Monday, February 11, 2008

Get your mind out of the Qatar, 1: Getting there

We just got back from a week in Qatar, the only country in the world that starts with Q (though some people would like to change that). This is the first of several posts about a qrazy trip to a country that most people know nothing about. This post will focus on the insanity of getting there. For those planning a similar trip, this may provide guidance on what to do (and what not to do), and for everyone else, this may simply provide a window into the insanity.

Our journey from our apartment in Jerusalem to our host's apartment in Doha involved 9 vehicles: 1 plane, 1 van, 2 buses, and 5 cars.

When we told people we were going to Qatar, the #1 question we got asked was "Can you go there if you have Israeli stamps on your passport?". Sorry to ruin the suspense so early in the story, but the answer is yes.

There are a number of countries in the region that not only won't let Israelis in, but won't let in anyone with evidence of a visit to Israel. This includes Israeli stamps on your passport, as well as Jordanian or Egyptian stamps that indicate entry over the border with Israel. Some people who want to travel to Israel as well as these other countries (Syria, etc.) ask the Israeli passport control to stamp a piece of paper rather than their passport, with varying success. The US and some other countries are willing to issue a second passport for people interested in gaming this system. Rumor has it that Syria (e.g.) has gotten wise to these ruses, and won't let anyone in from Jordan without evidence on their passport of how they got into Jordan. So it's all very complicated.

To say that my (US) passport contains evidence of a visit to Israel is a vast understatement. With this passport, I have entered and exited Israel 9 times (representing two non-consecutive years living in Israel plus one isolated visit), not to mention three work visas and a student visa. Israel appears on almost every page of my passport.

As Persian Gulf states go, Qatar is by far the friendliest towards Israel (which really doesn't say much, when you look at who its neighbors are). That doesn't mean they actually have formal diplomatic relations (in the Middle East, Israel has diplomatic relations only with Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey), but Qatar has had a "trade office" in Israel since 1996, and vice versa. This doesn't mean that there's a whole lot of trade going on between Israel and Qatar, especially since, as we discovered in our preliminary sleuthing, the customs regulations on the website of the Embassy of Qatar in Washington DC require that "All invoices should have a non-Israeli clause clearly mentioned." The word on the street is that the "trade office" is an embassy in all but name, and the "trade representatives" are actually engaging in low-level diplomacy. Given that, it makes sense that Qatar would have to bend over the other way and put in rules about a "non-Israeli clause" (whatever that means) to placate its more powerful neighbors. It's a delicate balance, but it's a brave step forward.

This means that even though we wouldn't be allowed into other Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, etc.), Qatar was just fine. This doesn't mean there wasn't some doubt in our minds about whether we'd actually be admitted, since we had seen lots of conflicting information on the Internet. Much of it was posted by individuals who likely had no idea what they were talking about, but the most reputable (yet totally inaccurate, or perhaps reflecting pre-1996 information) source was the Government of Canada. So we armed ourselves with the contact info for the US Embassy in case we ran into trouble, and hoped for the best.

Of course, you can't actually get a direct flight from Israel to Qatar. Rather than book one of the flights that came up on our searches, which involved changing planes in Italy or Switzerland, we booked our flights out of Amman. Getting to Amman leads us to a whole other adventure in international relations.

Jerusalem and Amman are only 45 miles apart (not much farther than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), and the Amman airport is even closer. However, getting there isn't nearly as simple as getting to Tel Aviv or to Ben-Gurion Airport. There are only two border crossings between Israel and Jordan that are open to Israelis: the Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the north, and the Wadi Araba crossing in the south (between Eilat and Aqaba). So for Israelis, getting into Jordan requires either going all the way north or all the way south.

As Americans, we had a third option: the Allenby Bridge (known on the Jordanian side as the King Hussein Bridge), linking the West Bank and Jordan, and constituting the shortest path between Jerusalem and Amman. It is open only to West Bank Palestinians and tourists.

The bridge has a complicated history. Between 1948 and 1967, it wasn't a border crossing at all, of course. (Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950, and gave citizenship to West Bank residents, which Israel has never done.) After Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, this still wasn't recognized as an international border, since Jordan continued to claim sovereignty over the West Bank until it relinquished that claim in 1988 (following the first intifada). Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, recognizing the Jordan River as their border. However, for reasons I don't entirely understand, the Allenby Bridge still has a weird murky status, perhaps in part because the West Bank itself has a weird murky status (it's no longer claimed by Jordan, it was never annexed by Israel, and there's no sovereign Palestinian state). At the other two border crossings, Jordanian entry visas can be obtained at the border terminal. However, this is not the case at the Allenby Bridge, so we had to obtain visas in advance at the Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv. (This isn't an issue for West Bank Palestinians, who still have Jordanian citizenship.)

So that's the political background for our Jerusalem-Doha journey.

We woke up early and took a taxi (vehicle 1) to Damascus Gate, where we caught a sherut (vehicle 2) to the bridge. After numerous Nesher trips to and from the airport, the van looked eerily familiar.

The Allenby Border Terminal on the Israeli side seems designed to confuse and to produce low-level anxiety. There are no instructions or explanations posted anywhere, and no apparent logic in the procedures.

Our van arrived at the entrance to the border terminal, and then stopped. Vehicles (including trucks and private cars) were being allowed through the checkpoint, but not in any discernible order; certainly not in order of arrival. So we sat and waited. The driver collected our passports, and someone came on board and looked at them, and then gave them back. Eventually we rode in, and disembarked.

We were told to leave our luggage outside, an odd instruction for a country usually so concerned about suspicious packages. We paid the Israeli departure tax and went through passport control. Our bags were waiting for us on the other side, and there we waited with the other westerners. And waited.

As tourists (rather than Jordanians or Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship), the only way across the bridge itself to the Jordanian side is on the JETT (Jordan Express Travel & Tourism) bus. We asked when the bus was coming. Rather than give an honest answer ("I don't know, but sometimes it takes as much as an hour") the staff kept making things up out of whole cloth: "It will be here soon. 10 minutes.", and then after far more than 10 minutes had elapsed, "Ok, then another 10 minutes." We had been warned about long delays at the bridge, so we had budgeted plenty of time, so there wasn't any real risk that we would miss our flight (though we started to fear that the process would take many more hours, such that this was a possibility), but we had expected delays of the traditional sort: long and/or slowly moving lines. I have experienced these before, lasting as long as 12 hours, and the advantage is that sometimes things happen (e.g. the line moving forward) signaling that you are closer to your destination than you were a moment ago. Tangible signs of progress. Here at the Allenby Bridge there were no such signs, leading into despair.

But the JETT bus (vehicle 3) finally came, and took us across the bridge:

Ok, that's not the real bridge, this picture is from the Madaba Map, where we stopped on the way home. But it's approximately actual size. The Jordan River is quite unimpressive. I don't see how there were ever boats on it (as depicted in the mosaic), or why the Israelites didn't simply jump across.

We got off the bus at the Jordanian border terminal and were charged several dinars. Fortunately we had bought some from people who had just come back; I don't know what we would have done otherwise, since this was before we reached any Jordanian ATMs.

The Jordanian side was similarly chaotic. Someone collected all of our passports and gave them to someone behind a window, and then we stood around waiting for our names to be called. They didn't stamp our passports, and instead gave us entry stamps on slips of paper, perhaps for the benefit of people intending to go on to other Arab countries. Finally, we were in, and found ourselves on a street of banks, taxis, and car rental places.

We got in a taxi (vehicle 4) headed for the airport. We drove for a few minutes, and then the driver got a phone call, and told us that we had to go in another car. He turned around and drove halfway back to the bridge terminal, and we transferred into another taxi (vehicle 5).

We rode most of the way to the airport. Jordan had gotten the same snow as Israel:

When we were almost there, the driver pulled over, and told us we had to transfer yet again, this time into an unmarked car (vehicle 6), who took us the rest of the way to the airport. We paid that last driver the full sum, so he had presumably worked something out with the previous driver.

Amman and Doha airports have you go through security before you check in for your flight.

At passport control on the way back out, they flipped through my passport and asked whether I had another passport. I said no, and froze. Were they asking because they had seen all the Israeli stamps and this passport wasn't going to get me into Qatar? Then I realized that wasn't it. "Oh, do you need this?". I handed them the slip of paper with my Jordanian entry stamp, and that was indeed what they were asking about.

After all that, we still had plenty of time before our flight, and then it was delayed an hour, so we explored duty-free.

As you can see, Jordan is a pioneer in interreligious understanding. And yes, those prices are in US dollars. So can someone explain the purpose of duty-free, if things are much more expensive than they would be in an ordinary store? Or are things like alcohol and cigarettes (which I never look at) in fact cheaper?

Amman and Doha airports also don't let you into the gate area until it's almost time for boarding, and then you have to go through security again.

Royal Jordanian (vehicle 7) has excellent leg room.

As is common for international flights, when the plane landed, we went down a ladder onto the tarmac, and took a bus (vehicle 8) to the terminal.

We waited in a long line for passport control and stressed out about whether we would be let into the country, working out various contingency plans in our head. I had trimmed my beard the night before, and even wore a tie (for the first time since arriving in Israel), all in an attempt to look less sketchy than usual. We developed a code to talk about Israel to each other in public, referring to it as "Canada". Finally, we got to the front of the line, and were let into Qatar without a problem.

Our Qatari entry stamps said "Allowed to entry to Sultanate of Oman", but we decided not to test whether that was actually true. Our friends picked us up in their car (vehicle 9), and we were there.

Doing this all in reverse on the way home, everything was as smooth or smoother. At Israeli passport control on the way back in, I had some sympathy for the young British backpackers who were being fully interrogated about their visits to Lebanon and Syria. But at least Israel was eventually going to let them in after asking lots of questions, which wouldn't have been true in the other direction.


  1. All the transfers between taxis seem strange. Do you have any idea why you had to do them?

    How did you communicate with the taxi drivers?

    Btw, duty free cigarettes are way way cheaper than in the US, like $20 for a carton instead of $80 or so.

  2. 1. you wore a tie to look less sketchy at passport controls? did you think of that yourself, or did someone suggest it? and do you have any indication whether it worked?

    2. maybe the Jordan River is so small because it gets diverted and used so much upstream.

  3. As I can no longer remember, perhaps you do: does the information on the Qanadian Government's website differ from the information I was given, via telephone, from the Qanadian consulate?

    Also, I love that Qanada was your code word. It's comforting that it's there for you in your travels, and there for you if another elephant takes the White House.

  4. All the transfers between taxis seem strange. Do you have any idea why you had to do them?

    Not a clue.

    How did you communicate with the taxi drivers?

    Not so well, hence the aforementioned cluelessness. But I had a little bit of Arabic (including the all-important word for "airport"), and they had a little bit of English. (The taxi drivers in Qatar, of course, all spoke English.)

    Btw, duty free cigarettes are way way cheaper than in the US, like $20 for a carton instead of $80 or so.

    Aha! So all the candy and whatnot is just windowdressing?

  5. 1. you wore a tie to look less sketchy at passport controls? did you think of that yourself, or did someone suggest it? and do you have any indication whether it worked?

    I think it might have been me, but there's no way to do a controlled experiment without going back another time.

  6. As I can no longer remember, perhaps you do: does the information on the Qanadian Government's website differ from the information I was given, via telephone, from the Qanadian consulate?

    Thanks for making that call! I believe they told you that Qatar was ok, and refused to give an answer about Dubai.

  7. My friend's dad, an American who made aliyah, has been known to go on business trips to Dubai without encountering any problems.

  8. The Jordan River is now a trickle of what it once was. This is in large part due to how much water is diverted from the Jordan. The consequences of the reduced flow have been enormous on the amount of water in the Dead Sea which is literally drying up.

  9. eric-
    That makes sense - he probably enters Israel on his Israeli passport and goes elsewhere on his American passport.

  10. Great story.

    But the 'Q' country's name is not really pronounced like 'gutter,' is it?

    I have heard that (and 'cutter') on the news, but always assumed it had to be a beastly mispronunciation. But I've had less Arabic than you have...