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.

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.

Oddly, the reverse was the case at the Jordanian border, where we were taken under the wing of a young, cloaked Jordanian who swept into the border post as if fresh from the desert and took charge of our documentation with great solicitude. We were British, friends. Hadn't King Hussein learned to fly with the Royal Air Force?

If we had been crossing the same border during the Gulf war everything would have been different. We probably would have been Western imperialists - aliens in the eyes of Jordan. Syria, on the other hand, might have welcomed us as allies. Borders are like that, one day an entrance to a new land of wonder and opportunity, another the point at which your horizon abruptly ends. That no one has an inherent title to the land is pure irony.

Even more bizarre is the situation that arises when a country refuses to recognize that its neighbor exists at all.

"Israel?" The official at the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior raised his eyebrows when we asked for clearance to cross the border. "I do not know of any such place."

It is very hard to continue negotiations under such circumstances. He left us with the choice of waiting until a political change-of-heart brought Israel back into existence or of taking to the sea. We chose the latter and took a boat from Aqaba to Suez with the intention of entering Israel via Egypt.

But first we had to enter Egypt. That proved the most bewildering border of all. The Egyptian system is what the gracious might call "chaotic" and the cynic would label "nonexistent." It certainly was friendly, and though it cost us an inordinate amount of money to cross over, our money was taken from us with a disarming pleasantness. Even the oft-repeated call of baksheesh ("tip") sounded a little like "Have a nice day."

Getting out of Egypt was almost as difficult as getting in. The border post at Rafa had a distinctly impermanent air about it, as if one might wake up one morning and find it gone, moved by Israel to a more politically attractive site. The Egyptian customs official seemed to consider our desire to cross into Israel as a slight toward his country. He even suggested we were ineligible on the ground that our car had the steering wheel on the wrong side - a failing of every car manufactured in Britain. When the emptiness of his arguments finally dawned on him, he resorted to his trump card.

HE looked at his watch, and held it close to our faces.

"You cannot go," he said, "You see, it is 5 o'clock. The border is closed." He ushered us out and locked the door.

What threatened to presage a night in a particularly lawless section of "no man's land" turned out to be one of the most secure and entertaining nights of our journey. A Fijian soldier guarding a compound occupied by United Nations peacekeeping forces recognized our British number plates.

"British?" he cried out. "You stay with us." He opened the barbed-wire gates and we crossed a border not shown in the atlas but every bit as valid. That night we fared sumptuously on UN food and slept safely behind the guns of an extroverted band of fun-loving Fijian soldiers.

In the morning a different man was on duty at the border post and all the obstacles of the previous evening disappeared. We were welcomed into Israel within the hour.

Getting out, of course, brought problems in reverse. Neither Jordan, Syria, nor Egypt wanted us back, and there were distinctly unfriendly gun noises coming from the Lebanese border. Once again the sea came to our rescue. We found a boat in Haifa bound for Piraeus. By the time we landed in Greece, no one seemed to care where we had been.

But that is what I like about borders. You really don't know what to expect - from the whimsical illogicalities of Egypt to the arbitrary enforcements of the former Soviet Union. They can protect and preserve or constrain and isolate. Perhaps one day they will go, and with them, the disputes they habitually beget. That would be good ... if a trifle dull.

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