Fear and Loathing: The US Travel Guide to the World

ANGLO AMERICA, 27 Jun 2022

Belen Fernandez | Al Jazeera - TRANSCEND Media Service

The US state department really wants travelling Americans to be wary of the ‘dangerous’ world their country helped create.

[Getty Images]

21 Jun 2022 – The current US state department “Lebanon Travel Advisory”, updated on June 6, urges US citizens to “reconsider travel” to the diminutive Middle Eastern nation “due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest, kidnapping and Embassy Beirut’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens”. Three significant “high-risk” sections of Lebanese territory have been assigned the even more dramatic “Do Not Travel” warning: the Lebanese-Syrian border, the Lebanese-Israeli border, and refugee settlements.

As a US citizen myself, I can definitively say that the greatest danger I felt during my recent 10-day stay in the country – where I have been a frequent visitor since 2006 – was at the top of Beirut’s seaside Ferris wheel, which somehow continues to make its rounds despite the notorious Lebanese electricity shortage that has plunged much of the landscape into darkness.

Years ago, the Ferris wheel operator commented to me that the only time the giant wheel had ceased functioning for an extended period of time was during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This incursion killed tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, primarily civilians, and culminated with the Israeli-backed massacre of up to several thousand unarmed people in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila – speaking of the “dangers” of refugee settlements.

The US, it so happens, gave the Israeli government the green light for the whole 1982 affair. Twenty-four years later, just prior to my inaugural visit in 2006, yet another bloody Israeli attack on Lebanon transpired with considerable assistance from the imperial hegemon, which went about rush-shipping precision-guided bombs to the Israeli military while also endeavouring (ultimately unsuccessfully) to charge its own citizens hefty fees for the luxury of evacuation from Lebanon.

Makes you wonder about US priorities – and about “Embassy Beirut’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens”.

At any rate, the upshot is that the state department has no business warning about “terrorism” and “armed conflict” in Lebanon when it has spent various decades underwriting Israel’s literal terrorisation of the country. And yet the only mention of Israel in the travel advisory occurs in the context of the “Do Not Travel” specification: “There have been sporadic rocket attacks from southern Lebanon into Israel in connection with the violence between Israel and Hezbollah,” – the Lebanese political party and armed group that arose as a direct result of the 1982 invasion.

To be sure, Lebanon has the regrettable distinction of being perennially associated with the phenomenon of “terrorism” – that catch-all excuse for the US to remain perennially at war and to ensure that the arms industry never goes hungry. The general US public, however, has never quite been up to speed regarding the precise details of the Lebanese situation beyond the often fabricated, politically expedient sensationalism that is regularly on display in the establishment media as well as, of course, in the travel advisory section of the state department website.

And guess what: Americans who are toxically and debilitatingly conditioned to fear the outside world, and particularly specific parts of it, are unlikely to ever rectify their misconceptions to allow for the possibility of common humanity – or for the possibility that there should perhaps be travel advisories for, say, US elementary schools and other recurrent venues for mass shootings.

Meanwhile, my own country’s established role in making much of the world very dangerous for much of humanity has not prevented me from being on the receiving end of an almost obscene level of hospitality from the residents of assorted “Do Not Travel” areas. Hitchhiking through Lebanon a month after the 2006 war, my female travel companion and I were relentlessly welcomed and cared for along the Lebanese-Syrian border, the Lebanese-Israeli border, in Palestinian refugee camps, and throughout other areas the US had helped reduce to rubble.

In the final days of the war, Israel had inundated swaths of the country with millions of cluster munitions, many of which failed to explode on impact and which to this day pose a potentially lethal hazard to anyone who stumbles across them.

Talk about reasons to, um, “reconsider travel” to certain zones.

In 2016, I conducted a weeklong solo hitchhiking trip along the Lebanese-Israeli border and was once again subjected to all manner of frighteningly generous hospitality. Ditto for the generosity I encountered that same year in Iran – which also presently boasts a “Do Not Travel” warning on account of the “risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens”.

In lieu of kidnapping, I was gifted a bunch of books in English by a humble bookseller in the city of Isfahan – the topics of which spanned Mao Zedong to the KGB to Peg Bracken’s Instant Etiquette Book, published in 1964. This man also escorted me to Soffeh Mountain south of the city, which he said I could not leave Iran without viewing up-close, and provided a snack called “Cheetoz” for the excursion.

And in February 2022 I visited Cuba for the second time – which, like Iran, has long suffered under a pernicious US embargo that amounts to a de facto war. The state department’s Cuba travel advisory, updated June 13, begins with a warning about the perils of the so-called “Havana Syndrome” – a mysterious anti-American ailment that spontaneously materialised in 2016 but that has now been pretty much debunked by the CIA itself.

My own activities in Havana included executing a spectacular fall while jogging on the seaside Malecón, where the only witness to the event was a 43-year-old man named Eraudis from the Cuban province of Guantánamo. Perched atop the seawall, he apologised that he could not carry my scraped-up self back to my house since he had no legs. These, it turned out, had been blown off more than 20 years earlier by a landmine outside the US’s illegal offshore penal colony at Guantánamo Bay.

The world is a scary place indeed.

And, in case the individual US travel advisories are not enough, there is also a handy state department “Worldwide Caution” that is continuously in effect to remind Americans that everyone is out to get them.

But back to Lebanon and the perils of life for the average Lebanese resident, such as the egregious state negligence that resulted in the August 2020 port explosion that blew up a good part of Beirut. Of great public concern, too, are the country’s criminal levels of socioeconomic inequality – fervently endorsed by the US – that were far from resolved during the civil war of 1975-1990, and that have now only been exacerbated by the current Lebanese economic Armageddon.

Regarding travel to the aforementioned “high-risk” areas in Lebanon, the state department advises US citizens to “draft a will” beforehand. Additional totally normal precautions are also encouraged: “leave DNA samples with your medical provider”; “establish a proof of life protocol with your loved ones”; and “be sure to appoint one family member to serve as the point of contact with hostage-takers, media… and Members of Congress if you are taken hostage or detained”.

A link is furthermore provided to “FBI Travel Tips”, which range from the ostensibly polite but actually Orientalist advice to “plan your wardrobe so that it does not offend the locals” to more patently ludicrous suggestions like: “Do not gossip about character flaws, financial problems, emotional relationships, or other difficulties of your fellow Americans or yourself.”

The FBI also warns that: “Unlike the United States, most other countries do not have legal restrictions against technical surveillance.” This from an agency that is predicated on, well, spying.

They say that laughter is good for the soul. I suppose I must thus thank the state department travel advisories for providing a source of considerable amusement – even if politically convenient imperial xenophobia is not really a laughing matter at all.


Belen Fernandez is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine and has written for the New York Times, London Review of Books, Current Affairs, and Middle East Eye, among numerous other publications. She is the author of Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place (OR Books, 2021), Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World (OR Books, 2019), Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon (Warscapes, 2016), and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011).

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