Passport paradox at the Israel-Jordan border

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With Jerusalem and Australian Embassies very much in the news late last year, I was reminded of the spring of 1960 when I successfully applied for my first ever passport in preparation for a daring expedition into the northern hemisphere in the following year.

Australian passportsLike any given change of decades, much was happening in the wider world that we were planning to enter: during 1961, in Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse was closed and the wall was built; in Israel, Eichmann was tried and convicted; Khrushchev and Kennedy met at Versailles amid rising world tensions; Stalin was removed from his tomb in Red Square leaving Lenin to tough it out alone into eternity; and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

The extent to which the atmosphere, constraints and assumptions of the 1950s bled into, so to speak, the first years of the 60s is worth pausing to reflect on. The received wisdom is, of course, that the 50s in Melbourne were famously dull. This is by and large true, though constantly mitigated by the testimony of people whose personal experience of those years was exciting.

I am one of those. As the first person in my entire known family ever to have gone to a university, and coming from a close, colourful, rather riotous but intellectually narrow working class background, I was overwhelmed by the rush of liveliness and creativity that swamped me when I first walked into Melbourne University in 1954. Admittedly, I was green, wide-eyed and entirely without confidence so I was to be impressed by almost anything and anybody.

As always, the great issues of the day — the Twentieth Party Congress, the Hungarian uprising, the Suez Crisis — came to us exotically from elsewhere, another hemisphere, almost another reality. And it is true that 1950s Melbourne was a place of such imperturbable smugness that most of these events and dilemmas seemed to bounce off the city and the suburbs.

The comfortable anglocentric, middle class, faintly puritan, faintly callous arrogance projected by Prime Minister Menzies when he wasn't giving dire warnings of communist threat, were ingredients of Melbourne's suffocating self-satisfaction throughout the 1950s and at the start of the 60s. But things were changing, restlessness was becoming palpable. If you could have taken an aerial view of the youthful exodus at the turn of the decade, it would have looked like the rabbit plague: not just local patches, but whole hillsides on the move.

I was away from mid-December 1960 to the end of January 1962. In many ways, my overseas trip was stereotypical enough, but it had its moments. For example: I came through Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse four minutes before it was closed on 13 August 1961. Protesters were being assailed by water cannon on the western side and we were knocked over and swamped as we tried to get through the mob.

 

"We took the advice and, armed with our new one-occasion passports, approached the gate in our battered VW Kombi. As we did, gunfire broke out seemingly all round us."

 

In Israel, we loitered outside the court during the Eichmann trial until strongarmed away by troops, and, by accident, we stood in a crowd at Versailles within what turned out to be a few metres from Khrushchev and Kennedy as they ceremonially entered the building.

In Moscow, we were among the last batches of queuing people, mostly Russians, very few tourists, to see Stalin lying in state. Shortly after, one of the many reverberations of the Twentieth Party Congress saw him ousted. In Jerusalem, then a partitioned city, we attempted to enter Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate, en route, so we planned, to Baghdad. Which brings me back to passports.

You couldn't enter Jordan with a passport in which there were Israeli stamps. Officials in the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv advised us to arrange a second passport which would be 'clean'. This was a weird business because we would be entering Jordan from Israel — our physical presence, standing in Israel seeking to enter Jordan, would be in actual denial of the cleanliness of our passports.

Still, we took the advice and, armed with our new one-occasion passports (I've still got mine, issued, judging by the photograph, to a blonde 11 year-old!), approached the gate in our battered VW Kombi. As we did, gunfire broke out seemingly all round us. We U-turned and retreated rapidly and well away from Jordan. Who wanted to go to Baghdad anyway?

The Jerusalem we left was almost as battered and certainly as controversial then as it had been when the Romans departed, leaving it in ruins in 70AD (having, incidentally, built a wall to encircle the city and starve the Jews into submission). Following the fall of Jerusalem, the Romans turned their attention to Herod's former stronghold on Mount Masada. So did we. High above the Dead Sea, we encountered the same eerie silences broken only by an occasionally keening breeze that greeted the conquering Romans as they contemplated the mass suicide of the Masada Jews.

Such were the stories of my first and second passports. Somehow my plan to weave in references to the controversial contemporary business of moving the Embassy to Jerusalem got lost among the immediacies of memory and the insistence of history. I have, however, applied for my third passport ...

 

 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Jerusalem, Eichmann, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Berlin Wall, Lenin

 

 

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Good news that you are applying for your third passport! I've found travel to be always exciting and sometimes interesting. Thanks for sharing your wonderful perspective.
Pam | 22 January 2019


Menzies "faintly" puritan? "Faintly" callous? Arrogant? To which (according to some who worked with him, could be added, "lazy". And, to judge from "Afternoon Light" not possessing a profound or deep mind. Despite the fact that he couldn't have achieved a "unified" national party without the help (in Queensland) of Senator Neil O'Sullivan and (in NSW) of John Cramer -- both Catholics (and, ironically, in the latter case, John Howard's predecessor in Bennelong) -- Menzies presided over the dying days of the Protestant ascendancy in Australia. That was an ascendancy to which ALL of Professor Matthews's adjectives could rightly apply. And for all that we loved our university days (and like Professor Matthews, i was also the first member of my family to attend university) they were then stoutly Protestant institution: as an example, consider the poet and linguist, Christopher Brennan, who was shamelessly dismissed from Sydney University for adultery. So whatever the term "multi-cultural" might mean -- and despite the unholy alliance which the Catholic bishops have made with the right-wing of Protestantism to try to wrest back that religious dominance over Australian society -- the element of religious plurality (and the freedom to have no part in it at all) is an important and precious aspect of contemporary Australian society and the authentic "religious freedom" which we certainly enjoy.
John CARMODY | 23 January 2019


That's an interesting perspective Andrew. Twenty years after you, I also went to Melb Uni as I entered Newman College to do an Arts degree followed by a Dip Ed. Gough was in power and we of the working class voted for him because we got that amazing chance to do a degree for free. Prior to that it was the enclave of the rich. But even Newman had its class distinctions and prejudices. Initiations consisted of seniors humiliating freshmen. It was then all male. We had to wear gowns and dinner was a traditional affair where guest speakers spoke of the horrors of alcoholism and the joys of poetry. Being one of six siblings there was no money for fees and books so I had to work. I remember once asking the Curran twins (who played for Richmond) what they did for money. They replied that Dad planted them 10 acres of wheat and that became their pocket money. There were sons of barristers and sons of doctors and class distinction was ever present if you were regarded as a pleb. Still we got through. Then the UK 79 first overseas working trip to be greeted by IRA bombings.
Francis Armstrong | 23 January 2019


I beg to differ with the view, Francis A, that prior to the misadvent of Gough Whitlam the universities were the "enclave of the rich". While that was once the case, the era that Prof Matthews and Prof Carmody write about here was the era where some 85% of university students were the recipients of Commonwealth Scholarships and a host of other scholarships, the majority of these subject to means testing. In this system, the relatively less well off who had managed to receive an education largely through the low fee public and systemic Catholic Schools systems were paid living expenses and book allowances as well as full fees. This caused a massive shift in availability of university education across the spectrum of society and saw the advent of the "first in my family" to attend university and the huge upsurge in the numbers of Catholics admitted to university where the Protestant anti-Catholic ethos was well and truly embedded in this country. Potential students from rural areas who could not afford away from home accommodation in the cities were denied a university education despite having good academic credentials before the scholarship system was implemented by Menzies. Whitlam got rid of the scholarships with the effect that city dwellers who could live at home without cost predominated and country dwellers who could not afford living away expenses couldn't get to university (this conceived the local provincial university). Sadly, however, the cost was unsustainable and the pie in the sky free university of necessity evolved into all students having to pay, if not up front, well into their working life through HECS. Another disaster presided over by Saint Gough the Toff.
john frawley | 24 January 2019


Your article might have wandered around a bit and never quite got to the point you wanted it to Brian, but it gave an excellent snapshot of an era which was far more complicated than it is often given credit for. The Melbourne you write of gave rise to Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and the Seekers. I remember seeing the late Frank Thring and Joanna McCallum in 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Culture was alive and well in Melbourne in the late 50s and early 60s. I am a few years younger than you, came from a middle class background and was not the first one of my family to attend university. When I went up to Trinity College at Melbourne University, I felt it was a bit of an antipodean parody of Oxbridge, as I think Francis Armstrong infers he thought Newman was. There was no brutality nor harsh initiation ceremonies, but Trinity was perhaps unrepresentative and overcompetitive, although there were some very nice people there. I am not sure university prepared me for life but I think life eventually did.
Edward Fido | 30 January 2019


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