Games people play, as seen crossing from Jordan into the Israeli-occupied West Bank over the narrow Jordon River:
A taxi driver in Amman, when directed to the Allenby Bridge, feigns an uncomprehending look and pretends to search the recesses of his memory. "Allenby? Allenby? Oh, you mean King Hussein Bridge. Yes, of course, King Hussein Bridge."
A bored clerk in the Jordanian Ministry of Interior, knowing full well the tourist crowding his office are all headed for Israel and points beyond, passes out forms. They read: "Application for a permit to cross from the East Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the West Bank of the Kingdom and return."
A New York-bound backpacker, struggling to hide his exultation at receiving his approved application several days later, just in time for his flight connections in Tel Aviv, departs nervously, saying, "See you in a couple of days."
An Amman-bound visitor crossing from Israel unwittingly tells a Jordanian frontier official he plans to return to Israel the same way several days later. "Don't tell me you're doing that, or I can't let you in," the official tells the visitor, who quickly begins muttering about airline flights out of Jordan.
Trucks laden with oranges from the gaza Strip brake to a halt at the edge of the Israeli side of the river and hand green permits to an Israeli soldier. As the trucks begin to lumber across the wooden plank bridge, the Arab drivers casually reach out the windows and remove Israeli-issued license plates from frames welded to the sides of their doors. Even before they hit Jordanian soil, all traces of Israeli identity are gone.
In the Israeli passport control terminal, travelers are reassured by a prominent sign: "We do not stamp passports."
ON PAPPER at least, hundreds of thousands of people vanish into thin air each year after crossing the Allenby and Damiya bridges from Jordan into Israeli-controlled territory. They are supposed to return after visits to the West Bank, but in fact, they almost never do.
Similarly, the thousands of travelers suddenly materialize in the West Bank each year, ostensibly never having been in what to Amman authorities is the nonstate of Israel, since Jordan does not recognize it diplomatically.Their passports are clean of the telltale Israeli visa stamp and they are welcomed in Jordan as if they dropped into the West Bank from the heavens.
On both sides of the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus two milleniums ago, a Byzantine bureaucratic act is played out to hide the fact that Jordan and Israel, which technically are still in a state of war, have a modicum of normal relations.
In Jordan obtaining a bridge permit can be an exercise in frustration. Until recently, foreign correspondents based in Israel were allowed to cross both ways across the bridge. But the government appears to have ended that practice for the time being.
"In principle, you can only travel from the West Bank to the East Bank. You must understand, we don't have diplomatic relations with Israel," said Peter Salah, undersecretary of the Ministry of Information, before sending two Jerusalem-based correspondents on a three-day treasure hunt through the Interior Ministry for bridge-crossing permits.
In Room 34, a clerk immediately presented a Catch-22. An application could not be made without a revenue stamp. But the man who sells revenue stamps had gone home. In Room 27, another clerk said delays might hold up the application until 1 p.m. Friday, without mentioning that the bridge closes at noon Fridays for the Jewish sabbath.
IN THE END, however, the permits mysteriously appeared in the promised three days, and all impendiments seemed removed.
But as the Jordanian minibus carrying travelers from a passport terminal on the East Bank to the 30-foot-wide river approached the unimposing bridge, it was the Israelis turn to make the crossing difficult.
A dour-faced soldier held the bus for nearly two hours and, at one point, ordered the Arab driver to turn off his engine. When the driver explained that small children in the bus would swelter in the heat without air conditioning, the soldier snapped, "Turn it off!"
At the entry terminal, travelers are subjected to exhausting searches by the security-conscious Israelis, who empty suitcases, laboriously examine every article of clothing and conduct lengthy body searches.
In the end, the 50-mile trip from Amman to Jerusalem took five hours.