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This week’s illustration

Bureaucratic Red Tape

There’s a charming little movie — a quirky comedy — in which a border figures prominently. It’s a 2004 Israeli film with English subtitles, called The Syrian Bride.

It’s a fictional story, but it’s based on some real–life situations that have actually happened — and still happen — in the borderlands between Israel and Syria.

It’s the story of a young woman named Mona, a member of the Druze people. The Druze are an ethnic minority who’ve lived in the three nations of Israel, Syria and Lebanon for centuries. They have their own language and their own religion. They’re grudgingly tolerated by the much larger nations within whose borders they live.

Mona and her family live in a Druze village in the Golan Heights — that strategic region Israel captured from Syria in the Six–Day War of 1967. The nearby border between those two nations is among the most heavily–fortified in the world — and one of the most difficult to cross. Only a handful of people are allowed to pass through the border fences each year.

The problem is that Mona is engaged to marry a man — one of her own Druze people — who happens to live across the border in Syria. She’s never met him, although they’ve talked on the phone. It’s an arranged marriage, which is common in their culture. The two families know and respect each other. She trusts her parents to have chosen well for her, but she’s sad at the prospect of leaving her family.

What makes the parting even sadder is the harsh fact that, once Mona crosses that border, the Israelis will never let her return. Unless relations between the countries thaw — no sign of that at present — the only way Mona will ever see her family again is if they can contrive to meet together in some neutral country.

Her wedding celebration is an odd one, because of the border that runs straight through the middle of it. First there’s a lavish wedding feast, put on by Mona’s parents, for all the people of their village. The groom is not present; he has not been given permission to enter Israel. As soon as the party’s over, Mona and her family drive to the border for the tearful farewell, before she crosses through the chain–link and barbed–wire fences alone, to meet her new husband and his family. The actual wedding ceremony will take place on the Syrian side, with no members of the bride’s family present.

It’s taken months to obtain the necessary visas from the two governments. When Mona arrives at the Israeli border checkpoint, in her wedding dress, everything seems to go smoothly at first. The Israeli border officer stamps her passport, then a female officer of the Norwegian army — a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force — escorts her through the fence into no–man’s land.

It is there that a complication arises — you could call it a perfect storm of bureaucracy. It seems the Israelis have just changed the type of rubber stamp they use on the passports of travelers leaving the Golan Heights. The new stamp declares that Mona is leaving Israel, something that never used to be the case for earlier travelers.

This is decidedly not okay with the Syrian border guards, because their nation has never given up its claim to the Golan Heights. If they let Mona into their country — if they accept this passport that says she’s just left Israel — does that mean Syria is giving up its claim to the Heights? Suddenly Mona, wilting in the hot sun in her wedding dress, has become a symbol of everything that’s dysfunctional between those two nations: even though she, as a member of the stateless Druze people, doesn’t belong to either one.

Tense negotiations ensue. Phone calls are made to Jerusalem and Damascus. Jeanne, the sympathetic Norwegian officer, borrows a metal folding chair from the Israelis and carries it over for Mona to sit on, and also gives her a couple bottles of water. Jeanne’s practicing a kind of shuttle diplomacy, driving her U.N. jeep back and forth from one immigration–control booth to the other.

Both families are looking on in astonishment and horror: from opposite sides of the border. They can see each other through binoculars — and they can see Mona, forlornly sitting there, surrounded by barbed wire. Her fiancĂ©e is on the scene as well, pacing nervously on the Syrian side. But he’s helpless to do anything, because the Syrians won’t let him cross into no–man’s–land to sit with his bride.

The negotiations drag on, hour after hour. Finally, the Norwegian liaison officer gains a small concession from the Israelis. The Israeli immigration officer agrees to cover over the offending rubber–stamp image with White–Out. But the Syrians decide this is still not good enough. It appears that the wedding will be delayed by weeks, even months (if, in fact, it can happen at all.)

Just as everything seems impossibly tied up in knots, Mona — who’s been sitting there patiently all this time, the picture of composure — takes matters into her own hands. She gets up without a word, and begins walking, with great determination, towards the Syrian border. She has no passport (it’s still in the hands of the Israeli immigration people). She has no luggage. And she’s wearing a wedding dress.

What will the Syrian border guards do? Will they shoot her?

Everyone is so completely dumbfounded by her decision to cut the bureaucratic red tape and just walk across that no one stops her. Mona walks right through the Syrian checkpoint unchallenged, and into the arms of her new family.

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