I just got back from Nicaragua, and I’m ready to blog.
Now that I’ve recovered a bit from my trip–in other words, now that I’m no longer chained to the bathroom–I’ve been sitting here trying to compare what I observed in Nicaragua with what I’d observed on recent trips to Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but a series of anecdotes about postcards conveys something about the flavor of each place. I swear I’m not making any of it up.
Nicaragua. I had time to kill one day Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua, so I decided to get some postcards. I went over to a vendor, and asked her, in half-assed Spanish, for five postcards. She gave them to me, I paid for them, and then thought to ask for stamps. She didn’t have any, so I asked my friend and colleague George–who’s Nicaraguan–where I could get some stamps. “What the hell for?” he asked (he speaks American). “To mail some postcards,” I said. “Dude,” he said, “What’s the point? Nicaragua doesn’t have a postal service.” Oh. A revelation. (Not that this made a difference to my postcard issue, but it turns out that Nicaragua doesn’t have any accurate street addresses, either.)
Stereotype 1: Nicaragua, land of postcards but no postal service.
Pakistan. Compare this to Pakistan, which has an exemplary postal service, care of its erstwhile British colonial overlords. One day I had time to kill at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, so I went over to a vendor and asked him, in perfectly fluent Urdu, for some postcards. “What are those?” he asked. That’s when my Urdu started to break down.
Irfan: Well, they’re cards with a picture on one side, and blank space on the other, so that you can write on them and mail them to people.
Vendor: What would you want one of those for? Just get a calling card. I have the best prices! Check these out…
I really had no idea how to respond to that, whether in Urdu or in English, so I tried to mumble an excuse and started backing slowly out of the store. The vendor started to panic.
Vendor: I have batteries too! All kinds. You need double A’s? Lithium? Duracell?
Irfan: Thanks, I don’t need batteries.
Vendor: Tea? Coffee? Chicken kebab? When does your flight leave?
Stereotype 2: Pakistan, land of a British-style postal service and pushy vendors, but no postcards.
Israel/Palestine. I ended up having no time to kill at Ben Gurion International Airport. A colleague from Al Quds University Law School had persuaded me to join him and about a dozen people for a jaunt to the Golan Heights the day before my flight was supposed to leave. We left East Jerusalem early in the morning, and headed north to Golan on the understanding that I had to be back in Jerusalem by midnight to catch a taxi to Tel Aviv for a 5 am flight. Security regulations required me to get to the airport by 2 am.
We took a (very) leisurely drive to Golan, spent the day at a water park there (I think it was Kfar Blum), had a (very, very) leisurely six-course barbecue in the park, and then headed (in leisurely fashion) to Lake Tiberias around 8 pm, where we spent a few hours dancing on a very large, loud, DJ-outfitted dance boat full of drunk Russian Jews and hyperactive Israeli Arabs. (Actually, among “us” Palestinians, the men danced. The Arab/Palestinian women sat on the sidelines, clapping, ululating, and urging us on. I’m gratified to say that one of them told me that I “danced like a Palestinian.”) After that, we had a four course dinner on the shores of Lake Tiberias, when around 11 pm–gorged on chicken, fish, watermelon, Turkish coffee, etc.–it began to occur to my hosts that at this rate, I might miss my flight. We then rushed, dangerously and at full speed, down the Tiberias coast. Eventually, we rushed into the West Bank via Jericho (stopping only for ice cream), dropped everyone else off at Abu Dis, then rushed back into Jerusalem past its checkpoint (by this time my tipsy driver was sweating bullets and weaving all over the highway), and got me to my taxi 90 minutes late.
The taxi driver–who was patiently undisturbed about the delay, and either a member of Hamas or a Mossad agent impersonating one–rushed me to Tel Aviv, administering an alarming ideological-theological purity test along the way, but getting me there in record time.
Taxi Driver: Are you Christian or Muslim? [‘Jewish’ or ‘atheist’ were evidently not among the conceivable options.]
Irfan: Muslim. [A bald-faced lie, but the right answer in context.]
Driver (after a pause): Are you Shia or Sunni?
Driver: Good. The Shia are kaffirun [infidels]. They are fanatics. They will all burn in Hell. I am glad you are a Sunni.
Irfan: So am I.
Driver: Do you know Hassan Nasrallah?
Irfan: Well, I know who he is. [It seemed important here not to equivocate on ‘know’.]
Driver: What is your opinion of him?
Irfan: I don’t like him. He seems like a fanatic.
Etc. Repeat for forty-five hair-raising minutes, each ad hoc fatwa condemning more people to death or damnation, and each fatwa getting closer to revealing that I deserved the same fate. By the end of it, I was praying to be detained at an Israeli checkpoint.
Before long, I was detained at an Israeli checkpoint–or, well, a series of them. The first stop was just outside the airport, and took about half an hour. Then I got to the airport itself and was searched yet again. Then I got in line to check my bag, and was approached by an adorable security agent speaking Hebrew-accented English.
Security agent: We have reason to believe that you are bringing a bomb onto this flight.
Irfan (after a long pause): Sorry, what?
Security agent (rolling her eyes, and speaking very slowly, in exasperation): We…have…reaaason…to believe…that you…are bringing a bomb…onto the plane.
Irfan: Well, you might, but I don’t.
I didn’t mean to sound like a smart-ass, but I didn’t know what else to say. I hadn’t put a bomb in my bag (or anywhere else), but I had no way of proving that she had no reason to believe that I was bringing a bomb onto the plane. It just didn’t seem like the time or a place for a critical reasoning lesson on the burden of proof. (Philosophy, I’ve found, is a liability in most situations involving security agents, armed troops, law enforcement officers, or officers of the court.) She didn’t seem to like my answer, so she handed me over to another (very attractive) young lady, who walked me over to Strip Search Guy, who was much less fun than either of them had been.
I won’t bother to summarize the strip search part of my visit to Ben Gurion International Airport. Suffice to say that there was more stripping and searching than dialogue in the Strip Search Room. It also took longer than I thought it would. Who knew that there were that many orifices and surfaces in and on the human body large enough to hide a bomb? I guess by the end of it both Strip Search Guy and I had the answer.
After the strip search, I had to have my bag searched for the fourth or fifth time–once again by a very cute female security agent (a different one). She politely ransacked every millimeter of my bag, asking my permission to undo (and then redo) all of my packages (which I cheerfully gave)–including the bubble wrapped plaques of the Dome of the Rock that I had been cheated into buying by some scam artist in the Arab Quarter named “Ahmad” (what else?) who said that I “owed” it to him, to God, to Palestine, and to my Mom to shell out $200 to buy her (my Mom) a premium Dome of the Rock plaque with a nationalist-approved Quranic verse intended to prove that the Dome of the Rock was and shall forever remain within the exclusive sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. I can’t believe I fell for it.
Anyway, this whole security process took three hours. By the end of it, the Alitalia airline agent who’d been waiting for me looked both alarmed and relieved when I emerged from security. “We thought you were going to be detained,” she whispered, and ushered me at last onto my plane. I hadn’t changed clothes or taken a shower in almost 24 hours, and was still damp from the Golan water park, with clumps of mud stuck to my socks and shins. I didn’t detonate a bomb, but I stank all the way to Rome, where I finally had the chance to clean up, buy some new clothes, and throw the old ones away. Bottom line: there was no time for postcards at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Stereotype 3: Israel, land of postcards and postal service, both of which are rendered inaccessible for security reasons.
I’m not sure what that all means, but these three anecdotes are the foundation for all of the stereotypes I now have about Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Israel/Palestine.
In other, unrelated news:
1. Kate, Carrie-Ann and I are on the final edits of Reason Papers 36.1, which will be coming out on Monday the 18th (it clocks in at 223 pages).
2. Within the next few days, I’ll be turning “Policy of Truth” into a group blog. At some point in the near future, I’ll also be putting as much of my writing as I can find (and as is presentable) under the “Writing” tab of the site. Stay tuned.