The long, miserable experience of crossing the border from Jordan to Tel Aviv and some thoughts on the differences between Israel and the Arab World.
The long, miserable experience of crossing the border from Jordan to Tel Aviv and some thoughts on the differences between Israel and the Arab World. ‘, ‘A couple nights ago, I was drinking with a bunch of reporters in the Hotel Intercontinental bar. Several of them were getting absolutely panicky. It was Tuesday night and Thursday is the beginning of Eid al-fitr, the end of Ramadan holiday that closes everything in the Arab World for five days. They all knew if they didn’t get their Iraqi visas by the next day, they weren’t going in for a while. That would mean missing the day Saddam is supposed to release his list of weapons of mass destruction. Most people think that Bush will respond to that list by preparing for all out war. So, if you’re a reporter and you’re not in Iraq on December 7 and 8, then you miss the biggest story and you also know that a lot of other reporters are in there not missing the biggest story. A friend of mine, a photographer who until a few days ago was always laughing and telling stories, has taken to sitting at the bar staring off in middle distance and occasionally saying things like ‘dI have to get in. I just have to get in.’d Another reporter flew home to LA yesterday after spending two weeks here and getting nowhere. So, things were tense is what I’dm saying. Most of the people left, the people who haven’t gotten in, have been hiring this one fixer who I already wrote about. She charges them $700 to get a visa and she makes it seem like she knows everyone in Iraq, so she has special access to the visa process. But nobody she’s working with has gotten in. So, at the bar with all these frustrated people, we meet a producer for Canadian TV who says he just got here and got his visa in a couple days. In fact, his fixer has gotten every one of his clients in. A few feet away was a table of Ted Koppel’s producer waiting for Ted to show up, because they all got visas through this guy and were going in to Iraq that night. We all get very excited and call this new fixer who rushes over to the hotel and tells us he can get us visas the next day. He keeps saying, ‘dwe use our ways, it’s faster.’d He mentioned that his brother was driving to Baghdad with Koppel that night. There’s this excited movement and I call a couple of my editors and tell them to hurry up and give me permission to spend the $500 this guy wants to get a visa. He asks for my passport and says he’dll call me later.
I didn’t give him the passport. Another reporter came up to us, a big guy with big glasses who just came out of Baghdad that afternoon. He said that things are really getting dodgy in Baghdad. He didn’t mean dangerous. He meant everyone involved with foreign reporters has realized that the regime through which they got a decent job is about to collapse. Everyone is trying to get as much money as possible out of these reporters’d hands. So, it now costs at least $600 a day to be in Iraq. You have to pay the fixer $500 to get the visa. The short flight from Amman is $400. Then you have to stay at the al-Rashid hotel (so they can film and bug your every move) and that’s over $100 a night and is going up constantly. You have to rent a desk at the ministry of information which costs at least $125 a day. You have to hire a Mukhabarat intelligence official to go around with you and intimidate all of the people you interview and that costs $100 a day. And then every story you do there are various bribes and things involved. You’re supposed to take an AIDS test at the border before you come in. It used to cost $20 to bribe the official to let you through without it. Now it costs at least $50. What drives me crazy is that the TV crews are loaded and will pay anything, so us poor print and radio people are forced to pay up or not go. In Amman, a nice, furnished 2-bedroom apartment goes for $300 a month. A gorgeous house in the best neighborhood is $800 a month. But some Amman real estate guys are asking $40,000 a month from the TV crews. They’dve heard they’dll pay, so they want to make as much as they can. And you can’t blame them. Since the collapse of the peace process, Jordan’s economy has collapsed. War is their big growth industry. So, because of all these expenses, I delayed jumping on the visa until after the Eid al-Fitr holiday. But my editors seem to want me to go, so I’dll start the whole process over again on Monday.
The other big thing I did two days ago was set up this anonymous website. I realized that it was not too smart to have my name and picture on the page with a diary in which I talk about Israel and stuff, especially after interviewing these Jihadi suicide-bomber wannabes who are internet experts. I felt scared and exposed for a day or two there, while I wondered if those guys looked me up and were upset. But I hung out with them yesterday and they didn’t seem any different, so I think I’dm fine.
I left Amman for Tel Aviv yesterday. I was surprised at how anxious and excited I was when I was going to sleep. All day, I was thinking how it’s not that big a deal, just a couple hours’d drive. But as I was going to sleep I starting feeling like it’s a really big deal moving from the Arab world to Israel. I woke up quite early and my driver picked me up and we went the hour to the border. Amman is huge. It’s the same size as the entire West Bank. Driving away from my hotel, we passed all the areas I’dve become familiar with and the city just kept on going, crawling along the hills that go south and west of downtown. But then, suddenly, you’re in the desert. It’s these beige mountains with sparse scrub and it feels exactly like the land of the bible. It looks pretty much exactly like most of Israel looks. It makes you realize how artificial the border is. The driver was giving me a running narrative through the whole way: Now we are in the land of the Moabites. Moab was mentioned in Deuteronomy blah blah blah. Now we are leaving the land of the Moabites and entering the land of the Edomites. There’s nothing you can see from the highway that suggests anyone ever lived out here. Amman ends and then it’s just barren desert for miles and miles. In the car, I was thinking how Amman or Tel Aviv just don’t feel like they’re part of the biblical world or part of history. They do feel part of the modern hatred and conflict of the Middle East, but it’s so easy to forget all the historical and biblical events that happened around us. But out here, in the desert, it just feels historic, biblical. There’s nothing modern (except the highway) to distract you. You can all but see wandering Edomites (I picture those little traders in brown cloth robes and hoods in the first Star Wars movie), the major traders of the time of Jesus.
The one part of the modern world that is very much present are these huge billboards that say, in Arabic, Jordan First next to a Jordanian flag that a bunch of hands are holding up. These are everywhere in Amman but I’dve never seen so many as I did on the drive to the border. Every mile or something there’d be two. This is a new program of the king’s and it’s very controversial. There are three basic things the Jordan First program is pushing. The first is that Jordanians should think of Jordan before they think of the Arab nation overall. The idea is that it’s OK for Jordan to join the US in the war against Iraq, because it will help Jordan by bolstering its friendship with the big superpower. A lot of people think Jordan should do what it did last war and side with its Arab neighbor, Iraq over the foreigners. I’dve heard several Islamists say the campaign should be Arabs First or Islam First. Not Jordan First. This is the attitude the king is trying to fight. The second meaning of the slogan is that Palestinian-Jordanians, who make up 65 or so percent of the country, should think of themselves as Jordanians first and not Palestinians. Many people are afraid that if Israel does kick a lot of Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan, the Palestinian majority will start thinking of Jordan as Palestine, not as Jordan. So, Jordan First is an attempt to promote a Jordanian, not a Palestinian identity. The third reason for these signs, and by far the most important, is to prop up the king as the leader of Jordanians. The fear is that anger over his siding with the US or anger that he’s not doing more to attack Israel will lead people to overthrow him. So, Jordan first, really means King Abdullah First.
The road to the border, called the Desert Road, is beautiful in that spare, Middle East landscape way. The beige mountains give way to reddish sandy dunes and then to this flat plain of white salt pillars in strange, sometimes human shapes. Then you get to the border station. It’s very basic, looks like exactly what you’d imagine a third world border station would look like: dirty, sandy concrete buildings with crude, patriotic paintings. Inside there are these cubicles made of stone walls where border guards and Mukhabarat intelligence guys look at your passport. The whole drive I lived in terror that they might stamp my passport. The stamp at the border makes clear that you’re heading into Israel. And if you head into Israel, you can’t go to Iraq or Syria or Yemen. I’d have to give up on those trips or fly back to the US, get a new passport, try and get new visas. It would cost me weeks and thousands of dollars. And this one border guard has it in his control to either stamp or not stamp. Terrifying, since some people have told me that an ornery guard will just stamp it for the hell of it. I stared at him the whole time he had my passport worrying he’d stamp it. He didn’t.
Once you get through border control, you sit on these benches and wait for the bus that will take you across the bridge into Israel. It takes forever. I sat there for forty minutes or something waiting, knowing that the border is a ten minute walk away, but you’dve got to take the bus. At least it was interesting looking at all the people there. There’s something about being on the border of the Arab World and Israel that makes each person seem fascinating. What is that WASPy looking older woman in pearls doing here? I saw a cute, young American girl casually reading the Koran in Arabic. There was an American priest, and, of course, a Japanese tourist. One old man, in red checked kaffiyeh, was making his way back to Palestine from the Haj. I was studying these faces while listening to Springsteen and Tom Waits in my iPod.
The bus takes forever to arrive and then it does and you get on and it’s crowded and it just sits there and sits there. Nobody explains why we’re waiting so long. The border guard comes through at some point to check our passports. The bus attendant comes through to check to make sure we have a bus ticket. And then we just sit. Finally, the bus starts moving. We pass through this flat plain and come to a big fence that has Stop in Arabic on it. Then through a gate, surrounded by barbed wire, then down a hill to a lower plain, then through another gate then just on the other side, the bus stops and we sit for a long time. I was looking out the front window and I can see the Israeli flag just on the other side of some fences. We’re almost there, but they won’t let us through. Then another border guard gets on the bus, checks our passport. Then another bus attendant gets on and checks our tickets. Then we wait and wait and then we finally start moving. We pass through another gate and then we’re at the bridge. Jordanians call it King Hussein Bridge, Israelis call it Allenby Bridge. It’s this small bridge that goes over the Jordan river which is the border. We have to wait some time before going over the bridge and then we do get to cross. The Jordan river is so tiny. I mean you can’t see it. You see some thin reeds and green plants and this one or two foot wide thin stream. That’s the mighty Jordan river. You could jump across it easily. You could step across it. We cross the river and there are all these busses just stacked up on the side of the road with tons of luggage strapped to the roof. They’re filled, mostly, with women coming back from Saudi Arabia. I didn’t think women do the Haj and maybe they don’t, they were just accompanying their husbands or something. But they were stuck. We moved past them’dI felt happy to do that’dand then we got stopped. And here we can see the Israeli border facility just forty yards ahead of us. A tiny walk. We’re basically there. And we have to sit and sit and sit. We were there another forty minutes at least. I saw the Israeli Army bases all around us on the hills, fortified with big guns facing Jordan. The driver of one of the Saudi busses came over and he and our driver were horsing around and laughing and then they broke our drivers door. That led to fifteen minutes or so of trying to fix the door. Finally, two Israeli soldiers, one with his eyelid pierced, walked over and the driver told us all to get off the bus but leave our stuff. The soldiers looked at each of our passports and then told us to wait in this fenced-in outdoor waiting area. They were very casual about the whole thing. They barely opened my American passport, just waved me through. The more Arabic looking people took a little longer, but less than a minute each. Then they went on the bus with some kind of bomb scanner. You can tell how much richer Israel is than Jordan. Instead of dirty concrete, everything here is made of bright, new metal. One thing struck me. On the Jordan side, everything was hand painted and was clearly made by the government. For example, the stop signs were handpainted and said, simply, stop in Arabic. But the stop signs on the Israel side didn’t say Stop in Hebrew. They showed the name of the company that makes the stop signs. In fact, all the new metal structures had, in big white letters, the names of the companies that make them. It’s the third world meets the private sector at this border.
After waiting a long time for the bomb sniffers, we finally got back on the bus, moved forward a few yards and then stopped again. This time for twenty minutes or something as these minivans with VIP written on them kept zooming back and forth. The driver, in very broken English, said we have to wait for the VIPs. I felt obsessively jealous of these bastard VIPs. I wondered who they are? Presidents? Prime Ministers? It turns out anyone can pay an extra $60 ($80 for two) and be whipped across in a minute rather than the two hours or whatever it took us to go half a mile. It was at this point that we finally started a near uprising. People were yelling at the driver in several languages. He was ignoring them. It’s one thing to have to wait because of a sensitive geopolitical situation. It’s something else to have to wait so some asshole can be whipped by in a VIP van.
At the Israeli border, we had to wait even longer, which sucked. We stood in this long line with all our stuff as these men put our luggage through x-ray machines. It was this cramped space filled with the Americans I saw earlier and with a lot of the women coming from Saudi wearing their Hijab headscarves. We were all making eyes at each other and grunting and that whole thing. The men manning the security screeners were Palestinians, oddly. There were some young, tall Israeli soldiers in plainclothes nearby leaning on M-16s.
Once we got through the X-ray check, we had to wait in line for the Israeli border guards. They were taking so long with everyone and doing it in such a surly manner. The guy in front of me was a Japanese tourist. They were grilling him: ‘dwhy you are here?’d ‘dWhat you do in Japan?’d ‘student? What you study?’d With their thick accents and bad English and his thick accent and bad English and everyone having to repeat everything they say over again, the whole thing was hilarious and maddening. These older Arab men would talk with them for so long. Then you’re in this vestibule where another security person quizzes you on what you’re bringing in and where you’re going and all that. A TV cameraman from Canada, who I had met before in Amman, was sitting hunched over a bench looking miserable. He said they had grilled him and were so horribly rude and aggressive.
You definitely know you’dve left the Arab World when your driver is wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of a giant penis that says ‘the Dominant Mind.’d There are no T-shirts of giant penises in Amman, I can assure you. I took the car with the Canadian (after I argued, on his behalf, with customs for two hours because they refused to let him bring his equipment into the country for fear he would sell it. They finally relented when he left a $5,000 deposit.) to Jerusalem. The driver was surly and unpleasant. And then the Canadian got off and the driver was laughing with me and telling me stories. I’dve heard from so many journalists who’dve spent time in Israel that they hate Israelis. Israelis are constantly treating them horribly. I’dm always thinking: but so many Israelis are great and friendly and cool. And here I was seeing it in live action.
I got to Tel Aviv and went to sleep in the house I’dve rented here. I was overwhelmed by seeing so many women. All the women at the restaurants and on the street. And seeing so much skin: these women in midriff-baring shirts and short sleeves. Amman is so male. Almost everyone you see at any business or on the street, everywhere is male. When you go to an office, the secretary is male. The people who clean the hotel rooms are young men. I’d say more than 90% of the people I saw in Amman were men. You do see women in Hijab shopping but rarely working. At some places, you see more Western looking women. The hotel desk clerks, for example, are sometimes women. They tend to be Christian, I learned. And they dress provocatively for Amman’dmeaning shirts that are a bit tight. But everything is still long-sleeved. Any average Israeli looks like a whore porn star by comparison. I also got it in my head that Amman is a lot like Tel Aviv. They are both newly built desert cities. Most of the construction is in stone and concrete. There’s a light layer of sand everywhere. But that’s it. They’re not that similar. Tel Aviv is so much wealthier. In Amman, there’s rubble and broken sidewalks everywhere. The streets weren’t designed very well, the curbs are sometimes a foot or two high. You’re constantly having to negotiate these steep drops just walking down the street. Tel Aviv is, by comparison, efficient and modern. But Amman is prettier. It’s not a gorgeous city, by any stretch. Everything is made out of the same yellowish stone, and most of the buildings are square and squat and unadorned. But there are plenty that have pleasing curves and Arabic arches and columns. In Tel Aviv buildings, especially new ones, are much more garish and unpleasant. They’re called Bauhaus, meaning they’re based on design of simple lines and planes. But they’re so overdesigned with boxes jutting out into the air and all sorts of strange shapes. It’s too much. Amman is subtle, Tel Aviv is screaming out.
I’d say the most overwhelming thing coming in to Israel is feeling that the place is actually solid and real. I realized, last night, that I had absorbed something in Amman without realizing it. The whole way people discuss Israel’dno matter what their political views are, they all hate Israel and agree on this’dis as a violent, temporary, amoral imposition into the land. Even though I’dve been to Israel dozens of times, I was struck, last night, by how normal, solid, permanent the place feels. We went to this gorgeous restaurant in the south of Tel Aviv and shared hummus and I had a big pumpkin soup and it all felt so peaceful and uncontroversial. Just nice. Just like eating in a nice caf’d Chicago or New York, you don’t think about the Native Americans.
Amman is exciting because it all seems so new and confusing. I ran around for ten days or whatever trying to get some handle on the place and feeling like I barely understood anything and I’dm hungry to learn. I felt fear in Amman sometimes, because I didn’t understand what’s going on there. I’d see two kids walking down an empty street near midnight and I’d be worried: are they going to kill me? Or are they just going home after playing video games at their friend’s house. In Tel Aviv, I felt a bit safer, oddly. I reminded myself, at one point, that the caf’d we were eating in could be bombed. But I didn’t really feel afraid about that. It seemed remote. The place felt comfortable and safe. It’s odd, since statistically there’s a lot more danger in Tel Aviv than Amman. Amman has lost one Westerner to terrorism in decades.
I’m off to set up my life here, buy a cell phone, that sort of thing.