It’s hard for an Arab to find a safe place to visit in the region... except for the state our demagogues continue to call ‘the alleged entity.’
I have been haunted since early boyhood by an infatuation with Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria – the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
For me, this fascination started with recognizing the voices of singers like Syrian Sabah Fakhry (born 1933) belonging to the al-Sham region.
I conjured up these images and feelings as I was boarding a plane heading for the “land of beauty,” dreaming of soirées in Aleppo, touring Damascus’s old marketplaces and hanging around its cafés.
Such daydreams were flashing through my imagination until the “blessed” plane landed in Syria, when all dreams faded away within half an hour at Damascus Airport.
I was quickly singled out by a security officer, who checked my passport. He reviewed a list, and asked me to stand aside until he had dealt with a “routine problem” that would not take time. Ten minutes later, a grim-faced officer in plainclothes came and told me to follow him. When I asked if I should bring my luggage, he pointed to an office and said it was already there. It was a government office affiliated with a security department whose name was not disclosed to me.
Two or more hours now passed, with me sitting on a very bad seat inside a vault not much bigger than a jail cell. A third officer then presented himself. He hammered me with questions, starting with my “dubious” profession (journalism) and including my favorite brand of cigarettes, Marlboro Red.
I answered with composure and calmness, trying in vain to alleviate the sharp tone he was using. “Your case is under examination,” the officer said disgustedly, adding that he would let me know the result “shortly.”
An hour later, a fourth officer arrived, no less grimfaced than his predecessors. Addressing the would-be “ambassador of the devil,” he told me I was not welcome in Syria. It was “a sovereign decision,” according to him, and he said he was not obliged to give any explanation.
So I had to carry my luggage (which had clearly been subject to a stormy search) back through the airport.
Now, on board a plane heading to Cairo, I recalled all the opinion pieces and TV interviews in which I had been critical of the policies and remarks of some senior Syrian officials. That was the reason for what had happened! My expulsion from Syria took place almost 18 months ago. I preferred at the time to turn a blind eye, as I believed it wasn’t worth making an issue out of it, particularly with a regime ruled by a man who had inherited his power. Yet I cannot help smiling in bitterness whenever I listen to Syrian officials parroting the Ba’ath Party’s famous slogan: “One Arab nation with a timeless message.” I have now become totally aware of what that one nation and timeless message stand for!
I THOUGHT about visiting Beirut and attending a concert by Lebanon’s iconic diva Fayrouz that was scheduled at the Al-Bayal hotel, and actually began to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
I phoned a Lebanese friend and fellow journalist.
He was terrified by my daring thought, and taken by surprise by my naivete – merely thinking about visiting Lebanon with my record of dire assaults on Hizbullah (I had once dubbed the powerful Shi’ite group a “war contractor” and a proxy for Iran’s regional aspirations).
I was even oblivious to the fact that Hizbullah men are in de facto control of Beirut Airport – another source of amazement for my colleague, who feared for my safety.
Although it was once a part of Egypt, I don’t even feel safe visiting Sudan, due to my verbal attacks on the regime of Omar Bashir, who insists on presiding over a collapsing state.
I am sure that Muammar Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council will not deny me access to Libya.
Yet I am almost as certain I would never come out again, just like many others.
RCC “knights” would not be any more merciful to me than they were to my late Libyan colleague, London- based journalist Daif al-Ghazal, whose body was found off the coast of Benghazi on June 2, 2005, more than two weeks after his disappearance. He had been tortured almost beyond recognition, according to Reporters without Borders.
No one assumes to know what kind of suffering the 32-year was subject to when he was taking his last breaths, the words he uttered when the electric saw was cutting through his fingers or his screams upon being burnt with mineral acids. Nobody knows.
Rather, nobody cared to know about his suffering, and Arab newspapers didn’t highlight Ghazal’s case; the story was covered only by Western papers, rights groups and some websites.
I remember that I published many reports and opinion pieces on the incident, recalling notorious precedents by the Libyan regime. This is not all; I also commented more than once on Gaddafi’s weird, comic remarks, particularly during Arab summit conferences. That’s why I couldn’t risk going even to Salloum, the Egyptian city bordering Libya.
Being one of those in the Middle East who refuses my assigned role as a regime loyalist, I sometimes face charges of seeking normalization with Israel, apostasy from Islam or designation as an American agent.
FAILING TO find a glimpse of hope across the greater Arab world, we must concede that Israel has become the only “safe haven” where one can be sure of his life and dignity. Yes, Israel, the state our demagogues continue to call “the alleged entity.”
Just like the Palestinian Helles family who fled Hamas “jihadists” in Gaza to Israel, I foresee a time when millions of Arabs might stand humbly in front of IDF soldiers, begging for protection.
So, I urge you, dear fellow Arab, to visit Israel.