Ariel, our correspondent in Lebanon, has divided his last, fascinating adventure to Beirut into 3 papers. Buckle up, here is the first episode of Tripoli Express.
Everything had started so well. It was the last week end of February, I was in a big, black Chevrolet that was being driven by my friend Karim, and Antoine was to his right.
Through the tainted window, I watched the snowy mountains of Tannourine and gently sighed. We had just finished an exceptional session of hors-piste skiing. Two hours of ascent by foot, with a hangover, with ski-boots and skis on our backs, in the bright sun, had knackered me out. But the descent, on thick, pristine snow, was worth the effort. Anyways, I was shattered and lazying about in the car that was taking me home to Beirut. Since we were driving in a deserted part of Lebanon, Antoine made the most of it to roll a joint. Karim passed him a ball of hasch. According to him, there would be no one around, there was no risk. Rejoiced by this perspective of smoking after an intense effort, I decided to trust Karim and Antoine. After all, they were Lebanese, not me…
Hours later, after a long lunch in the costal town of Batroun, the motorway was engulfed by the night. Lying down on the back seats, I was sleeping deeply. In Lebanon, there are a number of military checkpoints in several areas, especially on the most important roads. It’s just how it is, nobody really explains why, we just roll with it. It is a security measure inherited from the violent past of the country. A custom says that auto-motorists acknowledge the soldiers and say ‘good luck’ when they pass the checkpoint. It was this ‘good luck’ pronounced by Karim that woke me up. The soldier looked through the window of the driver’s side and inspected the car with an inquisitive air. What could he see? Three guys, in a car, who cried ‘money’, and a rosary attached to the mirror. Without saying a word, he told Karim to get into the right hand lane, instead of letting us be on our way.
The car was now stopped in this right-hand lane, the soldier asked for our papers. We duly obliged. The way he stared at me whilst he was flipping through my French passport left me perplexed: He looked surprise, scared and disgusted. I kept my calm. I could have been in Paris, being frisked by a potbellied and aggressive policeman. The type of guy you just now compensates for his thousands of frustrations with his uniform and baton. Except now it was the Lebanese military. Suddenly, without apparent reason, he told Karim to get out of the car. This guy looked like he wanted to fight. Maybe he’d had a rubbish day – he made us get out of the car too.
He started a full search on Karim, but he didn’t need to look far. Cruel lack of attention or stupid excess of confidence, Karim had left a miniscule ball of hasch in his jean pocket. The soldier held it in his hands, between his index and thumb, and a huge smile appeared on his face. He called his fellow soldiers, like you would call your mates to show them something funny. He was all excited, bubbling. An other soldier arrived, he didn’t have the same empty stare as his colleague. Everything of his, his slim figure, his frowning eyebrows, his strong posture, seemed more serious. It was him that frisked me. I had to get undressed on the side of the motorway, opposite shocked drivers that passed by. Once I was in my boxers, the soldier took my bag and emptied it on the floor. It was with an empty feeling in my stomach that I saw my papers fall out of the bag. The soldier told me to get dressed and pushed the papers in my face, clenching his jaw.
Until then, little words had been exchanged, and everything had been said in Arabic without me looking to understand, even though my friends could have translated. The two soldiers escorted us towards a small house, alone next the motorway. Inside, there was nothing apart from two wooden benches and a desk, an overflowing ashtray and a few scribbles of Arabic on pieces of paper. A private military display took place before my eyes. Different soldiers arrived one by one into the room, my friends and I were completely silent. I was grinning foolishly to relax the atmosphere and tried to reassure my friends: I told them this reminded me of ‘garde à vue’ in Paris. I was less cocky when a new soldier disrupted the silence while clinking a pair of handcuffs together around his index.
To our great relief, his superior screamed at him to calm down and put away the cuffs. Another soldier held our IDs and was methodically copying the details to a piece of paper. Quickly, there were up to 10 soldiers in the room. When they addressed me, my friends seemed embarrassed and avoided translating. They were mocking, the fact that I was a foreigner seemed to crack them up. When the sitting soldier had finished taking his notes, he told the others to get out. I was getting bored, the cold wind was whistling through the room, it was almost over, I repeated this to myself.
He got up from his chair, organised his papers then put them away. He took 3 pairs of cuffs and walked towards me. He put out his hands, parallel, inciting me to do the same. I did as told. Reduce to passiveness and absolute incomprehension, I fixed my wrists that were suddenly inside two metallic rings, flamboyantly new with the chain that connected them. My cuffed hands fascinated me, and my thoughts stumbled. When you’re thrown into the unknown, there’s nothing to think. I was living an unavoidable scene of every police film. Unluckily for me, I was not in a film. I had sincerely misevaluated the nature of the situation I was in.
To be continued…