I stayed still – I didn’t want to get out until I saw my lawyer (I don’t have a lawyer anyway – but that was my line). I was fed up of being passed around like a rag-doll. I wanted to piss myself from the amount of times that Kalashnikov was pointed at me. But then again, it could have been the early morning cold that stimulated my bladder together with the sheer quantity of coffee I was sipping in the luxuries of the Mukhabarat building. He told me to walk – ‘that’s it’ I thought – ‘I’m horse meat, what a way to go, fuck it’. Having previously had complete disregard for my own life, I now felt that I wanted to live a full and enjoyable existence.
“Where you going you son-of-a-bitch… this way”, he yelled while the driver looked at me with bewilderment.
I took ten paces onto a football pitch anticipating a summary execution. The hoodie pointed towards one of the doors with his piece of metal, the weapon was becoming an extension of his arm. The hooded man could tell I was now as passive as a duck – he calmed down somewhat, maybe he was just grumpy he had to be woken up to do such a pointless errand. We sat together in a waiting room with the door open.
“Can you take these handcuffs off please…”, I asked.
“Soon insha’allah”, he replied -still covered in his hood, but less menacing now without a snarling lip. He looked more human while the handcuffs grazed my wrists.
“What’s your name?”
“Please don’t screw me around, it’s Christmas” –“How long you been in the army?”
“Five years”, Mahmoud replied.
“Shit life… do something else”.
I was not in a position to give career advice especially given that the Lebanese Army needed more recruits to counter the tide of warmongers and fanatics using Lebanese soil as a battleground. Surprisingly, I think he agreed with me and just nodded. He could of easily taken offence and wacked me. I told Mahmoud I would invite him to a pub after and buy 40 beers, so he can fall under the table.
“Yalla, take these things off, you’re killing me, we’ll have a laugh about it later”.
“We have to get you cleared upstairs”, he replied.
He finally unlocked my hand cuffs and another two men escorted me upstairs through the labyrinth of tunnels of this complex building. Another man went through the check-list and searched my bags. Taking all my stuff out onto the floor – I had to explain why I had a map, a laptop and a camera. I tried to give a précis of one of the books but he wasn’t interested. A man with a shrill voice spoke sporadically from the office next door, he was clearly quite Senior judging by his loud mannerisms. He told me to sit on a chair in his office. I looked at his grey hair and mole-like features, he was a corpulent man and reminded me of Ustaz Nabeel from School in Jordan – a man of authority, evidently. He started writing down a dramatis personae of everyone I knew in Lebanon. What was the point, do you want the evidence first you fat-fuckin’ dinosaur? I felt this Army facility was so old – he could have been using a telegram or a pigeon to transmit messages. This was the start of a thirty page report, where he insisted on knowing my whereabouts from the moment I arrived. I told him I was too tired for this and he shouted at me for crossing my legs. It was tedious and pointless, but I wanted a copy of the script, I changed my friends’ names to keep me amused – ‘Danny Chamille and Abou Antoine’ (standard Lebanese names). The officer’s phone rang:
“Yes, teyti, I’ll be right over”, he said in a coquettish sort of way.
The officer barked at me one last time and gave a summary of my script to the next officer.
“Freelance journalist locked out of his hotel at 3am… went to dinner party and couldn’t stay there… wanted to see ruins etc”.
The next officer was a broad burly man, great in stature. He got the remote control and turned the TV on. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ was on and I was thinking this was the worst kind of torture. He asked me the same pointless questions. I told him he had nothing on me and he was wasting his time. During the interrogation, a man walked in, he looked like someone I knew.
“You’re Masri”, I muttered.
“No I’m Lebanese”, he said proudly.
“No No… you’re from the house of El Masri… Bassam… you’re brother… Ibn Battutah… Abdullah took me here”.
I remembered from earlier that Ibn Battutah had a brother in the Army, called Bassam. He was a paler and completely bald version of his brother.
“It was your brother that took me to Tripoli”.
“Remove this guy from detention, he’s one of ours”, bald-headed Bassam told the officer in duty. He then left the room and I put my jacket on, thinking that I would be finished with this nonsense.
“Not so fast, he has no authority here, he takes care of the prisoners, but don’t worry, he’ll take good care of you”.
I felt overwhelmingly happy at the prospect of a relatively quick release to get a glimpse of Tripoli and see the sights. Instead I spent a whole day sitting in a room watching prisoners come and go while my officer deliberated and asked a different question such as ‘Do you have any affiliations with the FSA? House of Au’di, Assad etcetera’, ‘Can you make explosives?’ and other kind of nonsensical questions. As if I was going to say, ‘yes sir’, I was on my way to get a suicide vest and blow up two fishermen. I mean ‘do I really look like a terrorist?’ and his response was ‘yes you do’.
Six or seven boring hours passed and I had to listen to a criminal swearing at me in the neighbouring cell, I had my final screening with the general. He picked up my ipod and listened to a few of the latin songs I had – part of a Brazilian collection I had to put me in Copacabana whenever my surroundings got dreary. He also went through my pictures, Budapest, Oxford, India, Goa etc. I was not a Jihadi I am a Bon Vivant – look! The general gave me some general advice and told me it was my fault. I nodded and took my bags out of the entrance, passed the football pitch to the heavily fortified gate of the Army compound. Soldiers stopped me again on the gate, I told them I just went through this shit over the last 24 hours ‘excuse me, do you not have radio technology’ I thought , ‘ask your buddies inside’ I demanded. I jumped in a servees and completely fed up of Tripoli. Buildings in disrepair and abject living conditions next to the crumbling remains of ancient castles – I told the taxi driver what happened. He understood my plight and told me the same thing happened with his brother-in-law from France.
“When they see a foreigner, they panic”.
I took a bus to Jbeil 60km south. My friend Samer picked me up in a brand-new convertible Mercedes. I was greeted with large quantities of food from three of four maids while I admired a view on the terrace commanding views of Beirut. A middle-aged woman with peroxide-blonde hair clad in white fur heard about my recent escape. She said:
“Next time call me”.
My head collapsed on the suede-sofa and woke up to find everyone had left – I was alone again.