Crossing the Lines That Divide Us
IF anything can be relied upon to send a shiver down my spine, it is a douane or "customs" sign. Borders fascinate me. I'm talking, not of vague borders seen from the sky, but of borders real and consequential as on the ground. Here they seem to have absolute power. This side you are in one country, that side in another. Here you may behave in a certain manner, there the same behavior could put you in prison, even get you shot. Everything changes at the border: money, language, law, even your status. Tom orrow it might be different. That's part of their excitement.Skip to next paragraph
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During an overland trip from Scotland to Egypt a few years ago, my son and I crossed 19 borders. Our passports bear the stamps but it is in our minds that the details are imprinted.
An early border was that between West and East Germany. It was January and eerily quiet as we joined the thin line of vehicles creeping toward the check point. Barbed wire fences, tank traps, beds of spikes, guards, and submachine guns warned us that this border was for real. Menace was all around, but that was expected; what was worse to cope with was the invisible border that we knew lay somewhere on the stretch of concrete road ahead of us, the ideological divide where accustomed freedoms would be wit hdrawn - where political debate became a crime, the Bible became subversive literature, and, most significant of all, we became aliens.
We couldn't see it, but we felt it, and it was sinister. We tried to stay astride the high of danger, but the cold fog of oppression that accompanied our entry into East Germany pulled us down. Everything conspired to depress. The potholed roads, the featureless blocks of flats, the bowed figures we passed on the sidewalks, hunched to protect their anonymity. Even the plumes of smoke drifting from the factory chimneys had an air of apathy.
The Eastern bloc countries were all the same. Their borders were borders of constraint within whose bounds a well-intentioned system had proved unworkable, corruption had festered, and tyranny and fear alone kept the lid on disaster. We soon felt as threatened as the next man, and our hands went frequently to check the whereabouts of our passports for they alone could open the door that led back to freedom.
In sharp contrast, the bustling border crossing at Edirne, Turkey, had no threatening overtones. Here the transit route that links Sofia to Istanbul moves from the repressive atmosphere of Bulgaria into the once free-trading country of Turkey. Migrant workers returning from Germany in vans loaded with transistor radios, plastic bowls, toasters, and other consumer goods that shouted their Western origins, queued excitedly at border gates and argued and gestured their way through the processing formalities .
WE were channeled separately; the British, it seemed, deserved respect. Perhaps it was because our two countries had both, in the distant past, possessed extensive empires. Or was it that our hair was short?
Syria was different again. If East Germany was the border of oppression, and Turkey the border of friendliness, then Syria was the border of enmity. Media propaganda proclaimed America an ally of Israel, and British citizens were accorded the same hostility as those from the United States. Suddenly we were aliens again.
But not aliens as we were in the communist countries, where we had been treated with careful correctness founded on the knowledge that both our governments were war-ready and any provocation might trigger action. Here we were aliens in a place so top-heavy with power that we could be pricked and insulted with impunity.
And we were. Our passports were taken from us by a noisy army officer and we were put to the end of a queue of djellaba-clad workers and made to wait while the border officials ate their lunch and followed it with an extended siesta. Our car was searched by a man who seemed to have a dubious intent. He made a great play of discovering a "secret" compartment under the floor in which he found, to his disappointment, only a set of snow chains and a box of toilet paper.
But it wasn't just being British that aroused their ire. It was our perceived affluence. Our small car had looked modest enough against the big black Mercedes and sleek BMWs that coasted down the strasses of Vienna and Amsterdam, but beside a bare-footed peasant farmer on an emaciated donkey, a 1400cc Citroen became ostentatious in the extreme. We were not only aliens, we were also indecently wealthy. And we carried toilet paper.