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Snapshot Beirut

04 Feb 2009 11:54No Comments

freedom-340Photo by James Alexander.

Caution: Story contains a graphic passage that may be upsetting to some readers.

Five hours in Hezbollah captivity.
By JAMES ROBERT ALEXANDER in Beirut

You are not taking my camera.

It is a big black Pentax. Medium format, heavy; maybe it weighs around two kilos. The maple wood handle is buckled to the left side; the rubberized nylon strap with big bold red letters is attached to the right. Some man, half military/half construction worker is holding the handle. The strap is snatched. It rips out of his hands. Instead of reaching for the camera, he grabs an arm. The elbow is thrown. All sorts of Arabic is shouted. There are now four men close. One of them reaches for the handle, but the strap is again pulled back, this time with less force, and the same edict repeated. Static from a walkie-talkie blares, one of them pulls a gun, not pointing it, but holding it, barrel towards the sky.

The camera dangles, swaying still from the momentum. They need to see a passport. And suddenly it is clear that this is Dahiye. This is the southern suburb of Beirut. This is not urban decay; this is a war zone still recovering from two years ago. Those buildings are not being built, nor are they being torn down, they are barely standing still bearing the scars of lobbed rockets. It is only scenic in a macabre way, and the men with their heads wrapped with tattered bed sheets cutting bricks are nothing if not a pure pictorial evidence of the resistance and resilience. The camera clicked, its loud shutter snapping, the bricklayer looking over the top of the camera, over the top of these Adonis blonde curls, looking at the men. The men start yelling and with their hands on their waistbands they are walking over and grabbing at the camera. These men are Hezbollah.

You are not taking my camera.

Maybe they don't know what it is. It is a big camera. The pin on the bottom gets pulled, popping open the back and exposing the film: they duck and yell. The guns are back out, pointed this time. The back hangs open. The fine grey dust, the kind that comes when concrete shatters onto concrete, is probably nesting in the curtain of the shutter. The film, white and translucent, is out of place. Nothing is that white anywhere near here. Nothing is that clean. The dust makes sure of that. Everyone is angry about the exposed film, or about something else, and all sorts of spittoons could be filled with their groveled versions of Arabic. They can't ask the questions that would be hard to answer. The sun is back out. That late morning heat. Sweat is trickling, breath is short, legs are a bit wobbly, there are hands everywhere: the handle, the strap, a shoulder, and the other elbow. We are all heading towards the shade right over there.

They are taking my camera.

One of them wears it around his neck. They point to a chair -- a ruinous chair that looks like it was directly targeted by offshore battleships. The legs are uneven, there is no back; they point to it like it is an invitation, but it is more a command.

"Why are you here?" "You are with a friend?" "Two friends?" "The girl, American? The man, Lebanese? The man, American? Why is your girlfriend meeting a man you don't know?" "What restaurant are they at?" "Why don't you have a phone number?" "No phone? Why no phone?" "What restaurant?" "What mosque? No mosque." "Why you taking pictures?" "No passport? You need passport." And this round of unanswered interrogation ends without a question, "You need permission."

The all-black tinted Range Rover pulls up. The doors all pop open at the same time, four men in all black hop out. They take the camera and place it gingerly in the front. One of them wears an AK-47. He wears it well, like he has used it, like he was using it this morning, or last week over in Hamra, or two years ago.

The camera is in the Range Rover.

Hands are clasped, tucked under the chin, like this is still India. "I can't get in that car."

The men in black are smiling. This chair, without its back, with its mismatched and wobbled legs, this chair is fine. 'We are friends,' they are promising there is no problem, but it is hard to believe them. Riding in the back seat of the black Range with Kalashnikovs cascading in the trunk, the metal clanking on metal, the tinted windows: this is a bad look anywhere in the world, but mostly it is a bad look in Dahiye. The one who wears his gun like Elizabeth Taylor wears her black mascara -- all the time for thirty years -- has his hand in the small of the back. Where the spine arches upwards, where the base of the tinge that sends shivers down the pubis to the thigh begins, his hand is there. Gently, like this is the tango and he is leading -- leading to the middle seat, already the smell of sun-heated leather seats shaded in Freon is near. The repetition of edicts does not play well with this crowd and the declaration of not being able to ride bitch with these four is again met with smiles.

The camera is on the armrest.

The doors slam shut. The engine was left running and the air conditioning serves as an instant blockade against the trickles that have turned a white shirt gray. The window rolls down and one of them, the one who offered two or three cigarettes pokes his nose in and says, 'Do not be a hero.'

Last night it was hard not to be the hero. With the waviest blonde curls in the room, the Comme des Garcons opening (or closing? The reasons never matter) party seemed like something so normal, so innate, that it had been like the dull feelings of nerve endings that still fire even though the leg from the knee down has been long lost. The boys matched high-waisted blooming jodhpurs with wrought-iron jasmine fibulas and red Wayfarers. The girls kept all their biblical hair up, towering to let enough attention to be paid to delicate bare ears. They were all plump with defined necklines that their little Monday night numbers seemed made to accentuate. We gallivanted the room, excusing ourselves when the conversation got boring, or when someone started talking about an emerging emerging market.

She was there, and so was she, the one from the other night; and the gentleman who wore his squared-off aviators with translucent green lenses talked about New York. We agreed that there was too much cocaine up in Beatrice to ever have fun, and that 205 was weird because all the girls were Eurotrash, like that was a look for the season, but that had been the look last season, and the one before that, so it is hard to believe that this season had anything to do with it. There was the recording studio with a view of the Empire State Building. Wasn't it funny? This sofa draped in thick carpets? But it is all about the acoustics, man. And say anything you want to, but the bar at the Rainbow Room is still a good place to sip a martini. And what about those dinner jackets they make you wear if (when) you come without one. Aren't they the best? The Russian girls were driving up the prices in the local hooker market, and this was on everyone's mind.

That and the party at Sky Lounge, or Sky Bar, or something like that. Also, where was the food? To be serving drinks without food was criminal, and finally we could all agree on something. And she said hello with such refinement that her hand had to be kissed. 'You don't remember me?' a pause, the record switches from something nameless and cool enough to Depeche Mode, which is nameable, and fine, cool enough. "Brunch? At the farm house in Batroun?"

In the back of the Range Rover, between two men, who make sure there isn't enough room, the farm house in Batroun could never have been real. The slowness and the empty roads out of town, the big old Mercedes that labored in is snaking alongside the Mediterranean that caught every glint of Sunday's sun. She fell asleep, letting her hair whip around in the wind, maybe she wasn't asleep, but dozing -- and the concrete block houses rolled up into the hills, and the driver kept a steady stream of cigarettes going. There was a little traffic, maybe because of an accident or something. But she is wiping the doze out of her eyes, and the driver is asking where to go, and we are strolling the tight ancient streets with big bowed trees leaning over the living ruins, casting a shadow.

We have not gotten far in the Range, just to the end of the block, where the street came to a T, then a left until the construction site ends, and a main artery begins, but we just jog a little across three lanes, each filled with cars silently driving in every direction; the one sitting shotgun reaches over to ignite a siren that is loud but startles no one. And then we are there, which is nowhere distinct, but the doors open up and there isn't a choice whether or not to stay in the air conditioning. This is another construction site, boys loitering on mopeds, waiting for the yellow pay phone to ring. Ring-a-ling-ring, ring-a-ling-ring. They pick up, nod, mumble, hang up and off they buzz into Beirut. This could be the purple haze spot on One Hundred and Thirty Ninth Street and Broadway, but they wouldn't keep these curls around for that long, and the older fat one would not offer cold Cokes, or little Turkish coffees, or cigarettes, and he wouldn't smile when the phone that was said not to exist starts ringing. His palm is extended -- "Phone." It didn't ring as much as it had chimed, it was the text message from her: Why aren't you at the cafe? I am going to meet a sheik, which will be great for my thesis, meet me back at the house later. "Girl?" He looks at the BlackBerry, not like it is foreign, but like there is something impressive about it, like he won't give it back, which is too bad, there are a lot of numbers on it.

The twisted little street gives way to a car park filled with new Audis and big ol' Mercedes. She walks in like she knows everyone, and mostly she does. She has been gone for a while, telling no one she had left, or was coming back. There are all sorts of kisses, twice on the opposite cheeks, sometimes there are three kisses, but never on the cheek; when it is three times, we kiss only air. The bowed trees cover it all in shade. This is brunch in Batroun, legendary and ancient and biblical. The host wears a straw Borsalino hat, and insists we try the lemonade -- it is perfect and cold and not sweet and just bitter enough to keep a Galoise lit most of the afternoon. The table is filled with chilled cucumbers, creamy labneh sprinkled with pine nuts and drizzled in dark languid olive oil. The fresh baked bread comes in waves; the little basket of mint is always filled. Tomatoes are always sliced, and the little bowl of rock salt next to them is righteous. The roasted peppers chopped and filled with almonds, the bruised peaches, the women who eat their perfectly green apples with a fork and knife, the cherries that we all pass around, and the vases filled with oily black coffee. There is some talking, but mostly we are here to eat.

At the other side of the long benched table old men sit, some smoking pipes, and a younger boy runs back and forth keeping their squat wine glasses filled. The heat of the afternoon is beginning to penetrate even this shade, and the old men stop talking and start playing cards. It is accompanied by a different sort of talking, but there is still less of it. The wine bottles get emptied, and when there has been enough of this, the entire brunch party meanders to the dock. It is a little port, with mostly fisherman and their little boats, but don't worry, there are two or three giant white yachts. The entirety of the green water and bobbing heads and sorry little boats watched over by the Armenian Church with her multi-colored stone arches and sense of defiance.

The afternoon would pass. The sun would sink so slowly, and a mass celebrating or remembering all the boys who had been lost to Poseidon would be given. The preacher preached, the choir sang, lines formed -- mouths agape, the body of Christ eaten, and then darkness.

"Of course, brunch. Ca va bon?" She is rubbing her belly, remembering all that food, and talking about who won the seafood competition, and why did she skip mass. But the ad executive who has been holding a lit cigar for a week without ever smoking it is finally getting drunk, and now he is interrupting; blabbering his moist lips while wiping the sweat from the back of his six-pack-of-franks neck. Taxis keep pulling up and unloading girls and boys who spend just long enough looking like they didn't spend too long, and the music is playing, French mixes with Arabic mixes with English with a sexy accent, and this is a fine party.

The Range Rover is back, filled with the same men and one new one. He has blue eyes and wears a khaki vest. He happily shakes hands before going over many of the same questions, which he has as hard a time as the others understanding. 'You need permission.' Nodding and saying something about not knowing, and that he can have the film, and the idea of the image of the bricklayer, with his head wrapped against the heat, was a fine image; but not worth anything close to this. Blue Eyes says he can't understand and that it is time to get back in the truck.

The camera is still on the armrest.

The cigarette Blue Eyes lit before he offered still plumes. The door shuts. Again it is the shade and the cool black leather seats. The one to the right, who had a gun, but it had been poking him the wrong way and so he leaves on his lap, crinkles his nose. That only makes him want to smoke one, so he lights up a Marlboro Ultra Light that is fixed to some sort of water filter. The passenger turns around, 'No smoking in the Range,' which is only funny to the smokers. The whole saloon laughs, and the windows stay rolled up. The siren belches a few more times, a few more turns and twists are taken; and now it is impossible to remember where that mosque (that wasn't a mosque), or the cafe that she left nearly an hour and half ago, could be. The street dead ends. An old man sits next to a dark staircase leading upstairs. He looks like he is a longtime veteran, who could still get it in if he is called upon. He shows his grungy teeth, not out of aggression, but like he has seen this scene plenty of times. That is not necessarily reassuring.

The camera is already upstairs.

Again, hands are clasped under the chin like this is India. "Tell him to come downstairs. We can talk here just fine." But the big man with the little army hat has his hand on the small of the back, again leading this tango, but more awkwardly because we are heading up a dark concrete staircase. This is the part with a big metal door, with the video phone, with the pat down, where the black bag is slipped over, the drawstrings drawn tight; the part where there is a little room with a video camera recording a desperate plea for freedom. At the top of the stair case there is a metal door, and they are patting all over for the first time; and checking the plaid Jansport, and the door opens. 'Come in.' It is mostly dark, sheets are pasted over the windows, giving the entire room this sort of incandescent yellow glow.

A grape flavored Philly Blunt is offered. If there was ever a time to smoke an uncracked grape-flavored Philly Blunt, it would be here -- with the moody yellows, the man dressed in all white with the Lacoste alligator popping up from his hat to his shoes; with his friend who thinks it is a good cigar to offer, to taste this disgustingness and to let the grainy Turkish coffee try to take the flavor of the chemical grape away. And we are sitting in the yellow room, them on the other side of the table, watching, not asking questions, letting the pregnancy of the silent seep; letting all those fuzzy YouTube videos of the butter knife with a taped handle working its way across the neck of Daniel Pearl, the proclamation of being a Jew made with tears in his eyes, the way the blood doesn't spurt anywhere -- it just trickles all viscous and lazy, the way how the knife had gotten to his Adams Apple and gotten caught, and the blade see-saws around the muscle tissue, really tugging at it, and the ways his eyes curl up, going all white; and his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth like a sleeping dog; and then the video cuts.

Next comes the masked man holding Pearl's detached head by his hair. This is now. The last of the sawing would have been the part to see though. That is the determination required to severe a head with a butter knife. A sliced throat, an admission of Judaism, none of that is enough. And sitting at this table, the lapse between the knife being stuck and the head being severed, makes everything seem clear. This is it. The one who offered the grape Blunt has had enough of the silence, and he leaves the room. He will be coming back with a knife, hopefully sharper than the one that had been in that video, he will come back with a black plastic bag. He doesn't come back and the cigar has gone out by its own will. There would have been nausea anyway; the heart thumps away -- thumps like the bass woofer of that party on the beach the other night -- but nothing can be remembered about that, not now or here.

Mr All Lacoste has had enough of the silence, or surprised that it has not already been broken, but there had not been much to say. "Listen," he says with an accent that is more British than French or Arabic, "Do not be afraid, we are Hezbollah, not the American government."

Mr All Lacoste is holding the camera with two hands, one on the strap, the other on the handle. And now the answers that wouldn't make sense will start having to. 'Why such a complicated camera?' 'Bombay? Delhi? Dubai?' 'What in Dubai?' 'How long in Dubai?' 'Sovereign bank account?' 'No bank account?' 'And what about India?' 'Why India?' Who is the girl, Anna?' He chews on the tip of the pen; this is the entire lynchpin, maybe. He takes a tissue from his pocket and wipes his brow, there isn't much sweat there, but it is a dramatic gesture. "How well do you know this girl, Anna?" Her last name gets flubbed. She is Jewish and her family name is pretty Jewish-sounding. It would only make things more weird-sounding, so it is the only lie of the day, and even in the flubbing, the forced sort of mumbling makes it so the door swells, and the bags are readied, and the knife gets dragged along the concrete to dull its blade. But it's flubbed, and he writes something in Arabic, 'How well do you really know her?'

Well, we used to kill the dance floor at Don Hill's and Lot 61 in '97. Right around that time Life and Moomba were going down heavy and she knew all the doormen. We would eat early sushi to get the discount down in Soho -- what was the name of that place? Match, or something like that -- Blue Ribbon? There was Suite 16 and also all those dinner parties. All that pre-millenium New York nonsense. She got into the charity balls, and The Tunnel got shut down and Limelight had a bit of a revival, and she went down to Rhode Island for school; but there were always little letters, sometimes longer ones, but they were always around.

'She was in Morocco?' 'She was in Egypt?' 'Where else, London?' 'She is interested in women issues in the Middle East? She should go to Saudi Arabia, this is Lebanon, women have 85% of the rights men do. Look at your own country, she could go there, look at the way your press handles Hillary Clinton.' But this can't be a conversation about this. 'You have always worked in the private sector?' 'Anna, she speaks Arabic?' There is only time for a few more questions, his phone has been ringing and finally he picks it up. He keeps his hand over his mouth, nodding, pacing a bit, sometimes looking in this direction. For the first time he says something that can be believed. He says, 'You will be home tonight in Hamra. We are not like your media tells you we are. We are going somewhere nice, we will talk, and you will go.'

"And the camera?"

We are all back in the Range Rover. The four of them are all smiles, toothy and silly smiles, like this is fun. Which it could be, if the circumstances were different. We are all close to the same age, processing the world in the best ways we know how, finding meaning in long nights and hot mornings, though the comparison game can only be run with for so far. Abstracted from morals or values, they live and die for a cause -- freedom and only freedom; and to a degree that is enough for them to be envied. They don't pay much mind now, being spooky or friendly has lost the novel appeal, this is a chore to be taken care of: Ferry the American to the cafe. The afternoon is almost over, but the best part of it, when it is all golden and breezy is in about twenty minutes. They will get back to the corner with the yellow pay phone in time for little paper cups of coffee.

The terrace is awash with the sun setting over the Mediterranean. We are sitting behind some flowing white curtains. This would be a good place to take a date. Mr All Lacoste is at the other side of the table, sweating in this humidity. Three boys sit in the table behind him, they keep their eyes over here. 'Only talk to me,' he says. It isn't a threat. We are drinking tall glasses of strawberry juice, it couldn't be a threat. 'It was never a choice,' he begins to answer a question for the first time, pausing with a self-conscious drama and using the waxy tissue paper to wipe away at the sweat, "It was never a choice, this is my country, and we want to be free. How can I work in a bank in London when I know that Israel violates my airspace twice a day?" He is proud when he talks like this. He is proud to have declined his green card. He loves his distant cousins in Detroit, but they have turned their back on the cause, and though he can't say anything ill about them, the subtext is clear: He has forgone those attainable cushy confines of the American dream. He has renounced debt and car payments and corporate ladders. He knows how the girls in South London are (loose), and with that sort of supreme faith he opens his eyes every morning. We talk about the Armenian Orthodox service up in Batroun and what it felt like to take communion.

Mr All Lacoste is measured in his words, but he is proud. "We beat Israel in 1982, we beat them in 2000, we beat them in 2006, we will always win. We have maybe a tenth of the military power, but it is impossible to account for our faith and passion. This is our country." He slurps the last of the strawberry juice. "I will die for what I believe, I have no price, something no American will ever understand." There is an objection. There is a claim of moral fortitude. There is no mentioning of the thousand of dead Lebanese civilians that could be directly linked to Hezbollah. There is no mention of the dead Israeli civilians. "When we took the colonel we treated him like a man. We kept the body of those three soldiers refrigerated for two whole years. When we return them at the end of the month, their mothers will have a body to mourn over. For our causalities, they dig holes and throw them in." His chest is swelling. He is flexing his vocabulary, his worldly knowledge. He is different from the boys who drove around in the Range. But again, we are the same age, long-haired and making choices about this world. There are only a few similarities, and mostly there are none, but sitting here, with the heat finally breaking and the last of the strawberry juice being drunk, it would be hard to ignore them. He is discussing the differences between Hezbollah and Hamas, and it is easy to play stupid; this pinky ring on my right hand has a lion with a diamond in its mouth, but sometimes it pays to be the sheep. The man child with the little army hat who kept a smile on his face the whole time riding around in the Range breaks through the sheets. He is holding the plaid Jansport bag and the camera. "Your phone is in the outer pocket," says Mr All Lacoste, "along with your digital camera and unopened film and your wallet." Like he said, everything is there. The pin on the back of the big Pentax is pulled, there is no film and the spools where the film threads are where they should be.

"Someone knows what they are doing."

He has a smile and extends his hand. We shake and a boy comes to pull out the chair. Everything is still golden and we walk through the terrace that has filled when we stopped paying attention to it. Everyone drinks juice and fumigates the air with their giant shishas built from watermelon rinds or pineapples. "Ana is waiting for you at the American College," he says with his arm erect into the slow-moving street. A share taxi pulls over, but Mr All Lacoste is right to think about comfort or privacy and waives his fingers, waiting for a private one. The wait won't be long and there isn't much small talk to make. And so we stand in silence on the corner, friends in everyone's eyes. The private taxi is found; he bends over sticking his head in the passenger side, giving more than directions to the American College. He opens the door.

"I think I will get the next one, I'm going to walk around and take some pictures if that's all right."

His stare is blank before letting a smile crack. We shake hands again and give proper deep bows of the chin. The door slams and he pats his palms on the roof a few times before the car is off and navigating through the checkpoints. This is the first taxi driver who doesn't feel much like talking.
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