Tag Archives: Beirut

There were these four times I sort of remember with guns pointed at me

Sometimes a question comes out of thin air, no context, no cause.

Yesterday someone asked me: “Has anyone ever pointed a gun at you?”

I have no idea how that got into their mind.

And nor, I am told, do they.

I am a fairly placid person but the strange thing is, yes.

Four times.

But not this century.


Albanian soldier, 1979

The first time was in 1979 when I was wandering in a wood on a hillside just outside Titograd (now Podgorica) in what was then Yugoslavia (now Montenegro). Or it might have been just outside Durrës in Albania.

The strange thing is I now can’t remember which country it was in.

I was just wandering through the wood – somewhere – when I heard a sharp CRCK-CRCK. It was the sound of a rifle being cocked; the sound, as I understand it, of the bullet going into the chamber.

I looked up, startled, and there was a young soldier sitting up on the branch of a tree by the trunk. He was equally startled, looking down, pointing the barrel of the rifle at me.

We stared at each other for maybe half a second, maybe a full second, then I continued walking and he continued to look at me as I passed.

I think maybe he had been dozing, half asleep in the tree, and he woke up, startled, when he heard me below. I have no idea why he was up in a tree.

Understated posters in Bible-intimidated Leningrad in 1985

The next time was at the airport in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1985. I had a beard at the time and someone surmised later that they thought I might be religious – the Orthodox Church and all that. The guy was just officious, I guess, trying to show he was enthusiastic in his duty of protecting the USSR against outside anti-Soviet Western pollution.

The officer had two obviously junior men in hats with him. They took their handguns out and vaguely waved them at me to shoo me into a back office. The Soviets never cared much about their PR image with tourists, but I never saw border guardy people waving guns around any other time. I think maybe they had watched too many American movies.

The officer got me to open my suitcase and, with pretty limited English, just kept asking me: “Books? Books? You have books?” All I could imagine afterwards was that he thought I was smuggling in Bibles to destroy Lenin’s Socialist Paradise.

Syrian checkpoint by a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beirut, 1993

The next time was in 1993 when I was in Beirut and the Syrian Army was still present there with roadblocks and sandbagged gun positions at intersections.

Some (again young and officious) soldiers took exception to me taking photographs on the coast and, with their AK47s and no English language, shepherded me into a building where a rather laid-back Syrian Intelligence officer was brought in – it seemed rather unwillingly – to ask me questions. ‘Interrogate’ seems too excessive a word to use.

He seemed to be unconvinced I was a major threat to Syrian military rule, soon realised I was not an Israeli spy and started chatting about the time he had spent in the United States, the frequency of Israeli jets flying over Southern Lebanon and the perceived though unlikely threat of an Israeli seaborne attack on Beirut.

With polite apologies, he confiscated the two rolls of film in my two cameras and I was left trying to remember if there were shots of Hezbollah flags and the Airport Road on them and/or what else.

I was mildly worried because, on that trip to Beirut, I had tried to get into Syria to see Palmyra and had been refused entry – it seemed because my passport said I was a writer. I had previously got into Albania in 1979 and North Korea in 1986 with “writer” so I was not quite sure why the Syrians had taken so agin it.

He had a bit of an attitude …

The fourth time I had a gun pointed at me was in South London round 1998 or 1999.

He said it was a joke, but I think it was more that he had a bit of an attitude problem and an inferiority complex.

What have I learned?

Always be aware what is in the trees in Balkan woods and forests.

South London can potentially be as dangerous as Beirut… but not really.

And I still can’t remember which actual bloody country that bloke in the tree was in.

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18 years ago in Southern Lebanon…

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990. I have blogged before about being in Lebanon in 1993/1994. This is part of a diary entry for 3rd January 1994… exactly eighteen years ago today. At the time, Beirut was occupied by Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ forces:

* * *

The currency here is the Lebanese pound (L£).

I was told today that an official ‘taxi’ in Beirut will cost me L£5,000 but, if I get any other cab, it will cost only L£1,000. All the official taxis are Mercedes-Benzes marked ‘taxi’. And all the ‘other cabs’ are unmarked Mercedes-Benzes.

This morning, leaving Beirut, there was a solid, un-moving rush-hour traffic-jam of Mercedes-Benzes entering the city.

As we left, I asked about a shelled hotel nearby. It was not shelled in the recent Troubles, I was told: it had been half-built when the Israelis shelled it back in 1984.

We left through the southern suburbs, heading towards Israel.

On lamp posts, there are big 15-ft high cut-outs of the Ayatollah and others raising their hand in greeting or perhaps blessing. At one point there was a little community of oblong-shaped tents by the roadside. My driver told me with distaste that they were “gypsies” and, during the Troubles, there had been a famous massacre of them. I thought I must have misunderstood and that he meant the massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila ‘refugee camps’ because, at this point, we were near them. But he reiterated these were “gypsies from Greater Syria”. He did not specify if he thought Greater Syria included Lebanon.

Further along the road, we passed a group of about ten men in the wide central reservation. One man was in the process of swinging a tyre iron  at another. Perhaps if you have become used to satisfying bursts of anger with bursts of machine gun fire and then peace comes along….it must be difficult to stop anger bubbling over into violence. He was swinging the tyre iron at the other man’s head. We had passed before it made contact or the man ducked: I will never know what the outcome was.

Yesterday, on a road in the Bekaa Valley, I saw someone pushing a vehicle which had broken down. He became annoyed by the car behind him in slow-moving traffic. He just turned round, put his hand on the car’s bonnet and did nothing for all of a very long ten seconds. Just a long, long, very hard, unblinking stare at the driver of the car. Then he turned back and carried on pushing his broken-down vehicle.

Further down the coast this morning, we passed through an area where all the scattered buildings on both sides of the road had been blown up. I asked if the Israelis had done this and was told, no, the Lebanese government had done it in 1984. Christians fleeing Beirut had tried to resettle in the houses in this previously Moslem rural area. The government did not want to risk unsettling traditional religious areas, so blew up the houses to prevent the Christian refugees settling there.

Still further south down the coast, there started to be a more visible military presence: three tanks dug-in at one point – two with guns out to sea, one pointing South down the road towards Israel.

As we entered Sidon, there was a flurry of checkpoints. Generally there are checkpoints every 5-minutes or so as you drive along a road. As we entered Sidon, there were three within 100 yards.

As we passed through the town, there was what looked like a poster of British Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis in a turban and a banner on the other side of the road in Arabic with some words in English – INDECENT PROPOSAL – ROBERT REDFORD. What on earth do the Islamic Fundamentalists make of this? I wondered.

Overlooking Sidon on a hill, there was a giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top of a large cone. An interesting concept. And, on a facing hill, a mosque.

Sidon is a Christian town.

As we looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, a jet flew low over a nearby hill to the east.

“Israeli plane,” my driver told me.

Then we were off southwards again.

In a small town/village by a river and the inevitable checkpoint was a 40 ft high orange monument which, at first sight, seemed to be a crescent but was actually a grey hand holding aloft an orange scythe. It was a memorial to a boy who mounted a successful suicide attack on the Israeli Army. Towards the bottom of the monument was a banner: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SOUTH LEBANON.

South Lebanon is noticeably different to the northern part of the country. The south seems less bleak, greener, with more trees plus banana and orange plantations etc. Also, the military checkpoints seem more serious with tanks and/or armoured personnel carriers plus artillery either dug in by the roadside or standing by the checkpoints themselves. The soldiers, rather than wearing just uniforms, are in full battledress with pouches round their belts, knives sheathed in the small of their backs.

As always, some checkpoints are Syrian, some Lebanese.

The Lebanese Army, strangely, seem to have better weaponry than the Syrian Army. The Lebanese (but what do I know?) have weapons that look like Armalites. The Syrians have less substantial, more basic-looking automatic guns.

When we entered Tyre (about 20 km from the international border with Israel and about 10 km from the start of the Israelis’ self-declared “Security Zone”), there was a Lebanese Army patrol walking down both sides of the road, looking around, rifles held horizontally. In another part of the city, I saw two UN soldiers. The UN has been in Tyre since 1978. With little effect.

The reason I went to Tyre was to see a massive 20,000 seat Ben-Hur style Roman stadium. Well, in fact, there is almost nothing left. But you could see the size and shape and, from some 1960s reconstruction, get an impression of what it must have felt like.

Massive.

To be there when it was built and operating… well… you must have felt the Roman Empire was so unimaginably mighty it would never end.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings indeed.

The gigantic standing temples at Baalbek must have awed the local peasants. Just these remains of the arena at Tyre awed me.

I guess all civilisations seem like they will never end.

But they do.

I used to have a company called Shivadance Productions. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is the god of destruction, but also of creation. The Dance of Shiva creates a new world out of destruction. You cannot destroy anything without creating something new. You cannot create anything new without destroying what was there before.

The world turns.

We drove back to Sidon and its Crusader castle defending the port. Then back to Beirut, where it started to rain.

I had decided to get dropped off at Verdun Plaza, an expensive new apartment block with three floors of ultra-modern plush shops below. Very plush. All marble and expensive trimmings. Then I went off to the main shopping street and the downpour started in earnest. The rain was bouncing: it was not rain but little hailstones. After that, for about 15 minutes, it became giant white hailstones thumping down onto the streets, making people scurry for cover. Then came deafening thunder and lightning.

At the moment, Beirut has no proper drainage/sewer system so, in downpours, the water builds up on the streets.

The day was rounded off nicely by seeing a sign which read:

NEW PERFECT HOME: THIS WAY

The sign was leaning against the boot of a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz.

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Filed under Israel, Lebanon, Religion, Syria, Travel

Jewish comedian Jerry Sadowitz and the Palestinian refugee camps myth

A couple of days ago, I got an e-mail from someone saying: “I disagree violently with some of the things you say on your blog, but I usually find it interesting – which is a partial definition of a good blog I suppose.”

I guess so.

A problem arises when there is nothing overwhelmingly interesting to blog about.

Last night, I was at Vivienne and Martin Soan’s always bizarre Pull The Other One comedy club in Peckham. This time, one of the acts was a  genuine local choir of 25 people who trooped on stage but did not sing.

In the audience was comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly.

He told me that, many years ago, when the world was young – well, 1990 – he owned a new-fangled video recorder which included, unusually for the time, single frame advance.

He recorded an episode of the Channel 4 series The Other Side of Jerry Sadowitz in which Jerry, best-known for his controversially offensive stand-up comedy, showed his equally extraordinary skill as a close-up magician. One particular trick Jerry performed was one that Mark Kelly knew about.

Mark knew how the trick was done.

He used the single fame advance on his video recorder to watch it in detail…

“And I still could not see the point at which Jerry pulled the trick,” Mark told me. “I looked at every single frame and I just could not see it. Jerry is that good.”

He is, indeed.

But that is not really enough for a blog.

Saying nice things about people is not good copy.

It is far more interesting to annoy people – which is why I occasionally mention my professional admiration for the late comedian Bernard Manning.

It always gets knee-jerk reactions of annoyance, mostly from people who never saw him perform live.

As ever-reliable Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being noticed is not being noticed.”

I can but try.

I looked back at what was in my e-diary ten years ago, on 26th November 2001.

I wrote this to a friend:

_____

There’s a load of bollocks talked about the number of Palestinian refugees in camps. The host Arab countries (like Lebanon) tend to bar them from getting proper jobs and living freely where they like, so as to maintain them as an aggrieved, definable entity living in poverty in ghetto-like enclaves which are called ‘camps’ but aren’t at all.

I have walked down the Airport Road in Beirut and seen the Shatila so-called refugee camp where there was a massacre in 1982.

It is not a camp; it is just another brick and stone built part of Beirut with normal houses. It is like saying Golders Green in London is a Jewish refugee camp.

The Palestinian refugees would have been assimilated within any other host countries decades ago without this intentional ghettoising of them by the other Arab countries they fled to. 

Some of these Palestinians have been ‘refugees’ since 1948. It really is like saying the Jews who fled from Hitler to Golders Green are ‘refugees’. They WERE refugees in 1936 or 1939, but not now.

It is pushing it a bit to say someone who was born in Lebanon, whose parents and possibly grandparents were born in Lebanon is actually a citizen of Bethlehem (or wherever).

It is a complicated problem, because the people in Lebanon continue to be Palestinians like the Jews in Golders Green continue to be Jews… but being Jewish is an ethnicity and a religion, not a nationality. Are you an Indian although you were born and brought up in Liverpool? I would say you are British of Indian origin but you ain’t an Indian any more than I’m a Fleming from Flanders. 

If, however, you and your parents had only been allowed to live in one small area within Southall which contained nothing but ex-pat Indians and you were not allowed to work normally and  integrate within the British social or economic system then, of course, it might be another matter. 

I blame the neighbouring Arab countries equally with Israel for the problem. The Arab countries have just used the so-called refugees over the decades as political pawns. 

_____

I wrote that to a friend in 2001. If I had had a blog then, I would have blogged it.

There are still alleged Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries.

I blog it now to try to cause random offence.

Though, in causing offence, I am but a lowly beginner at the feet of  Jerry Sadowitz, brilliant magician but also still astonishingly offensive comedian.

It is good to try to cause offence but credit where credit is due.

****

Jewish American comedian Lewis Schaffer’s reaction to this blog was quoted in my blog the following day.

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Filed under Comedy, Israel, Lebanon, Magic, Middle East, Palestine, Politics

My brief encounter in Beirut with a man from the Syrian Army

Once, when I was working for the Discovery Channel, I had to make a TV trailer for a rather suspect documentary on the Waffen-SS.

I say ‘suspect’ because it started off with the words:

“The Waffen-SS is renowned throughout the world for its efficiency…”

Yes. I thought. Yes, but… and it is a very big But.

These last few months, I have been reminded of that by the Syrian Army’s wide-ranging put-down of the Syrian uprising. Very efficient. But…

I only had one encounter with the Syrian Army.

I visited Lebanon at the very end of 1993, almost four years after the Lebanese Civil War had sort-of ended. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had tried to combine my trip to Lebanon with a visit to Syria to see the ruins of Palmyra but the Syrians had refused me an entry visa without explanation. My passport said my occupation was “writer” which probably did not help, though this had proved no problem in Albania  under Enver Hoxha nor in North Korea under the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

In Beirut at that time, there were still Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops manning occasional sandbagged emplacements at crossroads and roundabouts.

Beirut was a strange city. At rush hour time, there were traffic jams of Mercedes-Benzes – almost all the taxis were Mercedes Benz. Money was flooding back into what had been the banking centre of the Middle East. You could walk along a street and it would seem perfectly normal and peaceful. But you could turn a corner and there would immediately be two or three blocks of burnt-out, bombarded skeleton buildings, utterly devastated, like visions of Berlin in 1946. You could not go up those streets nor into the buildings because there were mines and unexploded shells.

This is an extract from my diary.

FRIDAY 7th JANUARY 1994 – BEIRUT

I have a sneaking feeling we are the only guests in this hotel. We never see anyone else at breakfast. Never share lifts with anyone. The room next to us, where we heard a loud argument late one night, has no beds. I just looked in. Just two sofas.

The Syrian soldiers have no problem with accommodation. No tents on the wet ground for them. They just live in some of the skeleton buildings. We saw them camp-bedded in the Hotel St-Georges yesterday and, round the corner from our hotel, they are living in three storeys of a burnt-out building – usually we see some playing cards at a table on the first floor. No walls, of course. Like several around here, it is a building reduced to a vertical grid of open-fronted concrete boxes.

Nearby, there is a sandbagged emplacement in the middle of a junction at the far side of which is a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Baskin Robbins emporium in all its plastic red, white and pink glory. Two soldiers with machine guns stand inside the ring of sandbags, which has a little metal roof over it. There are usually at least three other soldiers standing around, looking in different directions, either in the roadway or on the surrounding pavements or both. Yesterday, there were five soldiers and a lorry. They do not seem trigger-happy; but they seem alert.

Today, a man on the seafront pavement saw the Pentax camera hanging over my shoulder, half-hidden under my arm, and decided to shake my hand.

“Welcome to Lebanon!” he said.

I thought he did this to practice his English but, eventually, he invited me over to buy a tea from his van. It was impressive to see Lebanese entrepreneurial skills re-emerging.

As he made the offer, a military jet flew low overhead and a couple of klaxoned motorbikes ee-aw-ee-aw-ee-aw-ed out of a junction, leading a four-car convoy and, a little later, a couple more jet fighters flew over and round in a complete circle.

On Tuesday, I was woken up by the sound of two jets flying fast and low one after the other.

I walked down as far as the Summerland Hotel – which I knew for its peach melba, chattering American financier, vast swimming pool and supermarket. A man with a Buick told me his sister had bought a nearby flat for $750,000.

I looked at my map for directions and left the Summerland Hotel for the city centre but a gent in front of me pointed out that two soldiers behind me wanted me to stop. These two soldiers – then a third – then a fourth – then a fifth – wanted to see what I was reading. None of the five could speak any English or French at all. But they wanted to know if I had been taking any photographs. (My Pentax was over my shoulder; the smaller Minox camera was invisible in my pocket.)

They wanted to know where I got the map. I had bought it from a shop in one of Beirut’s main streets. Fortunately I still had it in the paper bag and could point at it. They did not seem to have seen any map nor knew one existed. They were not content. I showed them my passport, which the soldier in charge (in his twenties) did not really understand. He was more interested in my Middle East Airlines ticket stub. He must have read the Arabic on the back of the stub about four times at various points. It says (in multiple languages):

“Kindly reconfirm your reservation between 10 and 3 days before date of departure to guarantee your seat. Otherwise your reservation will be cancelled.”

This fascinated him so much we all went over to a guard post, then into an open area between two nearby buildings. I explained my week of merry jaunts around Lebanon by pointing to the days in my diary. But he was more interested in three Daily Telegraph Holiday Offer coupons I had torn out for a friend. They showed drawings of an aircraft, a cruise ship, a sun, a family and a bar code. He looked through these slowly twice.

As he was doing this, I palmed something else that was in my diary – a letter from a friend in Norfolk who sends letters/parcels to a ten year old girl in Beirut. It read:

“If you really want to live dangerously in Beirut, the address to seek out is (and it gave the girl’s name and address). Her dad was a policeman in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces so TAKE CARE!

I thought it wise to palm this even though, clearly, none of the soldiers understood English.

By this time, a Syrian Army Intelligence officer in civilian clothes had been brought over to our group. He was older, maybe mid-40s, and very relaxed. He also understood and spoke basic English.

We went through the map, photos etc again. He seemed to have been told the soldiers saw me taking photos which, ironically, I had not been. He, too, seemed surprised I had a map. He asked more detailed questions – or, rather, I volunteered information – travel agency in Beirut, hotel, route, the diary again.

All those many TV years of obsequious amiability, smiling, wittering and keeping calm came to fruition. If you can tell children and parents their appearance on national TV has been cancelled, then gents with battledress toting Kalashnikovs are less of a worry.

But only slightly.

The Intelligence man asked me:

“What is your job?”

“I write for children,” I told him, on the basis this had done me no harm in (an even dodgier country which shall be nameless until next year) and my visa said ‘Writer’ but I did slightly worry that the Syrians had refused me a visa.

“Mmmm…” the Intelligence man said.

The main military man went off with my passport and the Beirut travel agent’s card. I was left alone with Intelligence man in civilian clothes and a very young soldier fiddling absentmindedly with the trigger of his Kalashnikov. He could shoot his own ear off I thought.

“Are you in Lebanon with others?” the Intelligence man asked.

“One other person.” I replied. “I think he is still asleep back at the hotel.”

I was in obsequious/amiable chatting mode.

The Intelligence man had come back to Lebanon from the US one year ago. He was not surprised a flat in this neighbourhood went for $750,000. I asked how much flats in the building to our right would cost. He said about $400,000 with three bedrooms.

He was polite, amiable and smiling. But sometimes, when I was not looking at him directly, his smile would drop a little.

“Your British Foreign Secretary Mr Hurd went from Beirut to Israel this week. What do you think of the Israeli-Arab problems?” he asked me, then realised it was too blatant a question and back-tracked.

The main soldier came back.

They took me into a tent in the ground floor of the house to our left and we went through the map again.

I showed them my route.

“What photographs have you taken today?”

I could not remember anything except the devastated Holiday Inn area by the sea (not a good thing to mention) so I said Martyr’s Square and pointed it out on the map.

None of them (about five) had heard of Place des Martyrs/Martyr’s Square, the main – indeed only big – square in the city; and they had difficulty looking at the map and figuring out where it was in town.

You would think soldiers could read a map and would know the local layout, I thought.

It was around this time they started mentioning you need a licence to shoot film.

“You need a licence to shoot film,” I was told. “Do you have one?”

“No.”

In fact, this cannot be true and, indeed, I have always carried the Pentax in full view (though mostly using the Minox).

Yesterday, a soldier saw the Pentax over my shoulder

“You cannot take film here,” he said. “Bombs… Boom!” He pointed at the ground. “Not here. Poof!…Bombs!… Boom!”

But he never said I needed a licence to film.  I presume today they were trying to intimidate me.

I had been offering to take the film out of the camera and give it to them and they now decided I had to… take the film out of the camera and give it to them.

I could not remember what was on the film – possibly photos of the bombed American Embassy, the Holiday Inn, the Hotel St-Georges and the bay by these hotels.

I dabbled with the idea of opening the back of the camera, then unspooling the film for them, but figured it would be too obvious I was destroying the pictures I had taken. So I just rewound it and gave them the film as it was. Assuming they would not develop it by 0730 tomorrow anyway (my take-off time).

Everything was very relaxed after that. I was at my most obsequiously polite.

The Intelligence officer and the main soldier took me outside. I thanked the soldier three times for his politeness. The Intelligence officer said, “I hope you understood it is a difficult time… only for security reasons… A difficult time… very sensitive… for the country’s security and your own… A difficult time.”

I assume it was just a Jobsworth affair with the soldiers trying to get brownie points from their superiors for being alert to security dangers.

They had not searched me. If they had, they would have found the Minox camera and four new rolls of film in my trouser pockets.

When I left, I walked back to my hotel and switched on the BBC World Service, which was transmitting a report on the Jewish community in Cuba, with various Jewish songs being sung. I decided to switch it off.

Later, I went out and bought Tuesday’s Arab Times, which bills itself as “The First English Language Daily in Free Kuwait”. It reports that, on Monday, the day we were in Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon, “Guerrilla factions in South Lebanon went on maximum alert in a pre-emptive move designed to avert Israeli strikes expected to accompany the forthcoming Syrian-American summit scheduled for mid-January.”

The Arab Times went on to report that, on Monday, the Israelis (via their ‘South Lebanon Army’ militia) “carried out a reconnaissance by fire tactic at 9.00am by firing six 120mm mortar rounds at a hill overlooking the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyey.”

What an interesting use of the word “reconnaisance” I thought.

They are all mad.

All sides.

Everything is out of control.

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Filed under History, Lebanon, Middle East, Politics