x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Life is different on the wrong side of a border

Technology has shrunk our world. Sadly, this world through which some move so easily is dissected by invisible but impenetrable lines.

Borders are unreal places. What are – sometimes literally – arbitrary lines in the sand are also invisible walls, boundaries that separate people and political systems.

They are also curiously immovable, policed by guns and lorries and boats. Those who crowd into boats to reach the southern Italian island of Lampedusa do so not because the speck of an island is especially appealing, but because an invisible line surrounds it, one marking off Europe from North Africa.

It is an invisible line in the sea: for those on one side of it, there are a whole range of opportunities, options and laws. For those on the other, there is a different set and for those who cannot pass between the two, the line is an impenetrable wall.

The same applies to those trying to leave war-torn Syria. The lines that separate it from the peace of Turkey or Jordan seem, looking from the top down, to be easy to cross. In reality, a chasm separates them.

The stretches of road that lead to and from the Masnaa crossing between Damascus and Beirut look interchangeably similar. But the reality of war and peace that they conceal is immense. Borders are real and metaphorical: the semiotics of the subject are not well studied.

These thoughts came back to me last week when I was stuck for a couple of hours “airside” at a Gulf airport. Airside is the word airports use to refer to the bubble after security, when travellers cross from the country into something of a legal limbo: on the territory of the country but not technically inside it. The other side is “landside”, those airport areas accessible to the public. These two zones often exist within the same building, with an immigration counter separating them.

While there, I heard fragments of stories from this limbo zone, sad in their human suffering, numbing in their ordinariness. Every airside in the world could tell similar stories.

There was the Sudanese man who, transiting from another country on his way home, suddenly found that he was asked to pay excess baggage charges for a large box he was carrying. But he couldn’t pay: he didn’t have enough money on him and, being stuck in the airport in an unfamiliar country, was unable to get any more. If he couldn’t pay, he would have to leave the box behind. “But I can’t,” he pleaded. “That is medical equipment for my daughter.”

Or there was the man who, although a resident of another Gulf state, was denied entry and had to wait 10 hours before a flight back, meaning he missed his business meeting. When we spoke, he was convinced it was because he carried a Syrian passport.

Naturally, I don’t know why he was denied entry. But his experience is one that many of those who travel with a, let’s say, less-favoured passport will be familiar.

If borders are full of metaphor, then passports are full of codes: by virtue of the colour and country of issue, some are granted privileges, others dismissed. No other identity document is so laden with meaning, offering some the opportunity to cross particular borders – which is, really, the opportunity to work, to study, to live, to build a family – that others are casually denied.

The Arab world is not unique in setting up barriers to movement. But it is hindered by it. Given the uniqueness of its situation, in having such a wide geographical area linked by language and culture, it is a shame that there is not yet any prospect of free movement of people.

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles in the Arab world today is the number of firm borders, those that are hard to pass through. Yemen and Oman, Saudi and Iraq, Algeria and Tunisia. These countries should be easily accessible to one another.

There are many reasons, historical, political and economic, for this division of contiguous land masses into discrete nations. One that has persisted is the containment strategy that has been the standard reaction to most wars in the Middle East.

The wars and other problems that have ravaged the Arab world have often been so serious – Iraq, Syria, Palestine – that the solution has been to contain them and keep them within manageable borders, for fear they will spill over and engulf everything else.

That was the European experience and it has been picked up by the Middle East. How many times in the past three or four centuries have small conflicts in Europe ignited into regional wars? (Indeed, you would have to go back almost 1,000 years to find a century that didn’t have a major European conflagration.) But the result has been of a region divided. Lincoln’s A House Divided speech could have been written for the modern Arab world.

Back at the airport, the Syrian man asked me about my situation.

“It’s a disaster,” I said, furious that my carefully-planned travels had been disrupted. He sympathised and we talked about the situation in Syria, a country I’ve previously lived in.

“It’s very bad,” he said. “In fact, it’s a disaster.” He hadn’t intended to use the same word I had, but the comparison was jarring: here was I complaining about a brief hiccup while his own country was being torn to pieces. A sense of perspective was required.

For me, fortunately, there was nothing legally preventing me from flying, so I was able to continue my journey. But I left with some muchneeded perspective.

Technology has shrunk our world. Wherever they are in the world, people can see all the cities of the globe online and expect to be able to reach them in little more than a day. Yet in many ways, this world through which some move so easily is dissected by invisible but impenetrable lines. For billions of people the world they see on television or online is a world they can never experience.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai