Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

It’s one world, but you need a visa to get around it

Ernest Bevin, I think it was, once said that in an ideal world, you could buy a ticket at Cannon Street station to anywhere in the world and travel there without a passport.

My father actually believed this was the case before 1914. It wasn't. Even to sail to Beirut, you needed a piece of paper from the Sublime Porte. I guess the European Union, with the Schengen Agreement, is now the closest to Bevin's aspiration - but you still need an identity card or a passport to cross many EU frontiers. And the madness of foreign visas haunts all us journos.

Even to cover Friday's Iranian elections, it took two weeks of desperate whinging by yours truly to line up a visa for Tehran. Countless calls were made from London to Tehran and by me to friends in Tehran who had friends - or friends of friends - in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance before the visa finally arrived in Beirut.

"Have a great time in Iran," the diplomats cheerfully told me.They meant it. I like them. But visas are heart attacks on a page. I have spent hours - nay, days - of my life sitting in the visa offices of hot and overcrowded embassies in Beirut, sweat trickling through my hair, pleading with diplomats for visas for countries I didn't want to go to. In the Iran-Iraq war, a visa to visit the battlefront could be a one-way trip. Sometimes the Iranians issued only two-day visas - to show us their latest victory over Saddam's legions and then get us out before Iraq started its counter-offensive.

My favourite was Saudi Arabia. Repeatedly, and always in broiling summer, I would be invited to Riyadh or Jeddah to observe some new political reforms (almost always abandoned within weeks) with which they wished to curry favour with the West. It was an American colleague who told me how to avoid this. For on every Saudi visa application, there is a box, ominously marked: "Religion." Well, I was Church of England wasn't I? Protestant. Christian. And the visa would arrive.

But if I left the box empty, the Saudis would assume I was Jewish and the visa would not arrive. And I'd be sunbathing in Beirut while my colleagues headed off to an inferno of Saudi summer days. Of course, by the time Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, I was ready to declare myself a fully-fledged Wahabi to get to Dhahran.

It is fact universally acknowledged that rich countries will usually give you tiny stamps in your passport while poorer countries - or anti-Western countries - will plaster a whole precious page of your passport with elaborately embossed visas, take Tajikistan or Iran or even little Armenia. The fatal word "deport" has been heard by many of us scribes - even when our visas have been legally issued. I once got a visa to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war from a friendly diplomat who wrote "religious pilgrim" in the box for profession.

I got three days covering Saddam's long-range rocket attacks on Iran before a little man at the aformentioned Ministry of Islamic Guidance summonded me to his dark office and announced: "Some people of the Islamic Republic came here. They were angry. You have 12 hours to leave." I did, driven to the airport by the Irish ambassador. All is now changed, changed utterly - apart from the fingerprints taken taken at Imam Khomeini International Airport (do they share them with the American's)

Yes, I know it can be a pain in the arse for others to get a visa to London but my favourite memory was at San Francisco International Airport, where Homeland Security spotted all the pariah visas in my passport.

“Have you ever met a terrorist?” one of them asked me with a frown. Yes, I said. I met Osama bin Laden and I met Ariel Sharon. They were concerned about the bin Laden admission. But they were terrified of the political implications of discussing Sharon and terrorism.

“Have a nice day, Sir,” the guy with the frown said. And stamped me through in three seconds. There must be a lesson there somewhere...

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