From broadcasting about places the western media rarely covers, to giving a platform to people that governments would otherwise muzzle, US-funded Radio Free Europe brings news to poorly served regions. Sally Gimson looks at the station’s history and asks: is it still needed today?
Renouncing England for good
A brief news story obliges the author to give up an old dream. The chronicle of erratic trips in the era of the Cold War is mixed in this article with the realities of our hot war. Who now remembers how one travelled from a communist country to the West? What does this past have to do with the immigrants of today and the terrorists of yesterday?
I know that nobody has asked me about my travel plans and that my declaration will not cause social panic but a sense of duty and the firm conviction that my message has a certain public interest obliges me to hereby declare that I abandon, irremediably and irrevocably, any intention to go to England. The truth is that I had not expected to visit this country in the next ten years, nor did it figure in my international itineraries during the last ten years. But sometimes one has to be able to make definitive decisions that, at my fifty-one years, cannot even be considered long term.
Undoubtedly there will be one reader or another who will wonder about the reasons for my decision of international transcendence. Perhaps I don’t like the English language? Negative. I love the English language and, in spite of everything, I will go on singing She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah in the shower. So, is it that I don’t like misty Albion, native land of Shakespeare, Churchill and John Lennon? Well, I don’t know what to say to you, given that I have never stepped foot on British soil, and so I cannot express an opinion. However, if by chance you asked me why, in the course of an extensive life, I have never felt the temptation to visit this country, I would have to confess that not only had I been tempted but that on various occasions I had even tried to go. The thing is that I was not successful.
How far will we go?
All of this has been provoked by some unsettling news from the 4th of October, just after the outbreak of the two new wars: one by means of the bombing in Afghanistan and the other by correspondence in the United States. According to this story “those suspected of terrorism will not be able to ask for asylum in the United Kingdom.”
I am not a political activist but this news worries me. We already know what happens: first asylum is denied to terrorists and then terrorism is denied by the asylums. But how far will we go? We cannot remain mute before such restrictions that definitively restrict us. Remember the poem by Brecht: they start by going after the terrorists but end up coming after us, we who look stupid and do not understand anything.
It is true that in my case, and in that of my friends from Latin America and the East, it was the reverse: first they came after us. And I can only tell you about my case and always in relation to England, the object of my most emphatic rejection.
The first time I tried to go to Great Britain was at the beginning of the seventies. A Hungarian student obviously did not possess the necessary requisites to visit a free nation where, incidentally, Ayatollah Khomeini preached, to give one example. I was able to enter France, where I spent two unforgettable months that I hardly remember, but with England there was no way.
Taking note of the experience, I diligently set about preparing my second assault on the British bastions. For three or four summers I devoted myself to working as a tour guide. I walked around the monuments of Budapest so many times that I was considered part of them. But finally I managed to amass a small fortune in dollars. The young barbarian was ready to conquer England.
It was not going to be an easy operation. First I had to fool the Magyar authorities, who could not know about my dollars and looked with distrust at a young man anxious to go to England. What I had to demonstrate was that someone -a relative of mine in Canada who wanted to know nothing of me- was paying for a three-month trip across Western Europe. With ingenuity and persistence these things are done. Then I also had to convince the French authorities that this false invitation was real. I convinced them. I only had to obtain the British visa. I decided to do so from Paris where I was already able to show that I was a well off young man and where there was no reason to accuse me of wanting to go to England to ask for political asylum…
It was 1976, an era when Bin Laden started being interested in Islamic fundamentalism and, for this reason, making journeys to the West. In England, Khomeini was refining the theocratic delirium that three years later he would carry out. The Venezuelan terrorist Carlos, the Al Fatah movement and other redeemers were doing their own thing. For all of them the West was a shooting range.
In Paris I presented myself at the British Consulate with my cheque book. After an exhaustive interrogation, they said they would let me know, without specifying the date. A few weeks went by and I led the kind of life typical of someone in these circumstances in Paris. I made a journey to Belgium and Holland but when I returned there was still no answer. More weeks went by and, after incredible persistence, they told me in a personal interview that I was denied the visa because I did not have a return flight, a clear indication that I wanted to remain in England…
Those pesky English, once again they unmasked me! There was nothing I could do about it but after six weeks in Paris I no longer wanted to continue there and, with what it had taken me to get out of Hungary, I did not feel like returning yet. So began an adventure too complicated to summarise here. Suffice it to say that my bureaucratic complications multiplied and everywhere I was regarded as an agent of the KGB. If not, what was someone so calm doing in the West?
Years later, with the Berlin Wall about to fall and on the eve of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, hounded by an Islamic war partly financed by the CIA, I tried again to travel to England. In fact, such brazenness would never have occurred to me but you get married for something, and one day I found myself involved in a Christmas travel plan to London in the company of some married friends. This was in 1988. I was now officially resident in Spain and married to a Spanish woman but still a Hungarian citizen and, therefore, suspected of being a communist and also of wanting to renounce it… So, I needed a visa. Logically, the corresponding British authorities demanded proof of my accommodation in London. No problem. Then they needed to check the tickets. Therein lay the rub. We had the outward journey confirmed but we were on the waiting list for the return flight. Oh, if it were not for those return tickets! And, notice it is always the return. As you will understand, the British authorities, always on the alert, discovered at the outset the intimate relation between my two supposed and indefinite returns and caught me again. It was clear that, under the pretext of a Christmas trip, what I was really doing was treacherously preparing under cover of darkness to remain and live in England in order to get away from my wife, the disgusting Barcelona climate and my job in Spain…
It took me a long time to understand that it was a mistake to have wanted to impress the English as a student or tourist. The same mistake is made by the immigrants of whom an annoying percentage die in the sea and on the roads trying to enter Europe in the belief that in this continent no native is prepared to do dirty jobs and millions of workers are needed.
In order to follow an English course in situ it would have been better to have invented something more sophisticated. Just as so many combatants of diverse holy wars who live among us did. This is why I hear alarm bells following the news that those suspected of terrorism will have certain difficulties establishing themselves in western democracies. They will waste no time in changing identity and strategy, but I figure on at least three old lists as a presumed suspect. It would be better for me to abandon the trip to England for good.
Published 21 February 2002
Original in English
First published by Eurozine (English version)
Contributed by Lateral © Mihály Dés / EurozinePDF/PRINT
Screening immigrants to identify radicals, as is now happening again in the US, may also filter out migrants with moderate world-views. The political influence of the hardline anti-communist diaspora during the Cold War shows how ideological vetting can exacerbate geopolitical tensions.