The Middle East is a mess. Most people would probably agree with that statement even if they don’t know anything about who is responsible for it, who suffers from it, or what precisely it reeks of. Although the western media don’t usually bother to delve into the nitty gritty, we see enough highlights of this mess (well, those bits that concern our own interests, anyway) to have at least a vague idea that the region is a political and economic mess.
Long years ago I studied Middle Eastern politics (yes, I’m a geek, in case anyone was still in doubt). But right now, despite living in Beirut, I feel inexcusably ignorant. I recently resolved to swot up a bit so that I wouldn’t feel quite so clueless (I’d highly recommend the book I’m reading now to anyone else interested – it may be 1,368 pages long but Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is a real page turner).
But swotting aside, occasionally something happens out here that forces me to confront the reality of what this mess really means to the millions of people who live here. Last week, it was lying awake in my hotel room in Baalbeq, listening to the distant sound of shellfire from across the Syrian border. This week, it was obviously the Iranian embassy bombing.
But yesterday, something far more mundane struck me as I was sitting on the late flight from Amman to Beirut. Only here could a 50 minute flight take close to two hours because of politics.
To reach Beirut from Amman on Royal Jordanian, you have to fly south (SOUTH – look at the map below if you’re not sure why that’s completely mental). When you reach the Gulf of Aqaba (and therefore Egyptian airspace), you take a sharp right and fly northish until the Mediterranean. Then, you have to skirt the Israeli coast until you reach Lebanese airspace once again.
Check out this map: http://bit.ly/1g8q6rH
To anyone who knows anything about Middle Eastern politics, this is probably not surprising. For those of you who don’t, take a quick look at that map again. You can’t fly northwest to get back to Beirut because it’s not safe to fly over Syria (well, at least not by most airlines). You can’t fly northeast because Israel’s in the way.
Maybe this doesn’t seem particularly interesting. And sure, there are far worse examples I could pick. But I think it illustrates well how the mess of the Middle East affects every day life here in subtle, insidious ways.