x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Spontaneous travel requires weeks of careful planning

Short-notice holiday travel ("Let's just go") seems like a lovely idea. But too often nowadays it's much more difficult than it should be

An Arabic proverb has it that "in the desert of life the wise person travels by caravan, while the fool prefers to travel alone".

Long before the invention of cars and planes, long before borders and visa restrictions, people would travel in caravans to cooler places during the summer and to warmer places during winter.

As they travelled, they would exchange goods and share cultures, learning new languages and traditions from the people at the various places visited along the difficult way.

Despite the danger and the slow pace, there is still a sense of nostalgia for the old way of travel, whether we think of the historic spice route, the silk road or the aromatic route of Arabia. If you were to attempt to retrace these routes today, however, you would soon find yourself bogged down in visa requirements and bureaucratic restrictions.

Some years ago I tried to follow Ibn Battuta's footsteps on the Arabian Peninsula. I was told that the paperwork - and money - needed to visit even just half the towns he passed through would take a year to amass.

"It all depends on the mood of the particular official of that town or at that border at that time," a Saudi official told me.

It is quite ironic that despite the speed and the convenience of modern transport, travelling is more controlled than ever.

This week, when some friends and I decided to travel together on short notice, our passports became a dividing factor.

The US, UK and Europe had to be eliminated, since two of my friends would have had to go through a lengthy paperwork process.

Then the holders of passports from Arab Spring countries, such as Syria and Egypt, were worried about what restrictions they may face if they wanted to travel to other parts of the region. One Yemeni passport holder was worried about going anywhere on holiday.

In a few minutes, a cheerful spontaneous idea to just go somewhere became a headache, and an uncomfortable reminder of some unpleasant facts. No wonder some seek to become citizens of western countries: being able to travel fairly freely, and not be scrutinised each time or denied access, is worth a lot of sacrifice.

But no matter what passport you carry, your origin still matters. I know many Arab-Canadians and Arab-Americans who are still treated as simply Arabs, despite having been born and raised in North America. That should not be an issue; no one should be ashamed of his or her origin. But it becomes an issue when it is used against someone in discriminatory ways.

A friend whose name is Ahmad wants to change his first and last name to western-sounding ones, "like Michael Jones," he joked, just as an experiment to see what different treatment he would get, both professional and socially.

Of course, changing one's name is no easy matter, especially in an age where everything from your fingerprints to your iris is scanned and on file. Being monitored is the theme of this century. The latest National Security Agency scandal from the US proved what we already all suspected: we are spied on.

Travel has other drawbacks, too. Besides visa and passport issues there are the queues, delays and security in the airport, not to mention the danger of flying itself, since no mode of transport is completely risk-free. Sometimes you end up needing a holiday from the holiday itself.

Most travellers today are in a hurry, agitated, in a bad mood. Too many of them carelessly crush your carry-on bag by placing their much heavier suitcase over your bag in the overhead compartment.

I personally would have loved the chance to go on a trip on a caravan across the desert. The experience would have been priceless. We would be sharing meals and discussions and taking turns riding the camels and horses.

As one elderly Bedouin once said: "Whenever we travelled through the desert, we would put aside our differences and unite as one. In unity there is strength and survival; in division, weakness and death."

 

Rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter:@arabianmau