03:00 Tripoli – Al Mina port
I did not put the book down. Why should I? What did I do wrong? As I shivered away in front of the fire – huddled among the fishmongers of Tripoli; I heard a sound of boots to the ground thumping and the clicking and cocking of weapons as these soldiers scuttled around me to take aim with their state-of-the-art M-16 rifles. The soldiers were dressed in green camouflage and full body armour. Tripoli has been subjected to a significant rise in attacks from various groups, and therefore; their task force of 20 soldiers to apprehend one man may have been justifiable. A Lieutenant, evident by his stylish beret, grabbed me by the arm while the other frisked me up and down.
“Open your bags now”, the Lieutenant demanded.
I unzipped the bags and showed them the contents while my valuables were falling on the wet fish-soiled floor. We went through every item within my bag and each item was greeted with equal suspicion and surprise.
“What do you do, why are you here?”, the Lieutenant spoke again.
“I’m supposed to be celebrating Christmas, and I’m a writer”, I replied.
“What do you write?”
“Poems, prose and well… anything”.
A round of laughter cheered my response.
In Lebanon they use for Muslim term ‘Eid’ for Christmas, this can be misleading, especially when there different Eids in Islam which change date in every calendar year. While I’m on the subject on shared nomenclature, Christians also say “asalam wa aleikum” and “el hamdu lilah”, “Peace be upon you” and “thank God” respectively. “Allah” translates to God in Arabic, and not strictly a Muslim God. To avoid these misunderstandings, I yell “bonjour” in French so they think I’m a crazy Frog in order to transcend these banal rifts of religion and identity. However, there will be no jovial response of a “bonjourein” ( a pastische word of Arabic and French, meaning ‘two bonjours’) in these circumstances. While I am posturing, deciding a language to deploy, a defence to stick to, my bags are being searched. The lieutenant takes my passport, camera, laptop and a judgement produced in the Dubai International Financial Courts.
‘Parties to the transaction… of amount 300,000,000 AED… pleads not guilty… amortization… money laundry…”
“What’s this, are these your paymasters?” the Lieutenant asked.
“A legal document I am translating, I used to work in a Law Firm – but I decided to brush up on my Legal Arabic, so I took a few private classes – I am student at the Saifi Institute”.
The Lieutenants eyebrows lifted at an angle while the other soldiers scoffed at my spiel. The lieutenant radioed out and asked me;
“So you’re a Lawyer… and you’ve come to celebrate Christmas with these Fishermen?”
A shocking state of affairs I know. My legs began to quiver as the cold Mediterranean Sea sent chills up my body. They packed my pants back into the bags along with the books. Two soldiers grabbed me by the arms and I walked without showing any resistance. I tripped over a machine gun and was seated in the corner of the Hummer while the soldiers chatted to themselves in a proud confident manner. I am sure they weren’t so happy when they got the call of a ‘potential terrorist’ near the Mosque. Now they were at ease, the foreigner had been caught – ‘hoorah’! Chanting, cajoling and crass jokes – another soldier screamed ‘oh my God’ in a high-pitched voice in English. They reminded me of American soldiers. It wasn’t the first time I had been arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m used to getting muscled around by buffalo-brained soldiers. Enough contempt, they were probably taking me somewhere warm and safe for the night. Poor, stupid, foreigner…
As the Hum Vee’s raced down the Tarablous streets – I could only see out of the back of the hood. We crossed barb wire, the check points as I was unloaded into a building which was as barbaric and brick-work brown as Auschwitz-Birkenau. It looked like a jail – with terraced balconies within the inner atrium. They sat me next to an armed guard dressed in black.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Not a clue”
“This is Mukhabarat”.
‘Fucking brilliant’, I thought to myself. I’ve heard stories about being passed around the Mukhabarat for years without knowing your whereabouts. I was hassled by the Syrian Mukhabarat a few years back so just ‘keep calm and carry on’ as they say in England. The Lebanese are a whole different breed of people – I hoped. I got summoned into the office and I was quizzed on the same subjects – it was starting to get tedious. What are you doing here etcetera?
“I’ve come to see the ruins”, I responded.
The head of Mukhabarat didn’t quite compute what I said. I said ‘Ithaar’ in Arabic, why is that so difficult to understand for this native Arabic speaker. Maybe he thought I was being sarcastic, or genuinely looking to see some recently demolished buildings. No – it was the Phoenician and Byzantine ‘Ithaar’ I wanted to see. He made a list of my possessions and told me to ‘get out’.
I sat next to the Big Friendly Giant in black. He chain-smoked so I chain-smoked with him as I remembered the last Christmas, exchanging gifts with loved ones and walking dogs – such a beautiful time of year.
“You want coffee?” he asked.
He made me coffee and I asked his name.
“Issa”, he replied.
“Baby Jesus on Christmas day – good lord”, I said in English.
Issa is Jesus in Arabic, in the same way Yosef is Josef, Boutros is Peter, Yacoub is Jacob and Dawood is David. I met a Jesus on Christmas day.
A couple of hours passed and I didn’t get any sleep, I was feeling depressed and slightly anxious as to when and what time I could leave. A young man in his twenties with a snarl in his lip strutted passed me, he had a hoodie over his head, jeans with civvy-boots. Who was he? Uniforms give identity but this man had none – a common thug, a militiaman or just another Kalashnikov-man following orders. I woke up out of my slumber and asked:
“Why you holding an AK-47, when your colleagues all got M-16’s, who are you?”
“I’m celebrating Mikhail Kalashnikov’s death, shut up!”
He put handcuffs over my wrists tightly and tried to put a blind-fold over my face. I tried to head-butt him. I said ‘I would rather look at my executioner in the face’ and he made me walk along the car park of the Mukhabarat headquarters – in many ways I felt safe there with Jesus. The panic had set in and I finally felt fear on Christmas morning. The hooded man did not relax which made me nervous. They threw me in the back of an old 1980’s BMW with my stuff on the back seat. I see my wallet and passport in a black refuse bag. I reach for it with my hands tied up in case these scruffy men put their grubby fingers all over it and steal it. The hooded man points the Kalashnikov at me and snatches my valuables out my hand and puts them on the dashboard while the driver with a woolly hat looks at me with disdain. I see Tripoli for the first time in the day, its limestone buildings hanging off hilltops and tired eyes blur morning light. We reach an Army base – it is not over yet.