Jerusalem Diary: Bordering on frustration

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The Independent Online
THE real symbol of the Middle East is not the palm tree or camel but the checkpoint. Some consist of a few armed men and a jeep beside the road. Others are more like medieval fortresses. All of them make travelling in the region a misery. I have come recently to detest the Allenby bridge crossing, which spans the Jordan on the road between Amman and Jerusalem.

A Franciscan with whom I spent hours trying to cross told me that before Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 he took an hour and a quarter to drive between the two cities; now it takes six. I have used the Allenby twice in the past month, both times coming from Amman. The first time I just missed the bus which ferries you from the last Jordanian checkpoint to the first Israeli post. I waited for another. It came after an hour but the driver disappeared for a meal. On his return he pointed out that there were only two passengers and waited another 45 minutes for more to arrive.

The second time, I just caught the bus. We crossed the Jordan. On the Israeli side the the second guard post seemed unmanned. Finally we got to the main checkpoint complex. The man on the X-ray machine became suspicious of my lap-top, which was taken away for examination. Passport control was swift. But the only quick way back to Jerusalem is by Palestinian taxi and they seemed strangely absent. "They are all on strike," said a policewoman. Israel had just raised the tariff they have to pay. The only alternative was a bus of elephantine slowness to Jericho, from where I got to Jerusalem five hours after I started.

WHEN I visited Yemen last year, a Briton was kidnapped by a mountain tribe as I arrived. Usually kidnappers there produce socially acceptable reasons: they want better water, roads or schools. But recently a tribe kidnapped a Chinese engineer for a unique reason. The tribe are bee-keepers. Police came to inspect their hives, during which they released the bees. The tribe wanted compensation and, to make sure that their grievance got a hearing, kidnapped the Chinese.

The government gives the impression it is all good hearted stuff and an interesting cultural tradition, like Morris dancing. Captives are generally not harmed and are invited to tribal feasts, but it is not benign as all that. The driver of a German scholar was shot dead by an armed band when they tried to kidnap her. And, despite the overt demands for better social services, the government says the pay-off is usually money and a four- wheel drive car.

I HAVE been having trouble with my computer, which has developed a fondness for the letter "N", inserting it on all possible occasions. Experts have come and gone: "There is no cure," they murmured as they took their fees. A new computer is on order, but meantime I have been phoning my copy to the Independent, where it is courteously and accurately recorded by the copytakers. Nevertheless, a nameless dread persists. What if I sniff while spelling the name of the head of Iraq's secret police? God knows what will appear in print. A colleague reminded of a Guardian critic who phoned copy from the opera house. Once he wished to describe Maria Callas in Tosca as sounding like "a tigress calling for her whelps", only to find the last word changed to "whelks."