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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Kidnapped in Beirut.

Beirut, Lebanon.  During the civil war..

Being at the wrong place at the wrong time carries great risk if you are in a war zone.  Being in a civil war with a multitude of factions could be a lot worse and gets very complicated.  One morning I found myself at the wrong place at the wrong time!

When the Kalashnikov appeared from behind a car, it was held by a young man, and what came to mind instantly was my mother.  I worried about my mother the instant I thought I was going to die.  I truly believed I was about to be shot, but I was not and you would understand why I worried about my mother, whom was safe at home,  soon enough.

A man across the street yelled: "shou dinak?" Oh well, sarcasm, I get to live few more seconds and my answer could hasten my fate.  He wanted to know what my religion was and I told him.  Apparently he did not like my answer:  “w wi2e7 kamen, jibo la hon" he said.  He exclaimed that I was audacious and ordered for me to be brought in.    

At times like these adrenaline rushes through your blood so fast that things seem to move in slow motion.  I have visual pictures in my head of a little alley that the car I was driving was moved to, a few steps that I climbed, after being blindfolded.  Yes, blindfolded. "Put him with the rest" said the man and I objected: "I know no one, may I see the person in charge?" I asked.

The truth is I had no time to be scared, I worried about my mom at first and now my priority was to keep my composure.  The last thing I want to feel and show is fear.

Earlier that morning I drove my car few streets from my house and through Clemanceau street where at one point people from one political party were offering their newspaper.  I hesitated and thought about the consequences and what would they think and more importantly do if I did not stop and get their paper?  I kept driving and the car's speed and momentum helped me make the decision.  Keep going, don't stop.  One afterthought, good thing I did not pick up that paper, that decision may have saved my life.

I arrived at my destination, a storage building for audio equipment and supplies.  I wanted to buy some branded blank cassette tapes.   I found a parking spot on the left side of the street and I parallel parked my car without noticing anything unusual except for the lack of traffic which in a time of civil war is not unusual.  Earlier it was reported on the radio that things are quiet and that there was no fighting, a truce perhaps.  Why else would I venture out?

They took me to the man in charge.
It was a tiled area in front of a small one house. It was typical to have such a space in older Lebanese homes.  That's where people and neighbors visit and spend time in the shade of a tree perhaps or enjoy a cool night breeze with friends.

What these people were looking at was a young man yielding a reddish long beard dressed in blue jeans and wearing a pair of clogs.  Yes, clogs! The most comfortable things I have ever put my feet into.  This is not a very conforming image of a typical Lebanese youth at the time. The car that I was driving, a light blue FIAT 125 Special with red interior and a 5 gear stick shift.  Unimportant detail in this story but it won’t hurt.  So, if they were making any first background assessments it would have been on these.  But the most important one was the direct question by the man across the street:  "shou dinak?"

The war in Lebanon was simple and yet complicated but this is not for me to assess except for the part where I was involved, or rather really not involved and not by choice.

During the war there were a lot of kidnappings from the different sides that were fighting.  Often you would read in the papers or hear on the radio that a body was found in a plastic bag and under some bridge.  The parents and or relatives of that person would be looking for that person and had not heard anything for a long time and as things go or went in Lebanon, would have called on all influential people they knew to help find their missing relative not knowing if he or she is dead or alive and hoping for his or her safe return if not safe at least knowing if the person is dead or alive is actually relieving to the family.  If the person is known to be alive then the family would work on their safe return if not then they would hope to get the body for burial so that they could grieve and go on with their lives, as shattered as they may be.

That is why my initial thought went to my mother when I saw that Kalashnikov.  I did not want my mother to go through the horrors many parents went through looking for their sons. 
Thousands are still missing to this day.

I sat down and the man offered me coffee.  I never turn down coffee, well, almost never.  "jibe 2ahwe ya mara" he said.  Even though it was an order, it was friendly.  It was what people that have known each other and like each other do, put away formalities.  I felt comfortable just from the way he asked his wife, a fairly good assumption, I admit, to make us some coffee.

The man asked me many questions, name, nationality, what was my business in the area, why I was on their street. 

3osmalleh was the coffee, not too sweet and not too bitter that is.  The conversation took a different turn and was more of a discussion on the war itself.  I don't know where and especially in my situation, where I found the courage to tell the man that, between all the fighting factions Lebanon was being destroyed, and that they, all the factions that is, are responsible for the destruction.  There was another man sitting there on the conversation as well and at one point he said: "I lost a cousin and I want 10 of them in exchange for his blood".  The revenge cycle does not help Lebanon, mistakes were made on all sides and that was not the way to help the country.  That way of thinking won't end the war. And I spoke my mind to that effect.  For a moment I was telling myself to be quiet but I love Lebanon and what was happening was wrong, and I gave my opinion freely knowing real well that I am at risk and my fate could be at the whim of a stranger.  Luckily I think they judged me by my sincerity.  I was not attacking them, with words, I was merely showing general concern about the war and the people and how this war is forcing my family to leave.  My family was making preparations to immigrate to the US. 

The people that offered me the coffee were Muslim.  I don't know if they were Sunni or Shia and I did not ask.  It mattered not to me.

They decided to let me go.  They had searched my car and found a picture of the Virgin Mary. My dad had placed in the car.  They, the Muslims said, this is what saved you today.   And I said to myself, good thing I did not pick up that newspaper on the way here, the paper was from an opposing faction, I think.
The man that had asked me "shou dinak?" offered and I had no choice but to accept, to ride with me around the block.  “I am riding with you because the Kurds up the street know me and will let you through without hassle”.  Good thing he said, you stopped here (in his area) because if you went further into the Kurds area they would have killed you first and then asked questions.  That man also told me that he was a Christian Armenian.  That made no sense to me and he explained: "we're neighbors and we're looking out for each other".    Well, how about that fact to confuse a complicated civil war in progress.  That part of the war was civil where the civil war itself was not.  I don’t think that there is civility in people killing each other.  A civil war is a misnomer.

Once I was on the main road I dropped him off and I went home without my blank cassettes.   I went home to see my mother.  I fortunately did not cause her to suffer.  It would have killed me to see her pain over my death or disappearance.   I made no conscientious effort to think about my mother the moment that Kalashnikov appeared, it was purely instinctive.  That’s where we go when in danger, a comfortable happy place we call mama.

Happy Mother’s day!

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