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    Sunday, November 9, 2008

    To Jerusalem, by bullet-proof bus

    By bus, Tapuach, West Bank to Jerusalem - Friday, Nov. 7

    I arrived in Jerusalem today, 30 days after I left it. Fittingly, the final leg of my road was through the most complicated part of the Middle East, and among the Jewish settlers who make it so by insisting on their God-given right to live on land that most of the world recognizes as belonging to the Palestinians.

    I rode Egged bus 148 from the heart of the West Bank home to Jerusalem. It's a bus specifically for settlers, and is outfitted with double-paned bulletproof windows to protect it from attack as it rolls through the Palestinian Territories. It doesn't stop in any of the Arab towns along the way.

    My fellow passengers, however, were far from stereotypes. While there were indeed religious fundamentalists on the bus, racing to beat the sun - and the beginning of Jewish Sabbath - to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I spent most of the ride chatting with a young couple who themselves reflected the current divide within Israel.

    Both were named Adi, and were students at the college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. She, Adi Saidoff, is a 22-year-old believer in the idea that the West Bank is part of Greater Israel. A resident of a moshav outside Jerusalem, she said she was proud to go to school in Ariel because it meant she was contributing to the settlement project.

    Her 25-year-old boyfriend, Adi Fardouq, was less sure. The son of a prominent member of Israel's left-wing Labour Party, he said he wasn't sure Jews should remain in places like Ariel.

    "If we take from them, they will take from us," the deeply tanned engineering student explained before his equally tanned girlfriend, an economics major who hid her eyes behind over-sized sunglasses, interrupted.

    "They're sitting on our land," she said, speaking of the Palestinians without mentioning them. "The places where the settlements are need to belong to us."

    "I don't think so," he retorted as our bus rolled through the yellow gate of the sprawling Ofra settlement, with its red-roofed homes on a hilltop overlooking Ramallah. "Every time we take land from them, we open this conflict further."

    While both were agnostic about the looming Israeli election - a vote that could decide which Adi sees their vision fulfilled - they were both worried by this week's victory by Barrack Obama in the U.S. presidential election.

    Falsehoods such as that Obama is a Muslim are commonly repeated here, and Israelis are deeply concerned that he will reverse America's historic support for Israel and instead sympathize with the Palestinians.

    Several passengers on the bus said that Israel's very existence - or at least its presence in the West Bank -would be threatened without U.S. backing.

    "We can say that Israel exists because of America. They're the ones who liberated the concentration camps, and until now they give us large amounts of money," said Binyamin Lumbre, an 85-year-old who left his native France three years ago - citing rising violence in the suburbs of Paris where he lived - to take up residence in the West Bank settlement of Eli.

    "If America doesn't support Israel in the future, if it doesn't give us the money, we'll be in great difficulty."

    Which, of course, is exactly the outcome the vast majority of the Muslim and Arab world is hoping for.

    West Bank traveller's index

    By bus from Nablus to Jerusalem -Friday, Nov. 7

    Number of our Egged bus: 148

    Number of Israeli Jews on the bus: 37

    Number of Arabs: 0

    Number of Jewish settlements the 148 passes through: 10 (including Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem)

    Number of Palestinian towns the 148 stops in: 0

    Number of military checkpoints we pass through: 4

    Time our bus spent waiting at said checkpoints: none (Egged buses aren't searched by Israeli soldiers)

    Number of panes of bulletproof glass the bus windows are made of: 2

    Height of the concrete wall we passed through separating the Israeli settlement of Pisgaat Zeev from the outskirts of the Palestinian capital of Ramallah: eight metres

    Signs of the times

    Tapuach Junction, West Bank - Friday, Nov. 8

    I'm now out of Nablus, having crossed the massive Huwwara checkpoint on the city's southern edge. I'm waiting at a bus stop with Jewish settlers to take me the final leg to Jerusalem.

    The mood here can be summed up by the black-and-white poster glued to the metal side of the bus stop, which is defended by cement blocks for passengers to duck behind in the case of attack:

    "Struggle for the Land of Israel," the sign reads.

    "No to a Palestinian state!"

    "They are S-C-A-R-Y!!!"

    Yes, with hyphenated letters and three exclamation points.

    A 15 minute drive north, in the Old City of Nablus, the walls are plastered with photos of Palestinian "martyrs" - members of Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - who died in the last intifada. The ancient stones are also covered spray-painted swastikas.

    The middle ground is unrepresented anywhere in these parts

    The prisoners of Nablus

    Nablus, West Bank - Thursday, Nov. 6

    When I first met Adly Yaish nearly three years ago, he was full of excitement. Just elected the mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus with a whopping 74 per cent of the vote (besting four other candidates), the businessman-turned-politician was a believer in the future, in democracy, even in Israeli-Palestinian co-existence.

    Today, he slumps at his desk as he describes the 15 months he spent in Israeli prison without ever being charged with anything (though Yaish says he is not a member of Hamas, he ran for election on their list during 2005 municipal elections) since his election. His release was ordered nine separate times during that span by Israeli judges. Nine times, the prosecutors found ways to keep him in prison (the tactic is known as "administrative detention") while they futilely tried to build a case. Nearly half his term in office was wasted behind bars

    But Yaish gets truly depressed when he describes what has happened to his beloved Nablus, a 2,000-year-old city set deep in a valley in the northern West Bank. Rather than restoring a sense of normalcy to the city through planned upgrades to its sewage system and electricity grid, the 56-year-old Liverpool University mechanical engineering graduate has seen the city's cultural and economic life crumble during his time in office.

    “Nablus used to be the commercial capital of the Palestinians, now it's the capital of poverty. It used to be the biggest city in the West Bank, now it's the biggest village,” he told me as we drank zaatar-infused tea at his office this evening. “The situation has gotten so much worse in the past three years. The really bad news is that people are starting to lose hope.”

    Nablus's ailment is easy to identify. The city and its 180,000 residents are surrounded by six Israeli checkpoints, 14 Jewish settlements and 26 settlement outposts, the latter of which are illegal even under Israeli law. Getting in and out of the city is a chore for anyone and impossible for many. Commercial interaction with the rest of the West Bank – never mind the rest of the world – has been almost completely choked off.

    Some residents haven't left the city since the last intifada began in the fall of 2000. Thousands of children have never seen the world beyond the checkpoints.

    Once a hotbed of militant activity, Nablus and the nearby Balata refugee camp are largely quiet these days. Large numbers of gunmen who once fought Israel have handed in their weapons to the Palestinian Authority, and PA policemen now control the streets. The Israeli army, however, still enters at will and makes arrests, as it did today when a group of undercover officers apprehended Hamas member Mohammed Kharraz from the convenience store his family owns in the city.

    Yaish says that Israel's refusal to lift the checkpoints or stop the military incursions into his city means that the current calm cannot last.

    “When I was in prison, I told the man interrogating me: ‘Look, I'm the mayor of Nablus. Seventy-four per cent of the people voted for me. I never did anything wrong, I never harmed anybody. When you put me in prison, what do you think will happen? Do you think the people of Nablus will become more peaceful?' I told him, ‘You are hurting the Israeli cause. You are not hurting mine.'”

    Hitchhiking to the "Capital of Terror"

    Hitchhiking from Hamra checkpoint to Nablus, West Bank – Thursday, Nov. 6

    Finally, after prolonged negotiations – and several phone calls to the public relations staff of the Israeli military in Tel Aviv – I'm allowed to pass through Hamra checkpoint (pictured, with Israeli soldiers checking documents), along with my translator, Nuha Musleh.

    (Apparently, Nuha was part of the problem. Although she identifies herself as Palestinian – and lives on the wrong side of the wall Israel is building in the West Bank – she holds East Jerusalem residency, which comes with an Israeli ID card. Israelis aren't allowed into Nablus, which is surrounded by imposing checkpoints built during the violence of the recent Palestinian uprising, or intifada.)

    Our minibus has left us long ago, so we're left to stand on the side of the road, trying to thumb a ride the rest of the way to the city the Israeli military calls the West Bank's “Capital of Terror” in its press releases. During the intifada, the city is a stronghold of both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and the Israeli army still conducts regular arrest raids here, including one earlier today.

    After a few minutes of standing with our arms out, Ahmed and Khaireddin, two Palestinian farm labourers, pull over and offer to give us a lift to the next town, Toubas. Nuha and I climb into the back of their white Mercedes pick-up truck, and make room for ourselves amidst their water canisters and welding masks.
    Ahmed and Khaireddin are coming back from a day working at a kibbutz inside Israel where they make 120 shekels (about $35) in a day. They don't care about the politics of that, as long as it puts food on their families' table.

    “There's nothing in Palestine,” Ahmed explains, rubbing two dirty fingers together to emphasize his point.

    They drop us at the entrance to Toubas, where a kindly old man offers Nuha and I some tea while we wait for a taxi to come along. It doesn't take long before a car offers to drive us to Nablus for 10 shekels. It's taken us more than three hours to reach the city, which is just 40 kilometres north of our starting point, Jericho.
    “Life is difficult here,” Mustafa, our driver, says after listening to a recounting of our journey. “Nablus died when the checkpoints were built.”

    As he drives we listen to the latest news on BBC Arabic radio. The new U.S. president-elect, Barrack Obama, apparently has hired Rahm Emmanuel to be his chief of staff. Everyone in the cab notes with a sigh that Emmanuel is Jewish, and therefore likely to side with Israel in the decades-old conflict that has made life in Nablus so miserable.

    Mustafa turns to me, taking his eyes off the chaotic Nablus traffic that seems to be coming at us from all directions. “This Obama, do you think he can help us?” he asks.

    I give him the standard Palestinian answer to a such a direct, difficult-to-answer, question: “Insha'allah.”
    God willing.


    By minibus from Jericho to Hamra checkpoint, West Bank - Thursday, Nov. 6

    Travelling within the Israeli-occupied West Bank is always a journey through the absurd.

    After the Jericho "rest stop," I board a yellow minibus heading north to the city of Nablus. Or at least, it eventually heads north. To avoid having to pass through the checkpoints that surround Jericho and protect the nearby Jewish settlements, we first head south, and then east before finally turning north up through the Jordan Valley. In all, our driver says, we're adding 35 kilometres to what should be a straight 40-km run.

    There are nine of us, including a young family of four from Nablus, on the journey. As we pass through the scenic Jordan Valley, my fellow passengers emit a series of sighs.

    After passing through another Israeli military checkpoint, we drive along the Dead Sea, with its unique and healing mineral-rich waters. Israelis and foreigners can lounge at the four-star resorts that line its eastern bank, but not Palestinians. "I went for the first time from the Jordanian side," laughs Aladdin Nasser, a tailor and father of two from Nablus. There's no mirth in his chuckle.

    "The situation is bad, but we are used to it," his wife Filisteen told me, cradling her 1 1/2 year-old son in her lap. Round-faced and wearing a flowered tightly wrapped head scarf, she told me that Israeli soldiers often gave her trouble at checkpoints because of her name, which is Arabic for "Palestine."

    "It makes some of them laugh and makes some of them angry. They say, 'Why are you named Filisteen?'"

    We drive north past a string of Jewish settlements and Israeli-owned greenhouses and fruit plantations. Under the peace proposal favoured by the Israeli government, they would retain the strategic and fertile Jordan Valley

    "I can't even stop for gas here," our driver," 30-year-old Muayyad Awad explains. That's an improvement, however. A year ago, no Palestinians were allowed to drive this road, Highway 90.

    After just over an hour of driving, we reach Hamra, an Israeli checkpoint on the road to Nablus. The soldiers take our passports and express surprise at seeing a Canadian journalist aboard Palestinian public transportation.

    "I don't think I can let you pass," a young soldier with a British accent and an American M-16 tells me.

    Not wanting to hold up the other passngers, I get off the bus. For 45 minutes now, I've been standing by the side of the road in the middle of the West Bank. My passport confiscated, I can go neither forwards nor backwards until the Israeli soldiers give me permission to do so.

    "Now you're a real Palestinian," a young man with a stubbly face - stuck in the same situation as I me - laughs. This time, there's real mirth

    West Bank blues

    Jericho, West Bank - Thursday, Nov. 6

    "Smell the jasmine and taste the olives," my mobile phone tells me. "Welcome to Palestine."

    Not yet.

    The Istiraha, or "rest station" in Jericho is anything but restful. Our bus from the border heads into an Israeli closed military zone where inside our passports are taken from us by Palestinian security guards. Meanwhile we 48 travellers sit on the idling bus, waiting while our passports are checked for the third time in a matter of a few kilometres.

    The Istiraha is nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but there little question who's in control here. The PA guards have nice camouflage uniforms, but no weapons. The Israeli soldiers who control the perimetre are equipped with American-made M-16 assault rifles and armoured jeeps.

    It's one of the most damaging criticisms of the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas: that in seeking peace with Israel while simultaneously waging a quiet war against the Islamist Hamas movement, its security forces have become little more than part of the occupation.

    Into Palestine

    By taxi and bus from Amman, Jordan to Jericho, West Bank Thursday, Nov. 6

    Entering the Palestinian Territories from other parts of the Arab world is always a sombre experience. You're going to a place many Arabs - particularly the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered around the region since the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars - dream of seeing, but will likely never visit in their lifetimes.

    This morning I was driven from downtown Amman to the King Hussein border crossing (known as the Allenby Bridge to Israelis, after the British general who built it in 1918) by Tariq Hassan, a 48-year-old Jordanian of Palestinian descent who had only seen his hometown of Ramallah once, when his father took him there as a 13-year-old boy.

    "I still remember it," Tariq told me as we descended towards the Dead Sea, with the Palestinian city of Jericho coming into sight. "But I don't know if I'll ever go back. They will never give me a visa, I don't think."

    The Jordanian side of the border crossing is a surreal experience where foreigners are whisked through with as little hassle as necessary (I drank coffee and watched al-Jazeera while my passport was processed) while hundreds of Palestinians queue for hours in a separate terminal.

    But it's on the other side, once you've passed the last photographs of King Abdullah II and his father King Hussein and see the Star of David for the first time, that the disparity becomes plainest.

    Israeli security services are notoriously intrusive and impolite (I've been left shaking with anger by airport security who often go so far as to ask to see e-mails between me and my editors in Toronto as proof that I'm being sent somewhere on assignment) but today it's relatively painless for a Canadian guy named Mark.

    "What's you family name?" the unsmiling young female guard asks me when I get to the front of the long passport line inside the Israeli side of the border terminal.

    "MacKinnon." Just like it says in my passport. I pronounce it in as an unthreatening a manner as those three syllables can be uttered.

    "Your father's name?"


    "Your grandfather's name?"


    We both know the drill. If I answer "Mohammed" or something similar to any of the questions, it's off to the little interrogation room for me. Wayne and Gerard sounds sufficiently un-al-Qaeda, so I'm allowed through quickly. Welcome to Israel.

    The Ahmeds and the Fatimas stand in line behind me, some seated off to the side awaiting their confrontation with the Shin Bet internal security service. Many of these people were born and live in the West Bank, but they could never dream of such rapid passage to their own home.

    (I've had friends - with Canadian passports - delayed for four or five hours because their last name was Ibrahim or because their grandfather's name sounded suspicious to the Israeli ear.)

    After passport control, I board an air conditioned 48-seat passenger bus whcih for 16 shekels (about $4) will take me and 47 Palestinians to the mandatory next stop for those who can't afford the exorbitant taxi fares onwards - the main bus station in Jericho. You can't be in a rush to get there. The bus doesn't leave until every seat is full.

    President Obama: the Middle East press responds

    Here's a quick look at how the press in the Middle East — arguably the region likely to be most affected by yesterday's U.S. election — interpreted the news that Barrack Obama is on his way to the White House:

    “No declaration of support and no promising statements can diminish the fear many Israelis' have of U.S president-elect Barak Obama … . [Some Israelis] identify Obama, black and bearing Hussein as a middle name, as a supporter of the oppressed in Third World countries, and fear that he will automatically side with the Palestinians.” — Aluf Benn, columnist in Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

    “Exit polls: 78 per cent of Jews voted for Obama” — headline in the Jerusalem Post.

    “[President-elect Obama's] political charisma, eloquence, and sharp intuitive intelligence would not have been the sole factors that led to his victory, and to him becoming the leader of the world's strongest power — in fact, the leader of the entire world. In fact, his victory will have been the outcome of the crushing defeat the Arabs and Muslims have inflicted on the former U.S. administration, stirring hatred against it from its own citizens first, but from the entire world as well” — Abdelbari Atwan, writing in the pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi.

    “Black Kennedy to White House” — headline in Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper, which is considered pro-Hezbollah

    “Public opinion in Iran and the Middle East believes that Obama and McCain are two faces of the same coin. The victory of either won't have the least impact on the situation of these countries. In other words a yellow dog is a jackal's brother [Iranian proverb meaning cut from the same cloth].” — editorial in Iran's hardline Hezbollah newspaper

    “Why did the Obama wave explode? Because he represents what is ‘new.' Because he captures the ‘spirit of the times.' Because he provides hope for ‘change.' Because he captures the imagination of ‘youth.' Because he can be trusted as a leader. We hope that Barack Obama will make history in the White House, and will not disappoint our hopes for change and ‘revolution.'” — Hasan Cemal, writing in Turkey's centrist Milliyet newspaper.

    “No matter who wins US vote, hope remains for peace” — headline in the Jordan Times.

    “Everyone knows that the period of U.S. foolishness is over” — headline in Syria's state-run Tishreen newspaper.

    Middle East Electoral College: final results

    Amman, Jordan – Wednesday, Nov. 5

    “Mabruk!” the purple-uniformed bellboy shouted at me across the lobby of the Hyatt hotel. “Congratulations!”

    To tell him that I wasn't American, and therefore not responsible in any way for electing Barrack Obama yesterday, would have ruined the moment. All day today, Jordanians from all walks of life, as well as some of the Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who now live here, expressed their delight that the United States had chosen – as they see it – to end eight years of confrontation between the West and the Muslim world and to elect someone who appears to be the complete opposite of George W. Bush.

    Despite warm ties between Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah II, the last eight years have been unkind to this desert kingdom, which had long been an oasis of calm and stability in a turbulent region. Bush's decision to launch the 2003 invasion of neighbouring Iraq – quietly supported by the Jordanian government – has since driven some 750,000 Iraqis into refuge in Jordan.

    The violence tearing Iraq apart spilled over the border in November 2005 when suicide bombers dispatched by the Jordanian-born head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, attacked three hotels on the same night, killing 60 people and targeting the country's vital tourism industry. (The Hyatt hotel was one of those attacked that night. Staying here remains a bit eerie despite the completely refurbished lobby.)

    And all that is in addition to the estimated 1.7 million Palestinian refugees (a low-ball estimate) who have lived here for decades. King Abdullah publicly backed both President Bush's failed “road map” to Middle East peace (which was supposed to deliver a Palestinian state by 2005) and the stalled Annapolis peace process that was launched last year. No progress has been made, and the Palestinian refugee population in Jordan continues to grow.

    So it's little surprise that Jordanians are as happy to see the end of the Bush era as anyone else in the Middle East. Here's a sampling of what I heard today as I toured Amman, as well as a nearby Palestinian refugee camp and al-Zarqawi's hometown of Zarqa. Only one woman told me that she had hoped to see McCain win, and she said that was because she hated America and “wanted the worst for them.”

    “In the Middle East, everybody is happy today. They wanted to see someone different for from Bush and people saw Senator McCain as an extension of Bush. It's not so much for Obama as against an extension for Bush.”

    -Adnan Abu Odeh, former head of the royal court under King Abdullah II's father, King Hussein.

    “Obama will bring change, God willing.”

    – Jawat Barghouti, a Texan-Palestinian-Jordanian who said he voted for the new president-elect.

    “I'm very happy. God willing he will be good for us, for the Palestinian cause. Bush ruined all the world.”

    - Mohammed al-Ayyan, 62-year-old tailor in the Hitteen Palestinian refugee camp near Zarqa.

    “We have problems no matter who is president. God willing (Obama) will be better if he follows what he say.”

    - Umm Karam, 60-year-old grandmother in Hitteen refugee camp.

    “We don't need Obama or McCain. We just need America to leave us alone.”

    – Mohammed, taxi driver in Amman.

    So give Jordan and the final 34 seats to Obama, giving him an even more convincing win in our little Middle East Electoral College than he achieved in the real one in the United States.

    Barack Obama (Dem.) — 475 votes
    John McCain (Rep.) — 65 votes

    Why such a wide margin? Well, outside of Israel (where people are worried that a President Obama will be less supportive of the Jewish state and pressure it into accepting a peace deal that includes giving up most of the occupied West Bank) and Iraqi Kurdistan (where Kurds are worried that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq will plunge the country into a civil war that they will not be able to stay out of), Middle Easterners are simply tired of the war and tumult that have marked the Bush years.

    Syrians and Iranians are hoping that a President Obama will deliver on his promises to use dialogue instead of force and to meet with those that the Bush Administration ostracized as enemies. Turks want to see an end to the chaos that has spilled over Iraq's borders into their own.

    Palestinians and other Arabs are hoping – just as Israel fears – that Obama will be a more neutral arbiter than the openly pro-Israeli President Bush. I repeatedly heard that “war on terror” can't be won unless the U.S. president, whoever that happens to be, first brings an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which a wide majority of Middle Easterners see as the chief cause of Muslim radicalism.

    In other words, the expectations in this battered region could scarcely be any higher, or more difficult to fulfill. But if and when the new president-elect heads down his own “Road to Jerusalem,” he'll begin his journey with all the goodwill he needs.

    Middle East Electoral College: Syria results

    Damascus, Syria – Tuesday, Nov. 4

    The polls have just open across the United States, but they're vote has long been decided in Syria, where Barrack Obama has unsurprisingly won another clear victory in our unscientific little survey of how Middle East voters feel.

    Asking Syrians their opinion about politics is like walking around the Vatican asking who's gay. Most people just blush and walk away when you bring up the topic.

    That said, a few Syrians did open up and share their opinions, usually when they were in situations where they could be certain that no one was listening. All who did talk frankly with me said they either supported Obama or none of the above. Not one wanted to see a McCain victory, for the same reason I've heard elsewhere in the Arab world — he's seen as more likely to continue the reviled policies of George W. Bush.

    Here's a sampling of what I heard:

    "I think Obama is better, but America's policy to Syria will not change no matter who is president."

    — Rami, 35, bartender working at a resort in the coastal town of Lattakia.

    “People here believe Obama has an inclination to use diplomacy instead of military force. He likes to talk rather than flex his muscles, and I think we need to talk rather than fight.”

    — Marwan Kabalan, political scientist at the University of Damascus.

    "We support whichever person will help us get back Golan"

    — Georges Salim Attoun, gold seller in the old city of Damascus, referring to the strategic Golan Heights area that Israel has occupied since a 1967 war.

    "You can see from their faces which one is better. Obama has a better smile, a better personality."

    — Sarah, 23, waitress and model based in Damascus.

    "Obama or McCain? Bashar Assad!"

    — nearly everyone else I asked.

    So we colour Syria blue and award Obama 98 more seats in the electoral college, adding to his already wide margin of victory over McCain.

    Barack Obama (Dem.) — 441 votes
    John McCain (Rep.) — 65 votes

    Jordan, which has 34 seats in our electoral college, will be the last to vote. Look for the final results here tomorrow, as well as perhaps a little analysis of what I've heard across this region about Bush, Obama and McCain since my journey began back on Oct. 8.

    Syrian visa roulette

    By car from Damascus, Syria to Amman, Jordan - Tuesday, Nov. 4

    Technically, I'm banned from reporting in Syria.

    I found this out last year while working on a series tracing the plight of Iraq's millions of refugees.

    I asked for a visa to visit Syria — the country that had absorbed the largest number of Iraqis since 2003 — and was told I was no longer welcome.

    The official reason given was that the Syrian regime had discovered that I lived in Jerusalem, and Syria denies visas to all those who have visited what it refers to as Occupied Palestine. But I knew from experience that Syria turns a blind eye to where most journalists are based so long as their coverage is perceived as fair to Bashar Assad and his buddies.

    The real problem, a contact of mine in Damascus explained, was that the Ministry of Information had examined my work and found a) that I regularly referred to Bashar Assad as a dictator (Gasp! How dare I?) and b) reported on the alleged connection that United Nations investigators had found between Syria and the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

    Guilty on both counts, though the latter simply reporting the UN investigator's findings, not any conclusions of my own. Surely, I protested, other journalists had done the same without getting banned. My contact dug deeper and found the real reason was a favourable portrait I had written back in 2006 of Michel Kilo, the jailed writer who is one of the leaders of Syria's democratic opposition. Apparently the regime saw red when I compared Kilo to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, dissident writers who were also persecuted, but eventually helped bring down authoritarian regimes in their countries.

    Here's the story. Read it again if only because Bashar Assad doesn't want you to.

    Despite the ban, I was able — to my own surprise — to enter enter Syria twice in the past week despite the fact that I had no visa, tourist, journalist or otherwise.

    When I crossed into Syria last week from Turkey, I was given a three-day pass only after a short interrogation by the border guards. They asked me my profession and whether I'd ever been to Israel. I lied on both counts and they waved me across. Though they had computers, I could see they weren't connected to anything but each other, so there was little risk of being caught. (The Syrian regime is paranoid about the Internet, having banned such sites as Facebook and Hotmail out of fear they could be used to foment dissent. In the information age, such an attitude can damn an entire country, or at least its rulers, to obsolescence.)

    Yesterday, I crossed from Lebanon with even less hassle. An uninterested border guard stamped me in for 15 days without making me fill out the standard form. Perhaps he thought I was part of the group of Iraqis driving ahead of me in a white Oldsmobile with red Baghdad license plates who had overtly bribed the customs officials with a bottle of Lebanese arak not to look in their car.

    I was quite pleased with myself last night as I wandered the old city of Damascus, chatting with the locals for the story about Syrian attitudes toward the U.S. election that appeared in today's newspaper. I had outsmarted Syria's vaunted intelligence services.

    Or at least I thought I had until I arrived today at the Syria-Jordan border. When the guard asked me my profession I told him I was a teacher, the cover story I usually use when entering journalist-unfriendly places like Syria, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

    "No you're not," he replied in English before switching to Arabic.

    "Inta sahafi," he said accusingly, knowing I'd understand. You're a journalist.

    "No," I stammered, leaning forward to try and catch a glimpse of what it said on his computer screen.

    He spared me the effort. "Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail, Canadian newspaper," he read.

    Busted. Terrifying images of what the inside of a Syrian jail might look like floated through my head.

    "Yes, but I'm leaving now," was the only reply I could formulate.

    The guard dropped a blue exit stamp into my passport. "That's good for you," he said with a smile.

    Quote of the week

    Damascus, Syria - Monday, Nov. 3

    "I think if Syrians had a vote it would be 99 per cent in favour of Obama. In other words, a proper Syrian election."

    — Joshua Landis, Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

    Checkpoint etiquette

    Zahlé, Lebanon - Monday, Nov. 3, 2008

    A snippet of conversation from a military checkpoint that my car was stopped at:

    Lebanese soldier: Documents, please. (He has a black M-16 assault rifle slung around his shoulder. With him standing and me sitting, the business end of the gun is pointed right at my face. I hand over my passport.)

    Me: Can I ask a question?

    LS: Go ahead.

    Me: I've heard that in the Arab world it's very impolite to point the sole of your foot at someone. Is this true? (Arabs do indeed hate this. The bottom of your foot is considered unclean. Hence all the slapping of Saddam Hussein's fallen statues with sandals back in 2003.)

    LS: Yes. It's very bad. (He smiles, and seems pleased by my interest in the local culture.)

    Me: I understand. In Canada we consider it very rude to point your rifle at someone.

    (The soldier understands and swings his rifle behind his back. He returns my passport with a sharp salute. Perhaps a small victory for civility has been won this fine day in Lebanon.)

    Middle East Electoral College: Lebanon results

    ZahlĂ©, Lebanon – Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008

    Barrack Obama's sweep of the real battleground states continues.

    In Lebanon, as in Turkey, George W. Bush achieved the rare feat of unifying the country's quarrelling political factions around their disdain for him and his policies of the past eight years.

    The militant Shia Hezbollah movement and its allies hate Bush for his open and unblinking support of Israel, particularly during the 2006 war during which the Israeli military laid waste to much of South Lebanon. When the war was over, Hezbollah supporters hung "Made in the USA" banners over destroyed apartment blocks and mocked claims by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the war had been part of process to bring about a "new Middle East."

    That Hassan Nasrallah's followers aren't fans of the Bush Administration is hardly surprising. Far more damning is the hurt disappointment of the country's pro-Western groups, who feel the U.S. abandoned them during and after the war, even though the White House had initially held up the 2005 Cedar Revolution here as proof that "freedom" was indeed spreading in the region.

    Here's a sampling of what I heard during my journeys from Tripoli to Byblos to Beirut to Baalbek:

    "Obama hates war. Bush wants war against the Muslims and the Arabs and I think McCain will be like Bush."

    – Bilal Ramadan, 21-year-old science student. An Allawite Shiite, he lives in the northern city of Tripoli.

    "I don't think Obama will be racist in his policies. Black people are not biased towards Israel."

    – Khodor Kamaleddin, taxi driver. Works outside the Commodore Hotel in Hamra, a Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Beirut.

    "I like the black one. I like what he is saying. The other one is like Bush, his policies are very bad."

    – Wafa Darwish, a 40-year-old schoolteacher from the northern town of Qalmoun.

    "Obama is better because he will sympathize with the Arab people and our causes. We hope that this is not just advertising."

    – Bilal Bayan, 36-year-old shopkeeper in the Hezbollah-dominated tourist city of Baalbek.

    "I am disappointed in both candidates. They are avoiding the big issue, which is the question of Palestine."

    – Ahmed Fatfat, MP and former cabinet minister in the pro-Western Future Party.

    Out of nearly two dozen Lebanese that I asked about the U.S. elections, only two said they favoured John McCain. So Obama sweeps Lebanon and its 21 electors, widening his already impressive lead in the race:

    Barack Obama (Dem.) – 343 votes

    John McCain (Rep.) – 65 votes

    Obama already clinched the Middle East Electoral College back when he won Turkey, but Jordan and Syria still haven't had their say. Results from both countries should be in by the time polls close in the United States on Tuesday, so stay tuned.

    From Hamra to Hezbollahland

    By taxi from Beirut to Baalbek, Lebanon - Sunday, Nov. 2

    Heading east from the Lebanese capital of Beirut, perched on the Mediterranean Sea, to the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border is not only a great way to this physically striking country, but also to get a sense of why Lebanon, a great idea in theory, has never worked in practice.

    Some days it feels like the most open and tolerant place on earth, with Christian women wearing giant crosses that dangle in their out-there cleavage sharing the sidewalks with Shia women sporting headscarves so tight that not a single hair is visible. Lebanon, as the Lebanese are so fond of saying, sometimes feels like the answer to the so-called "clash of civilizations." (The nightlife is also superb – Beirutis are famous for partying even as the bombs fall. These days, with the country experiencing a rare stretch of relative peace and stability, it's entry by-reservation-only at most of the city's top clubs.)

    But Beirut also wears the gruesome scars of all those times that the tolerance faded away and Christian fought Muslim and Sunni fought Shiite. Many buildings in the city centre remain uninhabitable shells of their former selves, torn to shreds by human anger expressed through lead.

    I left my hotel in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood today and headed east with my friend Jamal Jarbouh, a Palestinian refugee (his family is from Haifa) I'd met by chance in a gas lineup during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Our white 1991 Mitsubishi whined as we rose up into the tree-covered Mount Lebanon range and drove through a line of alternatingly Christian and Druze towns, scenic rest spots today that were regularly turned to battlefields during the 1975-1990 civil war. They nearly were again this May as tensions spiked during and after the Shia Hezbollah militia turned its guns inside Lebanon for the first time and carried out a lightning military seizure of West Beirut.

    As we follow the winding road through Mount Lebanon, Muslim villages are followed Christian ones less than a kilometre away. Unless you're Lebanese, you can only be sure of which you're in by looking at the political posters taped to telephone poles and the insides of shop windows. Christian towns are lined with billboards advertising the rival factions loyal to Christian leaders Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel. Druze villages are dominated by the red flags of Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party. All are leaders from the civil war era who are still revered by their followers today.

    We're stopped in the Christian town of Zahle by an intelligence officer who takes issue with Jamal's Palestinian ID papers (Lebanon's Christians and Palestinian groups were worst of enemies during the civil war year and suspicions still linger). We're allowed to pass only when I explain to the officer in French that I'm Canadian and Jamal is with me.

    Eventually, our car descends out of the mountains and we pass through a series of Lebanese army checkpoint on the edge of the Bekaa Valley.

    The army checkpoints are the last sign we see of the Lebanese state for some time. Around Baalbek, the ancient Phonecian city that more recently was the birthplace of Hezbollah, the militant Shia movement's yellow banner here takes precedence over the red-and-white Lebanese flag. Giant photographs of the Hezbollah "martyrs" who died fighting Israel hang from nearly every post. There's Samir Qantar, the murderer who was just released from Israeli prison after 29 years as part of a macabre prisoners-for-body parts swap between Hezbollah and Israel. Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah military commander killed this year in a mysterious explosion in Damascus that was blamed on Israel, is the most honoured of the dead.

    Though just 85 kilometres away from Beirut and the bright lights of Hamra Street, Baalbek feels like a different country altogether, and in many ways it is. Here the power cuts on and off through the night (our Mitsubishi's headlights even got into the act, leaving us driving in complete darkness for a long stretch) and the mosques, not the nightclubs, are the centres of social activity. This is Hezbollahland.

    Jamal and I spend part of the evening drinking tea with the locals at a coffeehouse not far from the Roman ruins that draw the steady stream of tourists that are the city's main source of income. The tea-drinkers are poor and middle class Shiites who speak of Beirut - and the government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni - as something far away that is the source of all their problems. Few are willing to bet that the peace that currently prevails in the country will last through next year's elections.

    The trip from Beirut to Zahle to Baalbek makes me think of my travels in Iraq, where Sunni, Shiite and Kurd unwillingly live together for the arbitrary reason that British colonialists thought it was a good idea to draw the borders where they are today. Lebanon feels like a similarly false construct, two or more countries pressed together into one by their former French rulers who paid little attention to the demographic makeup of the state they were creating. As in Iraq, the errors of that time resonate still.

    Guns and Buns

    Beirut - Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008

    Tragically, the Guns and Buns restaurant in Beirut's Dahiyeh area was closed today when I went to go have lunch. I'd been thrilled by reports of a restaurant in the heart of the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital that served such delicacies as a “Magnum Pistol” (grilled chicken sandwich) or the “M-16 Carbine” (lamb on a toasted bun) both of which can be served with a side of “Grenades” (otherwise known as potato wedges).

    The signature weapon of the Hezbollah fighter, the “AK-47 Kalashnikov,” is apparently beefsteak sandwich served in long baguette-style bread. No wonder the restaurant's advertising slogan is “a sandwich can kill you.”

    “When you live by the beach, people make cafes that reflect that beach atmosphere,” owner Yousef Ibrahim once explained to a reporter. “So when you live in a war zone, I think you should make the most of that too.”

    The restaurant, which opened this summer, isn't directly affiliated with Hezbollah, but the Shiite militia controls everything that happens in the Dahiyeh and gave Guns and Buns its seal of approval by running a story about it on the movement's al-Manar television network.

    Pity the restaurant doesn't open on Sundays. I was left to peer forlornly through the window from its sandbag-protected patio, denied my chance to sample such delicacies as the “Tactical Meal” and the “Terrorist Meal.”

    No word on whether there are toys for the kids with those.

    The truth

    Beirut – Saturday, Nov. 1

    The digital sign looming over the entrance to Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood is persistent, forlorn and accusing. Day 1,357 it says – three years, eight months and 17 days since the massive truck bomb blast that killed Lebanon's popular former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and 21 others.

    It was Feb. 14, 2005, a day that sent Lebanon on a long, downward spiral. Underneath the day counter is a simple plea written in Arabic: "al-haqiqa," it asks. "The truth."

    I remember the bombing well. My wife and I were living in Beirut at the time, studying Arabic at the Lebanese American University. We on our lunch break between classes when the explosion shook the walls and windows of our apartment in Hamra. We ran out onto the balcony to see a thick, black pillar of smoke rising into the sky. We soon discovered that our Valentine's Day plans were among the casualties – the blast destroyed the restaurant where we had reserved a table for dinner that evening.

    Until that moment, Hariri had been Mr. Lebanon, the man most responsible for bringing an end to the 1975-1990 civil war. He hosted the peace conference that produced the 1989 Taif Accords and rebuilt the country's shattered capital city (Hariri controlled the Solidere company that reconstructed, at great profit, the central district of Beirut that had been the front line during the civil war years).

    The Valentine's Day bombing set Lebanon sliding back into the morass of violence and instability that Hariri had almost managed to pull the country out of before his death. His death was blamed by many Lebanese on neighbouring Syria, and the murder sparked the "Cedar Revolution" uprising that eventually forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year stay.

    But the feel-good people-power moment wasn't meant to last. The militant Shia movement Hezbollah never signed on to the pro-Western Cedar Revolution (in fact, it organized its own counter demonstrations that were similar in size) and maintained its close links with both Damascus and Tehran. A year after the Cedar Revolution, Hezbollah staged a cross-border attack on an Israeli patrol that prompted a 34-day war that left an estimated 1,200 Lebanese dead and brought the bad old days back to Lebanon for good.

    The country, already deeply divided over the Hariri murder and its fallout, was even further split by the war, with the pro-Western "Cedar" camp on one side, and Hezbollah and it allies on the other. The political standoff escalated later that year into Hezbollah-led street protests against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and then exploded into open warfare on the streets of Beirut this May when Hezbollah seized the western half of the capital to back its demands for a larger say in government.

    The streets of Beirut are calm again now – Rafik Hariri's son Saad recently met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in an effort to resolve some of their many differences – but the murder still hangs over Lebanon's future. Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, appointed last year by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute the Hariri killing as well as a succession of political assassinations that followed, is due to deliver his final report and prosecutions are expected to follow.

    Bellemare's findings – and the potential of high-profile and highly politicized trials at The Hague – will rock the political system here one more time if, as expected, he moves to indict senior figures in Lebanon's former Syrian-friendly government and perhaps in Damascus itself. That could lead to more instability and even more fighting. But it needs to happen nonetheless. This country won't be healed until the Lebanese know who killed Rafik Hariri, and why.

    Saturday, November 1, 2008

    To Beirut, with a changing cast of characters

    By shared taxis from Tripoli, Lebanon to Beirut - Friday, Oct. 30

    The best, and cheapest, way to travel around Lebanon is by what the locals call a servees, taxi cabs that fill up gradually with people heading (roughly) in the same direction. A few thousand Lebanese pounds buys you a seat in an overcrowded car (there were six people crammed in our beaten, brown Mercedes) and off you go.

    I caught one today at sundown in the northern city of Tripoli that was heading in my direction, the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Passengers jumped in and out of our car — which was older than I was and sounded like a Cessna when it maxed out at 80 kilometres an hour — as we headed south down the coastal road that traces Lebanon's long border with the Mediterranean Sea.

    Since I'm here — and Lebanon finally has Blackberry service — let me introduce you to some of the changing cast of characters sharing the car with me:

    - Yehia Darwish, 28. The chatty driver of our whinging Mercedes and a resident of the troubled city of Tripoli. Thin and dark-featured, he chain-smokes Winston cigarettes and leaves the radio off as we drive. Biggest concern: rising costs on basic goods (though gasoline is falling in price) and an economic crisis that makes people stingy about taxi fares.

    - Wafa Darwish, 40 (no direct relation to Yehia). Schoolteacher in the Sunni Muslim town of Qalmoun in north Lebanon. Short and animated, she covers her head with a flowered scarf. Biggest concern: the end of the era of George W. Bush — whom she blames for many of Lebanon's internal problems — can't come soon enough.

    - Ramieh al-Hindi, 23-year-old Palestinian refugee and stay-at-home mother of two. Petite and outgoing, she wears tight jeans and stylish Western clothes despite her conservative surroundings. Biggest concern: more than a year after the Lebanese army's siege of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, she and her family still have no house to go home to.

    - Milad Abed, 39, waiter at a fish restaurant in the ancient Christian city of Byblos. Round-faced and sleepy-looking, it appears he may have sampled the table wine this afternoon. Biggest concern: the political fighting inside Lebanon's large Christian community, which many worry could eventually spill over into street violence.

    The conversation ebbs and flows as we head towards Beirut, eventually collapsing into silence after a raucous it's-my-turn-to-talk-to-the-foreigner start.

    Night falls during our drive and Lebanon buzzes by in the dark. Caught between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains, and more fatally between Syria and Israel, the scenery and the free-wheeling conversation remind me that Lebanon remains at once the best and worst corner of the Middle East.

    Peace, for now

    Tripoli, Lebanon - Friday, Oct. 31

    War never feels very far away in this bustling coastal city in north Lebanon. The sun-whitened office buildings and apartment blocks are scarred by bullet holes, reminders of the last civil war in this deeply divided country. The streets are thick with soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, trying to prevent the next one.

    Lebanon very nearly slid back into internecine conflict six months ago, when fighters from the Shia Hezbollah militia, locked in a political dispute with the country's pro-Western government, briefly seized control of predominantly Sunni West Beirut. The civil war many have been predicting for some time might have begun then and there had there been another armed group capable of challenging Hezbollah.

    Since then, Lebanon's myriad factions have come to a political accord that has taken the fighters off the streets, at least until crucial elections next year that will go a long way to deciding whether this country tilts west to Washington and Paris, or east to Damascus and Tehran.

    An uneasy peace reigns for the moment, and nowhere is it more uncertain than in deeply religious Tripoli, where clashes between the city's Sunni majority and its Allawite minority remain a near-daily occurrence.

    "(The Sunnis), they throw grenades here and the Lebanese army tells us not to retaliate. We are preparing ourselves for a bigger attack," said Daniel Dayeh, a 25-year-old Allawite living in the tense Jebel Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli. He was sitting with a dozen other Allawite men, all unemployed, outside a coffee shop plastered with photographs of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who is also Allawite.

    Downhill from Jebel Mohsen, Mustafa Alloush splits his time between tending to his duties as chief surgeon at the city's Nini hospital and heading up the local branch of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement. Future fighters were routed by Hezbollah in Beirut back in May, and some in Tripoli sought revenge against the Syrian-backed Allawis in this city.

    "It's stable for now. The problem is that people do not believe it will stay as such," Alloush told me between patients at the Nini hospital. "People are waiting for something to happen."

    High times in the Axis of Evil

    By car from Lattakia, Syria to Tripoli, Lebanon – Thursday, Oct. 30

    After three weeks of wandering through Iran, Iraq and Syria, may I humbly present you a brief backpackers' guide to the three of the least-understood countries on the planet:



    * Spend a day or more wandering the Old City of Damascus. It's simply one of the most magical places on the planet.
    * Pop by the Krak des Chevaliers near the port city of Tartus. I was there today and could have easily spent several more hours than I did wandering what is easily the best-kept Crusader castle in the region. Almost untouched by time, it looks like something out of a fairy tale (see the photo).
    * Pack some going-out clothes. Syria may be an honorary Axis of Evil member (I think John Bolton described them as being in a subgroup with Libya and Cuba, sort of like the minor leagues of evil), but that doesn't mean the people don't like to have a good time. Damascus has one of the best nightlife scenes in the Middle East.


    * Giggle at all the portraits of President Bashar Assad, even if such enforced adulation is silly in the extreme. I counted 12 of them in one room at the Lebanon-Syria border today, many with slogans like “we're all with you” and “we love you” printed underneath the pictures of the smiling dictator.
    * Try and ask Syrians about politics. Nine times out of 10, you'll run into a stone wall. People who say what they think here can easily end up in jail.



    * Spend an hour or more touring the ancient citadel overlooking the city of Irbil.
    * Go for a stroll in the laid-back Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. It's probably the only major city in Iraq where it's safe for a foreigner to walk around on their own, even after dark.
    * Pop by the Christian town of Ainkawa, outside of Irbil. The German restaurant there is a pretty good send-up of a Munich beer house. There's a not-too-bad Chinese restaurant (think Manchu Wok) in Sulaymaniyah too.


    * Believe everything that you read. The “surge” is indeed working (along with, a more important decision by various Iraqi groups to hold their fire for now) and has reduced the level of violence from the insane heights of the bloodletting in 2006 and 2007 to the merely nutty levels of today, but this is still very much a war zone. Outside of the Kurdish north, it's only safe for a foreigner if you've got trustworthy Iraqi friends and a bulletproof vest. (For a daily tally of the latest violence, check out the Iraq Today website.)
    * Leave home without Ciprofloxacin or some other wide-spectrum antibiotic in your kit. I've been to Iraq seven times and have gotten I'd-better-sit-down-and-start-writing-my-will sick on each occasion.

    Iran (well, OK, Kish Island, the only part I was allowed to visit):


    * Do pull out an English newspaper or book if you're sitting by yourself at dinner. Iranians love showing off their mastery (or bare competency) of foreign languages. You'll be chatting with the locals in no time.
    * Book yourself onto one of the dinner-boat cruises that circle this island after dark. It's the best way to see Iranians, in Iran, kicking back and relaxing as much as they're allowed to in the Islamic Republic.
    * Check out the Dariush Grand Hotel, which somewhat garishly recalls the grandeur of ancient Persia.


    * Show up on Kish Island, hoping to talk your way into a full-fledged Iranian visa. Especially if you only have a Canadian passport.
    * Hum the bars to John McCain's new hit song, “Bomb Iran.”

    When I set out on this journey, some friends and family back home expressed concerns that I was taking my life into my hands (Iran, Iraq and Syria! Oh my!). And while it's certainly not a route for the faint-hearted, you don't need to be a journalist (actually it's probably better if you aren't, at least in Iran and Syria) to get a lot from such a trip. And while the bus services aren't great in some parts of Iraq and Syria, they're a great way to meet the ordinary people who live in these places and never make the news.

    So, economic crisis be damned, call your travel agent now and tell them you want to see the Axis of Evil today. Get there before the American army does.

    The sorry state of Syria's army

    Lattakia, Syria -Thursday, Oct. 29

    The army of the Syrian Arab Republic often appears as the bad guy in Western media narratives.

    They were the brutish soldiers who oppressed Lebanon throughout their 29-year-stay in that country. They're the jihadi-friendly outfit that looks the other way as suicide bombers to be cross Syria on their way to Iraq. Israelis still shudder at the mention of 1973, when the combined forces of Syria and Egypt staged a surprise attack one October morning.

    Up close, they hardly live up to their nefarious reputation. Poorly paid and badly equipped, they're most often seen walking along the side of the road in their fading camouflage gear, trying to thumb rides.

    Today, I met Abdo, a 29-year-old tour guide in Lattakia who recently finished his three-year stint as a conscript. He said he earned 300 Syrian pounds per month (about $6) while stationed near the Lebanese border. "I live with my mother, but I still need 5,000 or 6,000 pounds a month," he said. Which is why Syrian soldiers are notoriously corrupt. They live on bribes.

    My first encounter with the feared Syrian army on this trip was a trio of soldiers manning a checkpoint near the Turkish border. Ostensibly, they were there to examine travellers' documents, but taking shelter from the rain in a roadside shack, they were much more interested in bumming cigarettes.

    "Are those good to smoke?" a somewhat portly middle-aged soldier said, spotting a pack of Dunhill cigarettes lying in the front seat of my longtime friend Raed's car.

    Raed, a Jordanian and a skilled negotiator of Middle Eastern checkpoints, flipped him the whole pack. We didn't want to be held up and scutinized. (More on that later.)

    Seeing our apparent generosity, two other soldiers surged forward, leaving their Kalashnikov rifles leaning against their chairs. "Hey, there are three of us," one says. Raed handed over a second pack.

    The first soldier asked Raed where "the foreigner," me, was from. "Canada," Raed said.

    The soldier raised his eyebrows. "He looks like one of us," he offered with a shrug before waving us on. His curiosity had been bought off by the Dunhills.

    It was easy to imagine the notorious foreign fighters of Iraq sliding through the same checkpoint with even more ease.

    The U.S. brazenly bombed eastern Syria this week, claiming Damacus wasn't doing enough to clamp down on the flow of jihadis into Iraq. The truth is that even if Bashar Assad's regime were to make helping the U.S. priority No. 1 (something that's unlikely given the angry, if orchestrated, demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus today) this underfunded, unmotivated force simply doesn't look nearly up to the task.

    Myths and maps

    By taxi from Antakya, Turkey to Lattakia, Syria — Wednesday, Oct. 29

    A snippet of the conversation I had today as I talked my way through Turkey's border with Syria:

    Syrian soldier in ill-fitting uniform:
    Have you ever been to Occupied Palestine?

    Me: Nope. No sirree. Never heard of it.

    SS: Do you intend to visit Occupied Palestine after you leave Syria?

    Me: No. Why would I want to visit such a place. I can tell it's heinous just by the way you spit its name out. (I'm paraphrasing here. I actually don't know the Arabic word for "heinous.")

    Crossing borders in the Middle East is always a game. If your job requires you to live in Jerusalem (ie. the headquarters of the Zionist Entity/Occupied Palestine) and cover the rest of the Middle East (ie. the angry Arabs who just refuse to peacefully coexist with darling, expansionist little Israel) it's a game of bluff.

    Having lived in Jerusalem for the past three-and-a-half years, I've perfected the art. The Syrians and the Lebanese want you to swear that you've never been to Israel, even if a quick Google search of my name would prove otherwise.

    The Israelis, on the other hand, want you to gripe and complain about having to visit these awful countries that surround them.

    "Where are you going?" I was asked by a security guard once at Israel's Ben Gurion airport as I checked in for a flight to the Jordanian capital, Amman.

    "Amman, then Beirut," I told him truthfully, just to see his reaction. Most Israelis envision Lebanon as one of Dante's lower levels of hell.

    "Why?" the agent asked with concern.

    "For vacation. It's beautiful there. A lot like Tel Aviv."

    The agent strongly doubted that. It's easier, I suppose, to envision the enemy as being fundamentally different than you.

    Obama wins Turkey, clinches Middle East Electoral College

    After eight years of being caught in the backdraft of U.S. President George W. Bush's policies, the people of Turkey are angry. Religious Turks are angry about the Iraq war, which Turkey opposed from the start, and about the ever-expanding "war on terrorism," which many here view as a war on Islam.

    Despite those perceptions, the Bush Administration was actually a staunch backer of Prime Minster Recep Tayyep Erdogan and his mildly Islamist AK Party, lending support to the government a constitutional crisis in Turkey this year and backing its bid to join the European Union. That disappointed secular Turks, who hoped that the hawkish U.S. administration would understand their fears of the creeping Islamicization of life in Turkey.

    And while Kurds in Iraq love Bush (and his father) for bringing down Saddam Hussein and letting loose the genie of Kurdish autonomy, Turkey's Kurds see only a double-standard. The Bush Administration deployed its troops alongside Kurdish militias during the war in Iraq, and has been supporting Iranian Kurdish groups seeking to undermine the regime Tehran. But the PKK, the group fighting for the independence of Turkey's Kurds, was labeled a "terrorist" organization for the first time by the Bush Administration.

    In short, Bush managed to offend Turks of all political stripes during his eight years in the White House. As a result, if Turks could cast ballots in the looming U.S. election, they'd vote almost unanimously for change in Washington. And unfortunately for John McCain, they don't buy his maverick schtick. Change, to Turks, means Barrack Obama in the White House.

    It was a landslide. Other than a few people who professed to have no opinion about U.S. politics, every single one of the 20-some Turks I asked said that they'd vote for Obama if they could. Not one Turk I spoke to picked McCain.

    By and large, Turks think fondly of the Bill Clinton era, and hope that the return of a Democrat to the White House might mean a return to the less confrontational U.S. foreign policy of that era.

    Here's a sampling of what I heard:

    "[Obama] is an intellectual, and he has new ideas. McCain comes from the same party as Bush – and we don't need to see any more wars."

    – Baris Kuyucu, 33, Gaziantep resident and sports anchor on the CNN Turk television channel.

    "When you ask people about George Bush, the first thing they think of is the Iraq war, and the second thing is his relationship with the [Turkish] government and his putting the PKK on the terrorist list."

    – Angel Ugar, 23-year-old translator and mother of one.

    "Kurds in Turkey have the same problems as black people in the U.S. Because of this, we hope that Obama will understand our situation."

    – Abdullah Demirbash, 42-year-old Kurdish politician and the former mayor of the old city of Diyarbakir.

    "Black people have suffered a lot in their past. God brought this black person to the biggest country in the world so that maybe he can bring justice to the world."

    – Sait Sanli, 64, the "Peace Father" of Diyarbakir. Has eight children of his own

    "Obama knows about Muslims, and he has a nice smile."

    – Abdul Kerim, a 32-year-old barber and father of three living in the city of Sanliurfa.

    So, after mixed results up to now, Obama cleanly sweeps Turkey and the 175 votes I awarded the country in our makeshift electoral college. That means that even though Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have yet to be polled, the Democratic candidate has already passed the magic number of 270 needed to clinch victory in our little "election."

    Barack Obama (Dem.) – 322 votes

    John McCain (Rep.) – 65 votes

    Undaunted, we'll press on, just to make sure Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians have their say too. But I think I can already guess what many of them will say.

    As Timur Schindel, the Turkish-American who owns the fantastic Anadolu Evleri hotel in historic Gaziantep, told me, "Everybody accepts now that the past eight years have been a disaster."

    In the Republic of Hatay

    Antakya, Turkey - Wednesday, Oct. 29

    My head snapped around to look when I heard the familiar sound of Arabic being spoken. "Keefak, ya doktor?" the waiter at the restaurant shouted to an acquaintance. "How are you, doctor?"

    Arabic, the language that (along with Hebrew) has surrounded me for the 3 1/2 years I've lived in Jerusalem, has been rare on this trip. And since I was still in Turkey, I didn't expect to start hearing it hear either.

    But national borders in the Middle East are a poor way of judging who lives where. In fact many of the region's most persistent troubles can be traced back to the half-mad way the lines were drawn in this part of the world back in the colonial era.

    Many Iraqis, for instance, curse the day in 1920 that the British united the predominantly Sunni province of Baghdad with the Shia province of Basra and the largely Kurdish Mosul area to form what is now Iraq. Similarly, though less explosively, the line that divides Saudi Arabia from Jordan cuts right through the ancient territories of several tribes who are now split by the border. And that's without discussing (for now) Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

    Antakya, known during the Roman era as Antioch, is another one of those places. Historically part of Syria, it was arbitrarily made a separate territory (the sanjak of Alexandretta) during French colonial rule.

    In 1938, under Turkish pressure, this tiny patch of land declared independence from France and became known as the Republic of Hatay, a country with its own flag and parliament (best known as the fictional setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which unfortunately for the local tourism industry, was actually filmed in Petra, Jordan.)

    A year later, a referendum was held — during which Turkey is alleged to have moved in busloads of Turkish "residents" — and Hatay voted to join the Turkish Republic. France, anxious to keep Turkey neutral in World War Two, meekly acquiesced.

    Flash forward seven decades, and it still doesn't make much more sense than it did in 1938. The street signs are in Turkish and the red-and-white Turkish flag hangs from every shop in an over-the-top display of nationalism. But on the streets, this is still an Arab town that ended up in Turkey through a string of events almost to strange to be depicted in film.

    "Ninety per cent of the people here speak Arabic better than they speak Turkish," my cab driver, Fouad, told me as we left Antakya and headed south towards the Syrian border.

    In this region, where history is never forgotten, such anomalies have a nasty habit of flaring into bigger problems. But with Turkey rapidly modernizing and flirting with the possibility of European Union membership, no one is agitating for reunion with isolated Syria just now.

    "Life is good here in Turkey, thank God," Fouad said. "We are Arabs, but we don't want the troubles the have in Syria and Lebanon.