August 1985: Beirut, Lebanon
The most recent Lebanese civil war, begun in 1975, seemed to be peetering out and my friend Abbas in Beirut and his sister Um Hassan, whom I looked out for in Kuwait, both thought it was a safe time to go to Beirut. So did I. It was over the Eid al-Adha celebration in late August 1985. And Um Hassan wanted me to take some gifts to her family there, so I went.
Sixteen years earlier I had lived and studied in Beirut. Abbas and I had become friends and I had seen him again and again on trips as I led groups of friends on my tours of the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey) while I lived in Egypt and my first tour in Kuwait (1973-1976). He was good company and a good guide to Beirut’s nightlife in sometimes troubled times. He lived in the old family home in the Mazra’a (farms) section of central Beirut. Through him I got to know and become a friend of his friend Marwan.
Getting through passport and customs at the airport was easier than I expected. Lebanon was trying to win back the summer visitors who had been an important stream of income for the country. Americans were pretty rare in Lebanon, especially after the bombing of the US Marine barracks and the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, but I was staying with Lebanese in the heart of the Sunni area of central and western Beirut. Abbas and Marwan met me at the airport and we set off for an entertaining holiday in the city’s nightspots.
I was staying in the old Alieh house that was Abbas’s home, an old Lebanese home with rooms built around a central courtyard. In the heat of the day we sat in the courtyard under the shade of trees or the roofed open walkway that fronted the rooms around the yard.
The civil war was ten years old and areas of Beirut lay in ruins. My old friends and hosts the Itanis no longer lived in Ghberi. That section of Beirut’s suburbs had been ruined by recurrent shelling by the Christian Falange, Israeli forces, and by the Shi-ite Amal group. It was close to the airport which had also been a recurrent target. Their home had been destroyed and I had no idea where the Itanis now were. They had always had strong ties to Tyre, south of Beirut and may have gone there but that area was totally out of consideration as a place I could go.
The civil war was the fruit of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions, enshrined in the constitution which stipulated which political positions each sect would get. The divisions were further exacerbated by the presence of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps around the country. Having been created by the French government following the First World War, Lebanon was a compromise state envisioned with a precarious political balance. It worked sometimes; other times it didn’t.
In Kuwait, where I lived, the news of Lebanon seemed banal and relatively peaceful considering the upheavals of the early 1980s when Israeli invasion, the growth of Amal and Hezbollah, and the frequent assasinations of political leaders. In the Middle East, we were accustomed to wars and rumors of wars.
Most people made a clear distinction between national politics and citizens of a country. In a region where the people rarely had a real choice as to who governed them, ordinary citizens were rarely blamed for government policies or actions. I had travelled without problems in the summer of 1969 in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan just after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the US government was loathed by Arabs and their governments.
So, safely arrived in Beirut and with my wanderings circumscribed by Abbas and Marwan, we spent most of our time in Ras Beirut and Hamra at restaurants and clubs. I did go back to American University of Beirut for a visit. There were armed men all over the city but they didn’t bother us. We were in the part of Beirut controlled by the Mourabitoun group. The main road from Ras Beirut to where I was staying was the Corniche Al-Mazra’a. One side of it was Mourabitoun territory. The other side was Shi’ite Amal territory.
The night before I was to head back to Kuwait we went out to dinner and clubs until late. On the way back we heard shooting, not unusual in Beirut, but it was at a distance. But … as we came down Corniche Al-Mazra’a towards home, we could see the exchanges of gunfire flying back and forth over the road — and over our heads as we headed home. Abbas pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. In a quick discussion, it was decided to abandon the car and sprint for home.
Abbas and Marwan thought I would be safer in the car and less visibly a foreigner. They got out and prepared to run for it. I said I wasn’t staying alone in the car with bullets flying overhead. I had dramatic visions of a bullet hitting the gas tank, so as they sped off down a side street, I clambered out and took off after them. Marwan looked around, saw me, and yelled in Arabic “Run like you want to live!” And I did.
We ran a series of zigzag connecting streets. Bullets were flying overhead but the farther we got from the main road the quieter it was. We all made it home and collapsed in the courtyard of Abbas’s house. And had another quick drink before heading to bed and trying to sleep.
The next morning we headed to the airport, which was much less friendly and much more heavily guarded than it had been a few days earlier when I’d arrived.
And that was the last time I saw Beirut or Mazra’a or Marwan. Abbas did make it to Kuwait on a visit after that. And four years later I was back in the States!