It was an ambitious plan for a day: leave the West Bank by land, through Israel over the Sheikh Hussein Bridge (the northernmost land crossing point into Jordan), then get a cab in Amman through Syria and finally ending in Beirut, crossing a total of four international boundaries. We had the clothes on our backs, a few extra sets, some books, and a little money; we did not have any of the requisite visas or paperwork. It promised to be an adventure, not just leaving Israel and traveling into two states with which it has bitterly hostile relations (Syria and Lebanon), but subsequently crossing back into Israel, a notoriously difficult country to enter. And our story was full of holes - unable to disclose that we are living in Ramallah, we would be forced to explain why we had spent the past two weeks traveling around the so-called "Axis of Evil" and then returned to Israel for several more months, without an address in the country or contacts of any kind. This would not be easy.
We left our Ramallah apartment at around 10 am, a bit of a late start for such an ambitious journey. To complete the first leg of the trip, getting out of Israel/Palestine via the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, we would need to cross the Israeli Apartheid/Annexation wall into Jerusalem. With all entries and exits into and out of Israel/Palestine controlled by the Israelis, and all arabs forced to use the Allenby Bridge (further south, near Jericho and on the eastern side of the wall), the Sheikh Hussein route, reserved for Jews and foreigners, seemed to be a more hassle-free choice. We walked through the center of town to the Ramallah bus station and found bus #18, a white van for the few arabs (mostly Jerusalem residents) who are allowed to cross the wall into Jerusalem, legally Palestinian territory but unilaterally annexed by Israel after they conquered it in 1967. At the Qalandia checkpoint, the main thruway from the eastern "Palestinian" side of the wall to the western "Israeli" side, the familiar routine was repeated without incident. The bus came to a halt, and all men under 45 got off the bus to walk through by foot (Palestinian men under 45 living on the eastern side of the wall are not permitted to cross the wall for any reason, barring very special and equally rare circumstances, so extra care is taken to ensure that those young males who do cross are searched with extra care - and as humiliatingly as possible). Meanwhile, soldiers well-armed with US-made M16 rifles board the bus to check the papers of those who remain, including Ivy and myself who are given special treatment as a result of our US passports (this is one of the most maddening aspects of visiting Palestine - a foreigner, like myself, has significantly more rights, privileges, and freedoms than those who have lived here for generations).
After the soldiers walked through the bus and checked everyone's papers, the bus was permitted to pass through the checkpoint to the western side where we parked and waited for the young men who had gotten off to pass through. So far, none of the ramped-up security I had expected to see on the day before the Israeli election had materialized, a stroke of luck which bade well for the prospects of completing the ambitious journey. It wasn't too long before the men filed back on to the bus and we were on our way into Jerusalem. It was only then that my fears were validated, as the bus was stopped by Israeli military police for additional inspection. This time it wasn't so easy. The soldiers entered the bus pompously, brusquely, and arrogantly, chests in the air, American rifles in hand, and demanded everyone's papers. When one of the soldiers arrived at the back of the bus and looked at Ivy and I, passports out for inspection, his face betrayed a disgust that foreigners, Americans, were riding with the enemy, sitting on a bus full of arabs. His cool, steely gaze sent shivers up and down my spine, before he turned away, replacing the sunglasses over his eyes and walking back toward the front of the bus to collect the papers from those on the other side of the aisle.
About halfway, he came to a man in his early thirties who meekly presented a green Palestinian ID card (as opposed to the blue Israeli "resident" card given to the arabs who reside in Jerusalem) and nervously looked at the ground. The soldier began aggressively interrogating the man, who nodded emphatically, but frantically produced papers, permits, and passes from all pockets indicating that he was a worker with the Red Cross on his way to a hospital within Israel on some official business. Yet the soldier was not satisfied, and took the man off the bus and back to the IDF Jeep while they made further inquiries. Ivy and I chatted anxiously, glancing out the window along with our fellow passengers to discover what the man's fate had been, how much longer we would have to wait. After another thirty or fourty minutes, the man reappeared on the bus, IDs of all the others in hand which he doled out, matching the pictures with faces while the bus drove the short distance remaining to the central arab bus station (merely a parking lot near the old city).
Next we needed to get to the main Jerusalem bus terminal, a large and very secure building in West Jerusalem (the Israeli portion), to catch a bus on which we would complete the three-hour journey to Beit Sha'an, very near to the border crossing to Jordan. The bus ride passed largely without incident, apart from the severe leg cramps resultant from the minuscule amount of leg room, leaving all of my 6 feet and 3 inches crammed into a space barely suitable for a toddler. As we drove further into rural Israel toward the Jordan valley, the villages smaller and poorer, I was struck by how militarized the countryside is. There were military bases everywhere, accompanied by soldiers and the obvious heavy equipment one would expect to see alongside. While much of the area was desert, there were sudden and pronounced areas of lush green fields, where the pallid desert had been transformed into an oasis of life and color. I couldn't help but remember the reasons for this - Israel has aggressively taken control of water resources in the Middle East, in particular those in historical Palestine (one of the main reasons behind the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights). Their disproportionate consumption of those resources has permitted them to literally make the desert bloom, the twisted realization of the classic Zionist dream.
When we finally arrived in Beit Sha'an, a small town in the Jordan desert, we stopped to get what were some of the largest, most delicious, and best-earned fallafels I have ever eaten. In the restaraunt, we found a cab driver willing to take us to the border, just a few kilometers away, for fifty sheqels, and we grudgingly agreed. As we were relaying the neccesary information to the cab driver, another man walking by overheard the conversation, paused, and walked towards our table. "You go to Jordan?" he asked, to which we nodded. "Why?" he asked, "it is arab! You have to be careful with the Arabs," he said. We nodded politely, revealing nothing and certainly not about to enter into a political conversation in this venue, and got in the cab. We arrived at the border in a matter of moments, took our bags from the back of the cab, and walked into the terminal surrounded by Israeli soldiers and impatient and tired looking travelers.
We walked into the terminal, and approached the first window. We changed over our sheqelim for dinars, paid the 50 sheqel exit tax each, and advanced toward the passport control window. The problems began immediatley. Since we were planning on traveling to Syria and Lebanon, I had to ask the passport control officer at the airport upon our arrival in Israel in January not to stamp my passport; an Israeli stamp will surely keep one out of both of those two countries (and others), as they have no diplomatic relations with Israel in response to its outrageously aggressive behavior and regular comission of horrific and shocking crimes. Of course, not having the stamp immediately raises suspicions every time my passport is examined at a checkpoint or a border crossing, and I inevitably have to answer a slew of questions (sometimes for hours) and deal with an all-around hassle.
Since she has to travel back and forth to Jerusalem every day, Ivy decided to get a second passport to make it easier to deal with the IDF at the checkpoints. One has an Israeli stamp, and the other can be used for travel to Lebanon, Syria, and anywhere else that an Israeli stamp would forbid entry. However, she only brought the passport without the Israeli stamp with her, to enter Lebanon and Syria, leaving the one with the Israeli stamp on it - the one with which she entered Israel - at home (per my advice, I should add; I thought it would be better that way in case she were searched when entering Lebanon or Syria, so they would not discover a passport with an Israeli stamp concealed and deny us both entry). This was a bad idea. They told us to wait while they made several phone calls to sort out the issue, and we sat on two small, uncomfortable seats in the side of the terminal. After 45 minutes or so, they finally told us we could go, and we proceeded out of the terminal to wait for a bus that would drive us across the bridge into Jordan (it is not permitted to walk the few meters across the tiny Hussein bridge for some reason). We waited another 20 minutes or so, then got on the bus, packed to the hilt with wildly shrieking Polish tourists, to make the five minute drive to the Jordanian side of the border. Ivy and I glanced at each other wearily, silently celebrating the crossing of border number two out of four - we were half way there.
On the Jordanian side, we waited in line for about 30 minutes (behind the gaggle of Polish tourists, whose cacauphonous sqwaking continued undisturbed) before we reached passport control, where we again had to request that our passports not be stamped. Since the crossing point that would have shown up on the stamp is the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, anyone in Syria or Lebanon looking at our passports would have known immediately that we crossed into Jordan from Israel, and would not allow us to enter. We asked if he could stamp a piece of paper instead, which he did. He told us we did not need the paper anymore once we left the terminal, but I decided we shold save them for just a little longer to be sure. We left the terminal within minutes and got in the nearest cab, which we requested drive us to the Syrian embassy in Amman where we would attempt to get visas to enter the diplomatically isolated country. As we drove from the cab station, the sun setting over the mountains in the distance and the sky darkening over crumbling desert slums around us, it came up in conversation with the driver that we were planning to travel through Syria to Beirut. He quickly pulled the cab over to the side of the road.
"You don't need a visa to enter Syria" he exclaimed, "you are American!" He picked up his cell phone, and began dialing frantically. After some time (perhaps 30 minutes) he seemed to have recieved a satisfactory answer. He floored the cab, pushing us back into our seats abruptly, and acclerated back onto the empty, dusky street. When we reached a fork a few meters down the road, indicating a left turn to head towards Amman, we went the opposite direction, towards a city called Irbid, and beyond it the Syrian border. Ivy and I looked at each other and grinned wide - this was going to be easier than we thought. Border three out of four was nearly conquered.
We finally arrived in Irbid, an unexpectedly large city, and it was nearly dark. The driver told us he had a friend who would take us all the way to Beirut that night, provided we paid him 100 American dollars. "Sounds like a deal," we indicated to him, and he pulled the cab to the side of the road and lit a cigarette while he made a few more phone calls. When his cigarette was finished, he put down the phone and got out of the cab, and said that he would be right back. He soon returned with fruit drinks for each of us and a man claiming to be his cousin, and sat back in the cab. We looked at each other silently, a necessity since we did not speak alot of arabic and he spoke barely any english. After what felt like an eternity - and several score more frantic sounding phone calls from the driver - we started moving again down one of the main roads off the traffic circle we had stopped on.
In a few minutes, we arrived at a parking lot, where we sat for another half hour - or maybe more, I had totally lost track, and by now it was pitch dark. Finally, the driver's friend showed up driving a black BMW and walked towards the cab, opened the passenger-side door, and got in. He asked to see our passports, which we produced, to ensure that there were no traces of travel to Israel that would cause us problems at the border. But there was a problem. He and the driver began arguing, frantically and heatedly discussing some topic for quite some time before the man finally stepped out of the cab. "I'm sorry," the cab driver said, "he cannot take you to Syria. You need a visa." I could feel Ivy sigh heavily from all the way across the long back seat of the cab. Our plan had failed. Miles away from Amman, in a strange, small city, we had no idea where to go or what to do. Luckily, the cab driver continued: "I'll drive you to Amman." It was time for plan B. He laboriously put the key back in the ignition, and we started off sluggishly down the road, back the direction we had come (at least a 45 minute drive) towards Amman. We arrived there several hours later, and asked the man to take us to a hotel. We were soon there, got some food, a bottle of wine, and settled in for the night. The driver agreed to meet us at 8 am to take us to the Syrian embassy where we would try to get visas to continue our drive into Syria.
In true Middle Eastern fashion, the driver arrived at 9:30 the next morning to bring us to the embassy. We went inside and waited while the driver spoke in arabic with the officer there. After what seemed like an intense conversation given the plain and uncomplicated nature of our request, he stepped away from the counter and walked back towards us. "You can't get a visa here," he said, "you need to get it at the Syrian embassy in the US." He indicated that I should approach the counter to speak to the woman and see for myself, which I did. The woman, face caked thick with makeup and red lipstick, told me that we could try to get one at the border, but that the chances were slim and we might have to wait for hours. I turned to the cab driver and asked him to take us to the airport. It was time for plan C - if we couldn't go through Syria, we would simply fly over it.
After getting lost several times along the way, we finally arrived at the airport in downtown Amman and approached an attendant standing outside the terminal to attempt to purchase tickets to Lebanon. To avoid trouble in Lebanon, we left the papers with the Jordanian stamps from the Hussein Bridge crossing with the cab driver, and said our goodbyes. For a few hundred dollars each, we found tickets to Lebanon leaving in less than an hour on Royal Jordanian airways, quickly purchased them, and headed toward the security area. After hussling through the security checks, x-ray scans, conveyor belts, and so on, we walked over to passport control. A sense of dread crept up my spine, as memories of our recent experiences flashed through my mind. We were not dissapointed this time, either. The man immediately began asking us why we did not have Jordanian entry stamps, and we tried to explain that we had been told to discard them before heading to Lebanon. After several frustrating attempts, he finally seemed to understand, but then began asking about Ivy's second passport. We answered his questions as best we could, but he asked us to sit and wait while he picked up the phone, periodically shouting over to us to confirm that we had indeed entered yesterday, over the Sheikh Hussein bridge. Each time, our answer was the same, but that did not stop him from asking us again and again, somehow expecting us to change our minds or come to some kind of last-minute realization that we had in fact been mistaken.
After what seemed like forever (yet again), we were cleared to proceed to the terminal, having been issued Jordanian entry stamps with the airport listed as the entry point. We hurried to the terminal, where the plane was already boarding, and hustled on. It seemed we were home free, and we settled in for the brief flight. Within moments, Ivy was passed out on my shoulder, and I turned up the Rolling Stones on my Ipod and relaxed for what felt like the first time in weeks.
As I looked out of the plane window, I noticed there was a vicious sandstorm blowing up outside, and I was unable to see more than a few feet beyond the window; even within that space visibility was minimal. The plane pulled onto the runway and began to accelerate, slowly leaving the ground in a few moments and climbing up into the sandy atmosphere. The winds were intense, and once off the ground all I could see was brown sand in all directions. The plane shook and pitched violently, dropping suddenly before regaining its trajectory and continuing its climb. It took around twenty minutes for us to break through the layer of sand and enter the clean blue air above the fray. For a nervous flier such as myself, it was a harrowing experience, yet Ivy somehow slept through the whole ordeal, waking up only after things had smoothed out and we were effortlessly gliding towards Beirut.
I relaxed on the brief flight, and before long we were informed that we were beginning the descent into Beirut's Rafiq Hariri airport. After we broke through the clouds, I could see the sharp, steely waters of the Mediterranean beneath us. As rough as the takeoff was, the landing seemed even worse. The whirling sandstorm in Jordan was now replaced by a thundering rainstorm, and the plane was again knocked from side to side, dropping suddenly as it decelerated in preparation for landing. We descended until the plane seemed perilously low to the water, which I could by then see was roiling, the inclement weather clearly provoking Poseidon's wrath. I clenched my fists and sat terrified, while Ivy sat with her head forward, wincing in pain at the pressure behind her ears which simply would not relent. I rubbed her back, and tried to comfort her, a pointless and helpless gesture. To make matters worse, the stewardess had insisted (per regulations, of course) that I turn off my Ipod for landing, thus depriving me of my sole source of comfort.
But at last we did land safely. I felt a mixture of relief and excitement as we disembarked from the plane and headed toward the airport. There was no line (and, for once, no trouble) at passport control, though it seemed like we had to present our passports a hundred times to a hundred different people, who quickly flipped through the pages, presumably looking for any indication that we had recently been in Israel. Of course, they found none, and each of them sent us on our way in short order. We followed the signs to the cab stand, and walked out of the airport through the automatic door, which magically opened like some portal to a new universe. We stood on the curb, cabs lined up outside and people bustling about in all directions, looked at each other and smiled as we took our first breaths of the fresh Beirut air and felt rejuvenated. We were finally here, and the real adventure was about to begin.
TO BE CONTINUED...