Turad oueld Sidi is one of the few Arabs who actually wanted an Israeli stamp on his passport.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
Many visitors to Israel - including Jews - request that their passports not be stamped when they arrive to the country. Journalists, Arabs and visitors from Muslim states are particularly sensitive, knowing that an Israeli stamp will likely give them problems visiting countries in the region.
But Turad oueld Sidi, the editor-in-chief of the daily Maharist, is one of the few Arabs in the world who actually wanted a stamp from the Zionist state on his passport. He didn't get it and he's annoyed. The Arab journalist from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania arrived Sunday with three other Mauritanians at the invitation of the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania and the Foreign Ministry.
"I asked the people at the airport to stamp it and they kept me waiting and then they told me I need to pay for a visa," Sidi told The Jerusalem Post. "We are guests of the State of Israel; we should not be asked to pay. It makes us a little angry."
The Foreign Ministry said that a bureaucratic mishap left the journalists without visas. The ministry intervened and arranged for them to enter without paying but that meant they had no stamps in their passports.
Turad and his colleague, Mohamed oueld Sidi (no relation), braved death threats, accusations of being Zionists, and ostracism by many of their countrymen to visit Israel. The journalists come from two of only three newspapers in Mauritania that support diplomatic relations with Israel.
"We suffered a lot to come here," said the mustachioed Turad, frowning as he spoke at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem where the Foreign Ministry had taken the delegation for lunch. "Without a stamp I cannot prove that I actually did."
Not getting an entrance stamp is only one of their grievances. The two journalists feel that so far their trip, which will end on Thursday, is not what they had expected.
"The Israeli ambassador promised we would meet with high-ranking officials, we would be able to speak with people and get the perspective of Israelis and Palestinians, and that all of our expenses would be covered," said Mohamed, a writer for the weekly paper Houmoum Enass. "That has not happened."
The Foreign Ministry responded by saying that the journalists took everything out of proportion and that they are "inventing problems."
Nevertheless, the discontent of the rare visitors may mean a missed opportunity for Israel to cultivate positive relations with journalists coming from one of only three Arab League states that have established full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Mauritania is a poor desert country on the northwestern coast of Africa whose population is made up of Arabs (who may be black or white but all speak Arabic) and Africans (who speak African languages), all of whom are Muslim and 40% of whom live below the poverty line.
In October 1999 its former ruler, president Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, established full diplomatic relations with Israel, to the chagrin of many of Mauritania's Muslim and Arab citizens. One opposition leader called it "treason." The Arab League condemned it. When Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited in May students organized demonstrations, throwing stones and burning tires and Israeli flags. Many were injured, reported Arabic News.
In August the Military Council for Justice and Democracy led by Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrew the largely corrupt Taya in a coup, promising to establish a democracy. Israel was concerned that Vall might end diplomatic relations. He did not; rather he said they would continue.
In October Turad and other journalists met with Israel's ambassador, Boaz Besmuth, who invited them to visit Israel. Word got out and some local papers reported that 10 journalists planned to visit the Zionist state. Statements in the press by Islamists and groups opposing normalized relations between Israel and Mauritania called the journalists "Zionists."
"I am not a Zionist," said Turad, the editor-in-chief of Meharist, an independent daily paper published in French and Arabic. "But I wanted to come because I believe it is important to establish peaceful relations between Israel and the Arab world and I wanted to get information for my countrymen."
A group called The National Link for the Resistance of Zionist Infiltration and for the Defense of Palestine and Iraq called on the media to stop the visit, saying "it is a flagrant defiance of the feelings of the people of Mauritania and all Muslim peoples," reported Arabic News.
Then the phone threats began. "They called my personal cellular phone regularly and said they would bomb my car if I went," Turad said as his fellow journalist, Mohammed oueld Sidi, nodded knowingly beside him.
"But I know the Mauritanian people," said Turad. "It's all empty words. They couldn't hurt anybody. People in Mauritania are peaceful people, they only demonstrate and talk to the press."
Other journalists could not take the heat and one by one, they backed out of the trip.
On Sunday only two Mauritanian journalists arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, Turad and Mohamed oueld Sidi. They came via France along with a Mauritanian who works in the Israeli embassy and Abou Bakr oueld Outhman, the director of the Shalom Club for the Normalization of Relations Between Mauritanian and Israel.
Now Turad is disappointed that he can't prove he was in Israel. "Without a stamp, no one will actually believe that I was here," he said. "They'll say I was scared and stayed in France." The two journalists also expressed dissatisfaction over the way they have been hosted. They say that Besmuth promised them that all their expenses would be paid. However, they were told upon arrival that they would have to pay their own hotel expenses so they have not called their families in Mauritania since they arrived. They said they did not receive pocket money "to get a cup of coffee" so they can't leave the hotel in their free time.
"We did not bring money," said Turad, "because they told us everything would be paid for."
"I'll be honest with you, I'm very surprised at the way we are being hosted," said Mohamed. "They say I must go to the Foreign Ministry to call. That's shameful."
Lior Ben-Dor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Besmuth told them they would not get pocket money. Regarding calls, he said that they were invited on Monday to go on to the Foreign Ministry to call but that they chose to postpone that so as not to miss prayers at Al-Aksa Mosque.
The two journalists said they came despite the troubles they faced in their country.
"We had a lot of trouble in Mauritania about our visit to Israel," said Turad. "People asked, 'Why do you go to the country where they are beating and killing Palestinians?' We came to see the security situation in Israel. To see how the Israelis and Palestinians live here. To meet high-ranking Israeli officials and Palestinian officials. We want to see the average person's perspective."
But they say that has not happened.
On Monday they visited Yad Vashem, did a tour of the Old City, prayed at Al-Aksa Mosque and met with a journalist for lunch. The Foreign Ministry had arranged for them to meet Likud MK Ayoub Kara at the Knesset but the plan fell through.
"I didn't come here for food and drink," said Mohamed, disappointed.
The journalists also hoped their visit would improve relations between the two countries and provide them with information about Israel's economic support for Mauritania. Many Arab countries stopped supporting Mauritania after the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
"We want to help the country of Mauritania and see what Israel is doing for it," said Turad.