The term "flying while Arab" was coined after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the so-called war on terror began. It is a take on "driving while black", a reference to the racist profiling by police of African-Americans driving good cars. Yet on a recent trip to Yemen, I discovered the other side to flying while Arab. There were none of the usual "random" security checks and interrogations at airports and visa sections that have unfortunately come to define the travel experience. In fact, travelling was a breeze. While Yemen recently stopped its visa on arrival scheme for nationalities including Brits and Americans, as a Syrian, I was exempt.
For the first time in memory, I flashed my travel document and strutted about at airports. My Syrian passport furnished me with the red carpet treatment anywhere I went and, I was told in a humorous but unsolicited exchange, would have even spared me getting kidnapped. "You? When they find out you're Syrian they'll untie you," said a man who identified himself as a tribal member from the eastern Yemeni region, where tourists have been known to disappear.
"Your friend though, she'll have some trouble," he said, also in good humour, referring to my British friend who was travelling with me. We were having dinner in Sana'a with our Yemeni tour guide when the friendly tribesman struck up a conversation. In my experience, travelling while Syrian almost always evokes "special treatment" from the host country. In the West it often invites extra security checks. But, as I am discovering, travelling while Syrian in the Arab world reveals a whole slew of new reactions, all as colourful and silly as inter-Arab politics.
In Lebanon, my Syrianness - as one Lebanese poignantly put it - invokes both unexpected kindnesses and hitherto concealed prejudices. Initially I may not know that I am dealing with a staunchly anti-Syrian Maronite, for example, until I open my mouth and reveal my Syrianness. Reactions vary from an abrupt end to conversation to outright hostility. By contrast, one Hizbollah supporter revealed his Syria-phile sentiments by offering me a "special" discount on a stash of bootlegged DVDs.
Gender too plays a major role. The last time I was in Amman, I was sat down and lectured about the virtues of being a Damascene woman, apparently a "catch" for many Jordanian and other Arab men. "Oh yes," my friend's mother said. "As the saying goes: 'He who does not marry a Shamiyyeh, will not enjoy a single day of haniyyeh.'" Shamiyyeh is colloquial for a Damascene woman, and haniyyeh means marital bliss. But for at least one elderly Yemeni, a feisty grandfatherly man entrusted with opening the door to the national museum in Sana'a, this appeal was totally lost. As I waited for him to open up the museum, I decided to squat in its courtyard.
"It is not appropriate for a woman to squat like a man," he said, before grabbing my arm and escorting me to a bench. (He was right.) "She's from Syria?" he asked the other museum guards around him in surprise. My lack of feminine charm notwithstanding, being Syrian in Yemen evoked people's best generous behaviour. It really was a complete departure from what my psyche had become accustomed to over the years.
Even while travelling on my American passport, which says I was born in Damascus, I sometimes face the challenge of showing to what extent I am a "real" American. "Were you born American or are you an immigrant?" an airport official in Amsterdam once asked me. Luckily this is a moot point in the eyes of the US Constitution. Unlike in many societies, it is not culturally acceptable to ask people if they are "American American", in the same way someone might ask whether you are "French French?"
To some, being an Arab trumps all else. Israeli authorities are notorious for this logic, and there are numerous diplomatic hiccups between them and the US Department of State for mistreating US citizens of Palestinian origin. Unfortunately, incidents of profiling can still reach new heights in stupidity. In one case, settled in court last year, an Iraqi émigré was refused boarding on the chartered airliner JetBlue that was departing New York JFK Airport to California. His crime? He was wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing on it. Security officials asked Raed Jarrar, the plaintiff, to change or cover his shirt, but he refused. They allegedly told him: "Coming into an airport while wearing a T-shirt with Arabic letters on it is equivalent to going into a bank while wearing a shirt saying, 'I am a robber'." The court awarded him $240,000 (Dh881,000).
Being Arab trumps all for many Arabs too. The Syrians are not the only ones in this region who ignore my US nationality. I do not need a visa to enter Syria on my US passport, for example, when other Americans do. After all, a large portion of Arabs live in a diaspora and hold dual passports. This Arabness that trumps all else can open and close doors during travel. While in Yemen, I encountered both helpfulness and condescension from the same woman, a part-Italian part-Yemeni guesthouse owner and travel agent.
She was the epitome of Arab hospitality when I first contacted her to make reservations. We greeted each other over the telephone with what I like to call "cultural noise", the repeated "how are you?" and "hope you are in good health" exchange in Arabic. This serves more as a greeting than a genuine query about the other person's life, similar to the way ants touch antennae to discern each other's colony of origin. Such exchanges can take several minutes, with each person mumbling simultaneously "alhamdullah, and you?", before finally getting down to business.
But later, after I was a guest in her bed and breakfast, and I turned down some of the other travel services she wanted to sell, she became incensed. She switched to English and spewed some shockingly condescending remarks, accusing me and my travel companion of "not knowing how to travel" before charging for undelivered services. Though more a statement of her mental health than anything else, it is still interesting that when she decided to escalate matters, she also referred to herself by her Western name and stuck only to English.
Ultimately, a choice of identities is helpful when travelling, where flexibility and adaptability are key. One time, before the internet was so widely available, I inadvertently booked myself into a brothel in Paris, thinking it was a good value guesthouse. When I arrived there and realised my mistake, I found an Algerian man on duty as the concierge. He remained unhelpful to me until I spoke Arabic. At that point his face changed from a stoic "cannot help you" attitude to the concerned, patriarchal, protective "we need to get you out of here" tone of voice. Thanks to him, I managed to find a last-minute room at a nearby Holiday Inn. email@example.com