Why do I travel? to be free

The sky was getting darker and the cold wind was becoming harsher, but hiding behind the closed windows of the ferry taking me back from Anadolu Kavagi, a village overlooking the Black Sea, to Istanbul, I was shielded from the elements.

The chilly though enjoyable atmosphere was the highlight of my trip to Turkey last February. I remember thinking about the small joys of travel, right after I bought some boiling hot black tea from a coffee shop aboard the ferry. As I held the tea cup, I could feel the warmth traveling through the fabric of my gloves, a pair I had bought years earlier in Cairo but had never used until that moment. The contrast between hot and cold heightened my senses, and my eyes followed the drops of rain as they fell and left traces across the glass window next to me. The boat was sailing down the Bosphorus strait. To my left was Europe with its glaring lights, and to my right rested Asia. The continents were calling my name.

During that ferry ride, I was almost in denial. I couldn’t believe that I was there, somewhere between Europe and Asia, listening to Dido’s “Give me Strength” and emancipated from the “Arab Traveler Lock-in Syndrome” (ATLS)–a very unique condition that hits people like me, and those with similar circumstances. ATLS–I pronounce the term like the word “atlas”–is something my family and friends have come to know well after I was diagnosed with the syndrome.

You see, as a poor journalist without a foreign passport, I’ve believed for so long that I’m one of these unfortunate people that won’t get to travel too far. Stuck with my Syrian passport that won’t take me anywhere, I once believed that Egypt was the farthest place I could dream of traveling to.

My love for novelty and my passion for traveling took me all across Egypt back when I lived there but the situation in Syria prevented me from doing the same. I managed to visit places some Egyptians have never been to–the Black and White Desert, Siwa Oasis, Qusair and Aswan. Through these trips, I tried to calm the symptoms of my unique syndrome, but I never really managed to satisfy that beast inside of me that always hungers for new places and experiences.

A “lock-in syndrome” is a real condition. It’s a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of voluntary muscles in all parts of the body except for those that control eye movement. Individuals with lock-in syndrome are conscious and can think and reason, but are unable to speak or move. The disorder leaves individuals completely mute and paralyzed. That is exactly how I felt, as an Arab who enjoys traveling.

A small number of embassies would open their doors to me, and even a smaller number of countries would allow me a non-visa visit. Europe and the United States, although on the top of my dream list, are the hardest to get into, for reasons of stereotypes and stigmas.

It often seemed to me that the embassy officials of these nations are not willing to look at each and every case of a visa application individually. Although I’m a middle-class Arab with a good education and, as my friend puts it, no criminal record, I’m still treated like one of these people who would overstay their tourist visa and work illegally in Europe or the States. Add to that; that I’m single in my papers; how would a gay man be anything but single on his Syrian papers even if he was in a relationship? To go to places such as Canada, Europe or America; I actually have to immigrate; imagine that! I have to work with my friends there to either find someone from them who is willing to marry me or support my claim to immigrate under the spotlight that Syria is this barbarian place where gays are being killed on sideways! I mean, yeah, Syria is homophobic; but I’m living here a normal life as long as I’m keeping my head down.

Admittedly, we hear all the time about Arabs illegally entering Europe. How could the people reading my application be sure that this guy, in his mid-twenties, is not going to do the same? I understand that, but it doesn’t help me fight my ATLS, my condition of paralysis and inability to speak.

I felt unworthy of the gift of travel.

I always heard something too–a trickle, the sound of my life slipping away. Day after day I would feel the itch to journey, to know new places and hear different languages, and I would suppress my feelings with a new trip to Dahab or Marsa Matrouh, both inside Egypt. Several attempts to get a tourist visa to Italy or the United Kingdom failed miserably and my depression went through the roof.

No matter how many midnight trains I take inside Egypt or Syria, I still felt that my journey has not started yet. I needed to go somewhere new so bad that sometimes I felt I was going out of my mind.

But then there was a glimpse of hope. And, yes, I was saved.

Turkey and Syria, couple of years back, opened their borders to each other’s citizens: no visa required.

In the airport in Istanbul I was standing there in the line, wearing my heaviest jacket and way too excited, when I saw this American man, wearing shorts and flip-flops and screaming in the face of the immigration officer. The American guy–who had obviously researched the weather in Istanbul in February–did not believe that he needed to go to an extra window to pay for his entry visa. Such an easy and simple procedure somehow insulted him and he start cursing while heading to the wrong window. I wanted to help him, but he was fuming and unapproachable, and I was next in line.

I took a step forward, fearing that someone was going to take this chance of seeing a new land away from me. I greeted the immigration officer briefly and smiled; he smiled back, and stamped my passport. I was in Turkish land. I was free to travel.

I was once asked what travel means to me. The images that came to my mind were not of journeys and trips, but of someone trapped, staying in the same place, the same street, the same city, the same country…for too long. The feeling that surfaced was of stillness and routine, and the knowledge that there is nothing new to know and experience. Simply because I have come to associate these feelings with travel. Or, more precisely, with the lack thereof.

For me, travel is not an action in itself, it is a reaction against stillness–and with all the negativity in my life, there is a need for novelty. It is simply the need to ponder on all my unanswered questions as I am introduced to even new ones.

Now; I’m stuck in Syria and it has been a long winter since I travelled out of my routine road between home and work; I’m counting the moments to travel to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, anywhere really; and wishing that I can just leave these borders; open two wings and fly. You can imagine how I’d feel if I managed to get out. And again, for a moment, it will seem that the syndrome is finally leaving me–I will be healed, and able to move–or at least fidget–in my psychological cage…slipping through bit by bit.

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