Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Line in the Sand

The tribes of the Blackfoot confederacy, living along what is now known as the United States/Canadian border, fleeing northward after a raiding attack, watched with growing amazement as the soldiers of the United States army came to a sudden, magical stop. Fleeing southwards, they saw the same thing happen, as the Canadian mounties reined to an abrupt halt. They came to call this invisible demarcation the "medicine line."
Sharon O'Brien
It is like the child's game where we traced a line down the cloth of the back seat in the car and warned our sisters and brothers against trespass. Here, where I am now living, and where people have lived almost as long as there have been people on earth, if you were to track all the imaginary lines on a single map and how they have changed, it would look like an angry child's scribble. How can we all feel so strongly which is here and which is there? Where we end and they begin? And yet, like everyone on earth, each person has fixed in their mind one definite point in time when the imaginary lines were correct, and fair, and inevitably, as long and wide as they ever had been. Any contraction is a wound.

It is hard to fathom places on earth where you cannot go. Jason works for an airline and has cause, with some small regularity, to tell people that it does not matter to him that they have long overstayed their visa, but that if they leave this country—and this he emphasizes carefully—they will never, never be let back in. There will be a spot on this planet nearly as wide as a hemisphere that the governments of the world have agreed you can never be.
* * *
The imaginary lines are governed by petty rules and variable moods. In Azerbaijan, Jason and I stared down our visas and counted out on our fingers for all our friends to see. "If you count it this way, then we will be fine. But what if they count it this way? What if they decide to? We will be a day over and they won't let us cross, but will send us back to Baku to fix it." So as not to risk this, on the morning we leave Baku, we stop at the consulate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We need only 24 hours more" we tell the man and he sends us to this agency and that bank and this official. Finally, the head consular officer takes our passports. "Fine," he says. They will be ready at 5pm today. "Oh no," I said. "We leave on a bus this afternoon at noon, we cannot wait until five." We watch his face for his mood. He rolls his eyes. He harumphs. He pivots and disappears. "Wait here," he says. After some time he returns and hands our visas and something else to his assistant and is gone again. There is a long line of people waiting in line, as they should, following the rules, but the assistant calls us forward. "Here are your passports, with your visas," he says. "And here," turning to me, "a box of chocolates for you. A gift from the head of the consulate division." How many eyes are staring at me from the long line.
* * *
John had lived in Georgia for some time when he slipped and damaged his neck. It was not broken, but required one of those braces and he could not move easily for some time. It was during this time that he discovered that his visa had expired. He took himself with difficulty to the Ministry, and in his fluent Georgian, he asked them what is the fine, please? There is no more fine, they told him. Now you must simply leave. "I have a Georgian wife and a son here," he told them. "This is not really an option." They conferred and buzzed and decided, finally, that they will give him another visa, but only after he has left the country and re-entered it. Armenia is the closest, they told him, just cross the border and come back in.

So John with neck askew took the pot-holed road to Armenia. At the border, he passed through the Georgian side, but when he tried to enter Armenia, they discovered that he was out of blank pages in his passport and so there was no room for the visa. They would not let him in. He begged and cajoled and bribed but nothing would budge the border guard. And he could not return to Georgia because he had no visa, and he could only get a visa after he had entered Armenia. With neck throbbing, John looked at the 50 feet between the imaginary lines and thought that this nowhere is where he had to stay, neither here nor there. He tried to call the Embassy without luck and so he sat in this gap on the earth in between the lines drawn and thought what to do.

Finally, he returned to the Georgian side, and in his fluent Georgian he explained his situation, and can you believe this Armenian guy, and my poor wife who doesn't know I'm here, and this neck I've got. The Georgians called their friends over, get a load of this American, he speaks Georgian so perfectly! And of course, how could you even ask, of course we will give you some kind of visa, it is clear you are one of us. John crossed back over the imaginary line though now, I am sure, he feels something real when he does it.


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