressure wasn’t so tough, there might be a bit more than nasty name-calling going on given the chance. With me being a tour leader in Syria multiple times a year, my occupation tends to leave a few trace elements of smudged stamping or full-page visa stickers in my passport that the authorities in Israel look suspiciously upon. Whilst the clients I do my best to take care of happily skip through this political barrier with a look of rapture on their faces as they enter the Holy Land, I get a work-over that is akin to a wart-covered, feline-loving unmarried woman in her mid-40s in Salem during the years of 1692-63. After rummaging through my luggage and shaking their heads with a ’tisk tisk’ muttered subtly under the breath as they hold aloft a copy of a Syrian guidebook on historical sites, the questioning begins: “Why were you in Syria? How many times? Do you have friends there? Why would you have a US passport but live in Poland? Do you know the airspeed of an unladen swallow?” They then take away my passport, point to a bench and leave me to sit for an hour or so, during which time, my once joyous clients are sitting free on the opposite side of the wall of customs wondering if I have been shot, imprisoned, denied entry or burnt at the stake.

A word of advice: One major thing I have learned in travelling is that you NEVER EVER piss off border guards! Just grin and bear it. If you have taken nothing from my stories before, and I can’t really see why you might have in the first place, please heed this warning! I have watched many a daft individual pitch a hissy-fit because “visa fees were too high” or “it was taking too long to get through customs”. Ever not want to get into a country? Just complain and scream a bit more; that will almost always work.

Now, I have to mention here that there is an up side to this border purgatory. For some reason that I cannot account for, 98% of the Israeli guards at this specific locale are all female … and young females at that. I am not trying to act like a “typical male” in any way, but I guess clarification does need to be made so that I don’t come across as more of a sleazy minded pervert than I typically am. After a month or so of concealed figures and head-scarves, the sight of long flowing hair and tight-fitting uniforms on working women are a sight to behold when departing the more conservative Muslim majority regions! Maybe I should actually disclose that it is more the sudden change of scenery that I drop my jaw at than a preference thing, especially considering I find many of the younger more liberal Muslim women amazingly stunning with their faces framed in elegantly wrapped cloth. That which is unseen plays upon the imagination, and the air of mystery is enthralling! But I guess the best way to sum up my wide-eyed staring and slack jaw is by repeating something a wise man once said: sometimes you “read it for the articles”, other times you just need to flip straight to the centrefold.