Xmas Kidnapping in Tripoli
The sun set to the sound of the Adhan turning the sky into a blood-red hue with an early rising full moon enlarged across the screaming traffic of downtown Beirut. I decided to buy some Russian Standard Vodka to ease the painful memories while shoppers with Christmas hats scurried away in Spinney’s supermarket in Achrafieh. Armed soldiers sat on their tanks to counter any random act of violence on this holy day for the Christians. I have no religious inclination for Christmas, but it is a time for your loved ones, no matter what religion you are – we all need to be indoors away from the biting December weather. Christmas is a time of caring for your loved ones, playing Monopoly and indulging in food and drink in my books. I had none of these on this particular occasion unfortunately, so I took my bags made for a weekend in Byblos and went in search of Ibn Batutah. Ibn Batutah worked in a salon a couple of blocks away from where I lived in Achrafieh. His real name was Abdullah El Masri, a Lebanese coiffure from Tripoli. His face lit up as he saw me with my reflective white Belstaff Jacket nursing a bottle of Russian Standard outside Paul Atallah’s Salon. He told me to wait for him, ‘five minutes’, he said excitedly – I thought he was gay among the chatty ladies of the salon and the wiry transgender known as ‘Mickey’. He was fed up of Beirut and expressed his frustration with the opportunities within the country several times that evening. I took my gear and followed him to Doura – the bus terminal for catching high-speed vans across the country.
“I was pissed off you didn’t come last time”, Ibn Battutah said in passing on the bus.
“Yeah well I didn’t feel like it”, I said in response as our small cramped van shot across the highway while we drank shots and smoked.
I couldn’t be arsed to give excuses. I simply didn’t feel like it at the time. I heard Tripoli was a troublesome place with ‘no-go’ areas for outsiders, plagued by civil strife, snipers and motley groups fighting for something. No one really knows what. But every Arab war ends up in the usurpation of land, a lot more crime such as the theft of cars and more corruption. This is the only ostensible outcome for most wars in the region it seems. But I was apparently safe. I was with a guy from Tripoli or Tarablous as it is called in Arabic. He obviously had a safe place to stay, he could warn me about the places to go and not to go and he could essentially be my cover lest things got hairy. He constantly reassured me that I was going to have a great time in his area – Al Min’a. Ibn Battutah had too much energy for me and he was starting to give me a headache as he gesticulated to show me a bridge or building and repeatedly spilt vodka and dropped his cigarette in the high-velocity bus.
As we disembarked from our bus at Tripoli – I saw a fleet of old Mercedes ready to escort us around town. Above my head was a tank with a machine gun pointing right at me, I saluted the soldier and said ‘asalam w aleikum’. He grimaced in response to this stranger wearing a white jacket and desert Lebanese Army boots. We took a Mercedes to Al Min’a, the port smelling of dead fish while brash young men in other old German cars serenaded us with their music playing beneath tinted windows. We went straight into Hotel Hayek to be greeted by an old man with a haunted look and a very young girl from Sudan. The first girl I saw that evening. As we inspected the soiled rooms I had to reconsider my stay there, after all, Christmas was a very special time for me. I told the old man that I will think about it so we ordered tea in the salon of the hotel. The old man approached Ibn Battutah and said he knew his mother and his father. Ibn Battutah got up with surprise and it now seemed that my trip to Tarablous was worthwhile as I escorted this thirty-something-year-old man on a path of discovery. Abdullah Masri was no longer Ibn Battutah, the travelling orphan of the Tarablous streets, but from a well-known family with strong links in town. His father was killed in an explosion caused by the PLO and his mother worked in a salon – the old man used to give Abdullah’s mother cigarettes he remarked. As the clocked ticked, we learnt about Abdullah’s fathers’ philandering, drinking and eventual fall from grace until his death. But I was feeling increasingly concerned about my stay for the night especially given that I was invited to a Christmas dinner in another part of town. I contacted a friend from the Saifi institute and he promptly invited me over and provided me the address. It was getting late so we hitched a ride from two scooter riding boys and a taxi. James Altman came sauntering towards me at the same location I disembarked at Sahat Al Nour. Soldiers asked me to buy them tea while I waited for James, I remarked while leaving what ‘nice chaps’ they were.
So I left the inebriated Ibn Battutah. He promised to call me in the morning. He said he couldn’t take me in for the evening because his brother was married. A common problem being a guest in the Middle East I am discovering. I came to this dinner party set in a modern block with spaced out roads – dissimilar to the charming narrow streets and hills of Beirut. A group of men and women playing card games in unforgiving fluorescent neon light. I made conversation while James sat there in his puffy jacket – not understanding much from his relatively strange acquaintances. I didn’t understand why he was there and then I questioned my own motives for spending Christmas with these people. We touched on the subject of celebrating Christmas for Muslims.
“I knew a Lebanese guy when I was growing up, we invited him round for Christmas and sat him next to the Christmas tree – he looked so miserable”, I told the group.
A deathly silence grew in the room and the man sitting right next to the Christmas tree responded with his pallid bald head;
“I don’t like your comment – my name is Mohammad and I am sitting next to a Christmas tree, so what?”
There was no mitigating this seemingly innocuous slip of tongue. This benign anecdote with very real parallels to the man I was facing got me in an awkward situation.
“I’m sorry, sir, I wasn’t referring to you my friend”.
The damage had been done so I escaped to the balcony for some nicotine. On my way out, I told him that same man defaced my mother’s grave after he warned my father about the picture of her on the tombstone in Highgate Cemetary. A look of empathy was given, but I wasn’t winning the popularity contest with my macabre past.
Half asleep, trying to win friends, I turned to James and asked him again if it was ‘ok’ if I could ‘crash’. He said in many different words in another room that it wasn’t anymore. Rejection at 2am in Tripoli but I was relieved to get out the spotlight. James said he would come with me to a hotel he knew around the corner so we went in search for this guesthouse only to find it locked up for the night. I hailed a taxi and told James I knew another place in Al Min’a – back at hotel Hayek. I sat in front and James didn’t budge.
“I forgot my passport and my bags so I’m going to go back”, he said.
“Okay mate, have a nice night”, I replied while not giving the situation ahead due consideration and thought.
The taxi driver ripped me off with the fare and I finally arrived at Hotel Hayek. Completely dead – I banged on the doors of the premises, called both numbers in front with no success. I even threw plastic bottles on the windows to wake someone up in this Byzantine ghetto. I decided to take my bags and walk to a late night Argeelah place adjacent to a mosque. I even inquired about the Mosque with my two ruck sacks to the thirteen-year-old singing waiter for the purpose of sleep I thought. I opened up my book and fell asleep in this cold tea house by the sea. I was nudged awake by the owner – he told me he would get in trouble if he let me stay. I was repeatedly asked if I was Lebanese – I told him I was but lived in London most my life. Lebanese always think I’m either Egyptian or from somewhere in the Maghreb from the way I speak – I get this heckle all the time. In Jordan – they think I’m Lebanese. I tell them I was taught by an Egyptian in London. I was a strange specimen for these port-dwellers and I took off with my bags and circled the neighborhood in hope of a warm spot to rest. I found some fishmongers, huddled around a fire and asked them if it was okay to sit. I opened my book and read thinking I was ‘okay’ now. I had people around me, finally.
Three young men, looking like college boys in freshmen year approached me by the fire. They asked to see the contents of my bag – I showed them the contents of my bag. Laptop, camera, clothes and books – one book was a lonely planet guide to Syria and Lebanon which raised eyebrows concerning my itinerary. A lot of the recent violence in the area was caused by the Syrian conflict – a lot of Alawites live in Tarablous and further to the north in Jebel Mohsen near the border. I understood why this young man wanted to search me, so I cooperated and told him I was ‘just visiting’. They couldn’t understand why I would want to visit Tripoli judging by their faces. The other boy in the trio whispered that I tried to get into the Mosque – alarm bells were ringing in their heads. They handed back my Jordanian passport – another red flag for these locals given that the PLO tormented this city for decades in their fight against the Israelis. I asked these boys who they were – they shrugged. I assumed they were Vigilantes or some kind of Hitler youth group. They were Mukhabarat or Intelligence informers most likely. I sat back down with my book and read it peacefully until I heard skidding and engine sounds. I stayed seated thinking ‘I’m fucked now’. Four Hum Vee military personnel vehicles had just surrounded the fish merchants’ premises and told me to get up and slowly and ‘take off my jacket’.