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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Trouble With Borders Is Everywhere

JERUSALEM -- Last week, not far from the Suez Canal, I became the proud owner of a camel. Not, I hasten to add, the sort that smells like a bucket and is often found beneath tourists at the pyramids. My camel Fred is the size of a human hand and is made of brown rubber.


Fred was given to me by a Zimbabwe-born tourist guide who escorted me and a dozen other visitors from the Israeli resort of Eilat across the Sinai Desert to Cairo and back to Eilat. To liven up the return journey, the guide held a competition that included the question: "Where does a camel store its water? " After consulting my wife, who knows all about camels, I replied: "In the cells of its body". Fred was our prize.


A more pertinent question that the guide could have asked was: "How long do you think it will take to cross the Egyptian-Israeli border? " For the frontier that divides Eilat from Taba in Egypt is no ordinary frontier. It is a demarcation point between two countries that, though they signed a peace treaty in 1979, are still waiting of each other and anyone else hoping to cross their common border.


Both the Egyptian and Israeli border guards seemed to think it a huge nuisance that a group of foreigners (Swedes, Canadians, Thais and Britons) wanted to exercise their right to travel from Israel to Egypt and back. They compelled us to show our passports innumerable times, fill out mysterious forms, declare we weren't smugglers of guns, drugs, pornography or spices, and then repeat the process all over again. It resembled the old Checkpoint Charlie crossing at the Berlin Wall, except that the East German side of that frontier was so sinister that, once in the West, you felt like somersaulting with joy.


In the end, it took us two hours to cross from Taba to Eilat. I have friends for whom the delay has been six hours or more. There is no danger; it is just a long bureaucratic nightmare. One can appreciate the security concerns, but in the long run if travel between Israel and Egypt was less of an obstacle course and if there was a freer flow of people between the two countries, wouldn't is promote greater understanding and reduce mutual suspicions?


Maybe. Unfortunately, I am not sure that such neat remedies can be applied to the Middle East and be expected to work in the way that they have worked, for example, between France and Germany. The clash of cultures and religions and the competition for land and resources are far more serious in the Middle East. So the Eilat-Taba frontier crossing may actually be something of a success story. It is bureaucracy at its worst, but at least you don't smell war in the air. If indolent officialdom is the price of peace, I suppose it's worth paying.