This morning we arrived in Nuweiba, the Egyptian border town from where the boat for Jordan departs. You see if you tried to go overland through Israel, which would be much quicker, it would mean you couldn’t visit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran… do I need to go on? An Israeli stamp in your passport renders it completely useless when it comes to travelling around the Middle East, so your best bet is to take the boat.
Unfortunately for me, the ferry was very late departing and it was dark before I arrived in Jordan. Ahh, Jordan… Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and – best of all – Petra. Petra is the rose-red city of legend, set amongst sandstone chasms were beautiful buildings were carved out of the solid rock. You would have seen a little bit of it at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the city’s treasury doubled as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon.
But alas, I would not be partaking in these delights – I’ve procrastinated enough! I should be in Turkey by now!! I arrived in Amman at about 2am, too late to politely meet up with my couchsurf contact Simon, and so checked into the hostel that the Lonely Planet told me to and got my head down for the night.
Today, I just hung out in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Didn’t do nothin’.. just hung about. Didn’t go anywhere that might jeopardise my entry into other Middle Eastern countries, nope. Erm, how was your day?
Yes, as some of you have already sussed out: I went to Israel today.
Sorry, I couldn’t say that until I got out of my last major islamic country (that being Indonesia). Won’t let me in, see?
And before I go off on a mad rant about how ridiculous the policy of most islamic countries who deny entry to people who have an Israeli stamp in their passport is, here’s a quick list of other passport stamps to avoid:
Cuba… if you want to get into the US without any hassle, it pays to not have a Cuban stamp in your passport.
Nagorno-Karabakh… Where?! Good question! It was part of Azerbaijan until the 90s when it was annexed by neighbouring Armenia. That being the case, a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp in your passport will deny you entry to Azerbaijan.
Iraq… rather unhelpful if you’re trying to get into Kuwait.
Malawi… bizarrely enough, a Malawi stamp in your passport will present a problem if you want to visit Algeria. Weird eh?
Countries that you would think would be a problem, but bizarrely aren’t:
South Korea… you would think a South Korean stamp would prevent later access to North Korea, but no! Come right in!!
Taiwan… given the historic animosity between Taiwan and China, you might think it would be a problem to have a Taiwanese stamp in your little travel book, but you’d be wrong: China and Taiwan now actually have a ferry service which runs between the two countries!
Pakistan… considering that India and Pakistan have been fighting a cold (and occasionally extremely hot) war for the best part of 63 years now, you might think that a Pakistan stamp would preclude you from entry into India. No so!
Kosovo… them Serbs really don’t like them Kosovans do they? But no worries: as long as you don’t try to get into Serbia straight from Kosovo (go to Montenegro first!) you’ll get in with no problems, except you might even get an extra stamp in your passport: one over the top of your Kosovo stamp saying “Annulled”.
Actually, the rant can wait, for now I’m happy just to tell you how I got in and out of Israel without any of the Muslim countries I plan to enter being any the wiser. Woohahaha!
So I was in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I knew that even though I could ask the Israel border guards (very nicely) not to stamp my passport, the exit stamp from Jordan or Eygpt would always give me away. There is just one way of getting in and out of Israel overland without leaving a trace: and that’s to enter over the Allenby Bridge just north of the Dead Sea.
You see, the Jordanians still claim sovereignty over the West Bank: they won’t stamp you out at the Allenby Bridge as they don’t consider you to have left their country! A bit of a weird set up, but there you go!
So it was a short ride on a coach to the ‘border’ and soon enough I was being shepherded on a shuttle bus over to the Israeli side of things. That is the room with the Israeli guards in the Palestinian Authority not stamping me into what Jordan regards as part of Jordan.
And here’s me thinking that the plot of Lost is pretty complicated.
I crossed over with an American girl. Looking a lot like a great big hippy who was travelling with nothing more than a camera (I left my backpack in Amman), I guess it could have got a ton of stick when crossing the border – especially since I was asking for my passport not to be stamped.
But hurrah for ethnic profiling! (Oh don’t be like that, the last time a scouser blew something up it was a big balloon at the 1954 World Fair) I was stamped in (on a separate piece of paper) and ushered through customs without so much as a sideways glance.
The American girl wasn’t as lucky – they took her off to a side-room and gave her the verbal interrogation procedure I’ve heard so much about. The funny thing was that I had all the things I wanted to say in my head from the many times I’ve been grilled by the border Vogons when I’ve entered Australia.
In the end, they allowed her in and I jumped on the bus to Jerusalem, the Ground Zero of those three peaceful religions that like nothing more than to con, corrupt, enslave or kill as many of their fellow beings as humanly possible. Now I’m no expert on deities, but I’m pretty sure if I was a huge super-human beardy man with big glowy eyes from beyond the stars, capable of creating the entire universe in a week, Jerusalem is not where I would choose to get my groove on.
It would be a bit like Doctor Who having a box that can go anywhere in time and space and yet spending most of his time in 21st century Croydon. Madness!
Oh, hang on…
I mean there’s a nice old section with the market an’ all, but it’s nothing on Rome.
The bus went past the checkpoint that marked the ‘security fence’ and in doing so crossed over into the Israeli bit of Israel (although the bit I just left is run by Israelis too). So now I could tick Israel and Palestine off my list. If this had been 2009, I would have hurried back to Jordan as quickly as I could, but this year I’m taking it easy, collecting stories and learning a little more about the places I visit; so I set off to explore the old city.
The old city is cut into quarters between the Screaming Rug Butters, the Noncy Christ Fanciers, the Wacky Hatted Heebie-Jeebies and the Quite Frankly Miscellaneous. Not really my kind of town, but the winding stone walkways are quite charming and there’s a nice vibe around the place – I wasn’t as on edge as I thought I would be. Unlike Nicosia, there is a free flow of people around the city, something that I hope stays in place even if and when Palestine is given self-determination.
I made my way to the Wailing Wall as I heard it’s a groovy place to watch people doing mad stuff. I wasn’t wrong: there were all these people dressed up as Abraham Lincoln stuffing little messages into the wall, much in the manner of a small child posting a letter to Santa. I imagined them all scribbling down their little prayers asking for Nintendo Wiis and red liquorice, thinking that the neater their handwriting the more Santa God would think they have been a good little boy decent grown man and give them a stocking full of yummy chocolate save their grandmother from cancer.
My mind then shimmied over to the idea that they were praying for world peace, but that annoyed me to: we could have world peace if these loonies would stop doing this sort of crazy stuff like any of it actually mattered. I’m sorry – but they’re like people who smoke; they make children believe that this sort of behaviour is respectable, or, even worse, normal.
I turned to go when an Lubavitch Jew greeted me with a handshake and a warm smile. He wanted to know where I was from in his oddly-twanged American accent, when I told him Liverpool he said no way – he was from Manchester. There’s a Manchester in America? I thought. Ah, but hang on, I’ve met Pikey kids born and bred in Liverpool who sound Irish, so why not? I asked him if he knew Rabbi YY and he did a double-take: of course I know him! Are you Jewish?
I flashed a cheeky grin, nah: I’m just well travelled. He was from Manchester in the UK. We had a good old natter there, me and Dan, my new friend with the curly sideburns. If I needed a place to stay the night, there was a guy he knew who’d be willing to take me in. I thanked him for his generosity and went on my way.
I didn’t get very far before I came upon a strange sight: what looked like a jumble sale set up on the square. But this was noordinary jumble sale! The trestle tables, instead of being piled high with broken boardgames and old Beano annuals, were piled high with brown books and semi-automatic weaponry.
I asked a young girl in uniform what was happening. She told me that it was a falling out ceremony for the new Israeli Defence Force “recruits” (by that I assumed she meant “conscripts”) – and the books weren’t unwanted Encyclopaedia Britannicas; they were Bibles. Oh God: they were giving these young whippersnappers a deadly weapon used to kill more people than smallpox… AND a gun!
I made a beeline for the bus-stop back to Jordan, picking up a sneaky falafel on the way. But, alas: the last bus left at some ridiculously early hour of the afternoon… I would be stuck in Jerusalem for the night, with no luggage and no coat. Oh well. I turned back to the old town and sought out a backpackers to lay my weary head for the night. Well, somewhere I could lay my weary head after a night out on the sauce I mean.
I checked into a little place in the mad maze of the old town and got chatting with the ten-year old Arab kid who seemed to be running the place on behalf of his dad. He showed me my dorm and gave me a key. Then he pulled a knife on me and held it to my throat.
Then he cracked up laughing. I suppose this is what passes for a giggle in the Middle East. I had to admit, it was funnier than Russell Brand, but that’s only because Russell Brand isn’t funny. I considered staying somewhere else for the night, somewhere I didn’t have to worry about a ten year old kid slashing my throat in the night, but it was the cheapest place in town, so I guess you just have to take the rough with the smooth.
I headed out into the night as the old town was packing up for bed. Good Arabs and curly sided Jews have to be up at the crack of dawn to go wake up the divine creator with some muttered platitudes, but I don’t, so I escaped to the bright lights of the new town.
The night progressed, as they often do, with a little social lubrication and a lot of laughs. I took up position a nearby bar, met people from the four corners of the planet, swapped war stories and chewed the fat.
You still here? Right then, just let me roll up my sleeves and I’ll begin…
I am sick and tired of the vitriol and hatred that is levelled against Israel. Not by the usual suspects of right-wing wingnuts or muslim True Believers™, I don’t expect anything less from that lot: I’m talking about the wishy-washy pinko liberal types (the ones I’m more likely to consort with) who jump on the bandwagon and decry the actual concept of Israel.
Now I’m not talking here about the government of Israel, which is responsible for some incredibly dumb decisions (usually wrought by the ultra conversative True Believers™ on their side of the fight), I’m talking about Israel itself: the tacit conceit that Israel shouldn’t exist.
But unlike the gods that cause all the trouble in the first place, Israel does actually exist. Whether or not you want to accept that fact is up to you, but it does and it’s not going away. If you think it shouldn’t exist, I would point you towards just some of the inventions and discoveries that Israel has given the world in the sixty years since its creation:
Solar water heating
The discovery of Ubiquitin (which led to the Nobel Prize for Chemistry)
The Prediction of Quarks
Formulation of Black Holes Entropy
Copaxone Immunomodulator (a drug for treating multiple sclerosis)
The “Pillcam” (for videoing your gizzards)
The explanation of irrational human economic choices
Electricity conducting DNA
The DNA computing machine system
The USB Flash Drive
The Quicktionary Electronic Dictionary
The Laser Keyboard
ICQ (used in instant messaging software)
Drip Irrigation System
The Super Iron Battery
The Energy Tower
Wall Radar (lets you see through walls! Cool!!)
There’s more*, but these are the ones I like.
Now I know this is going to generate some catcalls of lack of research/bias/racism/islamophobia but I’m going to just seamlessly shepherd you towards the notable inventions and scientific discoveries made in the last 60 years by some of Israel’s neighbours. No, actually, I’m not: go do your own research.
But the idea of ‘wiping Israel off the map’ is something that I hear banded around all over the Middle East, and one that seems to have gained some kind of tacit acceptance by otherwise intelligent and sensible human beings in the West: as if the crimes of the Israeli government somehow outweigh the country’s right to exist.
Well they don’t. The world needs Israel as much as the Jews need – and I would say deserve – a homeland. Why do I think they deserve it? Because of some stupid prophesy from the Bible? No. Because of the holocaust? Not even that.
I think the Jews deserve Israel because of the stunning contribution that the Jews have made to the modern world. We’re talking Einstein, Freud, Spielberg and Marx (Groucho) here people! In fact, since we’re already talking about Nobel Laureates, here’s some more stats for you to digest:
Since 1901, 168 Jews have won a Nobel Prize.
Of them, 123 have won one of the three science awards.
There are 13.4 million Jews in the world today.
Simple maths tells me that for every 110,000 Jews over a hundred year period there will be at least one scientific prize winner (they’d be one in every 80,000 if we included all the prizes).
Yes, I understand the issues with Palestine and Israel – I get it okay? All I’m saying is that Israel has much a ‘right to exist’ as Australia, New Zealand or the USA. If you disagree, then by all means start lobbying all the colonists who ‘weren’t there first’ and treated the natives like second class citizens (or worse): go tell those dastardly Europeans to leave Australia to the Aboriginals, New Zealand to the Maori, the US to the Native Americas, Mexico to the Mayans, The Caribbean to the Caribs**, Peru for the Incas**… the list goes on.
What Israel has going against it is timing: if they had colonised the place and ‘subjugated the natives’ just fifty years earlier, nobody would have batted an eyelid. In 1898, the scramble for Africa was still in full swing, there were no Arab states (a difficult thing to get your head around these days, but the notion of statehood is a pretty modern one) and, let’s face it, nobody would have given a toss.
What Israel has going for it is the people who hate it the most (ie. every Islamic state in the world) are also some of the poorest, most disenfranchised, most wretched people in the world living in some of the most dystopian states on the planet. And while their tyrannical governments can keep attention away from their own shortcomings (of which there are many) by using rhetoric against Israel that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Nuremberg rally, they will always have a scapegoat for their own crimes.
But don’t let them distract you. Hate the government, not the people: don’t let your disdain for the policies of Nutty-Yahoo and his cronies segue into tacit anti-Semitism. Statistically, the Jewish race have given you more to improve your life than any group on the planet: in short, they don’t deserve it (not that any group of people ‘deserves’ prejudice).
But look on the bright side: while there will never be a true brotherhood of Islam (just look at the in-fighting in Iraq or Pakistan, never mind across borders), Israel is ‘safe’. In fact – the Muslim would might have a bit of a Catch-22 thing going on here…
The only way that Arab countries could hope to destroy Israel (barring nuclear weapons) is by working together to force the Jews out of the region. But the only way they are ever going to work together is if they undergo some kind of enlightenment. But then, as a consequence of said enlightenment, they may well find themselves accepting Israel’s right to exist and so refrain from destroying it.
It’s a funny old world innit?
* Mostly weapons (sadly), but that wouldn’t be great for my argument would it?!
** Well, that is if we hadn’t already wiped them all out.
Up early and back to into Jordan, no probs. I really should have left Amman for Damascus this morning, but by the time I had got myself together, it was already 2pm. I still don’t know if I can actually get a visa for Syria on the border (Marc was wrong about Siwa…!) and I don’t fancy being stranded at the frontier for the night, so I gave my Couchsurf contact Simon a call and asked if he fancied meeting up. He told me that there was some sort of CouchSurfing event taking place and that I really should go to it.
Not being one to turn down a party, I took him up on his offer. Syria would just have to wait. So I whiled away a few hours writing up my blog and eating tasty kebabs and that evening, I headed over to The Coffee Station between the 1st and 2nd circles (if you’ve been to Amman, you might just know what I’m on about) to meet with a bunch of CouchSurf affectionardos who had put together a movie about CouchSurfing in Jordan, with interviews with CouchSurfers and their Hosts. Afterwards, we headed out to a bar where the beer was a devastating €4 a pint (or was that a bottle?) so I played the slow show with Simon’s mates; Gabor, Abby and the wonderfully named ‘Bob’ (which, since she’s a girl, must be said in Blackadder voice).
Okay then, ‘Bob’.
Abby hailed from The States and Bob was from Wales (although an Oxford education had spanked any last twang of taff from her voice) they were both working and living in Jordan, and (I guess since they had been here for so long) were not quite as enthusiastic about the place as I was. But Jordan is ace; it’s like a polite version of Egypt – with none of the relentless hustle. I’m sure Abby and Bob still like the place immensely (and will miss it when they leave) but maybe when you’re a western girl, you soon get tired of the way Arab men treat you (Bob introduced herself as hailing from “Slutistan”).
Soon Simon was soon ready to crash and I wasn’t, so I politely couch-hopped to Abby’s instead, ending up with a bunch of people at her flat drinking until the wee small hours. I love CouchSurfing.
Jordan was awesome. I really felt as if I had finally left Africa behind me and was back on the backpacker trail, rather than the backbreaker trial. I was in no hurry to get to Damascus, so after a fairly lazy morning, Abby and I walked to town (it was a nice day, why not?) and then we went to visit the oldest townhouse in Amman. Abby is friends with the caretaker and before I knew it we were being plied with free cups of tea, a delightful experience for a tea-loving Brit like myself and one which I hope will continue throughout the Middle-East.
Around midday, I finally prised myself free of Amman’s seductive grip and, after saying my good-bye-byes to Abby, I was in a service taxi to the border. Would I get a visa? I still didn’t know. I had had my fair share of conflicting information, but now it was do or die – I could always return to Amman if necessary.
I needn’t have worried – Brits can buy Syrian visas on the Jordanian border. As long as you have no evidence that you’ve been to Israel, you’re laughing. So I paid my $52 and soon enough I was in Damascus as in “The Road to…”
I could have pressed on to Beirut in Lebanon, it’s not very far, but the thing is that I’m waiting for these damn visas for Algeria and Central Asia and while they are no forthcoming, I have little reason to hurry. If anyone wants to repeat The Odyssey, they could probably get from Cairo to Istanbul in four days, visiting every country on the way. But I might as well take my merry time, so I checked into a backpackers and had a little mooch around the town before finding a nice little cafe with internet access to while away the evening.
I think Syria was one of the countries labelled as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ by George W Bush, which is a little unfair as Syria, while not being the most liberal state in the world, is hardly in the same league of interference in people’s personal spheres as, say North Korea or Saudi. Even though Saudi is not regarded as a member of this axis (it bought its way out of moral restraint), despite the fact that bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi and it has a terrible habit of burying rape victims up to their hips in sand and then allowing a team of psychotic teenage thugs throw sharpened stones at her face until her skull cracks open or she bleeds to death. Nice.
But I’ve been to Syria a couple of times now and it’s fine – I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any time. If it’s a police state then they keep a low profile. The only thing I don’t get about Syria is the ubiquitous pictures of el presidente which are EVERYWHERE – lamp-posts, restaurants, offices, in taxis, on buses, buildings, bill-boards, any flat surface you care to mention… The reason I don’t get it is this – iconography is forbidden by the Koran. A good Muslim is not allowed to draw a picture of another human (or even animal) lest it be regarded as an icon. That’s why Islamic calligraphy is so terrific – it’s their only outlet for fine art. They’re not really even supposed to make statues, although try telling that to Turkey – hundreds of sculptors would be out of work if there was a ban on carving Ataturks.
But then, what’s the story with President Bashar’s mug on everything (and I mean everything!) is that not iconography? If not, what the hell is it? They tell me that the pictures bring good luck – doesn’t that make it even worse? Isn’t that what an icon (if you worship it) is supposed to do?