Show your ID! The Origins of Border-Circumvention in the Levant

The borders between Lebanon, Syria and Iraq became meaningful a century ago with the appearance in the Levant of the motor car. Their actual role evolved with the changing regulations which allowed certain privileged travellers to cross them and kept out “undesirable elements.” Even though the latter often managed to slip through the cracks.

Syria-Iraq border, February 2013
Mike Fryer/Mines Advisory Group/Flickr

It was cold that night on 18 January 2018 in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon, but the trafficker had told Ahmad the crossing would last only half an hour. That was how he set out in the snow with his family, three generations fleeing their country with no proper ID, circumventing the border checkpoint where they would have been turned away. After seven years of war, the conditions in their village, located near the border with Iraq, had become unbearable. However, after a trek lasting seven hours, Ahmad’s relatives all died of cold, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Like Ahmad, thousands of Syrians have risked crossing the border between Syria and Lebanon in recent years, fleeing war and persecutions.

In 1925, nearly a century earlier, the borders between Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were still being negotiated when Muhammad Jawad Mughniyya left the village of his birth in the Jabal Amel, a region in southern Lebanon and set out in the opposite direction, for Iraq. He too was travelling without ID, the Beirut authorities having denied him a travel permit on the pretext that his father had repeatedly failed to pay his property taxes. Thus, shortly before reaching Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, his driver told him how to get around the customs post without being seen and promised to wait for him on the other side. At a previous checkpoint, Mughniyya had managed to persuade the customs official to let him through by crossing his palm with silver. This time the circumvention strategy was successful, and Mughniyya could resume his journey across the desert towards Baghdad. A few hundred kilometres further on the same ploy was repeated successfully at the Iraqi frontier.

Customs checks and sand-piles

Unlike Ahmad, Mughniyya did not become an undocumented migrant to flee a conflict but to study in the holy city of Najaf. Moreover, his stay in Iraq led to his being recognized as an important Islamic scholar. However, like today’s asylum seekers, Mughniyya belonged to the category of “unwanted” travellers for whom the development of official frontiers turned out to constitute a dangerous obstacle course.

At the time, the Levant was occupied by the British and French armies. After the First World War, the break-up of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the emergence of new Nation-States, such as “Greater Lebanon”, proclaimed by the French general Henri Gouraud on 1 September 1920 (renamed the Lebanese Republic in 1926).

New nations meant new territorial contours. But before becoming lines on a map, the new borders were sets of regulations and customs barriers which created otherness, distinguished citizens from foreigners, laid down conditions for travelling from one territory to another. When Mughniyya undertook his journey, the actual layout of a frontier mattered little: passport controls took place before reaching the border, at one of the many police posts located between Beirut and Baghdad. Thus, many a traveller, upon reaching the actual “border” was amused to see a pile of sand or a vague signpost.

One border, two categories of voyagers

Ironically enough, those new rules were laid down just as the motor car was coming into its own, a technological novelty which dramatically increased the number of persons travelling through the Levant. New roads were built, some little more than tracks across the desert, linking the cities with most remote areas. Whereas it had previously taken several weeks to cross the Syrian desert on camelback, it now took only two or three days by motor car. Besides which the prices charged by the different transport companies dropped considerably as the years went by, making it possible for people with diverse social profiles to make the journey. Politicians, civil servants, tradesmen but also intellectuals, pilgrims and holidaymakers began travelling in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Owning one’s own car was a rarity in those days, people tended rather to hire a seat in a collective vehicle.

While the number of travellers was on the increase, all were not treated equally. On the one hand, authorities viewed favourably the movements of tourists and holidaymakers. As soon as regular motor-car services between Iraq and Syria were inaugurated, many Iraqi vacationers went to spend the summer in the Syrian and Lebanese mountains, while European tourists began to visit Iraq by way of Syria.

Aware that this was an economic bonanza, the French authorities in Syria lowered the cost of tourist visas and simplified customs formalities for visitors. After many complaints from holidaymakers, they went so far as to ease the law on cigarette imports into Syria, allowing tourists to cross the border with several hundred in their luggage. Aside from these wealthy holidaymakers, the new countries facilitated border crossing for senior government officials, military officers and businessmen.

On the other hand, they stiffened travel conditions for a whole series of persons deemed “undesirable”. By this term, governments designated anyone they thought could disrupt public order, threaten political stability or pose a financial burden. The list was a hodgepodge, including activists, communists and thieves, but also vagabonds, procurers and prostitutes.

The journeys of pilgrims to Mecca were also more strictly monitored. The new nations feared an invasion of penniless pilgrims whom they would have to ship home at their expense. Besides which, they suspected them of bringing diseases like cholera from India to the Middle East and Europe. These various reasons, some real other imaginary, incited the governments of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to establish specific rules for the movements of pilgrims, obliging them for example to follow certain itineraries or demanding a deposit for a travel permit. While these pilgrims were not prevented from crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border, the formalities they had to observe placed considerable limitations on their movements.

“A definite prejudice”

European chorus girls also bore the brunt of the new border regulations. In 1928 the French issued a degree forbidding European cabaret and dancehall entertainers from entering Lebanon and Syria for fear they would engage in prostitution and tarnish the image of France. The French High Commissioner justified his decision as follows:

Their presence encourages the most unfavourable views of our compatriots. By an all-too-facile generalisation, some people who are already ill-disposed towards us never fail to pour forth inappropriate comments concerning the respectability of French women. The result for the prestige of France as the mandatory power is a definite prejudice.

The British did the same in Iraq and restricted the movements of all European and American women as well, who were not allowed to travel inside the country if unaccompanied by a man.

The Anglo-Italian globetrotter and writer Freya Stark who made many solitary trips to the region in the twenties and thirties waxed sarcastic about the new British rules in an account of one of her journeys.

I thought, rather bitterly, that if Paradise were run by the Colonial Office, there would be no chance of getting in at all, and felt thankful that in all probability it is not. “1

All of these examples illustrate the way the new borders were established in the Levant at the end of WW1. As the years went by, they were consolidated, as controls were organised on the ground and increasingly detailed regulations defined the conditions in which they might be crossed. Thus, the Iraqi Syrian border was materialised throughout the twenties and thirties. And it was more or less permeable according to circumstances. In 1937 an epidemic of cholera in southern Iraq prompted the French authorities in Syria to partially close their border. For a while, crossing the desert between Iraq and Syria was subject to more rigid rules. Drivers and passengers of motor cars bound for Damascus had to be vaccinated and new checkpoints were set up on the roads to screen travellers and turn away suspected carriers of the disease.

Beyond “Sykes-Picot”

Hence a border is a living reality, a social institution which is (re) built over time, contrary to the narrative which holds that today’s Levantine frontiers were determined by a stroke of the pen with the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In 1916 it is true that France and the United Kingdom, anticipating the fall of the Ottoman Empire, negotiated the division of the region among several zones of influence to further their economic, political and strategic interests. Mark Sykes and François-Georges Picot defined several areas to be controlled either by France or the UK. The image is a powerful one: two men bending over a map and discussing the future of the region, two European powers drawing “a line in the sand” by way of a border, to quote James Barr’s poignant but simplistic phrase.2

A century later, the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) actually used that image in their propaganda. In a video issued in 2014, it claimed to have at last “put an end to Sykes-Picot” by creating its self-proclaimed caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. However, this reference to the Sykes-Picot agreement serves more to legitimise ISIS’s attempt at territorial remodelling of the region than it describes any historical reality.

Even if we set aside the notion that a border is an institution (re)negotiated over time, the idea that the Sykes-Picot arrangement corresponds with the present borders in the Middle East is incorrect. In reality, the delineation of the Syrian-Iraqi border was a process that went on until at least the beginning of the thirties via many negotiations, disputations and adjustments, involving many local players.

All through the twenties, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, strengthened their hold over cross-border travel in the region, facilitating access for certain privileged travellers and hindering the movements of people from whom they expected no economic or political advantage. Adjustable and redefinable in keeping with the interests and circumstances of the moment, these emerging frontiers acted as filters. A role which has lasted until this very day, in spite of new international legal principles such as the right of asylum, theoretically leaving borders open to anyone fleeing war zones and persecutions.

1Freya Stark, [Baghdad Sketches, London, Murray, 1939 ; p. 41.

2James Barr, Une ligne dans le sable : le conflit franco-britannique qui façonna le Moyen-Orient, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2019.