Another reason not to be Canadian

Stephanie Nolen in the Middle East finds the passport used by Israeli agents is not welcome
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The Independent Online
As a Canadian, I take certain things for granted. One is that when people - even the burliest, surliest of border guards at remote Middle Eastern outposts - see my passport, they smile. "Oh, Canadian," they say. "Nice country, Canada. Nice people." Nice passport - until recently.

Ten days ago, I was in Amman, Jordan, reporting on the attempted assassination of Khalid Meshal, a leader of the militant Palestinian movement Hamas, by Israeli spies posing as Canadian tourists, with passports to match. I found a group of construction workers who saw the attack, and whipped out my notebook. A crowd grew. Some office workers stopped to see what was going on, and noticed I was speaking Arabic. They started asking questions about why I was asking questions. They drew closer, frowning. Then one man said what they all were thinking: "You're an Israeli spy."

Now, there are well-known stories of Mossad agents who learn Arabic and go undercover in Damascus and Baghdad. But with my blue eyes and blonde hair, I am hardly inconspicuous in a city like Amman. I would make a rather poor spy, I laughed.

But the men were not joking. I was invited into an out-of-the-way office and pounded with questions. My journalist alibi was rejected, but matters turned really nasty when the men said: "So if you're not an Israeli spy, what are you?" And I produced ... a Canadian passport. Gasps of triumph: a Mossad identity card could not have been better proof that I was an enemy agent.

Eventually, I started shouting rude things about besmirched honour and people's fathers, snatched back my passport and stormed out. No one followed, but the incident left me chilled.

And it was not just me: in the days since the assassination attempt, Canadians have been refused entry at borders to Syria and Saudi Arabia, and questioned for hours at crossings to Egypt and Lebanon.

Other Canadians in the Middle East have complained bitterly to their government about the increased risk to their safety, and the damage to their credibility. The Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, reassured them he had made it clear to all the Arab foreign ministers that Canada knew nothing of the use of its passports.

Nice gesture, but it does not help much. "It's not the governments I have to deal with," said Anne Kindrachuk, a consultant for the Canada Fund whose work takes her across the Middle East. "It's ordinary people. All they know is that people with Canadian passports have been found to be Israeli agents, and I could be one of them."