How far apart Arab countries have grown over recent years that brought so much turmoil and discord. I do no not just mean politically. We have also managed to become more distant from each other geo-physically. We’ve etched in the borders between Arab states so deeply that distances between us have grown broader than the kilometres that separate us.
I could not get this thought out of my head during the several hours I recently spent at the border between Syria and Lebanon. I was on my way back from Damascus.
I had just taken part in the Arab Writers Union meeting during which I was awarded the union’s Jerusalem Prize as a tribute to my literary output in which the Palestinian cause occupies a central place. As there are no flights into Damascus, apart from Syrian Airlines, which only flies to Cairo once a week, I decided to travel to Beirut and from there to Damascus by car.
My decision was based on my recollection of those days when the journey between the two capitals by car took little more than an hour. When attending the Damascus Theatre Festival, we would drive to Chtaura or to Aley in Lebanon in order to have lunch in one of these towns’ famous historical restaurants. Or, if we were in Beirut, on a whim, we would dash off to the Bakdash ice cream parlour in Damascus. In either case, we would be back at our starting point on the same day.
Beirut and Damascus are the two closest Arab capitals after Manama and Doha, which are no longer close at all, in any sense, now that relations have been severed between the two. On my recent trip, however, I discovered that the hour that had once separated Beirut and Damascus had stretched to three. This was without a pause, apart from a few minutes at Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley where I asked the driver to pull over so I could take a look at those ugly camps that shelter the Syrian refugees who had fled the agonies of war that were visited on Syria with the purpose of dismantling the infrastructure of the state, as had occurred in Iraq and in Libya.
The tents were a forlorn white, a reminder that in some countries white is the colour of mourning. How many sorrows were contained in those tents, which are one of the manifestations of the current Arab condition? The roads were free of snow, contrary to the norm at this time of year, or otherwise the trip would have taken even longer. Nature had not been kind to the whole region, this year, from Syria to Lebanon and to Jordan.
Both rain and snow were sparse. However, security measures between the three countries are still in place and, if anything, they have multiplied and grown more complex. Images from the film, Al-Hodoud (The Border), by the famous Syrian comedian and film director Duraid Lahham, flashed through my mind as I was put through the gamut of procedures at the Lebanese border, which went painfully slowly, and then at the Syrian border, which took about the same painful slowness. I had obtained my entry visa to Lebanon at Beirut Airport. I had with me a photocopy of my entry visa to Syria, which was waiting for me at the border crossing. I had thought I had with me all the secret keys that would automatically fling open all border barriers.
After having discovered that the actual distance between Beirut and Damascus was now at least three times longer than it used to be, I decided to take this factor into account when planning my return trip to Beirut. I calculated that I would be back in the Lebanese capital in the morning and I therefore accepted an invitation to do a TV interview in Beirut on my recently published memoirs, A Day or Some of a Day. I would still have plenty of time in order to catch my evening flight back to Cairo.
But fate loves to pull pranks. The return trip took not three, but five hours. After leaving through the Syrian border, which took the same time as it did coming in, I was surprised to find that entering Lebanon again was not as easy as it was the first time. I pointed out to the passport control officer that the visa I had obtained at Beirut Airport was a multiple entry visa valid for 15 days.
He replied that procedures now required him to contact the security authorities at Beirut Airport in order to ascertain the validity of my visa. I asked how long that would take. He told me to come back to him in an hour or two. I went back to the car in order to get out of the bitter cold up there in the mountains where the border crossing is located.
After a little more than an hour, I went back to stand in the queue in order to find out whether the reply had come from the authorities at the airport. There was one queue for all nationalities (Lebanese nationals, Arabs, foreigners), except for Palestinians, who had a queue of their own, and Syrians, who had three. A fight broke out in one of the Syrian queues which held up all the other queues. It appeared that a Syrian national was making a fuss because the Lebanese passport officer had registered him as a refugee whereas the Syrian maintained that he was a tourist and had with him the requisite $2,000 in order to enter Lebanon as a tourist.
Another Syrian, standing in the line, explained to me that many Syrians believed that the Lebanese authorities register every Syrian who enters Lebanon as a refugee in order to increase Lebanese government’s share of international aid dedicated to sheltering Syrian refugees. Others in line said that the aid comes to $4 a year, while the coupons that Lebanese authorities distribute to Syrian refugees barely cover their food expenses for three or four days a month.
The foregoing information may or may not be correct. My point in relating what I heard is to underscore the differences and the lack of trust between the two sides.
These are among the factors that increase the gap between the peoples of Arab countries and multiply the distances between them, even if they are neighbours. What a long way the Arabs have come from the times when a restaurant you fancied in Beirut was only an hour’s drive from Damascus.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly