Because of the history of war between Syria and Israel, Syria will not allow anyone to cross their borders carrying any evidence of a visit to Israel in their passports. This makes this next part of the UnPlaned journey risky, there being five points during its course which might leave us with such evidence: leaving Egypt at the Israel crossing; entering Israel; picking up our Jordan visas in Tel Aviv; leaving Israel and entering Jordan from Israel. Like all travellers following the same route, we just have to hope that the officials at each one of these points will be nice, and agree to our requests to stamp their stamps on bits of paper which we can remove once they’ve served their purpose. If they don’t agree, the Syria part of the journey will be impossible, and we’ll have to fly home: the UnPlaned mission will have failed.
On the bus from Cairo to the border at Taba, sleep is a long time coming.
* * *
We wake as the bus pulls into Taba. It shits us out into a dusty 5am car park, and we’re left blinking in a heap of luggage. A tall blonde Danish Muslim does his ablutions by a shop.
Which way to Israel?
The Dane doesn’t know.
The shopkeeper does. We’re pointed That Way, and we walk a straight new road between halves of a Movenpick resort. A camel grazes in a circle around a palm tree, tied at the ankle with a piece of rope. Billy films as we walk.
The resort is huge, its pink luxuriance lapping right up to the barbed wire fence that marks the end of Egypt. We approach the border post wearing high collars of nervous energy, pick up our exit slips, and sidle up to the guard with our charm-faces and requests at the ready.
I hand him my passport, saying,
‘um, would it be OK please if you don’t’
(he’s just stamping the exit slip; he’s not going to stamp the passport, it’s fine)
‘Just if… Oh don’t worry that’s fine.’
(and in the flash of a real-life fuckup, he’s opened the passport and stamped it loud and clear. Taba. Taba. Taba.)
That’s it- the end of UnPlaned. Finished. The mission scuppered, the point disproved. A hot flood of failure cascades around my ears.
‘We’re going to Syria’, I say hopelessly. ‘We have to go through Syria’.
‘Oh! No problem’
What do you mean, ‘no problem’? It’s a huge friggin problem! But he’s beaming, brilliant, whisks my passport away to a glass room, does some magical movements, and brings it back with a smile.
‘There. No problem’.
Admittedly, it’s not ideal: now instead of an exit stamp, there’s an inky smudge in the corner of the Egypt page. But it’s definitely not a Taba exit stamp. OK. Thank you Guard. We’re through. UnPlaned continues…
…100 metres to the Israeli entry point, where Billy passes through fine and dandy, but the female soldier there takes exception to the colourful Islamic stamps in my passport for Iran and Pakistan. I’m ushered to a side-room, and questioned. The soldier there is also female, and young, with a casual slouch that doesn’t strike fear at all. She talks about how much food they’ve been eating for Passover, and asks –by the way- why I was in Iran, and for how long? Also, where am I staying in Israel? I’m loosened by how casual she is, and I tell her we’ll be in Tel Aviv for a couple of days, then we’re going to Bethlehem and on to stay with our mate in Ramallah
A shutter comes down, and she tells me to wait outside.
At first I don’t feel concerned; they just need to Google my name and they’ll see I’m not a threat, right? I sit and look around. The Israeli border post seems to be run entirely by female soldiers around the age of 21. They wear make-up and low-slung combat fatigues. The walls are painted with airbrushed dolphins frolicking with starfish in a dappled sea, and a plaque certifies that the décor won a Beautiful Israel award in 2008. The whole setup gives the impression of a sixth form common room in Saved By The Bell. There isn’t a gun in sight. We buy overpriced coffee from a pimpled kid at the canteen, and wait.
As time passes, I start to worry. I scan the Ramallah pages of the Lonely Planet: Ramallah was the headquarters of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, buildings still peppered with bullet holes. I fidget. An old man pushes a beetle-like floor polishing machine in circles, very slowly. The machine has Omm written on its side. One, two, three hours have gone by, and my slouching soldier hasn’t popped her head out once. I want with all my heart to visit Palestine, and we’ve booked two gigs there. I flick through the pages of my notebook. Oh- it’s Bethehem we’re staying in, not Ramallah. Perhaps I should mention that.
‘I don’t know if it makes any difference, but we’re not staying in Ramallah actually’
‘It makes all the difference’
She’s straight on the phone to her superior, and within two minutes we’ve got our bits of paper stamped (not the passports, hallelujah), and we’re out.
Out into the sunlight where a big male soldier in wraparound shades stands, has been standing the whole time, holding a very real machine gun.