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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Cairo

By Paul Adams
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Friday, April 11, 2003
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Pictures from Cairo

A mosque is silhouetted against the setting sun in Cairo.
Photo: Glen Allison

Eygptians smoke waterpipes as they watch the latest developments on a television.
Photo; Marwan Naamani/AFP

Egyptian demonstrators at an antiwar rally.
Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP

"What's it like 'next door' these days?" asked the young Egyptian woman who was working with me during my time in Cairo earlier this month.

Gesturing to the taxi-driver, she added: "I don't want to say the name while we're in the taxi."

She was talking about Israel, of course. What misfortune might befall us if the driver realized we were caught talking about Israel was not entirely clear, but she was being on the safe side.

We were engaged in one of the many petty deceptions that journalists, along with many other Westerners working and traveling in the Arab world, have become accustomed to. Those deceptions have become more frequent and perhaps more necessary as tensions rise in the shadow of the war in Iraq.

Egypt, at least, has diplomatic relations with Israel, but that makes it unusual in the Arab world. Lebanon, like many Arab states, remains technically at war with Israel, and there is a perpetual state of military alert along their joint border. Although Lebanon appears, superficially at least, to be a relatively free, pluralistic society, it is dominated by Syria, an old-fashioned police state. Even amongst themselves, journalists in Beirut normally refer to Israel as "Dixie", an expression that must have originated as a sort of joke meaning "down south".

I once had dinner in Beirut at an elegant Lebanese restaurant with a cabinet minister, a newspaper publisher, a university professor, an American foreign correspondent, and the Prime Minister's press secretary. It was a cosmopolitan group, whose conversation slid effortlessly from English to French to Arabic. I was the only one at the table who did not speak all three.

I had first met the Prime Minister's press secretary in Ottawa, when I interviewed her boss, Rafik Hariri. I told them both at the time where I was being posted in the Middle East, so when she asked me at dinner where I was living, I thought she giving me the signal that in these circles it was permissible to be truthful. "Israel," I said.

The table fell suddenly silent. There was a long empty pause. I could not take it back of course. I waited, like everyone else, wondering what would happen next. Then, the cabinet minister smoothly picked up the conversation as if nothing had happened. "How is life there these days?" he asked.

It was not a mistake I have made since.

As a result of the war in Iraq, the United States has become almost as demonized in the Arab world as Israel has always been. An American photographer who has lived and worked in Cairo for nearly two decades told me the other day that he is trying to get an Austrian passport (his father was Austrian). He sometimes makes a show of speaking German, even though his German is not that strong, he said. Most Arabs know that Germany and France opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq.

An easier and more common dodge for Americans is to pass themselves off as Canadians. At a large antiwar (and anti-American) demonstration organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo the other day, I was sharing a translator with a group of journalists, mostly Americans. I overheard one of them being quizzed by someone in the crowd about his origins. "Canadian," he said. "Toronto or Calgary?" his interrogator asked, apparently thinking those were the only options. "Winnipeg," parried the reporter, who had grown up in Minnesota.

A few moments later, I approached the octogenarian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was sitting at the edge of the crowd, being fanned from the heat by supporters. I introduced myself as a Canadian and mentioned that I had interviewed him once before. Imagine my surprise when he instantaneously launched into a denunciation of the Canadian Parliament for voting in favour of a war crimes tribunal for Saddam Hussein. It was the first I had heard of it.

A more serious issue is that of passports. Most Arab countries will refuse entry to anyone whose passport has an Israeli stamp in it. Others may require you, in addition, to fill out a form saying that you have never been to "occupied Palestine".

Many journalists carry more than one passport - a so-called "dirty" passport for getting in and out of Israel, and a "clean" passport for the rest of the Arab world. For the more easy-going Arab states, such as Lebanon, that is enough. They are happy to let journalists in so long as they do not offend their sensibilities by presenting a passport containing an Israeli stamp.

But the hard-line Arab countries, such as Syria (and until recently Iraq) are more aggressive in trying to weed out anyone who has set foot on Israeli - or "occupied Palestinian" - soil.

At the Syrian embassy in Cairo the other day, I was trying to apply for a visa. My passport did not have any Israeli stamps on it. However, a sharp-eyed Iraqi diplomat noticed that it did have one Jordanian exit stamp, without a corresponding entry stamp. I had left Jordan, but never arrived. Hmmmm.

"There's only one explanation, and it's not good for your cause," he said.

I left empty-handed.

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