Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Borders from Now On*


Last week, a few of the students from my scholarship watched the Syrian comedy el-Hudood (الحدود), a satire of nationalist Arab regimes and ridiculous nature of borders. Written by the famous Syrian actor Duraid Lahham and the late Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut, the film concentrates on the mishaps of the unlucky Adbul Wudood. While crossing between the imaginary Arab countries of Sharqstan (East) and Gharbstan (West), he loses his passport in the “no man’s land” between the two borders. Unable to cross either border, Adbul Wudood ends up constructing a rest house out of his car and even gets married to Sudfeh, a smuggler, but remains unable to escape his state of limbo. The press eventually publicizes his situation and a nationalist politician seems to come to his aid, declaring: "لا حدود بعد اليوم"– “No border from now on”. However, he then proceeds to jump in his Mercedes and drive away. As the film ends, Adbul Wudood continues to wait indefintely between Sharqstan and Gharbstan. Although extremely amusing, the film drives home the message of the emptiness of slogans of Arab nationalism as long as borders keep the Arab people divided.

Our own recent experience with the border has made me sympathize with the plight of poor Adbul Wudood. Our visa requires us to cross over the Syrian border every 28 days in order to gain another 28 day extension.** This sounds like a rather simple, if somewhat annoying, undertaking considering the Damascus is only about 50km (30 miles) from the Syrian border and 127 km (around 75 miles) from Beirut through the beautiful Lebanese mountains. However, a trip from Damascus to Beirut takes on average between three and four hours. In order to cross the border out of Syria, one must first get in line to pay an exit fee of 550 Syrian pounds (around $12) then pass through passport control followed by customs. Once you have crossed the Syrian border, you must then drive through the rather bleak “no man’s land” until you reach the Lebanese border where you have to buy a 15-day tourist visa for 25,000 Lebanese pounds (about $17). Since they only accept Lebanese currency at passport control and there is no ATM at the border, you must convert money with a man in the middle of the street with a giant wad of cash in his hand… definitely not the best exchange rate. Three hours later and around $30 dollars poorer (not to mention the cost of the taxi), we finally reached Beirut…. Not a small sum for a cash-strapped college student and an exorbitant amount for most people that actually live in the region. In spite of this hassle, we were some of the lucky ones, since we were not held at the border where waits of over 8 hours are not unusual occurrences and being barred entry is always an option. Not to mention the possibility of ending up passport-less and in limbo like the hapless Adbul Wudood.

The hassle it takes to cross between Syria and Lebanon is even more frustrating due to the fact that the border, like most borders, is completely artificial. Up until WWI, Syria and Lebanon were a single unified region as well as one economic and political entity. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the exiling of the nationalist government of King Faisal, the French were awarded Lebanon and Syria as a mandate (colony). They devised a divide and rule strategy, splitting the mandate into Lebanon with a Christian majority and Syria. Now over a hundred years later, the simple act of getting from Beirut to Damascus is now a long, expensive and at times grueling test of one’s patience.

Although one might be tempted to see the plight of Abdul Wudood and those stuck in the “no man’s land” between the real Sharqstan and Gharbstan as a result of the Middle East’s own political and diplomatic issues, this nightmare is not isolated to the states of the Arab World. Anyone who has passed from Mexico into California and seen the long lines of people trying to get across the border is forced to acknowledge the artificial nature of that line in the sand maintained by walls, tanks and guns, which has fueled so many debates about immigration in the United States

For all those divided from livelihood and loved ones by borders, I hope for the day when we can truly say “No border from now on.”

* This blog represents my own views and in no way represents the view of the US Department of State or any of its affiliates.

**We were unable to gain anything besides a temporary tourist visa due to the continued tension between the U.S. and Syrian government. Also, if one has ever seen the way in which those attempting to gain visas to the U.S. are treated, one might think we got off fairly easy.