It was 1994 and I was a new arrival in Israel. I was at the Canadian Embassy working on a media liaison project for Premier Klein’s Alberta trade mission — but something even more exciting was afoot. That afternoon at the Government Press Office, I’d met some other journalists while applying for my press pass, and one of them had invited me to join them on a trip to Gaza.
I wanted to know if it was really like what I saw on the news.
As a TV producer/writer with over two decades of experience, I knew very well that what one sees in the TV frame may be far from the whole picture. I was keen to find out.
So I looked at my counterpart in the Canadian embassy and relayed the news.
“I have an invitation to travel to Gaza tomorrow with a press crew. What do you think?” I asked, expecting perhaps a congratulatory note.
Her eyes glazed over and she replied in a non-committal but emphatic tone “We do not recommend that Canadian citizens travel to Gaza.”
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “And I wouldn’t go.”
“So are you saying it’s not safe?” I wanted to better understand if this was her personal or professional viewpoint — or was it standard policy.
“We do not recommend that Canadian citizens travel to Gaza.”
So, I didn’t.
Some time later, a production company wanted to do a documentary on a notorious prison in southern Lebanon.
They knew I had dual citizenship and suggested that I could enter Lebanon on my Canadian passport and go see, take a portable tourist camera and just be a tourist looking around.
I asked to review the file of research they had — and sure enough, the prison’s human rights record was enough to make your hair stand on end. Then I started researching Lebanon itself and the cultural fabric of the country is so convoluted and fraught with splinter groups, I realized quickly that if I went on this adventure, it would become a death sentence.
I declined the job. Yes, I chickened out.
Practically speaking, I was not qualified for the job.
I did not speak the local language, had no contacts whatsoever there, and I looked and acted like a North American.
Despite the fact that much of urban Lebanon is as sophisticated as any European city in terms of liberation for many women, the south is much more traditional. A white woman, alone, assertive and asking too many questions in English would be noticed immediately in communities where tribal connections are the norm and there is little or no fluidity of movement — particularly not for women.
It wasn’t even about dressing the part, but rather being able to absorb a thousand years of culture and enact that role with one’s body language.
Common sense prevailed. I did not want to be a hero.
About this time, Russia was opening up and we hosted a young South Africa hitchhiker. He told us his plan was to hitchhike from Germany to Moscow.
We were stunned at his naivety. He was sure that there were roads, gas stations and traffic volumes just like in the west — and that he would be welcomed where he went as a tourist supporting the local economy.
I showed him a recent newspaper clipping about Lonely Planet’s publication on Russia. The author described how the locals in Russia of the time viewed a Western tourist alone: “as a naked man walking down the street with hundred-dollar bills stuck all over his body.”
Even the top Western reporters who covered the Second Lebanon War discovered, to their dismay, that once they had befriended the Hizbollah to get the story, they were now obliged to tell that story according to the Hizbollah.
“We have copies of your passport and we know where you live,” was what one reporter was told when he subsequently reneged on information he’d reported from Lebanon.
The Canadian government can’t help you if you get stuck in most of these places where they have little or no diplomatic relations. Complex geopolitical factors affect our government’s ability to go in, the costs of rescue are prohibitive, or the work of other aid agencies can be put at risk with high-profile kidnappings of naïve Canucks.
The Canadian government tells you on its website where it can probably help — and it clearly warns you where not to go.
In the wake of Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan’s release, there may be many others inspired to take up their challenge — to find the truth. Don’t do it.
The fact that the media has revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to free them has put all Canadian travellers, and certainly all journalists and aid workers, at a much higher risk of kidnapping.
We are naive sheep to the slaughter in exotic foreign lands, no matter what our good intentions. In 1993, I listened to the advice of the Canadian embassy. I hope you will too.
Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka freelance columnist.