2012 Date Geography Interest Jewish Interest Middle East

A Stranger in a Strange Land? – Travels in the Middle East

This week has witnessed another major flare-up in hostilities between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave of Gaza. Facts, as always, depend on political orientation, but in short: there has been an escalation in rocket fire into southern Israel from Gaza – more than five hundred in the past few weeks; last week, the Israeli army killed the leader of Hamas’ military wing; more rockets from Gaza; more Israeli airstrikes on Gaza; more rockets, more strikes, more rockets, and casualties on both sides.

With total predictability, the condemnation of Israel’s actions and anti-Israel demonstrations have begun around the world; the United Nations Security Council is in urgent session, where no doubt an enquiry of sorts will be initiated, a report will issue in a few months and recriminations and counter-recriminations will follow that. Etc, etc, etc.

All of which fills up the TV news channels and the daily papers for those of us sitting comfortably in a lounge room half a world away. But my parents live in Tel Aviv, not 60 km away from the bombs and rockets. I have family members spending their nights in air-raid shelters; one of my best friends, a reserves captain in the Israeli Army Spokesperson Unit, has been called-up for active duty.

His wife so eloquently summed it all up on her Facebook page, shortly after my friend was mobilised: “here we go again”.

Indeed, here we go again.


Even though I was born in Israel, the migratory path of my parents meant that I left Israel when I was a toddler, and I grew up first in South Africa and then Australia (my parents moved back to Israel when they retired). As a result, I hold both Australian and Israeli passports.

Most Arab / Muslim countries, in the middle-east and beyond, do not formally recognise or maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. As a result, Israeli passport holders (and often those from other countries whose passports indicate that they have even visited Israel) are not permitted to enter these countries.

An Australian passport, by contrast, is like a multi-purpose Swiss knife: it can open any door, and is always welcome, even in the most undesirable of places. Very few people anywhere in the world have any beef with Australians, largely because very few people anywhere in the world actually care about anything that goes on Down Under (see my previous post on this subject: Australian Relativity).

So, thanks to my Australian passport, over the years I have been able to visit many countries where, as an Israeli, I would never have been allowed entry, or at the very least I would have been extremely unwelcome. In Asia, this means I have been able to travel to Malaysia and Indonesia, I have visited a number of central Asian Muslim countries, and in North Africa I have been to Egypt and Morocco. In the middle-east proper, I have travelled to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait.

My career has thus far been as an investment banker, private equity guy and executive in an energy company. Hmmm – money, oil and gas: things that many of these countries seem to have in abundance, and so the ability to go to all these places has certainly been professionally useful over the years; at times almost an essential part of my job description.

Admittedly, I have not been to any of the hard-core “we hate Israel may it vanish from the map forever” countries. Like say Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or Iran. I am not sure if I would ever have the cojones to visit this any of this bunch, Aussie passport or not. But Israel is never top-of-the-pops in any Arab/Muslim country, even in those more moderate ones which now recognise Israel or at least have established some form of unofficial diplomatic contact with the Jewish State. So I always feel an element of fear and trepidation, not to mention an added adrenaline rush, going somewhere that I know, strictly speaking, I would probably be better off just not going.

On these various visits, there have been four recurring themes that have never ceased to amaze me:

  • First, no matter what I do, I am never able to hide who I am. People identify me instantly as being of middle-eastern background. And normally it takes less than five minutes after that for the scope to narrow and then, whether in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Morocco, I get asked some variant of: “so, you’re Jewish?” or: “where do your family live in Israel?

Maybe it is my name or my appearance, but in much the same way a New Yorker can instantly tell a mid-westerner from a Texan from a west-coaster, when I am at large amongst the “extended family” in the middle-east I am always picked out from the crowd as being Jewish and semi-Israeli. To an Arab, it would seem, figuring out where I originate from is as obvious as spotting a zebra in a herd of antelope.

  • Second, and this is the interesting bit, despite the anxiety I feel at having my identity unmasked in these countries, it is seldom an issue for anyone else. What people say and think in private often bears no relation to their leaders’ public rhetoric.

More often than not, my hosts, on learning of my background, will tell me of the long and valued contribution to their country made by the indigenous Jewish community. In Morocco, I was told that the mass migration of Morocco’s large Jewish population in the 1950s, which is when my father’s family left there, was “a tragedy for Morocco, and Israel’s gain”. In Indonesia and Malaysia, my being a Jew is always regarded positively (see my prior post The Jewish Angle – Asia Style), and wherever I go I am often asked for Israel travel tips and suggestions, from Christians and Muslims alike.

In Dubai and Abu Dhabi especially, people have openly praised Israel to me, citing the country’s challenges and achievements. A person I was once meeting in Abu Dhabi told me that he greatly admired Israel for its successes in the fields of technology, immigrant absorption and infrastructure development. “We Arabs should learn from Israel and invest in our own future”, he said, which came as a bit of a shock to me given the person in question was wearing a full-length dishdasha (Emirati robe) and kaffiyeh (white cotton headdress), and had previously told me that apart from being a businessman he was also quite a devout Islamic scholar. I had just assumed that he would be rabidly anti-Israel.

  • Third, just like the Jews and Israelis and most everyone else, “the Arabs” or “the Muslims” are far from a unified, homogenous crowd. Amongst themselves, there are often internal divisions and hatreds that make how they feel about the rest of us seem quite tame, really.

I especially remember in Kuwait, where our driver was a Jordanian Palestinian. We got chatting, and before too long he was telling me how the Kuwaitis were racists, and how badly they behaved towards poor migrants like him, who flock to oil-rich Kuwait from the rest of the Arab world in the hope of finding work. He complained of being treated like a third-class citizen in Kuwait. “Even the Israelis treat us Palestinians better”, he said, which, as a throwaway comment in downtown Kuwait City, was a bit of a surprise.

  • And finally, travelling to various Arab / Muslim countries has taught me that it is not always self-evident who you are most similar to, and who you can best identify with.

In Dubai once, my host for a day was the thirty-something year old son, and heir apparent, of a very wealthy Dubai businessman. Unlike the traditional white dishdasha worn by most men in Dubai, he wore a black one as an act of rebellion; the Dubai version of being a Goth, I guess. He drove a fast sports car, loved soccer and the Simpsons, and had gone to college in the UK, so he spoke flawless English with a very proper accent. We spent our time chatting about the English premier league, pop-music, and our favourite restaurants in London.

Not more than forty-eight hours later I found myself on a plane from Zurich heading to Tel Aviv, sitting next to an orthodox Jew, probably similar in age to me. He was wearing a black coat and hat, and had a full-beard and peyot (side-burns). He carried a small siddur (Jewish prayer-book) in his hand, and read it for the first forty minutes of the flight. We got chatting, in broken English and Hebrew. Very quickly we worked out that apart from establishing basics like where my parents lived in Israel and what I did for a living, we had absolutely nothing to talk about. His life was devoted to Jewish religious studies; he never listened to modern music or watched TV; he was uninterested in sports; and strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws meant he never dined out at non-kosher restaurants.

It was one of those weird “aha” moments for me – where it dawned on me that although the guy in the seat next to me was both Jewish and Israeli, I actually had a lot more in common with the bloke in the black robe in Dubai.

In the modern world, as the planet increasingly shrinks with the effect of globalisation, the dividing line between people is no longer where they live or what their religion is, but whether they are generally secular or generally fundamentalist in orientation. Much as it may appal him if he ever heard me say it, my co-religionist next to me on the plane that day probably has a lot more in common with a radical mullah in Iran or an Evangelical preacher in Idaho, than he does with me.


Anyway, when the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and its neighbours ignites and fills the world’s headlines, as it has this past week, I find myself reflecting a lot on the ordinary interactions I have had with ordinary people when visiting Arab and Muslim countries. And one incident in particular always comes to mind, which relates to a brief trip, about five years ago, to Kuwait.

I had been asked to travel to Kuwait for work purposes. At the time the firm I was working for was raising a private equity fund, and there were some wealthy potential investors we had been talking to there, who now wanted to meet in person.

As I mentioned earlier, many Arab / Muslim countries do not recognise Israel, and Kuwait is no exception. Israeli citizens and all those sympathetic to Israel are most definitely not welcome to visit. And, when I say not welcome I don’t mean it in the sense of “oh, we’d rather you didn’t come, if that’s all the same to you”. I mean not welcome in the sense that a case of syphilis is not welcome in a brothel: definitely not something you want to be on the receiving end of, and potentially life threatening.

As a small example, in 2010 a media firestorm broke out in Kuwait after it was alleged that an Israeli citizen had, Lord help us, secretly been allowed entry into the country. Kuwait’s interior minister, Shaikh Jaber al Khalid, went to great pains at the time to clarify that this had never happened: “I can assure you that no Israeli national has, or will in the future, come into the country … Anyone seeking to visit Kuwait, but using a passport that has an Israeli stamp, is barred from entering the country. Whoever has evidence about Israelis allowed into the country should present it to the relevant authorities”.

Not exactly what you would call a red carpet welcome, now is it?

Still, when asked to visit Kuwait, I ignored completely the pleas of my anxious parents in Israel that I do no such thing, and went. I was fascinated and curious as to what Kuwait was like – a place that since the Gulf War has loomed large in all of our minds. Not to mention that I was just a little bit excited by the hint of danger and the forbidden element of it all. It was like putting a child in a lolly-shop and telling him not to touch the sweeties. How could I resist?

I did take some basic precautions. I checked carefully that my Australian passport had no Israeli stamps in it.  I made sure my return ticket was pre-booked and fully flexible, so that I could fly out on short notice. I arranged to travel with a work colleague from Singapore, and to be accompanied at all times by our company’s representative from Dubai (an Arab). Plus, as an added safeguard, I asked our hosts in Kuwait to send me invitation letters, in both Arabic and English, with official-looking stamps all over them, lest I needed to explain my presence in the country.

We landed at Kuwait International Airport, and fifteen minutes later I was waiting in line at immigration, nervous and fidgety. I approached the immigration officer – a big, burly man with a bushy moustache, prominently wearing a pistol on the side of his uniform. I handed over my passport, my heart thumping so hard I thought he might actually hear it. I suppose that is the closest I will ever come to what it must feel like to be a drug mule, standing in the customs queue with a six-pack of cocaine-filled condoms jammed up your arse.

The immigration officer thumbed through the pages of my well-worn Australian passport, and then paused on the photo page. He studied it closely, and then looked up at me.

It says here that you are born in Jerusalem?” he asked.

Oh, fuck. How could I be so stupid to forget that every Australian passport prominently records your place of birth on its first page? I offered a silent prayer of thanks that I had the foresight, all those years ago when I had applied for my passport, to fill in Jerusalem as my place of birth, thus not specifically mentioning Israel.

Um, yes, I was”, I replied in a small, slightly shaky voice.

The immigration officer looked me up and down slowly, before fixing me firmly in a steely gaze.

So, this must mean you are a Palestinian?” he asked.

And there you have it – my moment of truth had arrived. I shuffled my feet, rubbed my sweaty palms on the side of my suit trousers, and swallowed hard. Should I lie, and betray my identity and that of so many of my family and friends, just to get access to Kuwaiti money? Or should I tell the truth, and risk being deported on the spot, carted off to a jail, or worse?

After a pause of a couple of seconds, I looked directly into the immigration officer’s eyes and said: “Well, I guess in that part of the world we are all Palestinians, aren’t we?

The officer didn’t say a word in response. He just stared at me intently. He couldn’t see my legs from where he sat, which is just as well because they were quivering like jelly. The silence lasted for what felt like an eternity, but in reality it was probably only four or five seconds. I have no idea how I managed to do it, but I steadfastly held his gaze, the whole time.

And then, most unexpectedly, he cocked his head to one side and smiled at me, knowingly. He lifted up his stamp, and slammed it down hard on the page of my open passport. “Welcome to Kuwait” he said – I swear he almost winked at me – before waving me through and signalling for the next person to come forward.

He knew who I was, and he knew where I came from. And really, he didn’t give a shit. I was just another banker-guy in a suit, trying to make a living, and he was just doing the same thing as well.

In times of Arab-Israeli conflict like this past week, I often wonder what it would be like if everyone in the middle-east felt that way, too.

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